God has a knack for surprises. Team England started out with five eager couples, and everything seemed like it was ready to go. But then one couple dropped out…and then another. And for Steve, the team leader, panic was looking like the new order of the day.
Before I go any further, I think it’s be good for me to clarify exactly what this trip was all about. Seven years ago, Tom McConnell and his wife Kathy made their way over to northern Ireland in the hopes of finding a church to pastor. A year later, they left northern Ireland somewhat confused and wondering where God would taking them next. They had no idea that He would take them to Rugby, England, a little town about 85 miles north London, nestled in the rolling pasture land of Warwickshire county. The town is not a very well-known, except for two things: it’s the home of a very famous school and a very famous sport (more on that later).
Nevertheless, this little town was, like all the rest of England, in desperate need of gospel ministry and clear, expository preaching. The whole country has lost as much as 60% of its church attendance over the past decade, and if numbers in areas like Wales are any indicator of the rest of the country, then nearly 70% of the current pastors in the country will be retiring in the next ten years, with nearly no one to replace them. This means a devastating leadership vacuum in evangelicalism in England is closing in on this little country. Though it hasn’t gone as far into secularism as the rest of western Europe, its major denominations are as dead as dead can be and the evangelical church is flailing to stay alive.
Thus Tom and Kathy came to Rugby and candidated for the senior pastor position at Rugby Evangelical Free Church. Despite learning some hard lessons early on, Tom and the two elders of the church began to transform that church into a thriving, gospel-centered ministry. But Tom had more on his mind than his ministry in Rugby. He wanted to reach the rest of England, and he knew that meant reaching England’s up and coming leaders, who had nowhere to go for training except maybe London. That meant any young man who felt a call to gospel ministry had to pack up his bags and leave his church family in order to be trained. But Tom had an idea…
His idea was a two-step process. Step one: get Master’s Seminary graduates over into England to pastor churches in the midlands. Step two: when enough men were there, pool their resources and skills together to start a training center to teach younger generations how to do expository preaching. However, in order for step one to happen, he needed to expose TMS guys to ministry in England. Thus the England trip was born. The first group went over in the summer of 2008. The next year, a new team went, this time with their wives as well. 2010 marked the third team to go to England, and Tash and I were suddenly a part of a ministry opportunity we had never even thought about before.
Team England 2010. From left to right: Nelson Hsieh, Nate and Tash, Keith and Louise Essex, Steve and Sylvia Swartz, Ross Orgill
So, getting back to the story, Team England 2010 was looking at a vacuum of their own. Two couples down and only a few short months before lift off. Yet amazingly, God surprised us all. He had somehow orchestrated events so that Steve and I were placed in the same discipleship lab. We got to know each other during that semester to the point that when Steve needed a new man for the team, he came to me. To make a long story short, by mid-April, we officially had a team.
Our team included four TMS students (Steve Swartz, Nelson Hsieh, Ross Orgill, and myself), three wives (Sylvia Swartz, Lisa Orgill, and Tash) and one TMS professor and his wife, Dr. Keith and Louise Essex. The team was, in all respects, an interesting and unique unit. Nelson, the only single of the group, was also the only veteran England STM member, having participated in the previous year’s ministry. He brought a level of experience that all the rest of us lacked. Even Steve, who had conversed for months with Tom while planning the trip, relied on Nelson countless times during the trip. Steve and Sylvia, on the other hand, were veterans in their own way. They had spent over a decade (probably more, I just can’t remember the exact amount) in ministry prior to coming to TMS. And with them came the wisdom and insight that only decades in ministry can afford. Ross and Lisa were both from England, so this trip was really a return home. In fact, Ross was using this trip as a chance to check out some of the churches in the area that were in need of pastors. Dr. Essex and his wife were also in the same boat, since he was English-born and was looking at the possibility of returning home at a future point for ministry. His vast understanding of Scripture, coupled with decades of peaching and ministry experience brought a level of maturity to the group that made it unparalleled to previous teams.
And then there was Tash and I, the new guys, who weren’t even planning on going on this trip, but Steve just had to ask! I was in my third year of seminary, preaching more and more, and thinking about what ministry lay beyond the horizon after seminary. Strangely enough, our plans (or at least, far off desires) were pretty similar to Tom McConnell’s, except that we wanted to go back to Alaska and pastor there, eventually establishing a training center for Alaskan pastors. England, however, proved to be a factor/monkey wrench that neither of us expected but was compelling enough that we fell headlong into the ministry there with the understanding that we would seriously consider whether coming to Britain was what God wanted us to do.
So with the team established, the next step was to study. Each man would preach for sermons, and with the semester coming to a close in late April to early May, there wasn’t much studying I could do until finals were complete. But after the semester had ended, and I had spent at least one full day away from any kind of book, I returned to my desk ready to dive into the word of God, and praying that over the next three weeks, the Lord would put something on my heart that I could bring to share in England.