The editors have kindly asked me to sketch the Lord’s work at the Metropolitan Tabernacle (or Spurgeon’s Tabernacle) over the decades during which Evangelical Times has exercised its ministry. It is a privilege to respond with these details of the Lord’s work here.
The question is often asked – ‘What has brought the Tabernacle from an attendance of thirty to forty people in 1970 up to its present numbers?’ (We now have 630 adult members and adherents, not counting hundreds of short-term attendees and visitors in the course of a year).
The obvious and right answer is ‘the Holy Spirit of the living God’. But if the Spirit has been pleased to use certain means, we may name these without detracting in the least from our certainty that all blessing is due to him.
Committed to the gospel
It must first be said that the Tabernacle has been very much a team operation through the years.
In the early 1970s a number of young people came into the Tabernacle who became really committed to working for the gospel. In those days their incomes would easily have established them in very nice homes if they had wanted to pitch camp in the suburbs or in provincial towns.
But they chose instead to secure flats or dingy terraced houses in expensive central London – to nail their colours to the mast of inner-city evangelism. These men and women have stood by the work and now form the middle-aged and older leadership generation.
A working church
Five factors, none of them novel, stand out as the chief sources of blessing in the saving of souls and building up of the congregation. The first is the implementation of the working church principle – derived from Spurgeon’s era and once common in reformed churches.
In 1970 the remaining congregation consisted of mainly elderly but dedicated saints who still bore the Spurgeonic working commitment. So as new and younger people began to profess the Lord, the latter were readily inspired to take up the task.
The Sunday school work was soon enlarged and, as means allowed, old vehicles were acquired to collect as many children as possible. The growing band of workers visited the neighbourhood, taught Sunday school, and (with money very short) decorated, repaired and performed a host of other tasks to re-launch the church as a vigorous, evangelistic fellowship.
In the many years following, the working church ethos has continued – making for real dedication, love of service and great unity of concern and purpose. We would strongly commend to reformed people everywhere the old standard that every able member should be actively involved in some aspect of service for the Lord – honouring, of course, the voluntary principle.
Without this ethos we do not believe the Tabernacle fellowship would have recovered from its low condition and grown to its present size.
A second factor for growth has been the practice of persuasive evangelistic preaching every Sunday (in our case in the advertised evening service). In this we follow another policy that was once almost universal – and notably carried on in post-war central London by Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones along with many others. Strangely, this practice has been largely discontinued by reformed churches in recent decades.
Very many people, particularly young people, have come under conviction over the years, and the soul-winning emphasis has permeated the entire fellowship.
A third factor has undoubtedly been the Sunday schools and Bible classes, which have grown to a roll of around 800 children and teenagers, up to 450 being under instruction on any Sunday. The Sunday schools are staffed by over 100 members, many of whom were brought to the Lord over the last 35 years through this very ministry.
The Sunday school (held on Sunday afternoon, with associated week-night meetings) has penetrated countless homes otherwise closed to the gospel, and established strong bonds in the community. It is a moving experience to see so many ‘outside’ teenagers, many of whom are keen to attend adult services also.
We heartily commend to churches the operation of evangelistic Sunday schools, and believe that the Tabernacle has not only been blessed by God through this work, but also on account of it.
A fourth factor in the growth of the Tabernacle has been the early separation of the week-night Bible study and prayer meeting into two meetings on different evenings – going back to yet another normal practice of churches fifty years and more ago.
This has provided a dedicated ‘asking meeting’, calling on the Lord for all the ministries in obedience to his desire – ‘I will yet for this be inquired of by the house of Israel, to do it for them’. It is usually a full meeting with continuous earnest prayer.
The fifth factor is, we believe, the continuance of reverent worship and the avoidance of modern worship songs and music. This is not a matter of not using words and tunes written in our own age, but of not using material produced by the charismatic and contemporary worship stables – that employ the rhythms and style of secular entertainment.
Some good, sound churches have turned to these, believing that they will make the church more acceptable to the young. But we (and others) have found that joyous worship that avoids worldly compromise makes the very best impact on the minds of the young, stirring in them a strong sense of God’s greatness and majesty.
It is always a help and never a hindrance. Other large non-charismatic churches with a high proportion of young people (such as the long ministry of Rev. Vernon Higham in Cardiff) have proved the same.
We have found that young people of every kind, class and ethnic background respond to reverent worship. We know of many churches that have shipped the infested water of worldliness by adopting the entertainment style of doing things, with its attendant informality and flippancy.
Over the years various ministries have developed at the Tabernacle, including the Sword & Trowel with its associated books, the seminary programme, the annual School of Theology, the Tabernacle bookshop, the overseas ministry (supporting over twenty ministers in different countries), the Lessons for Life project for the promotion of Sunday schools, and the audio-video materials.
Many readers will have seen the daily televised sermons on Sky TV 766 (broadcast also in other lands) that extends our ‘congregation’ by tens of thousands. We now have a pastoral staff of four, with nine other vital staff members, plus, of course, the veritable army of members engaged in so many activities for Christ.
To pastor the Tabernacle is certainly a matter of ‘chairing’ a great team of workers for the gospel and the Word.
The five factors named in this article are prime features of Tabernacle life – the working church, regular evangelistic preaching, vigorous Sunday school work, a distinctive meeting for prayer, and no surrender to entertainment in the worship of God.
We invented none of these things but we are sure that they are used to bring glory to Christ in these dark days, and have won hearts to him. We ever strive to do justice to the glorious ideal expressed with grand Victorian eloquence by Dr William Brock at the opening of Spurgeon’s new building in 1861:
‘We rejoice because of what will be done by the preaching of Christ here. We know that the place will be the birthplace of precious souls through successive generations. We know that the place will be like a great human heart, throbbing and pulsating with benevolence obtained directly from the cross of Christ … It will be none other than the house of God and the very gate of heaven’.