Recently during our brief break in London, we faced the usual question of where to worship. We settled on East London Tabernacle in the morning, and the MetropolitanTabernacle in the evening.
East London Tabernacle
Where have all the preachers gone? Gone to America, every one… But here’s one who came the other way. Ken Brownell is American, an able preacher, and the Pastor of ELT. I was at LTS with him 30+ years ago, and he’s been at ELT almost ever since.
Founded by Archibald Brown – one of Spurgeon’s friends – this church is close to Mile End tube station, and close to another church advertising ‘miracle service here every alternate Sunday…’, which struck me as singularly unambitious!
The philosophy of the church is very much that of MBC I imagine: sound and reformed teaching, a mixture of old songs and new songs led by a good band and pianist. The preaching – on Jeremiah 13:1-15 (the linen belt) – was certainly good – good clear headings that got to the point of the passage well and applied the passage to the church at ELT. It did, I felt, lack that indefinable ‘punch’ though – perhaps because it is a difficult passage. The church was very friendly and welcoming and we had several invitations to stay to lunch.
The big decision for me was to attend the Met Tab in the evening – my regular reader will know that I have blogged about it, and its pastor, from time to time. Dr Peter Masters has been pastor here for around 40 years – yes, honestly! It’s about 36 years since I last visited on a Sunday and was keen to do so this time because – well, he can’t go on forever.
From my point of view the Met Tab does most of the unimportant things wrong, and does so by conviction. They are VERY separated: the FIEC and even the Grace Baptists seem to be too compromised for PM. He believes (edited: see comments) that only the AV should be used in public worship, only the organ should accompany the singing, no songs at all from a charismatic stable should ever be sung (the Tab have produced their own large but narrow hymn-book), people should dress in ‘Sunday best’ to come to church, God must be addressed as ‘thee’ and ‘thou’, never ‘you’ (PM calls it ‘the reverent tense’ which really bugs me: it’s not reverent and it’s certainly not a tense!) and so on.
It would be wrong though to say that ‘there are no concessions to anything modern’ – the building is large, light and airy for example – nothing gloomy about it. All their literature is brilliantly produced, crisp and modern-looking and in full colour; a screen at the front carries a simultaneous transcript of the sermon (!) for a number of deaf folk who sit there, and there is also ‘signing’ for them, and simultaneous translation via headphones into Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean and French - now that's impressive. While in many respects it is old-fashioned (and I believe wrongly so), it is not ‘for the sake of it’ – where it is old-fashioned it is as a matter of principle. Three out of the four songs sung that evening were Psalms, or psalm-settings.
There were around 400+ people there; the surprising thing to me was that between one-quarter and one-third (a guess, obviously) were young people – twenties or younger. (Attendance in the mornings is, I was told, upwards of 700.) Everything was very formal: all the sidesmen were in grey suits, as was the secretary who read the notices, (edited: see the comments) the men who took up the offering, the church leaders who accompanied Dr Masters from the vestry. PM began the service with a solemn ‘Let us pray’ – on the stroke of 6.30. Everything, from there, ran like a well-oiled machine.
The preaching was very good indeed: PM always preaches evangelistically in the evening (Hooray! Somebody ought to!), and on Sunday he was on the centurion (Luke 7:1-10) whose servant was healed. PM’s points were breathtakingly simple – even obvious: 1. The centurion was awakened to his need. 2. He recognised his unworthiness. 3. He realised the uniqueness of the Lord Jesus. (If you’re interested, you can hear it or watch it by following the link here (http://www.metropolitantabernacle.org/) to ‘When spiritual need dawns’.) Though PM began the service hoarse and looking rather pale and frail (he is well into his seventies) there was little sign of it when he preached.
This too was a friendly church; on my way to the door I was stopped twice (by men in grey suits!) who introduced themselves, chatted for a while, and were very welcoming. Exactly the same, I remember, happened the last time I was there – they’re (rightly) determined not to let anyone out without someone speaking to them.
- Strong convictions build a church (under the Holy Spirit – need I add that?) PM is different from most, but he knows what he wants and why, his leaders seem to be united around that and the church has grown a multi-cultural and multi-age congregation. It may be that (humanly speaking, this time) it is their very distinctiveness that has served to attract people. Which brings me to…
- A church where everyone knows why they do what they do is likely to be a strong church; hence there’s a need not just for convictions but for communication.
- Big men have big faults – I do think PM’s separatism has crossed the line (but see Romans 14.4). Our faults, however, do not prevent God from working mightily. (The Met Tab was more-or-less a dying church when PM went there.)
- It is possible, and important, to do things well. The Holy Spirit does not require sloppiness and has not promised to bless it. Everything that is done in church therefore, being done ‘as to the Lord’, can and should be done as well as possible – whether it’s music, stewarding, preaching/leading, upkeep of the buildings, Sunday School and so on. The impression of competence is important, not least because it reinforces the belief that the service of God is important.
- There are benefits to a long ministry – what one preacher called ‘a long obedience in the same direction’. Of course there may be dangers, too – and perhaps PM’s failure, in his seventies, to have someone ‘in situ’ ready to take over will have disastrous consequences, as it did at Westminster Chapel. But the benefits (provided it is a good, visionary ministry) surely outweigh the risk.