Paul was minister of a church plant in Preston, and was previously Associate Minister at All Souls Langham Place. He holds a PhD in systematic theology and is known for his Book by Book Bible study DVDs. It is a great blessing to have such a significant Bible teacher coming to the area.
Steve Levy, Pastor of Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, Swansea, said, ‘We are so blessed that someone as well qualified and gifted as Paul Blackham has agreed to come and help with the church plant in Neath, and we are looking forward to God doing great things. We are especially grateful to God for SaRang Church and WEST for their support and vision in this work, and pray that God will continue to work in reaching those who don’t know Christ in the Valleys.’
Soul Church was the first church to be planed through the Valley Commandos project.
The Cwm Gwendraeth Valley is home to over 21,000 people, mainly in the larger towns of Cross Hands, Tumble, Gorslas, Llanon, Pontyberem, Pontyates and Cefneithin.
You’ll notice straight away that something is different about the Cwm Gwendraeth Valley from the way we always refer to it with that little prefix, ‘Cwm’. That’s because the valley is one of Wales’ most welsh places. The vast majority of the people who live there think of it as Cwm Gwendraeth before thinking about it as the Gwendraeth Valley.
The valley is a stronghold of the welsh language with Menter Cwm Gwendraeth, a pioneering community-based Welsh language initiative, based in Pontyberem. Statistics show that it is the most Welsh speaking area in Carmarthenshire and one of the most Welsh speaking regions in all of Wales.
Surrounding the Cwm Gwendraeth Valley are Carmarthenshire’s 3 main towns; Carmarthen, Llanelli and Ammanford. In this sense the valley is as central as you can get, yet in another sense it leaves the valley isolated and overlooked as people tend towards the (relatively!) urban towns that surround it.
Cross Hands, the largest town in the valley, is something of a focal point as it is homes a significant proportion of the population, a number of popular shops and supermarkets, has fantastic road links to the rest of Carmarthenshire, and is now the primary location for secondary education. Many people know Cross Hands only as a place you drive through on the way from/to west Wales.
Nearby Tumble is, thanks to ongoing building, so close to Cross Hands it’s a little difficult to recognise where one ends and the other begins. Yet it is definitely it’s own place with it’s own identity and is divided up between ‘Upper’ and ‘Lower’ Tumble.
Pontyberem is geographically at the heart of the valley. Iit lies almost equidistantly between Cross Hands (to the east), Carmarthen (to the north), Kidwelly (to the west) and Llanelli (to the south). The BBC’s longest running television soap opera Pobol-y-Cwm is located in the fictional village of Cwmderi in the Cwm Gwendraeth Valley said to be based on Pontyberem.
Many people will have visited the Cwm Gwendraeth Valley to enjoy one of Carmarthenshire’s finest beauty spots, Llyn Llech Owain. The nature park is steeped in history and folk history as well as being well equipped for a family day out.
With all that said it’s fair to say that the valley is spiritually a hard and dark place. During the 1904 revival it was one of the least touched areas of Wales with a relatively small awakening. There are a few glowing embers in the church’s that have existed in the valley for decades and a few sparks of life that we pray will cause a blaze in the near future.
This is why Ammanford Evangelical Church has chosen to plant into it’s neighbouring valley with Hope Gwendraeth and why it is our prayer that we will, sooner rather than later, be able to plant a second church dedicated to reaching out in the Welsh language.
You can follow the progress of Hope Gwendraeth (formerly CrossHands Church) on the web hopegwendraeth.com, on twitter @hopegwendraeth or on facebook www.fb.com/hopegwednraeth
It was as we were travelling home from our Sunday morning gathering last weekend that my eldest daughter, Elen, told us that she was starting to find Hill City Church too big. This was the first time, as far as I’m aware, that the growth of Hill City Church has affected any of my kids in a negative way.
I guess if any of the Hankey crew has a right to be feeling speed-wobble at the moment, it would be Elen. After all, she’s one of only three people (myself and Michelle being the other two) who has been part of the Hill City adventure since its inception back in 2007. When we planted Hill City we literally spent the first 5 months doing proper church services (just the three of us…and our dog) in our living room, and I’m talking a full worship session and a 45 minute preach! My reason for kicking off the church plant in such a crazy tiny way was the thought that, barring death or divorce, the church could only grow!!
And grown it has!
The house church phase lasted for about 12 months, peaking at around 20 people before we moved into our local community centre. We experienced both rapid growth and painful decline during our 5 years at that centre, and when we responded to the prompting of the Holy Spirit to relocate to Pontypool Active Living Centre last year, we were at around 50 people. Then came the most recent move to Pontnewynydd Chapel last month – a venue that is currently set up to seat around 75 people…and we are already bursting out of it.
Amazingly Elen is the only member of the church who has been with us through every single stage of the journey so far, and in fairness to her, she’s not the only one who is struggling to get to grips with the current growth spurt (we’ve had new faces and a growing congregation pretty much every Sunday for the last few months). Myself and Michelle, as well as many others in the church, are hard-wired for deep, meaningful relationship and it’s fair to say that this is currently becoming increasingly difficult to experience at the Sunday gathering. It’s not as cosy or familiar as it used to be! A growing congregation is certainly not a bad thing, but if it becomes the main thing then that is a problem! Anyway, by God’s grace, Hill City is about a lot more than just the Sunday event and we are blessed to be able to enjoy more intimate life-on-life relationships in our local gospel communities and through various other friendships that we invest in during the week. But we also feel what Elen felt – that there’s loads of new people and there seems to be more of them every week. (This also presents pastoral issues that the elders are working through!) Following our launch service on Easter Sunday (when we’d had to put out extra seats out for all the people who had come) we joked as elders that it was already time to start looking for a new venue (again!) Now, while that’s not necessarily true, in reality if we keep growing at the rate we are then something will have to happen, and soon.
Which brings me on to sunflowers…
Obviously burdened by what Elen had said on the way home from church, Michelle shared something with our kids last night that was so insightful and prophetic that I felt I needed to blog about it.
She had recently planted some sunflower seeds in the garden with the kids. The adventure had started with them all planting tiny seeds in their tiny colour-coded pots a few weeks ago…
It wasn’t long before the seeds started to sprout and shoot and grow until yesterday the little plants needed to be re-potted into larger pots. Michelle beautifully explained to the kids that this re-potting was vital if the sunflowers were going to continue to flourish and grow. She explained that as the shoots got thicker and taller we may need to start putting sticks in the soil to support the weight of the head and that those sticks might need to be replaced by garden canes as growth continued. She then brilliantly applied this sunflower analogy to church planting, or more specifically, our current situation at Hill City. Just like no one one plants sunflower seeds without expecting them to grow, neither does anyone plant a church without the same desire and expectation. However, just like a growing sunflower requires structural and environmental changes to support its growth, the same is true of church plants. Suffice to say that much of our “re-potting” at Hill City Church has been in order to continue to grow by God’s grace. However, if I left the analogy there I would be doing Michelle a disservice as her conclusion was the best part!
“At some point,” she explained to the kids, “your sunflowers will stop growing. They won’t get any bigger. They will have reached the size that God wants them to reach and they will die. But what will happen then?” She asked them?
“Seeds!” Came the excited response.
In fairness to my wife, she is a genius! She had just managed to articulate to my kids (aged 3-7) something that I have been wrestling with for weeks – sunflowers are brilliant and beautiful and it’s bonkers how big they get – but it’s about so much more than just that sunflower! The bigger the sunflower gets, the more seeds it possesses which means the more fruitful it will become.
What matters for us at Hill City is not so much our size as our fruitfulness. It is possible to be a huge gathering of excitable people, but if we are not all loaded with gospel-goodness, filled with Spiritual vitality and ready (when the time is right ) to be ejected onto the mission-field, then we are doing something very wrong and Hill City Church church will die when we die. However, if as we grow we manage to retain, and even enhance, our missional DNA, and if we allow God to fill us with His Holy Spirit and load us with evangelistic zeal then who knows how fruitful this church could be?! We would all be on mission – some of us at home, some in work and in our communities. Some of us planting churches or serving as missionaries overseas. One thing is certain – Hill City will certainly live on beyond this generation and bear fruit beyond this valley – and that’s a compelling thought!
So as I listened in to Michelle’s mind-blowing sunflower sermon last night I found myself excited and energised and emboldened. I looked into the eyes of my kids, not least Elen, whose moment of raw honesty had triggered this epic little teaching moment, and I found myself praying for them. I prayed that God would make each of them fantastic, fruitful, faith-filled ‘seeds’ who (at the right time) will be propelled by the gospel into whatever mission-field He has prepared for them. And I prayed that they would experience for themselves the roller-coaster of passion, pain, challenge and joy of living large and dying daily for the glory of King Jesus.
I have no greater desire for them than that.
And I have no greater desire for Hill City than that.
It’s late October 2012. The sun has set and the amber glow of the street lights are all we have to find our way. A group of burdened Christians have made the trek from all over Carmarthenshire to CrossHands, to an old chapel, to pray for what might become a new church in the Cwm Gwendraeth Valley. The rain is lashing at the windows, the fluorescent tubes are humming, but both sounds are drowned out by the singing and prayer of those who have made the journey.
That WAS the scene when we called our first ever prayer meeting in CrossHands, and it was the scene when I was given the opportunity to properly address those who were thinking about forming the core of our new church. Travelling in the darkness to reach the chapel, the promise of warmth that the light spilling out the chapel windows gave to those who approached, it all stirred my spirit to speak some very Biblical imagery. Darkness and light.
Think about the contrast between darkness and light in Scripture…even at the very beginning.
In Genesis 1 we begin with darkness. Nothingness. A complete void. Where God has yet to create there stands darkness. And as God creates, as He intervenes in the nothingness, as He lays His first fingerprints across creation…LIGHT! And not just light but a real, significant change to creation. From nothingness to something which is actually, positively ‘good’.
From the very start of God’s Word we get a sense that without God’s fingerprints, without His involvement and intervention all we have is darkness. And it isn’t good.
As God’s Word unfolds, as He reveals more of Himself through Scripture, we discover that darkness isn’t simply something devoid of God, but it becomes a symbol of His judgement.
In Ammanford Evangelical Church we recently made our way through the book of Exodus. In the early chapters you come across a number of plagues. The plagues build to a crescendo, to a final most gruesome and terrifying plague of the blood of the first born, yet as it’s about to reach that crescendo you first get the plague of total and utter darkness, darkness so all encompassing that it can be felt! Continue reading →
There’s an old tale about two farmers whose crops were in desperate need of rain. They both cried out to God in prayer, asking Him to send the much-needed rain. But only one of them then went out into his fields to prepare them for the rain when it arrived. The question that this story presents is simply this – which of those farmers truly had faith?
That story came to mind as I was reading the first chapter of Acts last week. As a church planter and a bloke who just loves exciting stories I’ve read the Book of Acts A LOT of times. However, I’d never noticed this sweet little nugget in chapter 1…until now!
Chapter 1 begins with our Saviour promising His disciples that a special gift is on the way:
“Do not leave Jerusalem until the Father sends you the gift he promised, as I told you before. John baptized with water, but in just a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit…But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere—in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (v4-5+8)
Jesus then steps onto His epic cloud elevator and ascends to heaven, leaving His disciples to wait for the ‘gift’.
Acts 2 then famously charts the spectacular arrival of that gift – the Holy Spirit – on the day of Pentecost and from that moment on it was game on! The church literally explodes and the world is never the same again.
But where’s this nugget I’m banging on about?
It’s found in the bit that happens between the promise of the Holy Spirit and the arrival of the Holy Spirit:
“Then the apostles returned to Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, a distance of half a mile. When they arrived, they went to the upstairs room of the house where they were staying. Here are the names of those who were present: Peter, John, James, Andrew, Philip, Thomas, Bartholomew, Matthew, James (son of Alphaeus), Simon (the Zealot), and Judas (son of James). They all met together and were constantly united in prayer, along with Mary the mother of Jesus, several other women, and the brothers of Jesus. During this time, when about 120 believers were together in one place, Peter stood up and addressed them. “Brothers,” he said, “the Scriptures had to be fulfilled concerning Judas, who guided those who arrested Jesus. This was predicted long ago by the Holy Spirit, speaking through King David. Judas was one of us and shared in the ministry with us.” (Judas had bought a field with the money he received for his treachery. Falling headfirst there, his body split open, spilling out all his intestines. The news of his death spread to all the people of Jerusalem, and they gave the place the Aramaic name Akeldama, which means “Field of Blood.”) Peter continued, “This was written in the book of Psalms, where it says, ‘Let his home become desolate, with no one living in it.’ It also says, ‘Let someone else take his position.’ So now we must choose a replacement for Judas from among the men who were with us the entire time we were traveling with the Lord Jesus—from the time he was baptized by John until the day he was taken from us. Whoever is chosen will join us as a witness of Jesus’ resurrection.” So they nominated two men: Joseph called Barsabbas (also known as Justus) and Matthias. Then they all prayed, “O Lord, you know every heart. Show us which of these men you have chosen as an apostle to replace Judas in this ministry, for he has deserted us and gone where he belongs.” Then they cast lots, and Matthias was selected to become an apostle with the other eleven.” (v 12-26)
Let me summarise what’s going on here – Jesus had promised the much-needed Holy Spirit to come and empower the early believers for the task of turning the world upside down with the gospel. In other words, Jesus had promised them rain! The believers’ response was to faithfully prepare their fields.
This is what that looked like: “They all met together and were constantly united in prayer“ (v14)
It was out of this of togetherness and prayerful unity that Peter spoke to the disciples regarding leadership. He explained that Judas’ betrayal and grizzly demise had left their leadership structure weak and in need of strengthening. After a prayerful game of Rock, Paper, Scissors Matthias became Apostle number 12. With the leadership situation addressed, the field was now ready for the ensuing monsoon! By the end of the following chapter the church had grown by some 3000 people and the church was off to a flyer!
So what’s this nugget teaching us?
I guess it’s simply this – if we are seeking God to move in power, to save to the uttermost, and to unleash the Holy Spirit in our midst and in our generation – I guess we need to be doing more than simply talking and praying about it. We need to be preparing for it. Are we identifying, raising up and releasing leaders who will humbly serve, lovingly lead, faithfully disciple and courageously commission others? It’s a challenge for all church leaders, church planters and gospel ministers. But it’s a challenge that we must rise to in faith. (For your prayers, it’s something that we as elders are looking at with real purpose at Hill City right now!)
So let’s follow the example of the 2 farmers and the Acts 1 believers:
Pray for rain.
Prepare for rain.
Reap the harvest.
Dai Hankey is on the Valley Commandos Board representing Acts 29 and also a Church leader in the Valley of Torfaen. View the original blog post on his blog here.
Last week I visited a tattoo parlour in Cardiff…and it was unlike any parlour I’ve ever seen before. Many tattoo parlours have clinically white walls with tattoo designs plastered all over them.
But not this one!
This particular shop had a staggering array of stuffed animals all over the walls and shelves – birds, bears, badgers scorpions, stags and a fox! I mention the fox because it’s in the shop window and is a quirky piece of taxidermic craziness that has been on my mind ever since. The fox (I don’t know his name sorry!) is stood upright in the shop window with a quirky cap on his head and a stick in his hand. I’m not a big fan of stuffed animals, but I have to confess that he’s pretty cool! And I guess that’s the point of him being in the shop window. Certainly the shop is a hive of bustling busyness and the artist I was chatting to informed me that people literally wander in off the street just to see the animals. Some stay in to get their bodies inked.
I’m excited to introduce you to CrossHands Church, a new plant that plans to start meeting publically in Carmarthenshire’s Gwendraeth Valley from September. But before I tell you about that, we need to go back a little, perhaps 35 years.
Ammanford Evangelical Church, the church behind the CrossHands plant in the Gwendraeth Valley, is somewhere in the region of 35 years old. It’s hard to tell because reports vary and at the time of it’s birth people were more interested in speaking about Jesus than keeping records. It had as it’s humble beginnings a rag tag bunch of brethren believers who met together along with Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. Since then it’s been a church marked out by two vital elements.
Firstly, it’s always been a place in which the Gospel, found in God’s Word, is at the centre. I suppose that’s essentially what it means to be ‘evangelical’ but it was also inevitable given that it’s beginnings were in essence a Bible study.
Secondly, it’s always been a church that’s placed a premium on community. A premium on loving, sharing and growing in the Gospel together as a family. Again, the reality is that this is exactly what a church is, a family drawn together and held together by Jesus’ blood.
Our prayer is that the new church in Crosshands will be marked out by the exact same elements. Loving God’s Word and loving one another.
Fast forward 30+ years and Ammanford Evangelical Church has a lot to be thankful for. Conversions, restorations, marriages, births, properties and the fact the two current pastors are products of the church’s youth work. God’s blessings have been visible each and every step of the way.
It was in this place of counting God’s blessings that the leadership of the church sensed a call from God to reach out beyond our Ammanford base. Of course we always have, as a church whose influence extends far into the Amman Valley and beyond, we’ve always looked beyond the geographical borders of Ammanford town. We’ve also had a strong history of sending gifted Christian into serious Gospel work with churches near and far.
But the call from God was to reach out this time in planting. Planting a church that would itself be planting churches (more on that in later posts perhaps). The call was to identify our ‘Samaria’ (Acts 1:8) and invest in kingdom growth.
Enter (at last) CrossHands Church. Perhaps the name will change but the vision certainly wont, “To Make and Mature Christ Followers in the Gwendraeth Valley.” The Gwendraeth, like the Amman Valley, is home to somewhere in the region of 25,000 people. Yet the Gospel witness is heart breakingly small. I could bore you with the details of how God is convincing us that it’s the right time and place to plant but I wont. I’d rather just ask for your prayerful partnership in the work.
First of all thank God for the work that has gone on before and the work that is going on now in the valley. Thank God for men and women who have prayed and shed tears over the valley. Thank God for the men and women who have stood up for Jesus, proclaiming Him boldly even when many seem unmoved.
Pray for the folks from Ammanford Evangelical Church (and other churches) who will form the core of CrossHands church. That they would love one another well and as they do so that they would be living testimonies to the power of the Gospel.
Pray for a venue for our Sunday meetings. It turns out that suitable, affordable spaces are few and far between in the strategic spot of CrossHands. But talks are in an advanced stage over a unit in the local business park.
Pray for the leadership of Ammanford Evangelical Church who will lead and help birth this new church. And pray too that God would be rising up leaders who would take it and lead it forward as their own church.
It is such a joy to know people from all over Wales (and beyond!) are partnering together with us in prayer. What a privilege. It is such a thrill to know that something like Valley Commandos now exists in South Wales in order to bring together people and churches from different backgrounds, even different continents, but unite them to one purpose; to see Gospel churches planted in all the Valleys of South Wales so that thousands would see the Gospel, hear the Gospel and trust the Gospel.
Please, please, please be praying with us and for us. And in advance, thank you for your partnership.
Note: Sammy Davies is Assistant Pastor in Ammanford Evangelical Church having been saved as a late teenager through the church’s youth work. Following University the church called him as a ministry apprentice before supporting his studies in WEST. Sammy is the ‘Elder on the Ground’ for CrossHands Church. Follow him on twitter @saintbeagle.
You can follow the progress of CrossHands Church on the web crosshandschruch.com, on twitter @crsshndschrch or on facebook www.facebook.com/crosshandschurch
by Valley Commando Board Member Steve Levey From Mount Pleasant Baptist Church
One of the things that we are doing in Neath is RBT (Reading the Bible Together). There are passages of the Bible that perplex preachers and it needs other members to see the obvious. Take 1 Kings for example, which starts with the story of David at the end of his life. Now we know how David trusted the risen Christ for salvation (Acts 2:31) and we know he is an example of faith in Christ (Romans 4). But why does the book start with him shivering and old, sleeping with a pretty woman but unable to do anything but sleep. He looks so ridiculous, such a fool. I’d always been perplexed but someone in the Neath RBT group pointed out that even though David trusted the Lord himself to come and save him (2 Sam 7:11), the unbelieving servants around him looked at his life and thought, “you know what David needs?” “A pretty woman.”
The question hangs out there. When I am old what will unbelievers think I need? Christ or something that makes me look an old fool – a solemn warning from RBT Neath.
There is nothing like church. It is “the household of God, the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). As I look around the church plant in Neath I’m reminded there really is nowhere like church. There are people of all kinds of backgrounds and all you have to do to join is put your faith in Jesus. Age, background and academic ability are barriers broken down in Christ.
Now we set about the hard task of reaching the people of Neath and making sure they too know that Jesus Christ is the Saviour of the world. Already we have seen quite a number coming in. It has also been a real thrill to see how churches that preach Christ have been so encouraging in supporting us. As one minister said, “there are more than enough non-Christians to go around” – and there certainly are. What an encouragement! You’ve got to love church, it’s what God is doing in the world! A piece of heaven on earth, home! After all it is “the household of God, the pillar and ground of the truth.”
Map shows location of Neath and the surrounding Valleys.