Early in 2001 I went to the funeral of a woman in a remote village in the south of England. I went along a road that ran through the woods, fields and pastures, and it was snowing lightly. At one point, in a bend, I came across what appeared to be a stable by the roadside. It was wooden, very clean and well maintained. On the front wall there was a large poster with the words of John 3:16. Further down there was a smaller plate giving the programme of meetings and saying that anyone who wanted to attend would be welcome.
Out of curiosity I enquired from a brother who was present at the funeral, who knew the area, what that was. He told me that it was the meeting place of a Christian congregation, and that he had a booklet telling its history, published in 1960. Some days later he kindly lent me this booklet, which I thought was remarkable for its simplicity and familiarity. The following details were taken from it.
"Cast thy bread upon the waters, for after many days you will find it" (Ecclesiastes 11.1) was written on the first page, followed by the explanation that the booklet was a brief history of a Christian witness in Betchworth, Surrey, for over 100 years - it is estimated it started in 1857.
Next was the preface made by a locally famous person, R.H.Burt, O.B.E.: "I was asked to write a foreword to this short record of a humble movement but, I believe, inspired by God in Betchworth. A movement like this should not be judged by the number of its followers, but by its effect on their lives, because Christianity is essentially a Life (Acts 5.20), really a Way of life (Acts 9.2). I had the privilege of knowing two of the first men who came to worship in the ' Shed '. They were men who practiced justice, loved mercy, and walked humbly with their God (Micah 6.8). They believed in the word of the psalmist “Forever, O LORD, Your word is settled in heaven. Your faithfulness endures to all generations” (Psalm 119.89-90). They proved God by acting on His word 'Oh! Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the man who takes refuge in Him ' (Psalm 34.8). We are exhorted to follow the faith of men like these (Hebrews 13.7). "
Around 1830 there arose a spontaneous movement of the Holy Spirit that led believers of all classes in various parts of the country, as well as in Ireland, to study their Bibles and to decide to meet just as was done in the early church as found in the New Testament, without a human leader but trusting on the direction and operation of the Spirit of God (for example, what we read in 1 Corinthians 12 and 13).
Some of those who participated in this movement in Betchworth were converted when they heard the sermons of Richard Weaver, a collier. He was born in 1827 and, according to him, he was born again at the age of 25 years on the eve of a wrestling match, as he was also professional wrestler. In 1865 there were people who walked four miles or more to hear him preach in a large tent, together with another evangelist. At first they met in a barn, next to the railway station, the property of a Quaker farmer who allowed them to use it. When the owner retired and sold the barn, they had to move from there, but already many men and women had been converted through the testimony given in that place.
A wealthy landowner of the region, learning that they had lost the place for their meetings, offered them a shed by the road, which he used to shelter his animals. With hard work and dedication, they turned that dirty and somewhat decrepit place into a hall with outbuildings, suitable for this purpose. They say that sometimes even the farm animals were present at the meetings. But, after all, was not even our Saviour born in a stable? It was called "the Shed" for many years, a name used with sympathy by everybody in that region in deference to the sincere people who gathered there to worship their God.
Later it became known simply as the "Meeting Hall". These worshippers were sure of the Lord's presence even in this humble place, because He himself promised that "where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in their midst" (Matthew 18.20). Therefore His meeting with those that love Him does not depend on the existence of a specific building for such a purpose. Those brethren trusted in the word of the Lord, and He did not disappoint them. Over time the Shed became a Meeting Hall, and the Lord honoured those who honoured Him. Like the Apostle Paul, they wanted "not to be disobedient to the heavenly vision" (Acts 26: 19). They were truly "workers who do not need to be ashamed" (2 Timothy 2.15) and their work has remained "after many days", that is, until today.
One of the pioneers, devoted to the work of teaching children in the Sunday school he conducted, is still remembered by the author when already quite an old man, sitting at the front door of his house with the Bible in hand, meditating on the promise in John 14.2 "I go to prepare a place for you ". He said: "what a contrast with Judas, because we learn that he had gone “to his own place" (Acts 1:25).
On a certain Sunday, two of the believers who gathered there walked to the morning meeting of the Lord's Supper, when one of them, taking his watch, declared “’When the hour had come, He sat down, and the twelve apostles with Him’ (Luke 22.14). We are late.” They did not speak any more to each other because the meeting had already begun.
These are two examples of how simple those brethren were, imbued with the word of God that makes us know the mind of the Lord, allowing us to be instructed by His Holy Spirit.
One of the preachers, called Mr. Jones (he was not my relative ...) had a very powerful voice and was heard from a good distance outside the shed. A rich neighbour listened to his preaching without wanting to and was upset, because the Gospel is the power of God (Romans 1:16). One day he instructed his gardener to put the shed on fire. He replied that he could not because he was one of those who gathered there, having been converted some little time before that!
In those days, those converted during the sermons were baptized immediately after the meeting (Acts 8.36-38, etc.) and usually returned home in their wet clothes. There was the case of an 87 years old gentleman, crippled with rheumatism, who was baptized in 1877.
More than once the question has been asked: "Who pays for all the expenses needed for the work done in the meeting room?" The simple answer is "the work is the Lord’s and the Lord will provide." The author says that when he looks to the hills that surround the place and watches the cattle safely grazing, the verse "The earth is the LORD's, and all its fullness" (Psalm 24.1) immediately comes to mind. He can attest that it seems that whenever a task is to be accomplished the Lord has been faithful, as the apostle Paul witnessed to the believers at Philippi "my God, according to His riches in glory, shall supply, in Christ Jesus, each all your needs "(Philippians 4:19). This was the experience of those who gathered at the Shed, and their successors..
In 1942 the shed and the ground on which it is was built was put up for sale by its owner, just when there were already sufficient funds provided by believers who gathered there to buy it, which they then did.
The booklet ends reminding us that God does not change and will never change. Just as in the past, we are serving the same Lord who meets all our needs and everything that we desire. There may not be many more days to add to its history, for the Lord will return soon (the author said that almost 50 years ago). Until that day, it is his desire that the shed may be preserved for the blessed and holy purpose of worshipping Who is willing to find His people in such a humble building and Who has been interested in those who have been meeting there through all these years. May He continue to bless those who hear and those who preach the Gospel there, and may He bless especially the instruction of children in that place, as it is the Scriptures that can make them wise unto salvation.
The booklet ends here. Personally, I find it wonderful that:
Note that the author does not go into details about the order of administration and worship, so much discussed amongst us and which causes divisions, not only in churches but between churches. They do not even call the congregation a "Church", which would be perfectly correct. I think that their priorities are right. And ours?