Valleys School of Theology: My Support and Involvement

When John Funnell wants a chat, I drop almost anything to talk. As one of my closest friends and brother-in-Christ, I love him a great deal. We met six years ago soon after becoming pastor of Caerwent Baptist as our respective churches are within the same AECW cluster. We clicked instantly, and over the years we have developed a wonderful and trusting friendship.

I was driving home after preaching in Pembrokeshire in early July when he rang me (on my hands-free, of course) to share his exciting news. We spoke for about an hour as he shared his vision of starting a school of theology to train the many young men in his church for ministry in the Valleys. To my surprise, he asked if I would be willing to join the faculty and teach New Testament Exegesis. I agreed without hesitation. To read more about the vision for the school itself, you can visit the website here and/or contact John directly. Since readily agreeing, I have thought a great deal about why I should support and be involved with the proposed school. I can say with confidence that the result of my prayers and reflection is an increased desire to help. Some may question the purpose of this course when there are other theology colleges and courses available, but I want to share why I believe this course is different and offers something that others do not.

As a former student of Union School of Theology (during its WEST years), I love the college. Actually, a young woman in our church is starting her BA Theology with Union this September. I will continue to support Union as an excellent institution with a brilliant faculty because it offers what the other theology courses in Wales do not: a rigorous academic theological education with accredited qualifications. There is another course in Wales run by the EMW called the Theological Training Course (TTC), but I am not in a position to comment on it as I know very little about it - only that I know people who have taken that course. What I do know is that John Funnell’s Valleys School of Theology offers something that the other courses do not.

John’s Ministry

The Lord led John to Noddfa, Abersychan which is situated in the Torfaen Valley around eight years ago. The church was weeks, if not days, away from closing, but, going against the advice of others, he took up the role of pastor. For the first year, all he did was pray. That year was not a waste of time at all as the church now has a weekly attendance of around 200 people, most of whom are from very difficult and troubled backgrounds. You can hear his story and a fascinating summary of the work God is doing through John in  by listening to a podcast here. His church is unlike any other in all of Wales, especially in Reformed circles. Many, if not most, of those who attend are either receiving benefits (Universal Credit, PIP, etc.), taking drugs, recovering from drugs, are gypsies, adulterers, homeless, transgendered, violent, or alcoholics. For a while, most of the attendees were not Christians, just needy people looking for answers. But now, many have been saved! He has baptised around 80 people so far—that’s about 10 per year. God is at work there in an amazing way through a man (and men) who is (are) willing to suffer.

Out of this ministry, the Lord is raising up men who are called to ministry in the Valleys. These men—uneducated, unemployed, often with tattoos on their necks and faces, some who are former boxers, gypsies and the like—are unlike the average middle-class, chino-wearing, educated young men who will typically occupy the average city church for a couple of decades on a teacher’s salary. These men are already incarnational. They are from the Valleys and will minister in the Valleys. They will not attempt to plant a conventional middle-class church in a setting in which is not likely to thrive, but will preach the gospel as men who are like those to whom they will preach. They have been saved and transformed by Christ from within the communities into which they will minister.

Incredibly, John has around 12 men in his congregation ready to train for ministry, but, due to the available funding, the plan for the first year will be to support the training of four men. By God’s grace, should the course prove to be successful, more students will be able to enrol in the years to come, not only from within Noddfa (John’s church), but also from without. I am sure that as the school develops and grows, its vision will too.

The Faculty

The faculty is made up mostly of pastors (with the exceptions of Steve Foley, a retired pastor, and Paula, a missionary) of growing churches who preach successfully into the context in which their churches exist. You can see who the faculty are here. My role, at least for the first year, will be to teach New Testament Exegesis. I am by no means an expert, but I have a particular interest in biblical exegesis and it is something I already teach in my own church at Caerwent. As a faculty, we are seriously committed to training these men for ministry and to prepare them in ways other theological schools do not, specifically ensuring that they will be equipped to reach needy, broken societies where young men usually do not wish to go as pastors. I am very excited to see what comes of this work.

The Uniqueness of Valleys School of Theology

Should a man who feels called to ministry attend a Bible college, school, or seminary? I believe that it depends on the location to which a man feels called to minister to. Generally I do not think it’s necessary for a prospective pastor to receive a theological qualification, but I do, however, think it is absolutely necessary for a man planning to pastor a church to be theologically educated. There is a difference. Some churches require  their pastors to have an undergraduate degree in theology as a minimum. One church that I am aware of would not accept a man with anything less than a PhD. Perhaps in a context where there are highly educated people, rightly or wrongly, a qualification may be helpful in order to be accepted or taken seriously by the congregation and local residents. But if a man is attempting to reach people in a deprived area of society, such as the Valleys, he would fit in better with a tattoo and a pit bull than with letters after his name.

The issue with the Valleys is that in order to reach the people with the gospel, one needs to understand them, their way of life, and the lack of opportunities available to them. Many have attempted to have a successful church in this setting but have failed simply because they have not considered the cost involved. Men frequently take over pastorates that once thrived in the mid-twentieth century only to help the church shut its doors rather than build it from the ground up. However, John and his wife Harriet have been willing to endure difficulties in order to continue ministering in this different and often difficult location. Their house has been broken into whilst he and his family were asleep, their car has been stolen, the church has had multiple robberies, he has been accused of being a cult leader by local residents and a liberal by a well-known evangelical newspaper. John is far from perfect, and he would be the first to admit it, but whatever he is doing in Abersychan—the most deprived valley in Wales—the Lord is blessing it. One of the unique things about the school will be time spent with John–someone who, by God’s grace and with His help, leads a successful and thriving ministry in the Valleys, and understands the unique challenges and opportunities of doing ministry there.

Valleys School of Theology will not offer qualifications, but it will offer an education. Applicants are not required to have GCSEs or A-levels—they simply need to be spiritually qualified men who are recognised with having a calling and gifting from the Lord. I trust the Lord’s leading and I trust John’s vision. I am more than willing to help him and to fulfil the role he has called me to.

Personally, I am even more excited about what happens beyond their studies. I am excited to see how God will use these men to preach the gospel in the Valleys and to build churches that will last. The Valleys have been deprived of the gospel for far too long. It is about time that the right men are trained and sent with an unfading hope to a people who generally have very little hope.

Written by: Pastor Gwydion Emlyn


Mark Gregory - July 17th, 2023 at 12:48pm

Thank you Gwydion for your support! Exciting times.

Sandra Sweeting - July 17th, 2023 at 12:56pm

Praise God that you too share in this vision for the Valleys. Praying that our Lord will bless the venture and all those who take part in it.

Suzanne Forsyth - July 17th, 2023 at 3:27pm

Praying the Lord will bless all involved in this venture and that these four young men will be blessed in their desire to learn and serve.

Ilona - July 18th, 2023 at 1:28am

What a wonderful read full of hope and Gods guidance. You, John and this new teaching will be in my prayers.

Frankie Ashong - July 18th, 2023 at 10:46am

A wonderful vision and I trust God to fulfil this vision for young men called to share Jesus. 🙏

Tony & Laurel Brookin - August 9th, 2023 at 8:47pm

Hi just received a Christmas card today from Frankie Ashong!

Must have got lost! Blessings Tony