I wanted to share something brief and unpolished that I hope will be of service to Old School Presbyterian church planters and Pastors as they seek to persuade their members that they play a critical role in the process of growing the church and reaching the lost.
I remember that over ten years ago when I began seminary in Philadelphia, Joy and I visited 13 Presbyterian churches in that area – I’m not exaggerating, I counted them after we finally decided which church we were going to go to. There are a lot of PCA and OPC churches in the Philadelphia area both because it is close to a Presbyterian seminary, and because it is one of the historic centers of Presbyterianism. We found that in most churches, the preaching ranged from o.k. to excellent, and that many if not most of the churches had what one might call fairly traditional worship, I think that only a few churches were decisively knocked out of the running for us because of either the preaching or the worship. I recall that one large church had a full orchestra – wind and brass – and when they were all playing you literally couldn’t hear yourself sing, that some churches had deaconesses, and that there were churches where the preaching was watered down enough that I knew I wasn’t going to be challenged or pushed out of my comfort zone (and the last thing I need is to be tickled or pumped-up every Sunday, my head is big enough as it is.) But with most of the churches we visited the thing that we noticed was how closed and cliquish they were. Now I can virtually guarantee you that most of the members of those churches didn’t realize that and probably would have been shocked if someone told them. But in most of those churches, we didn’t actually feel noticed. In some churches, no one except perhaps the people who were “official greeters” actually spoke to visitors and in a few churches, literally no one spoke to us – we walked in we sat down, we worshiped and walked out without actually having interacted with anyone.
In the end, the church that my wife and I became members of was not the largest, nor the one which met at the most convenient time, nor the one which seemed suited to fit us demographically. It was a small, mostly Korean church. The preaching there was solidly reformed, leaning Puritan, but that wasn’t what made us stay. What really made an impression on us was the friendliness and love of the congregation. They made us feel welcome from the start, and we also noticed how much they seemed to love one another. In that church what was being preached was clearly bearing visible fruit in the congregation and we decided that was the place we needed to be. That was in spite of all the supposed negatives like not even having their own building. Still, they struck us as being the kind of church one sees in the bible in Acts chapter 2, and we knew that was not only what we wanted, it was what we needed.
In the Apostolic church as we see it in verses like Acts 2:36-47 we have a laundry list of tremendous qualities that all healthy Old School Presbyterian churches should have. I’d like to go over them and comment on them.
First, and foremost, they had the preaching of the law and the gospel. Peter in his sermon in Acts 2 for instance, lets men know the terrible estate they are in as sinful men. He is willing to tell these Jerusalemites, that they had crucified the Messiah they supposedly had been waiting for: “Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.” (Acts 2:36) This preaching produced something else every church needs – a spirit of repentance. They were convicted by the Holy Spirit and cried out “what shall we do?” Peter told them they needed to repent and be baptized, and in that he means a decisive turning from sin and self-reliance, and a coming to personal faith and trust in the Lord Jesus Christ. Healthy OSP churches have always been made up of people who have turned from their former sinful ways of living and are now trusting in, and living for Jesus Christ.
Second, a healthy church is made up of people who have made a visible, public, and decisive commitment to the Lord Jesus and who have been baptized according to his instructions and have covenanted publicly and joined themselves to His body. The church of Jesus Christ, simply knows nothing of people who have not openly committed themselves to His church. The idea that you would have churches without membership, or simply made up of visitors who never join is alien to the new testament. We are covenant people and members together of the body of Christ, committed to one another.
Thirdly, Healthy OSP churches need to be growing churches. Living organisms grow. They need to be growing in grace, but they also need to be active in the harvest. Now for my own congregation in Fayetteville, NC, there is a pragmatic spur to that. Some country churches can get by for years with little or no growth beyond a new child once in a while. That church literally becomes the meeting place of a few long established families, and sometimes they don’t really even want new people. “Us four, no more, close the door.” Even a new preacher has a very hard time being accepted. Fayetteville however is a highly transitory community, most families stay for only a few years – three usually. And even our oldest families usually end up moving on. If we aren’t constantly growing, we will eventually dwindle away to nothing. I seriously doubt that our situation is all that atypical. Most OSP plants located in cities or military communities will be operating under very similar circumstances.
Healthy OSP churches will also have certain commitments in common with the Apostolic churches they are modeled on:
1) Commitment to the Apostles Teaching: They will be churches that are enthusiastic about, hungry for and committed to solid biblical instruction.
2) They will be churches that are committed to Koinonia – FELLOWSHIP. Members will part of one another’s lives, the church will feel like a family, they will be often in one another’s houses and constantly looking forward to the times they spend together. And they will be looking forward to seeing ALL the members of the church, not just the members of their clique. Healthy churches cannot, must not, become like a modern High-School made up of various social groups. Therefore if there are people in the church the members don’t know, they need to change that, they need to get to know them, have them over, take them to lunch, learn to love them, for that is Christ’s command.
3) They will be churches that take both the Lord’s Supper and PRAYER very seriously: Without prayer in particular, the church simply doesn’t grow.
4) They will constantly be giving. The actual application of having “everything in common” as it was present in the Jerusalem church turned out to have some seriously negative effects, the evidence seems to indicate that they ended up impoverished. But we need to see that that was the result an over application of a right principle. The members of healthy OSP church should want to be poured out on one another, they should have a “what’s mine is yours brothers and sisters” attitude, and by that I don’t mean just money and goods, but time, love, concern, and prayers.
5) They will be very zealous for worship. In his commentary on Acts 2, Gordon Keddie tells the story of a lad who asked the pastor why they had two services on the Lord’s Day, when it didn’t explicitly say that in the bible. So the pastor said, ok we’ll follow the example of the Apostolic church… I’ll see you on Monday and Tuesday… Keddie points out that “the principle is that if you love the Lord and thirst after true worship, sound teaching and living fellowship you don’t stay at home and waste your opportunities whatever they may be! The new believers simply longed for more spiritual food. That is the principle. … that should take you to church whenever the door opens!” Think of how zealous people can be for golf or Nascar which are just passing things of this world without any eternal benefit or promise of blessings and spiritual growth. OSP church members should be as addicted to worship as the early Christians were.
Like David they should THIRST for communion with God and for personal holiness and corporate worship or what some call “body life.”
If they do these things, they will be changed, they will be different, and people coming into the midst of their church should find them remarkable. “Look how they love one another” should be their declaration. A church like that will naturally grow in favor with all the people, and will have a winsome and attractive witness for Christ.
Now if an OSP church is having trouble retaining visitors, there are usually several discernible reasons for that. Part of it is usually the inevitable culture shock, but it is also often the result of a lack of follow-up, they fail to do simple stuff like handing visitors a card to fill out and then getting in touch with them. All the members need to be concerned about that, and work together as a body. One of the most winsome things they can do is greet visitors and invite them into their homes and witness to them. Above all they mustn’t assume that everyone who visits is saved, I can tell you from personal experience that at least a quarter of our visitors have had no relationship to the Lord.
Remember also that nothing can replace the role of individual evangelism. Even in the midst of persecution the members of the early church were zealous to sow the gospel seed: Acts 8:4 “Therefore those who were scattered went everywhere preaching the word.” – these were ordinary people, and in most cases they didn’t have any of the resources modern church members take for granted (a complete copy of the bible, for instance) and yet because they knew, trusted, and loved the Lord they were eager to make Him known to a lost and dying world. If all OSP churches had that same zeal, our “church growth” problems would quickly evaporate.