Throughout the spring, Christians from the UK and beyond were tuning in to a series of online interviews each Sunday evening. Before They Leave the Stage featured retired pastors such as Alun McNabb, Ian Hamilton, Geoff Thomas, Bill Hughes, Philip Eveson, and Austin Walker, who were asked to impart some of the wisdom they’d acquired through their Christian life and ministry.
The interviews were conducted by Alun Ebenezer and Keith Batstone, who shared their reflections with Evangelical Times the day after the series ended.
What inspired you to begin this project?
AE: We live in a day when everyone thinks they know best, and there are lots of young people who think that 2,000 years of church history has been waiting for our arrival on the scene. And I think that the most neglected voices are these older men who have actually been there and done it and bought the t-shirt, and who’ve plodded on for the last 40–50 years. They know God in a way that I don’t – so surely theirs are the voices that we should be hearing.
We didn’t want to be nostalgic about the ‘good old days’. With more distractions and worldiness and ungodliness, it’s really hard to stand as a Christian today – so I don’t want to be giving my generation a kicking. But I want my generation and the generation below to look at these men and say, ‘There is more to know. We haven’t got to live at this poor, dying rate.’
So what do you think are the main lessons that have come through?
KB: All of the men talked of occasions when God came down and met with them, and they were never the same again. And they all passed through this period in the ’70s when there were times of blessing, and it was God coming. So that theme is what came out of this for me: the sense of the experience.
Linked to that, a number of them were saying, ‘We have to preach – not just give a talk.’ There’s too much intellectualism in the pulpit. You can explain what the Bible says, and then leave it. But these men are saying, ‘There’s a Holy Ghost, and he can come and make it live.’ And they urged us to preach the gospel, every week, to Christians and non-Christians. So I’ve seen in all of them that burden of preaching with the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven.
AE: We spoke to 18 men in total, and they’ve all got different personalities, temperaments, and gifts. But in all of them there’s been a ‘sameness’ of spirit. For me, God is an important part of my life; but for them, God is their life. They don’t care about the praise of man. All they care about is God and his glory. They’ve got a high view of him, and I think that’s the one thing that’s missing today: the fear of God.
Did you come away feeling that British evangelicalism is stronger or weaker now than it was 50 years ago?
AE: I don’t think there are many giants of the faith at the moment, in the next generation. But the good news is, as some of these pastors said, it’s not our church. I look at them as my heroes, and I worry about the fact that, in ten years’ time, many of them might not be here. But actually I shouldn’t, because the church is not reliant on any of them: it’s the Lord Jesus Christ’s church.
John Blanchard was called to glory not long after you’d interviewed him. How did that make you feel?
KB: John’s home-call was very poignant – and the fact that his interview with us was probably his last public engagement. I do feel that God has been in this series, and has wanted these messages to get across.
AE: When his widow emailed me it brought home to me the importance of what we were doing. To have somebody ‘leave the stage’ during the series gave it a greater significance. We’re not going to have these ministers much longer, so we need to listen to people like Stuart Olyott and Iain Murray as much as we possibly can. Christian conferences always seem to want the young guns speaking, or the Americans. But actually we should be bleeding these men dry before they leave the stage.
Some of the videos have been viewed 3–4,000 times on YouTube. How do you account for their popularity?
KB: It made a difference that this happened during lockdown, and those who could go out to church for a distanced meeting couldn’t meet up with friends and have fellowship afterwards. One couple said to me, ‘It’s lovely to get home and wait for quarter past eight’ – and they listened in with great joy and anticipation.
But overall, it’s God’s providence ordering these things, and encouraging us to seek his face. This current generation of Christians is living in a country and a society which is, in many ways, far worse than when I was a young man. The struggle when I was a young man was against liberal theology. Today it’s a whole host of horrible things. I used to read Paul’s epistles as a young man and think, ‘Why does he have to tell me to love my wife? Why does he have to tell me how to treat children?’ But now we’re all seeing why. Paul lived in a society which was morally and socially chaotic and decadent. And in that context, he said, ‘you shine as lights in the world’.
The ministers we spoke to shone in a very dark time theologically, and they’re urging us to shine now. And for that we need this confidence in the great God who sent his Son and anointed us with his Holy Spirit. ‘Rise up, you men of God,’ is what they’re saying to us, and I think God wants us to hear that and not be downhearted.
Are you planning to do anything else like this in the future?
AE: Possibly. A couple of publishers are interested in turning the series into a book, which we will work on over the summer. And in the autumn we’re thinking about interviewing older minsters’ wives, older missionaries maybe, potentially ministers from ‘across the pond’.
We don’t want to keep things going for the sake of it, but I think there is an appetite for it, from all the emails I’ve received. It has been nice on a Sunday night to go home and have a cup of tea and a piece of toast and listen to these godly people. I can’t think of a better way to end the Sabbath day.
Recordings of ‘Before They Leave the Stage’ can still be viewed on the YouTube channel of Heath Evangelical Church, Cardiff.