Roland Mitcheson is what one would call the "pastor emeritus" of Middletown Springs Community Church, the church I pastor in Vermont. His retirement opened up the opportunity for my family's coming to New England. Pastor Roland is a fascinating guy, full of truth and wisdom. He's one of the most evangelistic men I've ever met. Recently in the hospital for surgery, he spent most of his waking time there talking to anybody who'd listen to him about Jesus. And he is constantly doing this. Roland may have retired from vocational ministry but he has not stopped ministering one second. A lot of people ask what it's like to have the pastor who preceded me remain in the church, and I have to confess it has been a great joy. Roland and his wife Betsy are two of the sweetest, gentlest, and wisest people we are privileged to know. Roland still ministers through our church by providing pulpit supply for area churches, leading the monthly community men's breakfast and the weekly Sunday evening church prayer meeting, as well as frequently providing offertory music. (He is an accomplished pianist.) And Betsy leads our church's Operation Christmas Child ministry and other "crafty" service projects. The two of them are frequent visitors of our shut-ins and nursing home residents, and they also lead our annual Vocation Bible School, a unique twist on the traditional vacation Bible school format. Roland is also an elder candidate. I can assure that his assessment process went a little differently than the other guys'! So you can see what an asset he is and they are to our church. And to me. Middletown Springs Church is a very unique community, full of graciousness and the sweetness of the Spirit. This is owed a lot to a decade of Roland's shepherding. I love Pastor Roland and I'm glad to share some of his remarkable story with you.
Where were you born and raised and how did you come to faith in Christ?
I was born at a very early age in Stockton-on-Tees in the north of England! WW2 started when I was about 3, and Stockton was not too far away from ICI (Imperial Chemical Industries) where my Father worked. This was one of the targets of the bombing raids and although we didn't get hurt, my older sisters and I were taken to a concrete air raid shelter in our yard and joined by one or two neighbors where we became familiar with the drone of Heinkels and Messerschmitts and occasionally the whistle of a "doodlebug" (pilotless robotic plane) of the V1 or V2 variety.
Three times each Sunday we would walk the mile or so to attend the Plymouth Brethren Assembly for morning Worship, Sunday school and Evening Service.
One thing which sticks in my mind during the war years was the singing in German of the familiar hymns by German prisoners of war who were transported on a double-decker bus to the Sunday evening service from the nearby POW camp. One of our elders - an official of a large steel corporation - and his son, both spoke fluent German and preached to the men.
Coming to faith in Christ often involves several steps or links in the chain, and in those formative years these included my Mother going through the Pilgrim's Progress with my sisters and me each evening, using a pictorial chart. A chart which I saw about fifty years later, incidentally, hanging in the print shop of the "Africa Inland Mission" headquarters in New Jersey.
Another link was a large scroll painted on the front wall of our meeting hall which read "Ye call Me Master and Lord, and Ye say well, for so I am!" John 13:13. I had often drawn that scroll while I sat in the pew but I realized one day that I couldn't really call Him my Master and Lord in the same way my sisters and parents could.
Another link was when we had a visiting missionary from Jamaica called Harold Wildish - a man who could communicate with children through his vivid Illustrations of the Gospel. Interestingly, I came across a book about 60 years later that this beloved servant of God had written.
These links brought both an initial response to the Lord as I received Him into my heart, and helped me through my doubts. When we moved to the city of Birmingham in 1947 I was baptized as a believer and, with my sister and a friend, we got a pile of those old sixteen inch US radio transcription discs from "The Old Fashioned Revival Hour", "Revivaltime," "Showers of Blessing," and "The Baptist Hour" and played these in nursing homes and hospitals.
When did you know God was calling you into the ministry, and what was your Early ministry like?
I believe the Lord is preparing us for ministry long before we ever realize it. My conscription into the RAF in Malta laid some of the groundwork as I wrestled with the temptations of youth, but also had opportunities to share one-on-one with other guys. I suppose you could say I was like Israel in the desert -- facing both ways. Looking forward to the promised land, but looking back to the melons and pomegranates of Egypt. Interestingly enough, I recently got back in touch with six other guys I served with in Malta and we e-mail back and forth to New Zealand, Scotland, and England.
During my time in the RAF I got to travel some of the route Paul took from St.Paul's Bay in Malta to Syracuse, the Straits of Messina, The Appian Way and Up to Rome. After my service time, I took a job in London and started attending Duke Street Baptist Church in Richmond .My Pastor there was Stephen Olford and he became a good mentor to me and challenged me to think biblically and to set my sights on future ministry. Stephen's successor was John L. Bird, and it was during his ministry that the call on my life became clearer and more urgent. I can remember sitting in the choir facing the congregation and -- although being a rather stoic Englishman -- the tears would stream down my cheeks as I felt every message and song was directed at me.
The crusades of Dwight L. Moody were the inspiration for the "Bible Training Institute": in the heart of Glasgow where I studied before going on to training in Evangelism in Australia. It was during the early part of my 3 ½ years in Australia as we would sit for hours in a vehicle bound for a Church-based Crusade, that I began to notice the young people on the sidewalks and began to see that we were driving through the mission field to get to a church where the majority of the people had heard the Gospel many times before. Through this, God spoke to me about designing a coffee-bar ministry to reach the older teens and college-age students in some of the smaller towns where the major sport was often cruising up and down the main street endlessly.The plan was to work with the churches who were interested, and to teach their Young people how to share the Gospel with their peers. As a non-threatening approach we would often design a survey together which they could use to launch into deeper discussions. Typical questions would be:
How's life in your town? Is it Dull, Boring, or Exciting?
If it's Dull or Boring -what would improve it?
If it's Exciting -what makes it so?
The questions would progress to:
Do you believe there is a God? If so -do you think He has anything to say to us today?
Who is Jesus Christ? A Hoax, a Good Man, or Savior from our Sin? (apologies to CSL!)
Ideally, two believers would sit down with two outsiders at a table (typically a Cable spool covered in newsprint on which we could draw illustrations,etc ) The worker would simply record their answer on the survey without interpreting them in any way .Every so often we would break in with music and song from a group.(The Seekers, and Peter Paul and Mary were in vogue then and folk music was a good vehicle for the message of the Gospel)
We would designate Thurday night as talent night for other kids to do their thing. Although this would sometimes "blow the night away" we would establish a rapport with some of them. Since we were often "the only act in town" dozens of YP would wander in -sometimes until midnight. Many kids came to know the Lord and some of them we were able to use as workers in a similar venture later on. A follow-up called a "Think thru" would be held after the week or two- week Coffee-bar. One thing that amazed me was how the kids in the coffee-bar would sit for the most part with rapt attention as someone recited most of Romans 8, or James 1 from the JB Phillips translation.
I majored in Coffee-house ministry for most of the remaining years in Australia but, interestingly enough, as the door had opened wide, it closed just as quickly. In fact, I pastored a Presbyterian Church for my last 3 months before leaving Australia- in a town where we'd had a coffee-bar ministry in the huge ornate foyer of a cinema that had closed down.
What brought you to the United States?
On my way back to England I came thru the US for the first time -my first state was Hawaii where I preached at Honolulu "Youth for Christ". I travelled on one of those (now long gone) one year, any airline, tickets!!
It was when I got to New England and to" Monadnock Bible Conference" in NH that I realized that Coffee-bar evangelism hadn't been exploited too much here yet, and was something that would reach New Englanders. The Interest of Pastors here continued to grow and upon reaching England (the old one!) I applied for a resident visa on the basis of returning to conduct this kind of ministry in New England. I was surprised at how quickly I received this.
Being still single, I could travel from my base in NH throughout the North East and as far as Indiana and Ohio and "live in a suitcase", metaphorically speaking.
The Lord richly blessed the ministry in those years -from 1969 thru 1973. Throughout this time I had had visions of a more settled church ministry someday, although, for me personally, I didn't feel I could pastor as a single man. Graciously the Lord introduced me to Betsy-who had come to know the Lord Jesus through a Billy Graham Crusade when she was 16, graduated from Asbury College in KY, and was living in her home town of Westmont, NJ. We were married in Sept '73 and came from our honeymoon straight into a ministry which became known as "Jaffrey Bible Church" in NH .As a Church we met first at the Bible Conference, and then in the School Gym, and then we bought a Chiropractor's Building. A quite famous architect in town, and two or three contractors in the church, produced a magnificent edifice which housed the church from then on.
For almost 24 years we enjoyed the Lord's hand upon the ministry there and saw many come to Christ and be discipled in the faith. Many were counseled, married, raised their families and so on to the next two generations. We still enjoy going back there to visit and occasionally to minister at some event and seeing on Facebook how everyone but us have gotten older!!
After Jaffrey we spent a year in Syracuse, NY. before receiving a call from Middletown Springs Community Church where we ministered for about 11 years until it was time to hand over the reins to a younger man -who is Jared. We still keep our roots in this Church -even though it's somewhat unusual to belong to the same church that you pastored -but Pastor Jared is a very gracious guy and he lets us camp out here as we continue ministering in a few churches in the region. Betsy and I enjoy working together in projects such as "Vocational Bible School" and "Operation Christmas Child", and taking groups to the processing center in N. Carolina.
Looking back over the life of your ministry, what are some of the more difficult, trying times you experienced and what did God teach you in those times?
When you are in the front lines of ministry you can expect to encounter some bullets and even some "friendly fire" as David did when he wrote in Psalm 55 "If an enemy were insulting me I could endure it....but it's you....my close friend with whom I once enjoyed sweet fellowship.."
My wife and I learned that sometimes God does raise up even our friends against us for His Own special purposes, although ,according to the Scripture, He usually tests those He raises up later, and this is something we should bear in mind as we pray for mercy on them and for God to continue to bless them in their ongoing ministry.
A favorite, but not always a very comforting verse at the time of trial, is Prov.17:3 -- "The crucible is for (refining) silver, and the furnace is for (refining) gold, but the Lord tests hearts" or, as the late Johnny Cash used to sing, "Steel is strong because it knew the hammer and white heat."
A couple of books which the Lord used in our lives at this time in the desert were Gene Edwards's "Exquisite Agony" and a little book by John Arnott "The Importance of Forgiveness." We learned that we have to forgive those who aren't even asking for forgiveness, or those who are even oblivious to the damage they caused. Perhaps the hardest thing during "friendly fire" is what it does to our kids, who sometimes even now look with jaundiced eyes at Evangelical Christian leaders.
After our year "in the desert" in Syracuse, NY we were so thankful that the Lord provided a place of refuge and healing with the precious people at the church in Middletown Springs. Lamentations 3 became very special to me as I walked with Jeremiah through the corridors of depression as he felt God was blocking his way with huge stones, and that he had forgotten what happiness was. Yet, after his tirade against God, he responds rightly by saying "But great is Thy faithfulness every morning" and v37 "Nothing happens to us that He has not been behind", and what He allows to happen will either make us or break us, depending on how we response to it.
Where we happy the Lord took us through these valleys? Not at the time. We felt like Paul must have felt in 2 Cor when he wrote "We felt we had received the very sentence of death" But then he adds "He comforted us in all our troubles so that we might comfort others in turn." Probably our greatest ministry comes through our greatest trials.
I don't want to give the impression that we were faultless. I was a man with "feet of clay" and it took a physical heart attack and surgery to make me realise that I still harbored anger and resentment in my heart.
My wife and I both worked that year at Sacred Melody Christian Bookstore in Syracuse and in driving back each evening we would get to a certain place on our journey that would trigger our memories and start us off independently re-living the past events and building a defence of what had taken place. I learned that you can't build a future ministry, or venture into the battleground again, with a shield of self-justification. We are to be Tough for the battle, but Tender towards those who wage war with us in the battlefield so that we don't end up shooting our wounded.
What has been your greatest joy in the ministry?
For me in Australia it was seeing the lives of kids who came into the coffee bar truly saved. We had a Coffee bar in Surfers' Paradise in Queensland and the team who were out on the streets inviting folks to come in to what we called "The Way Out!" encountered a very bright student from New Zealand who came back with them to the event. I didn't have anyone else to talk to him at that time except someone who had had little education and was not the best communicator. This guy -bless Him- led the student to the Lord and as I talked to the student later he told me that an "Inter-Varsity" group on campus in Auckland had told him about Jesus. (This was about the time we started praying for "The Way Out!"). On a train travelling through Victoria, someone else had talked to him about the Lord Jesus. As he came through the next state -- New South Wales -- someone else had talked to him likewise. He told us that Surfers' Paradise was the last place he had expected to hear about Jesus, but the kids had come up to him and said "Come with us to The Way Out -- we'd like to tell you about Jesus." We probably all have many links in the chain towards a heart response to Jesus!
After our Wedding at Collingswood Methodist Church in NJ it was exciting to be involved in building up a body of believers and our Church motto was:
Built upon the foundation of the Lord Jesus Christ
Building up one-another
Being available for the display of His splendor!
Some of the highlights and joys of the ministry from 1973 on were:
- Organizing theater showings of some of the early Billy Graham movies such as"A Time to Run" "Joni" and "The Hiding Place" with a sister Church which became"Trinity Evangelical Church" in Peterborough, and then going on to share in Missionary Conferences with them, and generally grow up together.
- Training for" Evangelism Explosion" visits where our believers learned a framework for sharing their faith door-to door and learned to "flesh it out" with their own words and lives.Since many cults also share door-to- door, we would send a letter in the mail informing residents of who we were, and of a coming visit to their doorstep, and giving them a number to call if they didn't want a visit.
- A "Life Action Ministries Crusade" -following which I didn't need to preach for three consecutive Sundays as people (myself included) lined up at the microphone to ask forgiveness, or share what God had done in our lives.
- Two other "Life Action Ministries" events such as "The Family, holding on for life" and "America,You're Too Young to Die" after which we witnessed about 500 people kneeling down to pray for the nation."
During this time in Jaffrey, I got to go on mission trips to Haiti and to teach in the Campus Crusade Bible school in the heart of Moscow.(2 weeks to teach the book of Romans!!!!) What a delight to teach people who are so hungry for the Word, and who can teach us many things.
Probably my greatest joy -- as well as our marriage and raising a family -- was to preach through a book of the Bible expositionally. As an evangelist, or coffee-bar worker, you can get into a habit of sharing the same thing again and again -which has its good side since you can spend more time with the people you are staying with, but it can also make you dry spiritually. Getting to work with the same people and being committed to a different Message each week and see those folks grow was a special delight to me.
In these senior years, Betsy and I enjoy working together more and more and, above all of this, long to see the Lord pour out His Spirit in revival as He did in New England long ago. For our part we want to finish faithful to the Master!
Every Monday for 5 weeks, I will feature another interview with a Pastor I Admire. I trust hearing the personal and ministry testimonies from some very different folks pastoring in different areas will be a blessing to you. Last week's Pastor I Admire was Steve Benninger. Next week: The Massachusetts church planter who did things the way you aren't suppose to do it and is seeing aliens and strangers brought near to God by the blood of Christ.