From Romans patrolling to dog walking
People often say they’ve never heard of Caerwent when they ask me where I minister. To be honest, before I was asked to preach there, I never had either. Caerwent, established in AD75, was known by the Romans as Venta Silurum (meaning, ‘market town of the Silures’). It’s one of the oldest towns in Wales. Nearby Caerleon was the legionary fortress, but Caerwent was the marketplace for trade among the Silures—the Celtic tribe of South East Wales. It was surrounded by its own 25ft high wall and boasted its own baths, basilica, a small amphitheatre, 3 temples and contained 20 wells within its walls. The foundations of some of these have been excavated and many of the artefacts are displayed in the parish church and at Newport Museum and Art Gallery.
As well as having a rich Roman history, Caerwent and the surrounding areas also have rich Christian roots. It boasts historical links with St. Tathan the Abbot in Caerwent, St. Cadoc, Caradog Freichfras, Tewdrig and more. The first Welsh Methodist chapel was built in nearby Earlswood as well as a very early Baptist church in Llantrisant (between Caerwent and Usk). But most famously of all, the first nonconformist church in Wales was established by the Puritan William Wroth just 2 miles away in Llanvaches.
Today, much of the land within the Roman walls is owned by CADW, but the village now extends beyond the walls and has a population of around 2,000 people. It has one pub, a village hall, a community hall, a car garage, a post office, a new nursery and a large military training centre across the A48. It’s a place that has more dogs than children (my estimation), a people who are more concerned about dog fouling than their own sin, a parish church that holds pet services and an area that boasts the only CADW site allowing dogs to be taken off their leash.
Building a solid church
Caerwent Evangelical Baptist Chapel began in 1791, meeting in a local farm before acquiring a plot to build a small chapel in 1815. A little over 200 years later, I was inducted to the church in 2017. I absolutely love the church and am so glad to tell you a little bit about it, albeit brief. I have never known a church to be so generous and kind. One thing that attracted me to Caerwent was the number of men there are in the congregation. I strongly believe that if you win the man of the household, you will likely win the remainder of the family. My purpose has never been to simply sustain the ministry, but rather to build on what was already there – very much like Apollos who watered the seeds sown by Paul (1 Cor. 3:6) and how Titus was left to continue the work at Crete (Titus 1:5). Change and growth takes time – it rarely happens overnight. One can build a wooden mansion in a short time, but to build a house out of stone will take much longer. However when the storm comes, the stone house will outlast the wooden mansion. I hope and pray that what we are doing in Caerwent will last as it is, by God’s grace, built carefully around the Cornerstone that is Christ.
I think the biggest problem with the church today is that most professing Christians do not read their Bibles. It’s put down on the table in the hallway on Sunday and isn’t picked up again until the next, mainly because they have not understood, or have forgotten, the gospel of Christ. By God’s grace, not only are we sowing seeds, but through careful Bible study we are seeing very obvious fruit in people who have been stagnant for years.
We have concentrated on strong Bible teaching with an emphasis on biblical theology, which is the key to igniting an excitement in a Christian to study the Scriptures—showing them that the whole book is Christ-centred and teaching them how to see it for themselves. I ran a weekly Bible overview course for 7 months and I’m planning on running a tailor-made course on how to study the Bible in depth. At the moment, in our prayer meetings, we are doing a 60 week Bible overview, noticing the covenantal history of redemption as it all relates to Christ. Concentrating on biblical teaching has resulted in tremendous spiritual growth in individual believers.
Growing upwards to grow outwards
The real change will come (and is slowly happening) when Christians are so enriched and affected by the gospel that they are unable to keep quiet about it. Attendance in all meetings has increased, church finance is the healthiest it has been in the history of the church, more people are serving and new things are starting. As a young and eager pastor, when I started 3 years ago I had hoped to have 100 new people attending before 5 years, but since March 2017 we’ve had 21 new people join, 4 new babies (another on the way), 8 conversions, 2 baptisms and we are waiting to baptise around 9 people when it is safe to do so.
We’ve also made a lot of ‘noise’ in the community, especially on social media. By tapping into the various community groups on Facebook and announcing almost anything and everything we do, it has made our church become more visible. As a result we had to move our Carols by Candlelight on Christmas Eve to the bigger village hall, we had 50 women to the wreath-making evening last Christmas and record numbers at our Holiday Club. Around 500 people came to our bonfire night when we hired a burger van, built a make-shift stage out of pallet wood for our band to play, and I played a short game with the children and gave a short gospel message. We’ve also started a new youth group and a sewing club, and the women’s Bible study has doubled in size. These examples are small gains, and although putting on events is not the most effective way to grow a church it is a way for people to know we are here and that we are a very important part of our community.
I’m still doing more funerals than baptisms, but that is slowly changing. All in good time. If everyone is in attendance, we need to put extra seats out for the morning service which means that pretty soon we will need to hold our morning services elsewhere, perhaps in the village hall. Before Covid-19, we felt as a church we had begun to experience the ‘snowball effect’ – a steady growth. I thought the virus would devastate the growth, but it hasn’t. We’ve had one conversion during the pandemic, more people are joining the online services and the fellowship is in many ways closer than ever before.
I hope that in years to come, Caerwent will not be known for its dog walkers, nor only for its Roman history, but so much more for being—as it once was—a ‘city set on a hill’ (Matt. 5:14), a beautiful bride being prepared (Rev. 19:7-8), and a people being built like living stones upon the Rock, the Cornerstone (1 Pet. 2:4-5), to the glory of God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.