The Evangelical Movement of Wales has been hosting English medium Aber Conferences for 50 years. The first one was held in Aberavon and the main preacher was Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Over the years, the conference has grown, necessitating changes in location and venue. The growth has not been due to aggressive advertising or slick marketing. News of the conference has spread almost entirely by word of mouth testimony. This year around 1,200 people attended the event. The conference offered a varied programme of meetings for children, young people and adults. There were seminars, fellowship meetings, Q&A panels, historical trips and the annual sports tournament. But the focus of the Aber Conference is the preaching of the Word of God in the University Great Hall.
This year, the main speaker was Ted Donnelly of Trinity Reformed Presbyterian Church, Northern Ireland (here). He gave four addresses on Tuesday to Friday mornings on 1 Corinthians 1:1-2:5 under the heading The Church at the Crossroads. The messages were fine examples of Donnelly's preaching. They were characterised by considered exegesis, theological depth, telling illustration and apt contemporary application.
I. The Identity of the Church : 1 Corinthians 1:1-9 (Tuesday)
At the beginning of the 21st century, the evangelical church finds itself at the crossroads. A choice has to be made: Will be choose the hard road of gospel faithfulness, or the easy road that tries to win the world by becoming more like the world? The situation in cosmopolitan, sophisticated, immoral Corinth is very much like the one we face today. How did Paul deal with this extravagantly gifted, yet wayward church? He brought them back on track using a mixture of encouraging affirmation and tactful correction. We need to be reminded of our status and identity in Christ. Individualistic believers should recognise the importance of church life. Isolationist churches need to remeber that they are part of the word-wide body of Christ. Self-reliant Christians must foster God-dependant holiness.
II. The Message of the Cross: 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 (Wednesday)
This is not the message that the world wants to hear. The cross smacks of folly to clever intellectuals and is a stumblingblock to pragmatists for whom seeing is believing. The message of the cross is meant to humble proud human beings and reveal their inability to save themselves. But there is power and wisdom in the preaching of the cross for those who are called to salvation by God's grace. We cannot afford to water down the offensiveness of the message of the cross. To change the gospel is to destroy it. We must preach the unadulterated gospel, trusting in God's saving power.
III: The Nature of our Calling: 1 Corinthians 1:26-31 (Thursday)
Ted Donnelly began this message by reflecting on celebrity-based evangelism and the "marketing" of the gospel. This kind of approach is subverted by Paul in the passage under consideration. Ancient Corinth was as obsessed by celebrity and prestige as we are today, but its celebrities were orators, not footballers. Paul points out that not many of the Corinthian Christians belonged to the powerful and glamorous set. They were saved by God's election and call, not because of their celebrity status. The early Christians were sometimes ridiculed for their lack of social "clout". But God deliberately chose to save "ordinary" sinners so that no one could boast in his presence. According to 1:30, in Christ life's "nobodies" are given true wisdom: a new status (righteousness), beauty (sanctification) and true freedom (redemption). The preacher reminded us of how the gospel transformed the despised coal miners in Kingswood, Bristol through the preaching of Whitefield and Wesley. He urged us to focus our attention on reaching the masses with the gospel.
IV: The Preaching of Christ: 1 Corinthians 2:1-5 (Friday)
In this final address, Ted Donnelly drew our attention to: 1) Paul's Reminder. He preached the "testimony of God" to the Corinthians, which led to their conversion. 2) Paul's Resolve. He preached the cross and resurrection of Jesus. This massage was not only at the heart of his evangelistic preaching. Paul related all the doctrinal and practical problems in the church at Corinth to the gospel. 3) Paul's Renunciation. He refused to use the style of the acclaimed orators. The gospel of a crucified Christ had to be preached in a crucified style. 4) Paul's Reliance. The apostle did not rely on oratorical gimmickry. He trusted in the power of the Spirit. In this context, the preacher warned of the dangers of using PowerPoint in preaching. People can be so impressed with the medium that the message is forgotten. We were urged to pray for an outpouring of the Spirit upon the preaching of the word in these days. Drawing on Psalm 126, Ted Donnelly concluded his series of messages by calling us to sow the word of the cross with tears in these barren days, that we might rejoice to see a harvest in due time.
This is just the kind of Christ-centred ministry that we need at the moment. The addresses were Bible-based, deeply relevant and movingly passionate.
A number of different men preached in the evening meeting, beginning with Derrick Adams on Monday evening. His text was Romans 1:14, which the preacher acknowledged that he was using out of context. Such an admission always gets me a bit worried. A text used out of context is a pretext. Anyway, his theme was our indebtedness to the grace of God. Why not base such a message on Luke 7:40ff or some other appropriate passage? Having said all that, the message was thought-provoking and the preacher made some good practical points. How indebted we are to God's amazing grace! But it would have been better if the sermon has flowed naturally from a text.
Andy Christofides preached on Tuesday on Luke 6:46-49, the wise and foolish builders. His style was imaginative and dramatic with not a little humour. He challenged us to build our lives upon Christ they we may be prepared for the coming storm of judgement.
On Wednesday night, the evangelist Roger Carswell proposed to preach on 1 Corinthians 1:18-2:2, part of which was going to form the basis of Ted Donnelly's remaining addresses. He admitted that he had neglected to look at the conference programme when he prepared the message. But Ted needn't have worried too much, as Carswell's message bore only a passing relationship to that passage. His main points seemed to have been derived from Romans 1:14-17, Paul's determination to preach the gospel in Rome. Carswell is a practiced conference speaker. His style is lively and packed with stories and illustrations. The focus of the sermon was "Four things that God wants us to know", 1) Who God is, 2) What he has done, 3) Who Jesus is, and 4) What we must do. He concluded his message with a heartfelt evangelistic appeal.
James Muldoon was the preacher on Thursday. His style was markedly different from the men of the two previous evenings. He gave us none of the homiletical fireworks of Christofides and Carswell. But his sermon, which was based on Hosea 5 & 6 had real substance. He warned us against Pathetic Penitence, Pitiful Passion and Paltry Praise. In a searching message we were urged to be real with God and passionate about serving and worshipping him. The remedy for a passionless Christian life is reflection upon Christ and his work for us. How can we offer thoughtless worship in the light of Calvary?
The conference was brought to a fitting conclusion by Philip Swann on Friday evening. In the original conference brochure, his father Derek was named as the preacher. Derek Swann preached on the Friday of the first Aber conference 50 years ago. But he was unable to preach this time due to ill health. A moving interview in which Derek reflected on God's blessing upon the original Aber was broadcast during the meeting. Phil preached on John 11:25-26, Jesus as the resurrection and the life. His main points from text and its context were: 1) Who Jesus really is, 2) How Jesus feels about sin, and 3) The revealation of Jesus' glory. The message was a good example of passionate, expositional gospel preaching. The congregation was faced with the challenge contained in the text, "Do you believe this?"
The evening meetings were meant to be evangelistic in orientation. Many of the messages were. But on a couple of occasions, whatever good the preacher may have done in terms of lively gospel preaching may have been undermined by the length of their messages. I will not name and shame. But I have to say that to my mind, 60 minutes or more is too long for an evangelistic sermon. One one occasion, my 10 year old daughter whispered to me, "The preacher said that it was his last point an hour ago". She may have exaggerated a somewhat, but we preachers do need to be a bit more self-disciplined when it comes to the length of our sermons.
I only attended one seminar. This was on the question, What on earth is spirituality? by Stuart Olyott on Wednesday afternoon. He began by reflecting on the confusion that sorrounds the word and then attempted to construct a Bible-based spirituality. He focused on the work of the Spirit in relation to the unbeliever. The Spirit may be resisted, grieved and blasphemed. He convicts the world of sin. Next, Olyott looked at Spirit's work in the life of the Christian, drawing particular attention to Ephesians 5:18. True spirituality means being filled with the Spirit by drinking of Christ. As a result of being filled with the Spirit, the believer will live an increasingly godly life. Biblical spirituality is not mysticism, but Spirit-filled holiness. In the Q&A session that followed this address, questions were raised about revival, assurance of salvation and some other issues. Olyott brought a much-needed biblical clarity to a subject that is often frought with unclear and fuzzy thinking.
Aber 2007 was a feast of good preaching and teaching. The morning addresses especially were outstanding. It was great to renew fellowship with so many old friends, including some fellow-bloggers. The smooth running of the conference was assisted by a hard working and friendly team of Stewards, of whom I am chief. I left the conference encouraged and energised to carry on with the work of preaching the gospel. Our kids enjoyed the children's meetings very much. My son scored a hatrick in the football and my daughter won a prize in an art competition. (They made me put that bit in).
The dates for Aber 2008 will be 9th-16th August with Art Azurdia III (here) as the main speaker. CD's and DVD's of the ministry are available from the Evangelical Movement of Wales (here). I don't think that you can order them online, but you will find phone and e-mail details on the site. I especially recommend the recordings of Ted Donnelly's messages.