I’m sure most of you already aware of this, but some Old School Presbyterian church planting efforts fail. The church fails to grow, and eventually the effort comes to an end.
Obviously we need to acknowledge that even this was the will of God and will ultimately be used for the good of His people, but at the same time we need to be zealous to ask whether there were factors that contributed to the failure of the plant.
More often than not, one of the simplest reasons the church plant failed was that it started from the wrong premise, namely that we are going to plant an Old School Presbyterian church that will meet the needs of the conservative Reformed people in the area. This premise is fatally flawed on two counts:
1) because it fails to acknowledge the fact that in most areas there simply aren’t enough Reformed people to support a new church. Most of the conservative Reformed people in any given area will already be attending another church, so we are actually unwittingly adopting the mega-church growth strategy – poach worshipers from existing churches with the message that this church will be better at meeting your needs than the congregation you presently attend.
2) because it fails to acknowledge the first part of the actual mission of the church, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations” (Matt. 28:19) Instead it says we will find already existing disciples and take over the process of teaching them. So instead of reaping the harvest, the plan is to follow behind the reapers and bundle together some of the stalks they have cut.
In His “The Church in Earnest” John Angell James correctly identified and critiqued this kind of congregation (you’ll find it to be his first example below) and after identifying it as not being the kind of church we need to be, he examined two other kinds of church before identifying the kind of church we desperately need.
“CHURCHES may be divided into four descriptions, in regard of their prevailing character:
The first consists of those in which an apparent high degree of spirituality exists; the preacher is devout, and his sermons partake of his own habitude of thought and feeling; the people, like the pastor, are thought to be, and perhaps are, professors of a higher tone of piety than many others; and there is much of the divine life. But although numerous and wealthy, they do nothing, or nothing in proportion to their ability, for the cause of Christ. Their collections are few and small—they are not at all known as engaged in any of the great societies of the day. They seem to suppose their calling to be to luxuriate on gospel privileges, to enjoy a perpetual feast of fat things; but they appear to think they have no vocation to proclaim the word of the Lord; or at any rate they consider themselves as something like the Jewish church, a stationary witness for God.
The second description of our churches is that of the communities of Christians where there is perhaps less of spirituality, less of the desire for doctrinal theology, either in the pastor or the flock, though their spiritual life is by no means low in comparison with many others; but with them all is activity and energy, the pastor is devoted not merely to his people but to the cause of God at large. The collections are numerous and great. The church can be depended upon, and is looked to for assistance by the directors of our evangelistic institutions. All hands are busy in Sunday and daily schools, tract distribution, Bible classes, and organizations for home and foreign societies; all that know them think and speak of them as a thoroughly working church.
The third description applies to those who are neither the one nor the other of the foregoing; they have lost their spirituality and have not gained a character for activity; they neither enjoy the life of godliness nor diffuse it, they have not even a name to live—but are dead.
The fourth description includes those, (alas! how few they are,) who unite earnest spirituality with activity and liberality no less eminent; whose spiritual life is all healthfulness and vigor, and in whom its developments are seen in all the operations of holy zeal.
This then is what we want—churches in which the vital principle of piety shall be so strong that they may be said to be like the mystic wheels of Ezekiel, instinct with the Spirit of God and ever in motion; churches whose activity, like that of the strong and healthy man, is the working of a life too vivacious to remain in a state of indolence and repose; churches so filled with the Spirit, that his gracious influence is perpetually welling up and flowing over in streams of benevolent activity for the salvation of the world; churches partaking of so much of the mind of Christ that from their own internal constraint, they must, like him, be ever going about doing good. Oh that God would pour out his Spirit, and raise every separate fellowship of believers to this blessed state of spiritual prosperity!”
I don’t often agree with the solutions Tim Keller proposes for the problems of the evangelical church, but I think he was correct when he stated, “A looming crisis for all American evangelical churches is that they cannot thrive outside of the shrinking enclaves of conservative and traditional people and culture.” He’s right in that church type one cannot thrive and church type three is, by the grace of God, rapidly disappearing as their congregations die of old age. However, I firmly believe that the fourth church type can and does thrive, even in modern America, and will continue to do so because it is God who blesses these churches with growth in grace, knowledge, and numbers.
So brethren, if you think of your church as “a stationary witness for God” and expect Reformed people to continue to come to you, no matter how precise and biblical your doctrine and worship are, you are still not the kind of church you need to be. Wake up! The fields are ripe for the harvest, but if you never exert yourself to actually go into them and reap, your congregation will not enjoy the fruits of that harvest. At best you will find yourself gleaning a few stalks here and there that other people have cut.