When you grow up, you don't really know the lasting influence those around you will have on your life. Infact it's only in later life you realise how important their influence was and when you were at such an impressionable age.
The picture below was taken in 2005 (Len has since pasted away). We were the main up coming generation of the small village Chapel he Pastored 'Clyne Free Mission'
The mission was originally built at the turn of the century, with funds bestowed by the Glyn Vivian family in Swansea. Four such 'Miners Mission halls' were built. A simple structure with tin sheets on the outside and floorboards, floor to ceiling on the inside.
Pastor Sparks lived in Tonmawr some 15 miles from Clyne, taking on the pastorate of around 50 (including Children) in the 1970's. Even though he lived some distance away, he attended Clyne most days, visiting people, running services, out doing open air evangelism.
I used to visit my Grandparents each weekend, who attended the Chapel, which took pressure off my parents, who both worked, and looked after my Grandmother who was bedridden and my very busy three sisters.
Pastor Sparks we straight forward, Bible believing, Praying local Pastor. In those days in the late seventies, He was like the fourth emergency service in the village. He had a way with him to 'be there' for virtually everyone, stopping by, giving advice, providing lifts, reassurance and encouragement even if that was the middle of the night. He knew everyone and everyone knew him.
His week was taken up with a Bible Study and Prayer Meeting (Separate nights), Sisterhood, Youth group and of course The Sunday Morning, Sunday School and Sunday evening and after meetings for the youth. There were also Saturdays sometimes taken up with cleaning, renovation, painting, Church gatherings and special meetings on occasion - How he kept it all together I don't know.
His preaching style was simple - stick to the word, don't give opinions, build up the people. The service style was fairly formal, starting with traditional Hymns from the Sankey Hymnal - many people including my Grandad passionately belted out these classics, often so moved I would see tears come down his face while singing.
There would be a reading, some announcements, a chorus while the offering was taken, then around 30 minutes of the word and then a hymn to finish. Most often tea was served after the meeting and a shock to the congregation would be if the hymn numbers were placed the wrong way around on the hymn number board.
Even when I had an encounter with God experiencing a Baptism of the Spirit, Len was so patient. He believed the work of the Holy Spirit finished with the apostles and we butted heads around this point, but it didn't stop him encouraging us to go deeper in God's word.
Myself, Dean, Gary and sometimes Russell would go with Pastor Sparks to various points in the valley and use a loud hailer attached to his car to preach. It was a real grounding in getting over nerves and bringing a concise message. Even in the face of adversity, if someone was annoyed with the noise, he was insist on finishing his message.
He would also encourage a Bible exam each year where he would write 50 questions and we would have a week to answer them - they weren't you simple Adam and .... type of question, a theologian would have had a task. In everything he did, the Bible was his reference point, prayer was fuel and a passion for Jesus which literally changed our lives.
With only a handful of a rabble of people to work with, it's been remarkable to see His legacy still lives on through us. Russell has been faithful to lead and support Youth Work in the Neath Valley for over thirty years. Joel became a missionary with Operation Mobilisation for a season, found and married a Korean sweetheart and was 'sent' back from Korea as a missionary family to become the Executive Director of Union, a growing Theological centre of excellence.
Dean has been faithful in his local Church just four miles away in Resolven, went on a few mission trips to Brazil where he also found his wife, and they returned to Wales to raise a family. He's still very involved in the Youth work of his Church.
Gary and I worked together for some time, where he travelled to the USA and found love with a girl from New Zealand, he has since been the senior Pastor of Hillview Church in Melbourne and has recently stepped down in order to run Prophesy school which has habs across Australia.
And then there's me, having travelled to over 45 countries, across 200 mission trips, ran schools work, planted and built Churches, organised stadium Prayer Days, worked as a Director of the UK's biggest Christian Broadcaster and am now working on trying to see 100 million people make a decision for Jesus.
I often gravitate back to a simple question, how did so much come out of so few ? Not that any of us were or are special, most of us are unqualified for What we are doing. That question over the years leads me back to 'what were the influences' we had. From the investment Clive and Gwyneth made in us each Sunday evening where they would just encourage us. The ladies of the Church organising, steering, correcting and of Course Len Sparks.
I wonder if any of the men in the picture below would be following Jesus let alone doing ministry work if it were not for this exceptional man.