Celebrating our Past, Looking to our Future

St Albans 40th Anniversary
(Psalm 102:12-28)

Rob Yule, Minister of St Albans, gave this message at a special service commemorating St Albans 40th Anniversary on Sunday 28 February, 1999

St Albans became a separate parish on 1 March 1959. This weekend, the closest to the actual date, we celebrate St Alban’s 40th birthday. We are particularly thrilled to have people from the foundational period of the church with us at this celebration. St Alban’s is a product of the Presbyterian New Life Movement of the 1950s - a unique era of growth and optimism when the Presbyterian Church planted many churches in new housing areas throughout New Zealand. Something of that original vigour remains in St Albans to this day. It has been a dynamic and innovative church through the years, whose modest buildings bely its remarkable national and global impact.

Why History is Important

The Bible shows us that history is important. Christianity is a historical faith. God reveals himself in history. The people of God celebrated God's mighty acts of deliverance in the past - like the exodus from Egypt - as an incentive to look to God for salvation in their present and future. An example is Psalm 145, rehearsing God's mighty deeds in the past, as an encouragement to trust God in the future:

One generation shall laud your works to another,
and shall declare your mighty acts. . . .
They shall celebrate the fame of your abundant goodness,
and shall sing aloud of your righteousness. . . .
They shall speak of the glory of your kingdom,
and tell of your power,
to make known to all people your mighty deeds,
and the glorious splendour of your kingdom.
   (Psalm 145:4, 6, 11-12)

And Psalm 102, our text for today, proclaims God's lordship over history as a reason for future generations to worship God:

But you, O Lord, are enthroned forever;
your name endures to all generations. . . .
Let this be recorded for a generation to come,
so that a people yet unborn may praise the Lord. . . .
so that the name of the Lord may be declared in Zion,
and his praise in Jerusalem,
when peoples gather together,
and kingdoms, to worship the Lord.
   (Psalm 102:12, 18, 21-22)

So we in St Alban's unashamedly like to celebrate our history and our heritage. Not that we view the hard work of our pioneers then as just another excuse for us to party now. Rather, we celebrate God's goodness to us in our history, to fortify us for the immense challenge of our future. Russian Orthodox theologian Georges Florovsky once defined tradition as 'the life of the Holy Spirit in the church.' Looking at our history helps us to see what the Holy Spirit has been saying to us and doing among us through the years. We discern in the continuities of our heritage something of God's purpose for us as a church. The Bible tells us that 'Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever' (Hebrews 13:8). It's about some of these continuities - the distinctive characteristics of St Albans - that I'd like to speak today.

Distinctives of St Albans

1. A genuine love for Jesus.

St Alban's doesn't want merely to go through the motions of being religious. We are concerned to know Jesus and to make him known. We're an Acts 1:8 church: 'You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses.' Allan Smith, our first Sunday School Superintendent, later a Presbyterian minister, now retired and a member here once again, the person responsible for the photo and memorabilia display this weekend, says of St Albans: 'Right from the beginning there was a serious enthusiasm for Jesus and a sincerity which showed up in the leadership and really transmitted outward.' ('40th birthday for St Albans', Guardian [Palmerston North], 25 February, 1999, p. 5).

When St Albans began forty years ago, all houses in the Hokowhitu district were visited, people invited to attend services, children invited to Sunday School, people invited to offer time, abilities, and finance to get the church started in their community. All this was out of a desire, as best those early Presbyterians knew how, to do visitation evangelism and bring people to faith in Jesus. We face that same challenge today, only greater as the culture gets more secular and dechristianised, to be a seeker-friendly church who make the Gospel inviting to our unchurched contemporaries.

2. A positive attitude to difficulties.

This was best expressed in the oft-repeated encouragement of Kelvin Menzies, Deputy Director of Department of Social Welfare and former elder and Church Secretary, to 'turn stumbling blocks into stepping stones.' The desire to turn obstacles into opportunities, setbacks into steps forward is a real feature of St Albans, best expressed most recently in our commitment to our building project. The Presbyterian Church has lost its way in a fruitless debate about homosexuality and church leadership. Congregations throughout our denomination are haemorrhaging over the issue. What is St Alban's response? - To commit to the project, refusing to let others rob us of God's agenda, trusting God that we can build it, if necessary, as a positive counter-witness to the whole church. This attitude reflects our conviction that God is able to bring good out of evil and work all things together for the good of those who love him.

3. A buoyant, life-giving, attitude.

Our Finance Committee mission statement expresses this in a nutshell: 'To foster a sense of generosity in St Albans, and manage the church's finances in a godly, joyful and responsible manner.' Stewart Sargent, an elder in the 1980s, often expressed the conviction that God kept us on a tight leash, to keep us dependent on him. My reflection on this is slightly different. I've observed over the years that the money always comes in for what we actually have the faith to do; and when we're underspent in some area of our budget, we're also under by a similar amount in our budgeted income. When we took on Chris Reddell as our first full-time Youth Pastor in the early nineties, and employed the Rev Marg Schrader as Community Minister on 60% of stipend, that was a commitment well above our income at the time, but all our outgoings were met. God blesses active faith.

American church consultant Kennon Callahan tells a story about a church he once visited that was holding a special service of remembrance. Printed in the bulletin were the names of every person who had died during the previous year. At the appropriate time in the service the pastor read each name slowly. The church bell tolled in the background and the organ played gently. After the service the pastor asked him what he thought. Callahan said something about it being 'helpful.' Then he asked, 'When do you do the same for those who have been born this past year?' 'When do you celebrate your accomplishments and achievements?' (Twelve Keys to an Effective Church: The Leaders' Guide [San Francisco, Harper & Row, 1987], p. 102).

We in St Alban's honour our forbears; but we celebrate life and achievements. Our services of immersion baptism, in which this building is usually packed, are joyous celebrations of new life, with memorable testimonies of God's grace and of Christian conversion. Churches which don't have such services are missing out on their greatest evangelistic opportunity.

4. An outward-looking, missional focus.

An ongoing challenge we experience is the continual turnover, because of the student population and mobility of employment in Palmerston North. Where this could easily be viewed with discouragement, St Albans over the years has seen it as an opportunity for export-led mission. 'Where's St Albans?' someone asked me for directions a few years ago. 'All over the world,' was my reply. For many years Margaret Hudson travelled with Youth With A Mission throughout Britain and Europe, and now serves throughout the lower North Island with the Leprosy Mission. Nicola North and Sue McAlister worked for many years in Nepal, and Jenny Hazeleger followed me for several years in the Czech Republic. Stephanie Heron, our veteran, still serves in Mozambique, and in Katrina McLean in Colombia. As Ivan Gore writes in St Albans at Forty, our 40th anniversary history (p. 16), 'So many have gone to serve the Lord nationally and internationally, above the inside of the exit door should be a notice: "You are now entering the Mission Field". '

Our relaxed, friendly, informal environment gives people an opportunity to try their hand at up-front roles, with the result that St Albans has trained scores of people over the years in key skills of church or group leadership, public speaking, worship leading or singing, and how to pray for people. Those who have gone on into the ministry or to serve overseas as missionaries are just the tip of a great iceberg of people who have been equipped for Christian service during their time in St Albans. So significant an influence has their time in St Albans been for some of our alumni that last year we heard of St Alban's reunions in places as far apart as London, England and Hamilton, New Zealand.

Space Odyssey

Our persistent constraint over the years has been lack of space. This has been the story of St Albans - from the original Sunday School meeting in homes and garages around the district, through knocking out the east wall of our sanctuary in the 1980s, to the overflowing library shelves and uncomfortably crowded Tremain Hall of last night's banquet. Things were so bad at the end of last year that I suggested we should reenact the siege of Jerusalem, with the church congregation surrounding Tremain Hall like the Babylonian army, so that we could witness first-hand the crowded conditions our Sunday School staff and children operate in!

Our typical St Alban's solution was to run two morning services (first tried in Rymall Roxburgh's day, then again for a while in John Niven's day, and which we have operated in my time since 1990). This has inspired other churches to do the same: the Assembly of God beginning a couple of years ago, and the New Life Church beginning today. I'd like to pay tribute to the worship leaders and music teams whose sacrifice makes this possible: they put in 1½ hours music practice on a Saturday, and 3½ hours on Sunday morning, 5 hours in all, for our benefit, week after week.

A longer term solution to these persistent space problems is at hand. After forty years - a biblical generation - we stand on the threshold of a new era, as we enter the detailed planning and consent process for our long-awaited new auditorium facility, due for completion by mid 2000. We call it our 'AD 2000 Project'. If there are delays, it might turn out to be '2001, A Space Odyssey'! A brilliant concept, which will integrate and rejuvenate our existing facilities, it presents us with the biggest challenge we have ever faced as a church.

I refer not just to the financial challenge, which we invite you to share in by way of a special 40th Anniversary Love Gift. Rather, I refer to the even greater challenge of being a credible congregation who fill this new facility with people and ministries commensurate with the greater profile and visibility we will have as a result of the new auditorium. It would be entirely unworthy of God for us to have a stunning complex and stunted credibility. Our greatest challenge, as we go into our new building project, is to develop our infrastructure and outreach, our pastoral care and evangelism, our worship and effectiveness. It will need all hands on deck - and the prayers and support of our well-wishers and alumni as well.

To the Jew First

In addition to our ‘AD 2000 Project’, our 40th Anniversary Love Gift gives you opportunity to participate in the building project of our sister church in Israel, Beit Immanuel Messianic Fellowship, in Yafo (the biblical Jaffa), southern Tel Aviv. They plan to build a new facility on a piece of land which has a unique historical significance for the Zionist movement and the rebuilding of the state of Israel. St Alban’s has a strong awareness of the Jewish roots and character of the Christian faith, and an enduring commitment to the restoration of the Jews - to their land and to their Lord - which biblical prophecy indicates is a precondition of the return of Jesus. 'The Lord will rebuild Zion and appear in his glory', says our text (Psalm 102:16; see my Affirm Booklet, The Return of Jesus: Earthing the Christian Hope [Auckland, Affirm Publications, 1998], pp. 6-7, 12-16, for a discussion of these prophecies).

We in St Albans have the privilege of participating in one of the greatest events of our time - the regathering of the Jewish people from their dispersion among the nations to their own land. Ann Higgins, from this fellowship, is New Zealand Coordinator for the Ebenezer Emergency Fund, bringing Jews back from the former Soviet Union to Israel, and Vern Harrison and I are both on the Board of Prayer for Israel (New Zealand), which supports the growing movement of Messianic congregations in Israel. This is not something we've planned. God has gradually laid this concern on us as a fellowship. On the basis of Romans 1:16, which tells us the Gospel is ‘first for the Jew, then for the Gentile’, we want to give you this opportunity to contribute to a Messianic Jewish building project in Israel as well as a Christian Gentile one here in Palmerston North.

Today we pay tribute to all who have laboured in and for St Albans throughout its history. This is a unique church, combining many elements rarely seen in a single congregation. We are excited at what God is doing among us, calling us to act locally, think globally. So above all, today, we praise God for his steadfast love and mighty deeds. ‘Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name be the glory’ (Psalm 115:1).