Last week my friend John died – and tomorrow I shall be going to his funeral in Gloucestershire.
Alas the last time I saw John was several years ago. One of the great drawbacks of being a minister is that one never has weekends to visit friends. But John and his wife Ruth were great friends to us when I began my ministry in Altrincham my ministry there many years ago.
I can actually date exactly the day when I first met John. It was Saturday 3 March 1973 – the day of my induction to the pastorate of the Baptist church in Altrincham. At that time John and Ruth and their family attended a Brethren assembly the other side of town, and were looking for a church nearer to where they lived. John came to my induction to ‘sus’ out the new pastor. Within a matter of days Caroline and I had been invited round to their home for dinner, and very shortly John and Ruth and their three children began to attend our church.
What a difference this family immediately made to our church! At that stage the oldest two children were young teenagers – the third was little younger. The children brought their friends to church, and within a year what had been a very small youth group expanded to a group of more than 50 teenagers – and within three or four years we had almost 90 teenagers coming to the evening service, and then going round to the home of John and Ruth for Bible study! Although John and Ruth had a very large lounge, even that was too small and young people spilled all over the house. Those were exciting days.
But John and Ruth not only revolutionised the church’s youth work. Their presence in our church quickly attracted other families into our church. This too made a real difference. For when we first arrived in Altrincham, the church was mostly made up of older people – only two couples under 40 were in membership. But thanks to John and Ruth, this soon changed. And as a result the church began to grow. At first the church grew through transfer growth, but soon there were conversions and baptisms.
John and Ruth believed in exercising the gift of hospitality. They had been brought up amongst the Exclusive Brethren, and there they had been taught to open their home to others. And when they moved to our church, they continued to welcome people to their home. Not only young people came to their home, but soon a Bible study group for young mothers was established. And, from our personal perspective, their home became a place for our children too.
It was not long before John became one of my deacons. Again, what a difference John made. For John was not only a successful quantity surveyor business-man, but he also had a passion for seeing people won for Jesus Christ. With his encouragement I remember one of the first things we did was to hire double-decker buses to take people into Central Manchester for an old-fashioned evangelistic tent ‘crusade’ led by Stephen Olford. At a later date with John’s encouragement we got involved in one of Billy Graham’s crusades to Liverpool, at that time organising buses to Anfield. John also had a pastoral heart. When we formed a pastoral team, he and his wife were the natural leaders. How good it was to share the pastoral load with this gifted couple.
John and Ruth were amazingly generous to Caroline and myself. At that time we were stretched financially – with four children we were living on ‘family income supplements’. But, John and Ruth helped us in all sorts of practical ways. They also paid for Caroline and me to go away for weekend breaks – and looked after our children to boot.
As a couple, and as a church, we were incredibly blessed by John and Ruth. So tomorrow’s funeral will be an occasion for Caroline and I to thank God for a wonderful friend – as also to praise God for the assurance that John is now in his nearer presence.