Pioneer Ministers Then and Now

One of the most exciting developments in Methodism in recent years is the role of ‘Pioneer Ministers’. In the Cornwall District part of our mission programme is to explore this avenue further. Coming up to his third year, Rev’d Gareth Hill is on the Roseland, an area just above Truro where we have shut all the chapels and bought him a manse and given him a brief to be alongside the unchurched in that community – our former Evangelism Enabler Rev’d Doreen Sparey-Delacassa has also become such a minister in the Camelford, Tintagel, Week St Mary Circuit. For those of you not familiar with Cornish geography it is right up in the top left hand corner of the ‘leg of Cornwall’ on the border of Devon and is extremely rural. Looking after two small congregations, she devotes the rest of her time to the unchurched people in this scattered community. We have only just started but God is developing things and, with Gareth and Doreen’s unorthodox style, we are looking to exciting Kingdom things happening in rural Cornwall.

But pioneer ministers are nothing new to Methodists: John Wesley famously said at a time of spiritual deadness and ecclesiastical restrictions, ‘The World is my Parish’; and he rode over miles and miles of England to promote the transforming power of Jesus. The early Methodists were pioneer congregations in their small preaching rooms, cottages and barns!

At the Englesea Brook second-hand book sale last summer I picked up a couple of very interesting old books about the lives of two nineteenth century Methodist ministers whom I salute for their pioneering spirit.

After his ordination at the Hull Conference of 1869, Joseph Dixon learnt to his amazement, when the final draft of Stations was published, that he had been appointed to ‘London South-East’ - a new and special appointment funded by a rich Wesleyan (£300 for three years!) for ‘aggressive evangelism’ in the area from London Bridge to Deptford, a distance of four or five miles with a population of 300,000 people. He had the remit, ‘We want you to take possession of it, build a chapel, gather a congregation and establish a Methodist Society there’. He was given a free hand. His Chairman knelt and prayed with him ending by saying ‘Go, and the Lord go with you.’

He had no manse but rented rooms. He started out by wandering the streets observing the lost and, with the Holy Spirit stirring the desire of his heart, eventually sensing that the New Cross area was to be his base. He preached on street corners – the Lord blessed his work and after six months he had ten men converted who formed the nucleus. He used an ‘unattractive building, consisting of two rooms, one above the other, the upper room being reached by outside stairs’. The people began to come, more lives were changed and so great were the numbers that a two-foot square hole was made in the ceiling. The congregation was both above and below, with Joseph standing on a table and preaching with his head upstairs and the rest of him below. No wonder people came. Imagine being upstairs and seeing the preachers head on the floorboards – or being below to see the headless preacher!

It was very much church building centred evangelism then, and a lot of his energy was spent in getting a respectable chapel. He outlines his time as five days trudging the streets meeting people, talking and collecting money for the new chapel, writing two sermons on the sixth day and preaching them on the seventh. On reflection he says, ‘We began with nothing, a few, seeking to catch men (sic) one by one’.

The other pioneer was Warren Payne, an Australian minister. His adventures are legion. In the 1880’s he travelled on horseback - ‘Coquette’, his favourite, was a former racehorse. The circuits were in those days large and scattered. During a long drought when horses were no use, he was not held back. He was sent a real novelty - a bicycle ‘the second in South West Queensland’. He cycled thousands of miles. He gives hints to ministry then for the pioneer: to have a ‘baby’s coffin fund’, to sit on verandas to listen as well as talk, and for good measure he tells how to cross an alligator-infested river – safely (it starts with prayer...)!

The pattern of his ministry was very pastoral, visiting families in small remote hamlets, sharing food, having family prayers and Bible readings. Sometimes knowing of his visit several ‘settlers’ families gathered for worship in one of the houses. On one occasion he was delayed and only arrived just before midnight. The families were all asleep around the house but awoke and gathered themselves, whilst Warren ate roast meat. He then baptised a number of older people, followed by babies still asleep. Then they had worship and he preached before all going back to straw beds. The next morning he counselled and instructed a number who were deeply touched the previous night, ate then rode off to his next appointment. On one occasion the only house to call on before sunset was a home of a rough man and his sons; they welcomed him and a coarse meal was eaten. Cynical questions were aimed at Warren but he did not flinch. He was then tested by the blokes, being given a room to sleep in which had been the scene of a drunken shooting match. Three had died in the room he was given as a bedroom, bullet holes all round the walls, but with no fear of ghosts he said good night to the angels and slept soundly, his hosts holding him higher in their view for having completed the test.

He led hundreds to Christ and discipled them. It seems rather sad that at the end of his ministry he was appointed to a comfortable seaside town, where he ministered to a church that seated less than a hundred ‘and rarely filled at that’. This was replaced, through a legacy, by a new commodious church that seated five hundred. He saw the congregation grow to two hundred and ‘on special occasions the church was filled’.

I learnt much from these books about the pioneer spirit and utter dependence on prayer of these early Methodists but, like today, buildings proved in the end to stifle and fossilise a gracious spirit -filled work. May today’s pioneers amongst us resist the temptation to be impressive through outward symbols and be flexible in a people-centred God-powered ministry.

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