Forty years at Pontefract
by Bill Dyer
When I became minister of Pontefract Congregational Church in 1968 it was a typical mid-20th Century liberal denominational church, near to closure. Pontefract had a reputation for being spiritually ‘hard’ and was almost without gospel witness. All attempts by other churches in Yorkshire to plant a gospel work in the town had failed.
From the beginning it was clear that God had gone before us to prepare the way. Christians in the surrounding area had been praying for Pontefract for years and holding open-air meetings there. Some years earlier a couple had felt constrained by the Lord to move to Pontefract from Doncaster and pray until God established a work here.
At that time also, through a number of remarkable providences, key people were brought together to reclaim the church for the gospel and to create a team to evangelise the community.
Even my training at a liberal theological college had some benefit! We met with some fierce opposition to our evangelical convictions, both from within the church and from other ministers in the town. But knowing first-hand how sterile and powerless liberalism is, we were not intimidated.
My former contact with evangelical Christianity had been mainly through Elim Pentecostals, and this continued after we settled in Pontefract. Their priorities were godly living; preaching the Word; gospel preaching (expecting people to be saved); passionate evangelism; wrestling in prayer for perishing souls; and tithing to the local church.
I therefore assumed that these were the priorities of all Evangelicals, and so they became our priorities too. Only years later did I realise what an advantage we had been given through this influence!
The spiritual darkness and desperate need of the town was a great stimulus to earnest evangelism. Monthly half-nights of prayer were soon established. Then, through several remarkable providences, we heard God’s call to ‘make his house a house of prayer’. Every Saturday night from 10 until midnight, we wrestled with God for his blessing on the Lord’s day.
Being in such an atmosphere of prayer before every Lord’s Day warmed and energised the preaching, and helped the whole congregation to worship. Some couples arranged baby-sitters in order to be there together.
A prayer meeting every Saturday night has continued to the present day. Later, every Thursday became a day of prayer with meetings for prayer interspersed through the day from early morning to late evening. And later still, at the request of the deacons, a prayer meeting was held at least once every day of the week.
Urgency, expectancy and a sense of spiritual adventure characterised these meetings, and people were afraid to miss either a prayer meeting or a service in case they missed something really wonderful.
Every Sunday evening was evangelistic with clear, passionate gospel preaching. This meant that the growing number of believers had confidence to bring their unsaved friends – so there were always good numbers of non-Christians present.
Regular gospel preaching gave vision to the church; stimulated prayer, witness and service; and taught the congregation how to communicate the gospel in youth work, old people’s work, and in the workplace. It also trained future preachers. Above all, through regular evangelistic preaching, God saved the lost.
What was the result of all this prayer and evangelistic preaching? Spurgeon recorded that when his people prayed, ‘down came the blessing’.
Within weeks of our arrival the Lord wonderfully saved a young man, and soon many more were saved – mostly right out of the world with little or no church background. At the end of 1971 the church secretary told the AGM that membership had increased by 50% that year. Between 1968 and the end of 1980 at least 129 had professed faith and 103 had been baptised.
This fired the church’s passion for evangelism. It encouraged us to hold special evangelistic missions – 2 weeks in the Spring and a week in the Autumn, with preaching morning and evening every day.
Booklets of testimonies were prepared before each Spring mission and delivered to as many as 19,000 homes in the area as invitations. The booklets reached those to whom the Lord wanted to speak but who were unknown to us. Many conversions resulted. In January 1982 I recorded, ‘Thirty-eight have been baptised since last January and 31 have become members’.
In February I wrote, ‘I am more convinced than ever that prayer is the key factor in the evangelistic blessing at Pontefract. The half-night of prayer on Tuesday was spiritually warm, and the prayers of our young people are very thrilling. They had their first prayer breakfast yesterday. O Lord, hear these prayers and save a multitude at the forthcoming mission! The burden must get heavier’.
In March 1982 I wrote, ‘What a wonderful work of grace has been done in [people’s] hearts! It has struck me forcibly this week that all this love, care and prayer is a mighty vindication of the glorious gospel we preach. Only the gospel can change people to this extent and produce such results’.
Then in January 1983 I noted that ‘1982 was another wonderful year with at least 40 professing conversion, most of whom show evidence of true spiritual regeneration. People appear to have been saved every month except September. Twenty were baptised and 28 became members’.
At the end of the following year I recorded, ‘About 30 converts during 1984, with 18 being baptised. 36 new members were accepted at the AGM. However, we seem no nearer the revival that we long for. May the Lord come upon us with a spirit of true pleading prayer for souls and for revival in 1985. We need a fresh burden from the Lord. The spiritual battle seems to increase with each mission, and we need to learn more as a church about winning the battle on our knees’.
Then in August 1985: ‘So far this year we have seen very few converts; we need a fresh outpouring of the Spirit and a new commitment to prayer. The whole church is in danger of resting on past blessing and needs to move up a gear spiritually and cry to God for a new day of his special favour’.
Well, God did continue to be gracious, and soon I was able to record, ‘The Lord wonderfully met with us in our Tuesday evening prayer meeting as we sought his blessing for the New Year, and this was followed by a thrilling Sunday yesterday. God’s presence was felt by all; there was an amazing liberty to preach and intense listening. O, may this be the beginning of a renewing of prayer & spiritual life in the church! …
‘The sense of God’s presence continues in the services, and preaching in such an atmosphere is a great privilege. There is a new desire for prayer, many new people are attending, and the manifest blessing of God has clearly returned. Praise his name!’
In April 1986 I wrote, ‘Fourteen new members last Tuesday, a new deacon was inducted yesterday morning and 10 people baptised last night. Truly God has been good to us, but we long for a mighty movement of the Holy Spirit during the mission. O Lord come!’
The blessing and enthusiasm during missions was so great that several times we extended them for up to another week. Ministerial colleagues kindly dropped everything at short notice and came and helped us.
There were times of greater and times of lesser blessing, but the church has endeavoured to keep its foot on the evangelistic accelerator and has persevered with prayer, gospel preaching and missions.
A regular Tuesday morning service was added, together with a weekly evangelistic coffee morning with preaching, and more recently men’s breakfasts and Christianity Explored meetings. Conversions in recent years have been far fewer than in the 70s and 80s, but the Lord has continued to save, including people with no spiritual background. Thirteen were baptised in 2006.
Over the years, tithing provided resources to develop the work in many directions. In particular the Lord enabled the church to build a team ministry and provide in-service training for a number of assistant ministers.
This account, however, can give no idea of the costly spiritual battle, hard work and sacrifice entailed for many faithful people. For years there were about 300 children and young people in the youth work with some 60 committed leaders.
Over the years the church leaders enthusiastically embraced ever-widening vision and the members accepted more and more demands on their time and resources. Reflecting on these years, the whole church has recognised the gracious sovereign hand of God upon the work and prays for his special blessing to continue.
The author has recently retired after 40 years as minister of Pontefract Evangelical Church.