To Reform or Leave?

At the Puritanboard Mike asks

About six months ago I started listening to the Whitehorse Inn (and about 1 month ago Office Hours and reading this board). What I heard on Whitehorse made much more sense to me than what I heard from the pulpit over the past number of years….On to my question. There are not any reformed churches in my town. There is one Christian Reformed Church of Canada in the town next door, but I believe strongly in the local nature of the church. Our current church, which we hold membership in, is what you would expect in a mainline non-reformed church. Programs and pastoral staff are important – the gospel is not clearly defined and preaching (teaching in general) is highly theraputic in nature. I continue to stay as I feel the Lord would have me do so. I would say my gifts include shepherding and teaching, and I feel as though the Lord would have me serve this church. In particular, I feel that I should begin a dialogue with our preaching pastor regarding gospel-centered preaching and our lack of it. Is this wise? How does a layman begin to respectfully challenge a pastor on the lack of gospel and expostitional teaching in a church? Is doing so inappropiate?

Hi Mike,

Many confessional Reformed congregations are commuter churches. I don’t know that I would raise the “local church” preference to a principle. Our principles are confessed in places such as Belgic Confession Article 29, which gives us the marks of a true church: pure preaching of the gospel, the pure administration of the sacraments, and the use of church discipline. You’ll notice that geography isn’t among those marks of a true church.

Moving a church that does not confess or practice these marks to a place where it does is a very long journey indeed. Sometimes it happens but it takes a long time. Often it doesn’t happen and the “reformer” who tries is very frustrated and even burnt out. Attempting the reformation of local church is slow, difficult work. Of course the sovereign work of the Spirit is essential. Nothing we do can replace his work and if the Spirit does not bring it about it will not happen. The single most important lesson I learned as a young pastor is that I am not the Holy Spirit. It seems pretty obvious but the temptation to try to do the work of the Spirit is powerful and seductive.

Much of what one does, in the attempted reformation of a typical evangelical congregation, will be determined by the response of the congregational leadership. If the pastors and elders don’t see a need for Reformation according to the Word (as confessed by the Reformed churches) then there’s little concrete basis for hope of a reformation. One way to proceed is to approach the leadership (pastor and/or elders) and to lay out your case to them. It might be best to approach the pastor first to see how he responds. If he’s favorable, then you have an ally. If he’s not favorable, well, things have become that much more difficult and (speaking humanly) unlikely. Then you might approach the elders (or, in some cases, depending on the structure of the congregation, the deacons) to see how they respond. You might begin by asking questions rather than laying out a case. The questions would be diagnostic in nature with a view to discovering how they view the situation. Are they happy with the preaching and approach to worship and ministry? Are they aware of the Reformation theology, piety, and practice and the discrepancy between current approaches and the Reformation approach? Do they care?

If you get some good response you might share some of the resources that you have found helpful (e.g., White Horse Inn and Office Hours audio). Perhaps that will lead to reformation. There are a number of books (e.g., Mike Horton’s Christless Christianity and Gospel-Driven Life) you might share with the leadership if they are willing to consider these things.

I very much appreciate your enthusiasm for the Reformed faith but there may well be a solid Reformed congregation that is not “local” (that is defined rather differently in So Cal than it is in other areas; anything within 60 minutes is more or less “local”) that needs your help and that may be able to help prepare you for future service.

Here are more resources:

When Should I Leave My Congregation?

To the Evangelical Nicodemites

Why (Some) Reformed People Are Such Jerks

Three Ways of Relating to American Religion

Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!


  1. I agree with what Dr Clark has wrote and the only thing I would add is that;
    1. It is better to be in church where the gospel is preached allbeit imperfectly than join a church that is historically reformed but refuses to call sinners to repentance and deny basic Christian principles. The CRC is sadly heading in that direction.
    2. Don’t forget that God maybe calling you to suffer silently with grace,patience, and joy in a local church that belongs to Christ but is not Refomed.

  2. Great guidance, as usual, from Dr. Clark.

    I would simply add that there is nothing wrong with commuting to a confessionally reformed church and telling the leadership there that you would like to pray and work for the day when a similar church could be started in the vicinity of your home town. A few things to consider:

    1. Get trained to be an active part of a potential church plant’s core group. This will largely consist of doing things you should be doing anyway. Study God’s word. Study the confessions and catechisms of the church you are commuting to. Get involved (i.e. don’t act like you’re a tourist simply because you are commuting). Don’t be afraid to ask the Elders at the church you are commuting to for personal mentoring.

    2. If you have the requisite gifts and maturity, after becoming well known to the members and leadership of the church you are commuting to, ask to be trained to be a church officer. Be patient if they would like to see more growth and maturity from you first. This is actually a good sign in that it shows how seriously they treat Christ’s Church.

    3. Open up your home (or organize another appropriate location) for a reformed bible study or theology study group to be held in your community.

    4. Be diligent in prayer, study, and outreach. It is an odd American notion that everything related to the Church should be quick and easy. Perhaps the LORD is calling you to labor for years for the sake of the gospel before you see any fruit from your labors.

  3. Excellent post and very helpful from a layman’s point of view. Years ago I asked a similar question and received the economists two handed answer (on the one hand etc…). It was confusing and unhelpful. If the circumstances require one to start the process of leaving it is tough but right and comes not necessarily with outward blessing, but always with spiritual blessing.

  4. I felt the same way, but then realized there was a reformed churh in my area, under the heading of a “Bible Church.” It may not always have Presbyterian or Dutch Reformed on it to be reformed in their beliefs. A good place to look is the churchs statement of faith. Although I understand that this would not fit Dr. Clark’s definition of “Reformed” as laid out in previous blog posts.

    • Brand,

      To be clear, my concern is not about ethnicity or about church polity but about confession. In Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile nor Scot nor Dutchman. Likewise, there were congregationalists, episcopalians, and presbyterians at Dort and Westminster. It’s about the substance of the Reformed theology, piety, and practice.

  5. One factor that may need some attention: witness where you live. It may be a temptation to commute, because God sometimes calls us to bear witness to the truth where we are, even though the brothers and sisters (real and otherwise) misunderstand and dislike it. When we commute, we lose more than gasoline; we lose the opportunity to be Christian and Reformed where God has put us. Of course, this does not justify condoning heresy, doing evil, etc. Sometimes it is not easy to know what God wants us to do. We may need to recall WCF XVI, V & VI.

  6. What about moving? It seems like this option is almost always forgotten. We move all the time for all sorts of reasons (family, new job, get out of the cold), why not for the church as well?

  7. Dr. Clark, you talk about commuter churches, which I agree is certainly a valid option. One question, though: Do you have any suggestions about how to foster closeness within the church when everyone is so spread out? Many churches in our continental Reformed background are in small towns, where everyone either grew up together, has known one another for years, or is related to one another. Fostering closeness in those churches (through home Bible studies, etc.) is a bit easier. But it’s much harder to get together with others in the church on a weeknight when the congregation is so spread out. Your thoughts?

    • Hi Josh,

      It’s a problem. The older I get the more I realize how time and space are real limits. One solution is gather for fellowship meals on the Lord’s Day, between services. Another is to do so during the week, in regional groups. Finally, we need to plant churches, not for our own convenience (!) but to fulfill the mission of the church. Let our scattered families become seed beds (seminaries) for the advance of the kingdom.

  8. I’m a bit skeptical regarding commuter churches as something we ought to promote. It seems like the sort of thing modernity offers up with no thought to the importance of place/locality to the nurturing of our souls. I mean prior to Henry Ford, for most of human history you chose your church like you chose your parents.

  9. Guys, those of you who think commuter churches are something questionable need to take a serious look at what the options are in large parts of the United States. And quite frankly, if you look at the history of the Reformation and of the major Reformed revivals of the 1700s and early 1800s, it was not at all uncommon for people to **WALK,** not drive, some very long distances to hear solid preaching.

    I drive 80 miles, about an hour and a half, to an independent church (used to be URC, but that’s another long story). My only other options within a two hour drive are 1) a PCA which has women in office and lots of other issues and where the preaching is very little different from any other evangelical to mainline church, or 2) a Southern Baptist congregation where the preacher is Reformed but most of the church is not.

    If I take the visible church seriously, neither of those are options.

    So what am I supposed to do without commuting to church? Attend a church I cannot join without being rebaptized, or join a PCA congregation knowing that if I took my membership vows seriously, I would be forced, as a matter of integrity, to start a fight with the pastor that is certain to cause serious problems in a small and struggling church which very likely would not survive a serious internal disruption? (Before people think I’m speaking hastily, I attended that PCA church for many years without joining, and I know what I’m talking about — I like the pastor but he shouldn’t be in the PCA, I know the presbytery well enough to know it won’t act, and I see no God-honoring purpose in creating a major fight in the local church that will just end up generating paperwork for the Standing Judicial Commission before the SJC finds a way to ignore more problems in one of its churches.)

    We need to be realistic if we’re going to be Reformed. Not everyplace is Northwest Iowa or West Michigan (or, for that matter, Philadelphia or Jackson, Miss., or Atlanta, Ga.) There are places where there simply are no options for Reformed people other than a long drive, and that’s not the worst thing in the world.

Comments are closed.