The Call of God to Preach

Each Monday on The Preacher we consider the vitally important subject of The Call – how God calls a man into a pastoral and preaching ministry. We will look at some scriptural principles and some practical considerations, as well as learn from a wide range of individual testimonies.

This week’s testimony comes from the late Derek Prime (1931-2020) who was a good friend and something of a mentor to me, before we really used that term. Derek was a much loved Pastor as well as being the author of many books and a sought after speaker and preacher. The following was part of personal correspondence we had a few years ago and which he gave me permission to use for this purpose.

Converted in my early teens from a non-Christian background, I had an almost immediate conviction that God was going to call me into the ministry.  As it seemed too presumptuous a thought to mention to anyone, I kept it to myself.   Looking back, I realise that an important link in the chain which led to me conversion was the challenge of having to study a verse of Scripture and then share it with others.  Two school-friends invited me to their Bible Class at Lansdowne Evangelical Free Church, West Norwood, in south-east London, and I gained much from it.  My turn came and I chose – for what reason now I can’t remember – Revelation 2:10: ‘Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer.  I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days.  Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life.’  I can still recall the excitement of preparing to share something that I had discovered, plus the joy of communicating it to others.  I am not able to date the exact time of my conversion, but I now realise that God was at work in me long before I appreciated that he was, and that Christians observing me were aware of something happening.

The first time the thought of the ministry came to the surface was a couple of years afterwards when I was fifteen or sixteen.  The church at which I had been converted, and to which I then belonged, had its building destroyed by fire through enemy action during the war, and the numbers attending were relatively few.  A small young people’s fellowship met weekly and at some of the meetings everyone took a turn in leading, praying, testifying and speaking.  My turn came to speak for the first time.  My nervousness increased with the minister’s arrival at the meeting, but I soon lost that nervousness once I began to speak, and enjoyed the privilege.  Afterwards – to my surprise – the minister, the Rev Fred Hart, sat down beside me and asked, ‘Have you thought that God might be calling you into the ministry?’  Then for the first time I put into words the hopes I had.  Perhaps after all I wasn’t being so presumptuous.

One of the first questions I asked was, ‘What should I do to prepare myself for the ministry?’  I am grateful for the answer that was given.  ‘Get the best education you can,’ was Mr Hart’s reply.  Until then I hadn’t thought of going to university, but this counsel motivated me.  Looking back, I am aware that I must have developed a new attitude to school work, and the advice that I had received prompted me to apply to both Oxford and Cambridge.  Eventually I obtained a place to read history at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, following national service.  The Senior Tutor at that time was E W Welbourne, later to become Master of Emmanuel.  Like most students seeking a place in College, I prepared myself for the interview by reading an academic book on the train so that, if asked, I could speak about what I had been reading recently!  The first questions Mr Welbourne asked were, ‘Why do you want to come to Emmanuel?  Did one of your schoolmasters come here?’  My answer was, ‘Because of its name, sir.’  ‘What do you mean?’ he asked.  ‘Its significance,’ was my reply.  ‘That would have pleased the Puritan founders of this college!’ the Senior Tutor responded.  To my amazement I found myself giving my testimony, and explaining why I wanted to go to university.  An interview which I thought would have lasted half an hour went on for nearly three hours.  For a considerable time we debated the issue of believers’ baptism.  I realise now that Mr Welbourne was a skilled interviewer and that he deliberately drew me out.  But the experience strengthened my conviction that the ministry was to be my ultimate calling, and that was why I wanted to go to university.

I owe an immeasurable debt to the leader of the Bible Class in which I was converted.  Will Gant, an employee of Hodder and Stoughton, the publishers, preached frequently in local churches and mission halls.  At first he took me along with him – when I was about sixteen – to read the Scriptures.  Then he gave me more to do, and within a year I was receiving invitations to preach from some of those places.  Reflecting on it now, I’m amazed at how patient and encouraging people were.  There were horrendous moments too, such as the time when I was preaching at Coulsdon in Surrey.  Although I was well through my sermon there was still a long time to go before the expected end of the service.  Had I really only been speaking for ten minutes?  Seeing my worried glances at the clock, a bold voice from the congregation declared, ‘Don’t worry – the clock’s stopped!’

Will Gant was marvelous in feeding me with the right kind of books to read.  One of the first was James Stewart’s magnificent book on preaching, Heralds of God, which had only recently been published.  When I was eighteen he gave me Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance, and I began to build a library.  Foyle’s second-hand religious books’ department became a favourite haunt, and on my bookshelves now are volumes of Spurgeon’s Sermons and F B Meyer’s book on Expository Preaching that I bought there.  Almost unconsciously, my conviction about the future was showing itself in the books that interested me and the appetite to communicate the gospel.  As a young person it was natural for me to become involved in children’s work, and there wasn’t a Sunday in the summer when, together with others, I wasn’t sharing in open-air meetings for children on local commons and parks, and it was all invaluable experience.

Jeremiah had a God-given awareness that his preparation for service had been going on throughout his life-time, and even before.  Certainly God utilizes all the experiences that come to us.  Although national service seemed initially an interruption in the course of my life, it turned out to be a part of God’s training, and a further opportunity to prove my call.  After my preliminary training with the Rifle Brigade in Winchester, I was assigned to the Royal Educational Corps.  All members of the Educational Corps automatically became sergeants upon concluding their teaching course, and I found myself in Luneburg, Germany, attached to the Royal Scots Greys, and a member of the sergeant’s mess.  Apart, I think, from two Educational Corps sergeants, all other sergeants and warrant officers were regular soldiers.  In comparison with them we were mere boys!  They had to either tolerate us, or adopt us.  Fortunately, the latter happened.  I learned much about life, which perhaps I couldn’t have learnt so quickly any other way: from a fairly sheltered home background, I was exposed to totally new situations and temptations.  But – as never before – I proved the reality of the Lord Jesus’ presence with me, and his keeping power.

There were two other benefits of national service which strengthened my sense of call.  Through no choice of my own, my period of national service was spent in teaching – English, mathematic, and subjects like current affairs.  There were immense contrasts in the teaching situations I encountered, in that at the end of the scale I had to teach band-boys, up to every kind of mischief, and at the other extreme non-commissioned officers who were keen to learn because passing army exams determined their promotion.  To have to teach such a wide spread of interest and abilities tests and develops communication skills.  Almost unconsciously I was being prepared for the varied teaching ministry that a minister of the Gospel has to exercise.

The second benefit was that a small group of Christians met together in Luneburg, gathered from both army and RAF personnel.  Six of us were together most of our national service.  Only two of us were Christians when we joined the forces.  We met as often as we could for prayer, fellowship and Bible study.  Inevitably there was opportunity for those of us who had been Christians longer than the others to give leadership, and not least in Bible studies.  On a Sunday we met in the RAF chapel, and if a chaplain couldn’t be present, we were permitted to arrange a service.

In October 1951 I went to Cambridge convinced that, God willing, I would enter the ministry afterwards.  There were, however, a number of issues to resolve.  First, my parents were against I, and for a number of reasons.  My father had left school when he was fourteen, and for all but the first year of his working life had worked for The Old Times Furnishing Company in Victoria, London, which specialized in the hire of furniture for stage, films and exhibitions.  Towards the end of his life, he became one of the three directors, and he hoped that I would join the business.  Not being Christians at the time, my parents thought that I was throwing away excellent prospects.  Secondly, having been converted in an independent church which was Baptist in practice but not in denominational affiliation, which denomination, if any, should I join?  And thirdly, where should I train for the ministry?  This last question was particularly difficult because I knew that my parents would argue that three years in Cambridge was sufficient training!  The last question was, in fact, to take care of itself, as was the second.  Eventually the opposition of my parents was to disappear.

The early 1950s were exciting years to be in Cambridge from the point of view of the Christian Union.  Half the students had done national service before coming up, and there was a willingness to discuss Christianity and spiritual issues.  I can’t remember a single Sunday when some students didn’t profess conversion at the evening evangelistic service in Holy Trinity Church.  The Union debating hall was crammed full every Saturday night for the Bible readings.  Any young man with a conviction that God is calling him into the ministry loves to meet and hear contemporary preachers.  The Christian Union at Cambridge provided an almost unique opportunity to hear different evangelical preachers every weekend, drawn from all parts of Britain, and from most denominations.  As secretary for the first John Stott mission in Cambridge and then as secretary of the Christian Union I had ample opportunity to meet and talk with these men: a tremendous stimulus, which fired my spiritual ambitions and aspirations.

The Cambridge tripos system enables an undergraduate to change courses and after reading history for two years I changed to theology, with my parents’ somewhat reluctant approval.  During this period I wrote to the pastor and elders of my home church and asked for their considered conviction about my possible call to the ministry.  Was my sense of call something that only I felt or did they feel it too?  Without perhaps putting it clearly into words at the time, I had come to appreciate hat where there is genuine call from God to the ministry, an individual’s own convictions will be amply matched by the convictions of others, and not least those who have the responsibility of spiritual leadership.  I narrowly missed a meeting of the elders, and the weeks seemed endless before the reply came.  It was a strong affirmative, although they wondered whether God’s call might be for me to work initially among young people.  I’m so grateful for the prayerful thought that they gave to my letter.  Their united conviction was going to be significant to me during a period of initial waiting.  It was also going to be significant to me in the years of ministry that followed.  The enemy of souls is able to suggest to the preacher – particularly when he’s discouraged – that perhaps he ought not to be a preacher, and one of the most powerful answers is to be able to remember that the decision to obey God’s call was not simply hi own conviction but the conviction of the body of Christ.

After considerable turmoil – having been drawn to evangelical Anglicanism, but being unable to accept infant baptism – I recognized that God was probably calling me to an independent church.  I promised my parents that if nothing opened up before Christmas 1954 – I had finished at university in the June –I would seek other permanent employment.  An older German Christian once said to me – probably sensing my impatient nature – – ‘God is never in a hurry’, and I was to prove and learn that lesson.  Certainly at that time there was little machinery to introduce the names of men to prospective independent churches, and the best approach was simply to be available to preach until the right door opened.  But although London is an excellent place for finding opportunities for ministry, bookings for preaching are usually months ahead.  Having been away from home for more or less five years – in the army and at university – it wasn’t going to happen quickly.  Remarkably, however, an invitation to a church did come in February 1955, but events had taken place that indicated that it wasn’t the right time or place.

Looking back, I am filled with amazement at God’s providence.  At that time all graduates were allowed to teach in government and local authority schools without teaching qualifications.  I offered myself for supply teaching to the London authority, and taught in a secondary modern school in Tooting.  Within a matter of weeks, I was offered a permanent job teaching history in a school nearer home – Battersea Grammar School.  I hadn’t been there many months when the head of religious instruction sadly died of cancer, and I was offered his post.  The fact that I had read history gave me the first entry into the school, and having read theology I was given the Head of Department post less than a year from leaving university.  For three and a half years I taught approximately six hundred boys religious instruction each week.  It was quite different from teaching in the army, and life in a grammar school common-room was likewise different from a sergeant’s mess.  But it gave me a varied experience of everyday life.

The sense of call never left me.  Looking back now, I can see how perfectly everything was fitting into a plan.  First, I had pleased my parents by taking a job which they thought had better prospects!  Secondly, I was in a position to get married and no doubt there was value in being married for a few years before undertaking pastoral ministry.  And, thirdly, I could be available to the churches to preach Sunday by Sunday without the pressure of feeling that I must receive a call quickly simply from the point of view of employment.  For those three and a half years opportunities for preaching both in the week and on Sundays were numerous, and I owe much to those who passed on my name and who encouraged me by their confidence.  The church to which we belonged, and where my wife and I had been converted, was without a pastor for some of the time that I was teaching.  There were so few men that I had become an elder, although most of the other elders were old enough to be my father.  It was good to gain the experience of elders’ meetings as so often young men going into the ministry have to lead elders’ and deacons’ meetings having never been elders or deacons themselves.

My call to the ministry became a reality one Monday night in 1957.  The church prayer meeting ended, and one of the elders, the church treasurer, sat down beside me.  ‘Derek,’ he said, ‘the elders have met without you, and we believe that the Lord is saying to us that you should be the next pastor of the church.’  Although it was unusual to become the pastor of the church where one had been converted and to which one already belonged, we immediately felt that this was right and God’s timing.  The matter was brought before the church, and a clear call given.  My wife and I were not at that particular meeting, of course, although we waited with a sense of excitement to know the outcome.  I’ve often wondered what our neighbours must have thought as they saw a couple of cars arrive, quite late in the evening, and a number of men come up to our front door and enter, only to leave in the same mysterious fashion about a quarter of an hour afterwards!  All of the elders came to issue the church’s invitation and to pray with us.

In October 1957 the ordination service took place, and we spent twelve of the happiest years of our life at West Norwood until in November 1969 the call came to move north to Scotland to the pastorate of a city-centre church, Charlotte Baptist Chapel in Edinburgh.

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