1. courtesy and considerate behavior toward others.
2. an association of nations for their mutual benefit. comity of nations the mutual recognition by nations of the laws and customs of others.
ORIGIN mid 16th cent. Latin comitas, from comis ‘courteous.’
The NAPARC Golden Rule comity agreement says:
Comity has meant different things to different people. We representatives of the home missions agencies and committees or boards of our denominations resist territorial statements on comity in the light of the social and cultural complexity of North American society and the great spiritual need of our many countrymen who are apart from Jesus Christ. Out of a concern to build the church of Jesus Christ rather than our own denominations and to avoid the appearance of competition, we affirm the following courteous code of behavior to guide our church planting ministries in North America: We will be sensitive to the presence of existing churches and mission ministries of other NAPARC churches and will refrain from enlisting members and take great care in receiving members of those existing ministries. We will communicate with the equivalent or appropriate agency (denominational missions committee or board, presbytery missions or church extension committee, or session) before initiating church planting activities in a community where NAPARC churches or missions ministries exist. We will provide information on at least an annual basis describing progress in our ministries and future plans. We will encourage our regional home missions leadership to develop good working relationships (emphasis added).
One reason many are reluctant talk about the comity agreement is that it is not always observed. One suspects that few church planters or pastors even know that there is a comity agreement that is supposed to be informing our church planting endeavors. Does the relative obscurity of this agreement say something about the state of NAPARC itself?
Because the PCA is the largest NAPARC denomination and has arguably been most aggressive in planting churches it been my experience that the PCA is most likely to be involved in questions about comity. The PCA is not the sole offender, however. I have seen smaller sideline denominations blatantly poach sheep from sister denominations in breath-taking ways.
The comity agreement is not without inherent difficulties. In one church plant work with which I was heavily involved we faced the challenge of complying with the comity agreement in the early days of our congregation. There was a NAPARC congregation nearby that was in its last days. Further, some of those who helped found our congregation had either attended or been members of that congregation. To add another layer of complication, the existing congregation had been intentionally planted with the conviction that they did not want to be identifiably confessional. I think we communicated with them before we began—it was 20 years ago. By the time we began, those members had transferred to our mother congregation so that the process was reasonably orderly but the fact that I cannot remember performing due diligence to the comity agreement probably says something.
Some years ago, another NAPARC denomination planted a congregation not far from a church planting work with which I was involved. When we learned about that work we contacted them to find out what their intent was. They assured us that they were not aware we existed. Perhaps that says something about the visibility of the URC church planting work in the community? It probably also says something about their diligence and research skills. Had they spent a minute on the internet they would likely have discovered that the URC work existed. It also says something about the relative visibility of the NAPARC comity agreement.
I am not saying that they should not have planted a congregation. There are hundreds of thousands of people in that area who are not attending any congregation let along a Reformed congregation. There are thousands upon thousands who need to hear the law and the gospel preached faithfully. Over time, our two congregations have developed a fairly good working relationship. There are inherent differences between the two works. This new congregation is some distance from the URC work.
Further, I understand that they are taking a different approach to worship than we are. The URC congregation was planted with the hope of reaching unchurched folk. It was imagined that baby-boomers with experience in megachurches and liturgically progressive evangelical congregations would not be much interested in historic Reformed worship and experience has borne out this expectation. Young people and those with limited or no church background have responded well to a more reverently joyful, historic, dialogic, approach to worship.
Nevertheless, I have had heart-rending conversations with faithful, pioneering Reformed congregations who labored in obscurity and poverty to plant confessional congregations in areas where there is no Reformed witness and few faithful witnesses to any Christian tradition. These conversations were troubling because, in them, pastors confessed their fear of what would happen when the PCA came to town with buildings, bodies, and budgets. One of the difficulties confessional Reformed church planters face is that they are counter-cultural. They are not individualist, they do not look or sound like prevailing evangelical congregations in theology, piety, and practice.
The impression this fellow had and the impression that many have is that MNA is more willing to plant congregations that are less identifiably Reformed and to do so at the expense of existing Reformed works that are regarded as unsuccessful. I do not think I am “talking out of school” as Grandma used to say. This is something about which PCA folk have mentioned to me for many years. I am aware of more than one PCA church planter who has intentionally defied what he perceived as the MNA approach to church planting.
The benefit of the more generically evangelical approach to church planting, going all the way back to Robert Schuller’s late Crystal Cathedral, is that the such an approach is more palatable to those without a Reformed background. The cost of this approach however, is that, to paraphrase the words of Jim Boice, “What you use to get them in, you must use to keep them in.” There’s no evidence, of which I am aware, that the Crystal Cathedral ever made good on their pledge to get folk into church with showbiz on Sundays and to teach them the faith on Wednesdays. For one thing, such an approach carries its own death warrant. When folk learn the faith on wednesdays they will soon discover that at least some of what is being done on Sundays is contrary to the faith. If they really learn the faith, they shall have to leave the congregation. Something like this problem surfaced in the Reveal study done by Willow Creek. The more spiritually mature folk in the congregation were the most dissatisfied with the Willow Creek approach to ministry.
On the other side of the ledger, too frequently the Reformed approach to missions is really little more than a matter of establishing new franchises to service a clientele who have moved from one location to another. Typically, a church plant needs a core group on which to build. Few church plants start from scratch. The problem too often is that some church plants really are not established with a view toward reaching and teaching the lost but rather in comforting the found. In some instances congregations that have the means have simply refused to do the work of church planting out of fear of losing members to the church plant. In such cases culture (family, friendships etc) seem to have trumped cult, i.e., the divinely-given imperative for the visible church to reach the lost for the glory of our Savior.
So we have two sets of problems here. There are methodological progressives who, in their zeal to expand the tent, seem to neglect the the tent stakes (Isa 54:2). There are also methodological and theological regressives, if you will, who really do fit the stereotype of the Reformed congregation as ingrown and inward looking. Both the progressives and regressives need to rediscover their roots: the biblical faith as confessed by the Reformed churches. The same people who gave us our confession, which faith we take up and confess in each generation, were neither progressive nor regressive. They were mission-minded but the mission was to reach the lost by planting confessionally Reformed congregations.
Assuming good will on everyone’s part (i.e., all things being equal) what is really at stake here is the existence of different visions for Reformed congregational ministry and church planting. Is being confessionally Reformed a sort of second blessing, is it like the luxury package to be chosen when buying a car or is it essential to Reformed church planting and ministry? Is the mission to reach and teach the lost something to be left to others who are evangelical? As a matter of Christian ethics do we have sufficient regard for the ministry of our NAPARC brothers and sisters to consult with them as we prosecute the mission of the church to plant congregations, to reach the lost with the gospel and to make disciples of those whom God allows us to reach?
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
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