What is happening to UK Assemblies?
By Roy Hill, Bristol
The history of the assemblies of the Lord's people in the UK makes for
the most part, exciting reading. Starting with the godly exercise of a
few to meet together to worship and to remember the Lord Jesus in the
breaking of bread in the way the early disciples had done, as recorded
in the New Testament, the movement developed, in spite of early
division, until there were, 100 years later, assemblies meeting in all
parts of the country probably nearly 1800 of them, with as many as
100,000 members, in the mid 20th century.
One might ask the question, of course, 'What is an assembly?' and I
am indebted to a description given by Norman Crawford in his book
Gathering Unto His Name. 'An assembly is a company of baptized
believers (Acts 2. 1), gathered unto the name of the Lord Jesus Christ
(Matt. 18. 20; 1 Cor. 1 9; 5. 4, etc.), who meet regularly in a
particular locality according to the pattern found in the New Testament
in Acts 2. 41, 42, and developed fully in such epistles as 1
Corinthians and I Timothy. Such an assembly is a spiritual fellowship
(I Cor, 10, 16, 17), which is expressed visibly as they meet for the
breaking of bread, prayer, collective testimony, the teaching of the
word of God and the preaching of the gospel. They have been gathered
together by the Holy Spirit (Mark 14. 13; Rom. 8. 14); their sole
authority is the word of God (2 Tim. 1 16, 17), and they have the
promise of Christ to be in their midst (Matt. 18. 20). They are a
residence of the Holy Spirit on earth, so they are a temple unto the
Lord (1 Cor. 1 15, 16). The priesthood of all believers is exercised in
worship, praise and prayer, and the gifts given by the risen Head of
the church (Eph. 4, 8 13) have liberty to function under the control of
the Holy Spirit (I Con 14. 23 40). There is a clear line of demarcation
between the within and the without of an assembly and purity is
maintained by a careful, compassionate and godly exercise of discipline
(I Cor. 5. 1 13).
Such were the assemblies and their testimony in the 1950s but by
the end of 2003 the number had reduced to around 1158 assemblies (705
in England, 195 in Scotland, 173 in N. Ireland and 75 in Wales) with
perhaps only about 40,000 members between them a huge drop of 36% in
assemblies and 60% in members in 40 years! But, alarmingly, in the last
few years assemblies have been 'closing' at the rate of about one per
week, and the numbers in some of those remaining are very few indeed.
Some assemblies apparently just faded away. Some others, where there
are usually larger numbers, no longer wished to be known as
'assemblies' and either joined evangelical groupings where they felt
more comfortable, or simply became independent. Among the assemblies
that remain faithful to the New Testament pattern of gathering (though
some independent churches do, but do not wish to be known as
'assemblies') some have under ten in fellowship and that may include
only one or two elderly brethren, and a number of faithful sisters. On
the other hand comparatively few new assemblies are opening to offset
this trend. This is possibly due to the fact that 1158 assemblies in a
comparatively small geographical area is still quite a lot.
Many young people having been brought up in the assemblies have
abandoned them and either now go nowhere, or meet with other
denominational constitutions and gatherings where, in some, little
regard may be given to Now Testament assembly truths which were once
held dear. Some would claim that they have access to better consecutive
Bible teaching at which, of course, the assemblies traditionally had
There are different patterns in different parts of the country, but
should this current trend continue unchecked assembly testimony in some
parts of the British Isles could disappear altogether by 2025 about 200
years after it begun!
The rightly cherished belief in the autonomy of each local assembly
means that there is little shared information, so assemblies can
disappear leaving believers in other parts of the country quite unaware
of the critical nature of the situation. Ministering brethren seldom
address the issue either because they are unaware of it, or perhaps
because they fear they may be thought to be unfaithfully pessimistic.
My understanding of the extent of the problem has come to light while
updating The Assemblies Address Book which I publish. It was a
depressing exercise. Is it really possible that assembly truth,
extensively and expensively rediscovered, should disappear after just
two centuries? Are present New Testament assemblies a two century
phenomenon? We all need to challenge ourselves as to how we feel about
this or do we not care, provided our own assembly does not look like
closing, just yet? Is part of the problem that in opposition to 'one
man ministry' we tolerate an "any man ministry' where we allow the
ungifted to preach and minister the word?
Is it due to a lack of pastoral care by elders due to the pressure
of the days in which we live? The routes into the assembly used to be
either by conversion and baptism of those who attended the meetings and
believers coming, from the denominations to join us because they
saw in the assembly a simple adherence to New Testament truth and a
love for the Lord. Now both these routes are severely clogged and in
fact the opposite is true as people now leave the assemblies to go
Symptoms of the malaise can be seen in that our evangelical witness
is often weak and ineffective. Some assemblies have not seen a sinner
saved or a believer baptized for many years. It should of course be
noted that there are thankfully many exceptions to the rule. We should
be very pleased about that even if in some of these gatherings assembly
distinctives are increasingly difficult to identify. So, should we
resign ourselves to belonging to a declining testimony, "a day of small
things', or do we feel that we have the truth that sinners and
believers cry out for? If the latter, what should we do about it? Can
we just say 'the Lord knows' and believe that aU we have to do is to
hold the fort until He comes? We recall that we are urged by the Lord
Himself to 'strengthen the things that remain, that are ready to die".
Firstly, we need to accept that there is indeed a problem, It is
easy to maintain that there is not, in belief that our local assembly
will still be around as long as we live. Secondly, the problem needs to
be clarified, Is it local, regional, national or international? What
are the conditions that encourage the problem? Have we been too harsh
in applying Scripture in a world that has grown increasingly careless
in its attitude to God and His word? Or, is it because we have drifted
in the direction of worldliness thus making it easier for people to
leave and go elsewhere while, at the same time, malking it more
difficult for others to join us because they can't see where assemblies
are very much different to the denominations because assembly
distinctives are becoming fogged?
This matter surely warrants specific prayer at local level. Elders
will ultimately be held responsible for how they have lost that which
was handed down to them. Perhaps elders should consider meeting
together with elders from other assemblies nearby to pray and to
encourage one another. We need to practice assembly principles and to
proclaim with scriptural conviction the distinctives of a New Testament
church. We need to renew our efforts in the gospel perhaps a different
time, different place, a different approach, more personal work on a
one to one basis? Yet we must continue to proclaim the same message by
word and example. It seems strange that in some areas maybe five
different gospel meetings are held concurrently with less than twenty
people attending each calling for five preachers, who may have left
their own small assemblies. Could not one meeting be held with one
preacher and over 100 attending? This would be a time of encouragement and unsaved
are perhaps more likely to attend a large gathering rather than a small
one. Is it beyond us to be able to work together for the common good?
Are we too intent on preserving our own meeting and reluctant to cede
control to someone else, or even to share it?
When people are saved we need to teach them not only the
fundamentals of the faith and assembly principles but also emphasize a
love for the Lord and the vital importance of personal devotion to Him.
This personal relationship with Christ is vital. Consecutive Bible
teaching should be encouraged and the saints built up in their most
holy faith. We must encourage hope. We are not dead at least not yet!
Here and there is evidence of life as seen, for example, in the
'Reports Section' of this magazine. But let us avoid the snare of
complacency, and instead earnestly beseecb God to work for His own
glory and our blessing. Let us share with each other the things He is
doing abroad, at home, in our assembly and in our personal lives. Let
us not stand accused that i our day and generation we lost, through
carelessness, that which was passed on to us through our refusal to
recognize and address a problem that is now staring us in the face.
There is yet time, but perhaps not much for the recovery and
progress of assembly work in our country We know from Scripture that
times of revival are possible and that under the influence of the
Almighty even ‘very dry bones' can live. Clearly, the God who has done
it before can do it again! But it starts with individuals!
In some places the need has already been identified and addressed
and times of refreshment are being enjoyed. May that become the case
throughout the land to the glory of God and the encouragement of His
people. We read too of times of blessing and the increase of soundly
based assemblies abroad we want to share in that time of revival too!
I know that in viewing the assemblies the Lord does not look at
numbers in fellowship but at the spiritual condition of the assemblies,
as, e.g., in the messages to the seven churches in Revelation 2 3.
Nevertheless, I feel that we should be aware of these trends and be
before the Lord to ascertain His mind about the matter as to whether
this is important to Him or not.