Strategic, Authentic, and Confessional

Introduction: What Do You Want?

I spent an encouraging evening with a enthusiastic group of young people at pastor’s house recently. Over dinner we discussed the challenges of planting Reformed Churches. We agreed that whatever we do we need to be strategic, we need to be authentic, and we need to be confessional.

When you receive a telephone call from someone you do not know, what’s the first thing you ask yourself? It’s probably “What do they want?” We live in a time of suspicion. We all exercise a hermeneutic of suspicion. People assume that other people are “working an angle.” People generally assume that others are trying to get something from them. Our congregations must be or become places where, when folks visit, they find a congregation of people who aren’t trying to get something from them, who aren’t trying to manipulate them. Our congregations must be places where people can find folk who only want two things: to glorify God and love their neighbors. This is what I mean by “authentic.” This runs counter to a lot of popular approaches to church planting and “church growth.” There are (and have been since the second “Great Awakening”) lots of methods for getting people to do what you want (walk the aisle or whatever), but those shouldn’t be our methods. Indeed, if methods = manipulation, we ought to be completely shed of them if we want people to trust us and to listen to what we have to say. The question isn’t what we get from people but what we can give them: the good news and love of Christ.

Strategic?

The second adjective that occurred in our kitchen-table discussions Saturday night was “strategic.” I realize this is a buzz-word and by it I don’t mean to invoke everything that everyone means by it. Here’s what I mean by strategic: we need to have a godly and wise plan for advancing the kingdom in our area through the planting of churches and that plan should involve the training of pastors, elders, and laity.

Reformed denominations have a mixed track record regarding church planting. Sometimes we have been passive, waiting for people to come to us. One reason why we are so passive in church planting is that some of our congregations were once part of a larger, older denomination with denominational agencies and budgets and professionals who took care of things for us. We sent a check, we took a “missions” trip and that was it. Now, we’re on our own. We don’t have any “professionals” doing the planning for us and there is a vacuum that we have not yet filled.

There is a second, more deeply rooted problem.  Our consistories must become convinced that the visible church is the divine institution for advancing the kingdom of God on the earth. I believe that one reason why our churches are sometimes lackadaisical about church planting is that it is regarded as but one instrument among many for advancing the kingdom. The thinking seems to be that “Well, we have churches for our families and children, we have Christian schools for our children and others who might attend, and we support other agencies to do kingdom work.”

The problem with this paradigm is that, as important as they are, Jesus did not institute Christian schools or the other agencies on which we rely to do “kingdom work.” As a matter of biblical and confessional principle I think we’re bound to say that, as useful as the other agencies are (some of which I support privately), they are not directly instituted by our Lord. They are private associations doing good work, but they are not the visible, institutional church authorized to preach the gospel and administer the sacraments and discipline.

Take, for example, the first of these agencies. Since it is controversial, let me be clear. Christian education of our covenant children is a moral obligation of Reformed families. I don’t want to hear from any of you about how I’m denigrating Christian education. I’m not. There is no question about the necessity and importance of Christian education of our covenant children. If we are not diligent to see to it that our children receive a Christian education, we will reap the whirlwind. Nevertheless, the local Christian school is not a divine institution and neither are the several dozen other Christian agencies that we often support. The only agency directly instituted by our Lord for the advancement of his kingdom is the agency to which he gave the keys of the kingdom: the visible, institutional church (Matt 16; 18; 28:18-20). As important is it is as an aid to the Christian nurture of our children, the local Christian school may not preach the gospel in an official way, it certainly may not administer the sacraments or church discipline. It belongs to the sphere of the family not the sphere of the church. That’s why we don’t have parochial schools.

May churches support private agencies? Yes. I happen to work for one and we depend, in part, on the support of churches. Of course, the seminary is a little different from other agencies (e. g. benevolent organizations) in that we train pastors for the churches and we do it in the closest possible cooperation with churches and we (the faculty) do it as ministers in the churches. Nevertheless, support for private agencies ought not eclipse the primary goal of advancing the kingdom of God through the planting of churches.

Once convinced of the necessity and uniqueness of the visible church as Christ’s means for advancing his cause,  our consistories ought to exercise some forethought to planting churches and, perhaps most importantly, we should not be waiting for groups to call us but we ought to target areas where there aren’t presently any confessional Reformed churches (we used to observe a principle known as comity) and we ought to intentionally plant churches with the intent of winning the lost rather than shifting the sheep.

On Being Authentic

authentic The second adjective that occurred in our kitchen-table discussions Saturday night was “strategic.” I realize this is a buzz-word and by it I don’t mean to invoke everything that everyone means by it.

Here’s what I mean by strategic: we need to have a godly and wise plan for advancing the kingdom in our area through the planting of churches and that plan should involve the training of pastors, elders, and laity.

Let me talk about my own federation/denomination, the United Reformed Churches (but I guess some of what I say here will apply to other situations). Since our formation we have been quite disorganized not only in prosecuting international church planting but also in prosecuting domestic church planting. As far as I can tell, the plan seems to be to wait for some group of people to contact a consistory to ask for help planting a church. This approach might be a sort of (passive) strategy but isn’t “strategic.”

One reason why we are so passive in church planting is that some of our congregations were once part of a larger, older denomination with denominational agencies and budgets and professionals who took care of things for us. We sent a check, we took a “missions” trip and that was it. Now, we’re on our own. We don’t have any “professionals” doing the planning for us and there is a vacuum that we have not yet filled.

There is a second, more deeply rooted problem.  Our consistories must become convinced that the visible church is the divine institution for advancing the kingdom of God on the earth. I believe that one reason why our churches are sometimes lackadaisical about church planting is that it is regarded as but one instrument among many for advancing the kingdom. The thinking seems to be that “Well, we have churches for our families and children, we have Christian schools for our children and others who might attend, and we support other agencies to do kingdom work.”

The problem with this paradigm is that, as important as they are, Jesus did not institute Christian schools or the other agencies on which we rely to do “kingdom work.” As a matter of biblical and confessional principle I think we’re bound to say that, as useful as the other agencies are (some of which I support privately), they are not directly instituted by our Lord. They are private associations doing good work, but they are not the visible, institutional church authorized to preach the gospel and administer the sacraments and discipline.

Take, for example, the first of these agencies. Since it is controversial, let me be clear. Christian education of our covenant children is a moral obligation of Reformed families. I don’t want to hear from any of you about how I’m denigrating Christian education. I’m not. There is no question about the necessity and importance of Christian education of our covenant children. If we are not diligent to see to it that our children receive a Christian education, we will reap the whirlwind. Nevertheless, the local Christian school is not a divine institution and neither are the several dozen other Christian agencies that we often support (with church funds!). The only “agency” directly instituted by our Lord for the advancement of his kingdom is the agency to which he gave the keys of the kingdom: the visible, institutional church (Matt 16; 18; 28:18-20). As important is it is as an aid to the Christian nurture of our children, the local Christian school may not preach the gospel in an official way, it certainly may not administer the sacraments or church discipline. It belongs to the sphere of the family not the sphere of the church. That’s why we don’t have parochial schools.

May churches support private agencies? Yes. I happen to work for one and we depend, in part, on the support of churches. Of course, the seminary is a little different from other agencies (e. g. benevolent organizations) in that we train pastors for the churches and we do it in the closest possible cooperation with churches and we (the faculty) do it as ministers in the churches. Nevertheless, support for private agencies ought not eclipse the primary goal of advancing the kingdom of God through the planting of churches.

Once convinced of the necessity and uniqueness of the visible church as Christ’s means for advancing his cause,  our consistories ought to exercise some forethought to planting churches and, perhaps most importantly, we should not be waiting for groups to call us but we ought to target areas where there aren’t presently any confessional Reformed churches (we used to observe a principle known as comity) and we ought to intentionally plant churches with the intent of winning the lost rather than shifting the sheep.

The second aspect embedded in the adjective strategic is that we must teach our consistories that congregations do not exist chiefly for the comfort of those who presently attend. Yes, growth through having covenant children and nurture of the same is a beautiful thing, but what about those who are born outside of covenant families? Not having been raised in the church I am perhaps more sensitive to the plight of those who are utterly outside the visible church. Who will reach them? Jesus gave to the church the mission of reaching the lost and of baptizing the adult converts (and their children; Rom 4) and of teaching the faith to and exercising discipline over those who are converted.

In other words, one of the chief missions of the church is to reach out to those who are not presently in our services, who do not yet confess Christ. As far as I can tell, this sort of church planting hardly goes on at all. There is a lot of talk about it but not many folks doing it. How do we go about it? First we must plan for the long term. Two-year plans are great when there’s a group ready-made and where we can, as it were, add water and stir. When we’re reaching out to folks with little or no Christian background at all, it is going to take years to reach them and to teach them.We need ten- and twenty-year plans in place of the ad hoc 1-2 year plans that seem to be in place (where there are plans in place at all).

For one thing, it is going to take time for the minister and members of the core group to meet new people. The pastoral ministry is, oddly, isolating. The minute I gave up my “secular” vocation I met fewer non-Christians. I had fewer opportunities to talk to non-Christians. I had fewer opportunities to simply befriend and interact and live Christianly with and around non-Christians.

To do all this, we need leaven. This is where the laity in our existing congregations comes into play. It is difficult and perhaps nigh unto impossible to plant a congregation and to reach the lost without a core group. The new converts are not going to be a stable core group. It’s going to take years to train them. They are going to bring with them all the baggage they have and they’re going to have to learn to think and live like Christians. That takes time. There’s nothing else for it. We have, in many of our congregations a resource that is more precious than money and even more valuable for church planting: mature, experienced, godly, and gracious singles, couples, and families whom we could, if we would, train and send on a mission to help plant churches.

As a pastor I can tell you that one of the things for which the pastor prays daily is for godly, mature leadership. Sometimes our churches send elders, on a rotation, to attend a nearby church plant. One Sunday its one elder and the next Sunday it’s another. That’s better than nothing but it’s not sufficient. A church plant needs families! It needs singles. It needs couples. When the newcomers (visitors, guests) come in the door of the church plant they need to come into a group that is expecting them, that is praying for them, that is ready to love them. Most Americans don’t want to walk into an empty room and they don’t want to walk into a room that is already full of people who know each other and who have already formed cliques. Both settings are uninviting.

Our older, larger, wealthier, more established churches need to strategically recruit, teach, and send out laity to local church planting projects and in, in this way, incrementally plant churches in the great metro areas of North America.

I realize this is asking a lot of the older, established churches. Some folk might be reluctant to undertake such a project. I understand that reluctance — who wants to say good-bye to friends we see every Lord’s Day? — but I cannot agree with it. Yes, not everyone in the congregation is up to being part of such a mission, but some of our people are up to it. They’re ready for it and they may not even realize it. Our consistories need to identify those folk in our congregations as part of the church planting strategy and we need to be prepared to ask them to make the sacrifice to leaving behind their family and friends, at least for a time, for the sake of the mission.

Here’s an analytical question: To whom does a congregation belong? Does it belong to the folk who founded it? Does it belong to the consistory? Does it belong to the 10% who do all the “work”? No, it belongs to none of them. The church belongs to Christ. It exists to advance his kingdom and his kingdom is advanced through the preaching of the gospel (Rom 10) and the administration of the sacraments and discipline (Matt 28:18-20) and that can’t happen without a core group.

On Being Confessional

Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 1In the process of revising and re-posting this series from 2007, I realized that I never finished it. In the first two parts we considered what it means for a church to be authentic and to be strategic about fulfilling the mission that Christ gave to the church: to reach the lost and to teach those reached, i.e., to administer the means of grace in the visible, institutional church, which Christ himself instituted. To be authentic is to be genuine, the real thing, to be honest about who we are and what we are about. We are about preaching the law and the gospel, the bad news and the good news. We are a gathering of sinners redeemed by grace. We aren’t manipulators or shysters. To be strategic means to fulfill the mission intentionally and not haphazardly. In so doing, however, we must follow some charter, some understanding of the Word. That understanding is the confession of the churches. Another way to think about what it means to be confessional in fulfilling the mission is to ask: after we’ve determined to be authentic and strategic, to what sort theology, piety, and practice are we inviting people?

In a sense, then, we’ve come full circle. For Reformed and Presbyterian congregations to be authentic is for them to be confessional. If we pretend to be other than what we confess, then we are, by definition, being inauthentic, dishonest. We’re not really “community” churches are we? We are a communion and a community of believers but we not congregational. We have ministers, elders, and deacons. We are in connection to churches in the region (or the regional church) and in the synod. Those connections are not cosmetic. Our theology, piety, and practice doesn’t change when we change ministers. There are not as many “visions” for the church as there are pastors. There is only one vision for a Reformed congregation: the vision Christ gave us, to reach the lost, to disciple those reached, to nurture covenant families, to preach the gospel, to show the love of Christ concretely to the congregation in meeting practical needs. Our “vision” for the Christian life is simple: daily dying to sin and living to Christ through regular prayer, attendance to the means of grace (Word and sacrament ministry on the Sabbath). I said it was simple. I didn’t say it was easy.

We’re not neo-Pentecostalists or Anabaptists (16th-century neo-Pentecostalists). We don’t confess the continuing apostolic gifts. Our ministers aren’t transported by the Spirit from place to place, our ministers aren’t able to speak in foreign languages solely by a special gift of the Spirit, and when stoned with rocks, they die. They’re not apostles. They’re just Christ’s ministers. They preach, they visit the sick, they administer the sacraments, the officiate at weddings and funerals. A dear old friend described ordinary, Reformed pastoral minister as “hatch, match, and dispatch.” There’s more to it than that but that’s true enough.

We’re not particularly flashy. When we’re at our best, we’re doing the same stuff in roughly the same way (mutatis mutandis) as we’ve always done it. In a radically democratic culture that wants “new” and “thrilling” and defines worship as the experience of ecstasy, we’ve got a hard row to hoe (for more on this see the essay on “Being Reformed in Sister’s America“). When we’ve tried to be or present ourselves as if we were something else, we’ve failed. The mainline (liberal) denominations decided in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that they didn’t want to be the odd men (and women) out. They wanted to  fit it, to be acceptable and today they are nearly defunct. The old mainline families are now more likely to attend the opera than to attend worship. Fold realized long ago that they weren’t hearing anything of value any more in most mainline pulpits. The broad evangelical world seems to be on the same path. Both the mainliners and evangelicals abandoned the old Protestant confessions and now look where they are. Why would we imitate them and expect things to turn out differently for us? Are we special? Are we immune from history? It’s just foolish to think so.

If we’re going to be of any real, lasting value to those whom we’re trying to reach and disciple then we must be for something. Of course, every congregation is for something, even if it’s only Christless Christianity. Those congregations, of course, have already snuffed out their lamps. No, if we’re to be of value then we have to be about Christ, his gospel, and his church. As the culture continues to decay around us we our use will be in our contrast. As the darkness envelopes those around us, the brightness of the good news will shine even more brightly but we must be holding that forth, along with the a clear announcement of God’s law in order to drive sinners to Christ and to shape the moral lives of those who trust him and unite with his church.

Christ is Lord. He rules the nations with a rod of iron. He has given us a mission and a powerful message to which he has attached great promises, namely the promise to use the proclamation of that message to raise the dead to life and to put the living to death. That’s our mission: to announce, to minister, to pray, to catechize, to prepare God’s people to live well in his world, according to his Word.

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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10 comments

  1. My initial conversion was partly attended by (OK, even initiated by) a Jesus-freak. Trouble was, amongst many things, I think he was indoctrinated with the “friendship evangelism” stuff. He feigned friendship until he was able to notch me up on his spiritual bedpost: needless to say, I quite understand the hermeneutic of suspicion. Friendship evangelism is just another expression of a broad Evangelicalism duped by the more dubious strategies of the spirit of the age, “working its angles” and whatnot.

    Good stuff, Scott.

    Zrim

  2. Perhaps comity is still in play in 2013 – an OPC church plant since your original post is just 5 miles NW of where I live, while a URC church plant landed 10 miles to the south. My metro area is Reformed-rich, but my own side of town was lacking for churches that were Reformed more than in name only. We have an overabundance of broad evangelical churches (I’ve been in one of them for 15 years) that are either fully independent or who are downplaying their denominational distinctives. And yet they keep springing up within a stone’s throw of each other.

  3. Scot,
    It’s important to note that, as the OPC link you provided makes clear, comity is about relationships and communication, not a law about required geographical distances. It’s an important principle for those occasions when a denomination (or presbytery) is considering a map and deciding between several otherwise equally suitable locations. Knowing that another reformed denomination is already there (or planning a plant) may well be a relevant factor.

    However, in many church plants, other things are not equal. There may be pressing reasons why a particular location is ideal and no other location would work (as in our situation here in Grove City). It’s not a choice between planting in town A or B, but between planting or not planting. And are there really any parts of our country where we would dare say that we have too many confessional Reformed churches? Different churches do reach different kinds of people, and sometimes a new church can reach people who won’t go to the existing Reformed church, for various reasons. The vast majority of the people attending our church, for example, many of whom are new to Reformed theology (or in some cases, new to church altogether) probably wouldn’t attend an RPCNA church, with exclusive psalmody and no instruments. And I am equally sure that there are RPCNA folk, who for conviction’s sake would have trouble being part of our church. It’s a blessing to me as a church planter that I can say to folks with those convictions, “Here’s a good Reformed church for you to go to.” Otherwise, you often end up with a tug of war as to what sort of Reformed church the new plant is going to be.

    So yes, let’s make strategic choices and communicate well with our Reformed brothers, as long as we recognize that sometimes the strategic (and kingdom minded) decision is to plant the church down the street anyway!

    • Hey Iain!

      Thanks for this. I think we’re agreed but we’re in different settings and contexts, hence our somewhat differing perspectives.

      I think about, e.g., LA and San Diego on the one hand and virtually all of the Pacific NW, the Mountain West, and the plains as places where the confessional Reformed witness is either non-existent, light, or scattered. Things have improved in SoCal over the last 30 years. When I came here the first time in 1984 confessional Reformed/Presbyterian congregations were very few. It’s better but we have a long way to go in the San Diego metro and in the LA metro. We could plant churches every month in LA and still hardly make a demographic dent.

      On the plains and in the mountain west I can think of areas where one cannot find a Reformed congregation of any sort (confessional or not) within an 4 hour drive (and perhaps farther). On our recent drive through the west and the plains I was reminded of the state of the church. I saw empty/re-purposed rural church buildings and even where there was some population there are almost no Reformed churches.

      I can think of a couple of places where we could reasonably say that we have a reasonably high concentration of congregations, where one could find a solid, confessional congregation within a very short (e.g., 5-10 minutes) driving distance.

      I agree that there are times when, even though it seems counter-intuitive, there is a case to be made for yet another Reformed church in a place where there are already ostensibly Reformed congregations. Perhaps the other congregations in the area are only ostensibly but not actually confessional or perhaps there is some practical, pressing, unavoidable reason. Still, where there are ostensibly confessional congregations, if they’re not fulfilling their mission to preach the law and the gospel and to administer the sacraments and discipline faithfully, then the first need may be Reformation/Recovering the Reformed Confession before a new congregation.

      My main concern here is to ask people not to reduce church planting to establishing franchise operations to serve clients who, e.g., have moved from rural to urban/suburban areas. I worry that is the default setting in some Reformed circles. I understand that, in God’s providence, demographic changes happen and people need congregations and those relocated families can become core groups for further planting but I would like to see confessionalists also thinking about where to plant churches on the basis of need defined as the complete absence of any confessional Reformed witness.

  4. I looked at the congregation finders for the RPCNA, PCA, URCNA, and OPC here in CA, and the middle of the state is significantly lacking a Reformed presence. I only found one church in the Bakersfield area, a PCA church; fortunately, it seems to be a good PCA congregation. But still, Bakersfield has a fairly large population, and it sure seems a shame that there is only one PCA church.

    In the Fresno area there are very few churches. There is one small URCNA, one PCA, and one RPCNA (which seems to be small, and it has some a capella psalm singing their website that you can enjoy Dr. Clark). The closest OPC congregation is somewhat distant.

    The other thing that came to mind is that it seems preferable to have a good number of churches in largely populated areas. If you don’t, and there are many Christians in the area, they will form churches with hundreds, if not thousands of people, where a pastor has no idea who half of his congregation is.

    Maybe it’s done already, but if not, it would be a good idea to show seminarians the maps of the NAPARC churches with their church locations so they can see how empty some places are.

    • Thank you. I just searched for those churches of which I am most aware.

      I looked up their website and found an article that seems to imply that you must hold to a six-day creation in order to be a leader or member. In one place it says, “In the first place, our view of six day creation directly affects our view of the Lord’s Day or Christian Sabbath, for if God did not literally rest on a literal sixth day, the sanctity of the Lord’s Day would be violated (Exodus 20:7).” The article is titled “Whither the RCUS”.

  5. Alberto wrote: “The other thing that came to mind is that it seems preferable to have a good number of churches in largely populated areas. If you don’t, and there are many Christians in the area, they will form churches with hundreds, if not thousands of people, where a pastor has no idea who half of his congregation is.”

    GW: Spot on. The mega-church model of doing church (with its marketing approach – whether it be “seeker sensitive” or “emergent” or whatever – which treats potential congregants as religious consumers to be manipulated and catered to) is the prevailing model in the evangelical Christian world today. In this model the “church” is a religious corporation/business, and the “pastor” is the CEO of the organization. This is the model today that most Christians in America have been raised with and are used to. It is the air evangelical and other conservative Christians breath. But it is totally unbiblical (in my opinion) – theologically, ecclesiologically, and pastorally – for how on earth is the “pastor” of such a mega-church of multiple thousands suppose to know his “sheep,” and how on earth is he to be expected to give an account on the final day as to how he shepherded the particular individual sheep entrusted to his care (Heb. 13:17)?

    Of course, even confessionally Reformed and Presbyterian churches need to have enough congregants to be viable and stable (hence most NAPARC denominations would probably not try to plant a Reformed church with only 10 persons committed to the prospective core group, for example). But the contemporary evangelical obsession with large membership statistics and big church structures (“campuses”) is totally worldly. While I think we need to be careful about legalistically dictating what constitutes a local church being either “too big” or “too small,” I think common sense combined with biblical teaching on shepherding would show that, as a general rule, smaller is better. (By “smaller” I’m thinking in the range of 50-200 total membership, with some flexibility built in to allow for unique providential circumstances.)

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