Simon Mattholie, CEO
Eddie Vass was the General Secretary of Rural Ministries from 1990 to 2005 and now lives just outside Ipswich. Still very active in ministry, I caught up with Eddie to
learn more about his time with RM.
Eddie, how and when did you first get involved in Rural Ministries?
"It was late 1990. I lived in North Wales, having been a Christian conference
centre director. When that ended, I was travelling from North Wales all over the
country, Europe and America ministering. One day I got a phone call from a pastor in Ely
in Cambridgeshire saying Rural Ministries, who I’d never heard of, needed a General Secretary, and he thought I would be ideal for the job."
What was Rural Ministries like when you joined?
"RM had an East Anglia focus initially; it was where Pastor Goddard had lived. The focus had become one of maintaining buildings; most of the trustees were in the building trade, and our meetings were mainly about gutters, cesspits and rotten windows. I was keen to understand what was happening inside the church and what were we doing there. During the first five years I didn’t hear of one conversion in any churches. After that, someone was converted almost every week because we had changed from maintaining the outside to focusing on the inside. I inherited 63 buildings, including a retirement complex in Oxford. I sold it and put a massive lump of money in the bank. In those days, interest rates were in double figures, which meant with the interest on that money, we could put two people into pastorate each year and sustain the work. So, in a sense, it was taking what Pastor Goddard had given but using it differently to fund the work as needed.
"It worked very well. We would pump prime a person in a new fellowship for three years and then evaluate whether they were self-sustaining at the end of that time. The other thing was where we were trustees of all these properties and buildings; I wanted to hand those to the local people. It became their responsibility if the guttering on the church leaked rather than ours. That changed our whole focus.
"We stopped looking at the building and instead began to look at the communities around them. For example, Beryl Lawson (daughter of Pastor Goddard) and her husband Graham came to live in an area on the Welsh borders, and they started a house group there. That house group grew with people going off to churches elsewhere, mainly Ludlow. This house group got in touch with us and said, couldn’t we have a local church based on these people? And that was the beginning of the work at Craven Arms. Rather than having a building, it was the first time Rural Ministers had gone into a local community centre. It was brand new. We were the first people in there, and we occupied it, and it was part of the community. This, in a sense, started a whole new direction for Rural Ministries, looking not at a building we were inheriting but at a community and how we might be part of that community."
What did you find the most rewarding part of working with rural churches?
"To help them create and then sustain spiritual life in a village. When I served as pastor of the church in North Cambridgeshire, I didn’t see anybody come to faith for the first two years. After that, people were coming to faith almost monthly and, after a while, they were the ones doing the evangelism. When you see that happen and how it transformed the area around for a long time, you know the true value and benefit of that work."
What is and will change in the rural context looking forward? What advice would you be giving us?
"I think people’s work patterns are changing. COVID’s done that, and I think people are more ‘community centred.’ People have been moving out of towns and cities because they no longer need to commute; they can work from home just as easily and have instead embedded themselves in the countryside. We need to reach these people, and we can only do this if we change. Let me give you an example. One of the first churches I went to when I first joined was in Essex. I won’t tell you the name, but I sold it. Anyway, the person there said, “This is our church; lovely, isn’t it? If John Wesley came, he’d feel absolutely at home.”
"This person thought that was wonderful, but I believed that the guy who lived just down the road, who commuted into the city, didn’t want to go into a church where Wesley would feel at home because nothing has changed in centuries. We’ve got to create
an environment that people in this age still think is relevant to them. And lots of the things we do, such as church membership, and our worship, are just not relevant or alive to them. I believe people are interested in faith, but not in the church as it is
"One of the biggest denominations in the country are evangelicals who no longer go to church simply because the set-up hasn’t moved. It’s not relevant, nor addressing their needs, and we’ve got to do that somehow. Rural churches are less likely to be up to date; they’re more likely to be traditional and behind the times, and I’m happy to accommodate some of that. But it comes to a point where you have to say, look, we want to have a relevant faith. It’s got to be authentic to people living in today’s real world
and meeting real needs. How often have you heard the expression, trying to get people
into church? It is as if this is the be-all and end-all; the goal is not to get people into church. The end goal is to get people into the kingdom of God."
Eddie, I appreciate your time. We pray that God will continue to bless your ongoing ministry.