The answer, sadly, is otherwise. Although there are still traces of this heritage in the social fabric of Wales, its present spiritual condition is one of great gospel need.
Probably fewer than 2% of the Welsh population would define themselves as evangelical Christians. The effect of liberalism within the historic denominational churches has been marked and tragic – and this is especially true among Welsh language churches (about 615,000 of the population would say Welsh is their first language).
It has been estimated that on current trends 90% of professing ‘Christian’ churches will cease to exist within ten years!¹ All over Wales the landscape is scattered with former chapels converted into warehouses, garages, flats and mosques.
However, alongside this decline there has been a significant increase in evangelical and independent congregations, 62 of which are now linked together (in 11 regional clusters) in the Associating Evangelical Churches of Wales.²
Perhaps the strongest groups of Evangelical churches lie along the M4 corridor of south Wales (about two thirds of Wales’ population of 2.9 million is in the industrial south, between Newport and Llanelli).
If one drives along the M4 from Newport and Cardiff in the east to Swansea and Llanelli in the west, Evangelical churches are found within fairly easy reach all along the route. The same cannot be said of other parts of Wales, particularly mid Wales and certain parts of north Wales, where it is more difficult to locate Bible-believing congregations.
The Evangelical Movement of Wales (EMW), which was raised up in the 1940s to serve both English- and Welsh-speaking Christians in Wales, provides significant resources to promote the gospel of Jesus Christ – through outreach, publications, camps, conferences, ministers’ fraternals and nine Christian bookshops.
Every year around 700 young people, aged between 10 and 21, benefit from its Christian camps. Over the years hundreds of young people have professed faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour through them (including the author’s wife).
In a recent prayer letter the EMW identified a number of significant towns and villages with no evangelical witness. It names, amongst others, Betws-y-Coed, Llandovery, Montgomery, Pontyberem and Whitland. This alerts us to a number of concerns.
Firstly, many Evangelical churches have a preponderance of older people among their membership, while the growth of Charismatic churches has mainly been among a younger age group. As a result, the vitality of younger believers is often missing from the Reformed, evangelical constituency. This may be a factor in the small numbers of men coming forward to train for the Christian
Secondly, while many Evangelical churches in Wales acknowledge the need for revival and have a correct theology of the correlation between Word and Spirit, this has not always translated into action. There is a need for vigorous and relevant evangelism, church planting and outreach.
Surely it is as we engage in these very tasks that the need for a powerful work of the Spirit of God is made more apparent and our prayers are given more urgency? Accepting that Wales is no longer a ‘Christian’ country, but one needing missionary endeavour, is difficult and painful. The EMW correctly identifies evangelism and church planting as key priorities and wishes to stimulate churches to be imaginative and effective in their evangelism.
The challenge of church planting away from the M4 corridor into rural and Welsh-speaking Wales is a daunting one. It needs the prayerful support and practical help of larger congregations.
It may mean taking some risks, breaking with some traditions and looking for new opportunities to reach into communities where the Bible is regarded as ‘old hat’ – tried before but of no use.
Now it is undoubtedly true that most people in Wales have not actually heard the true message of the Bible, but many really think the Bible to be irrelevant with a failed message. This is a very real obstacle to the gospel.
As gospel churches hold their nerve, energetically evangelise and pray, they can look to the Lord to raise up Christians who will be strong in the Lord and do exploits in his name in Wales.
The author is editor of The Evangelical Magazine
1. This shocking statistic was quoted by Stuart Olyott in a seminar entitled Pagan Wales, held on 7 October 2006. The seminar is available as a free MP3 download from the Evangelical Movement of Wales website.
2. Information about the Associating Evangelical Churches of Wales can be obtained from their website at www.aecw.org.uk
3. The Wales Evangelical School of Theology (formerly the Evangelical Theological College of Wales) was founded in 1985 and is a Protestant, reformed college, training men to preach and serve the church of Jesus Christ.