Why Don’t Confessional Reformed Churches Grow More Quickly?

When newcomers enter confessional Presbyterian and Reformed (hereafter, P&R) churches they have entered a world that is different from that with which they are familiar. I have written a very brief tour guide for such pilgrims and their hosts. In this essay I hope to try to provide some explanation for why most Reformed churches are small and for why they tend to grow slowly.

There are many ways to analyze churches, e.g., liberal (mainline) v. conservative, confessional v. non-confessional, and doctrinal v. experiential to give but three examples. Churches can also be analyzed by their relation to a given neighborhood. There are community churches and commuter churches. In America, community churches are typically congregational and the principle around which they are organized is the distance members live from the church building and from each other. People are bound by a proximity and a personal relationship before anything else (e.g., doctrine, piety, polity, or practice). Thus, other considerations (e.g., doctrine or polity) necessarily take a backseat. Such congregations tend to be doctrinally pluralist. Members (however that is defined in a neighborhood church) may be Baptistic or they may believe in infant baptism. The minister may do whatever fits a given member’s preferences. Some members may be charismatic and others not. Some members may desire a “high” liturgy and others a lower, more informal approach to worship. In other words, in such congregations, it is not doctrine or even practice that binds people together. It is proximity and relationships that bind them together. I recall visiting a congregation overseas, perhaps it was the only church in that small town, where the minister preached a sermon that was Anglo-Catholic for five minutes, evangelical for five minutes, and latitudinarian for five minutes. Those, I guessed, were the constituencies of that congregation. I could not tell you what the minister himself believed. I wondered if he believed anything at all?

Contrast our neighborhood congregation with a confessional P&R congregation. Most of these are not organized by proximity nor by a democratic principle nor by pluralism. They are bound by the Word of God as confessed by the P&R churches. They have a set theology, piety, and practice. They cannot be whatever a family in the neighborhood might want them to be. They are what they are. Typically, confessional P&R congregations are commuter churches. Years ago I remember reading that most Americans do not like to drive more than 10 or 15 minutes to church. I suppose that most members of P&R congregations drive at least that long and some longer. Recently I heard about a family, who lives in a remote area, who regularly drive two hours one way to worship in a P&R congregation.

That most confessional P&R congregations are commuter churches means that they are not going to have the same sense of community that a neighborhood congregation may have. Commuters to a P&R congregation may live in different cities. They shop at different markets. They are not necessarily united by a common (secular) culture. What binds them together is their shared confession of the Word of God. A commuter church may struggle to organize fellowship opportunities away from church. Even basic things like a second service in the afternoon may be impossible for those commuter churches in high-density urban areas were rental space is costly. They might have to pack both services into the period from 9:00 AM to Noon. Perhaps there is a fellowship time between services or a lunch afterwards and then the commuters separate. Members of the same congregation might not see one another (because they are separated by time and distance) until the next Lord’s Day.

These are two different ways of existing as congregations. Arguably, the neighborhood or community church is more amenable to American culture. The neighborhood congregation is not any one thing. It is inclusive. It is egalitarian. It is, to a given member or family, whatever they need it to be. To be sure, commuting is also a truly American habit but it is one thing to commute to work. It is another thing to commute to church out of a commitment to a theology, piety, and practice. Thus, drawing American Christians into such a neighborhood congregation bound as it is, by proximity, relationships, and pluralism, is one thing and drawing them to a confession (an objectively defined theology, piety, and practice) is another.

Confessional P&R congregations, organized around a fixed confession as they are, are a tough sell to independent (i.e., autonomous), pragmatic, Americans. Since the early 19th century anyway, evangelical American Christianity has been dominated by something much more like the Anabaptist movements of the 1520s than it has been by the Reformation movements of the 1560s. The P&R churches are strangers on American soil and are estranged from the dominant American approach to Christianity, which is pragmatic and relational more than organized and confessional.

This does not mean that P&R congregations are always slow to grow but it does mean that they tend to grow more slowly. They tend to be smaller. Most are 100 members or fewer. By Willow Creek and Saddleback standards, the average P&R congregation is tiny. Depending upon the economic sociology of a given P&R congregation (e.g., a rural RCUS is likely to be blue-collar, a suburban OPC might be slightly more white-collar, and a suburban PCA might have the highest percentage of upper class professionals) the resources of the congregation may be quite limited. Most church growth probably comes through natural networks (friends, relatives, neighbors, co-workers) rather than more confrontational evangelistic methods. Thus, P&R commuter churches are at a decided disadvantage. Further, when a newcomer does arrive, he does not find a malleable community but a community of believers committed to a particular confession, a historic piety, and a defined way of practicing the faith. It does not conform to him. The congregation effectively asks him to conform to them.

These are not excuses but they are realities. Confessional P&R congregations are typically not neighborhood churches. Their roots are not in the nineteenth-century frontier revivalism but in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century theology, piety, and practice transported from the British Isles or the European continent to the New World. The P&R church confess that the Holy Spirit is the “Lord and giver of life,” and so he is. We preach the Word, administer the sacraments and discipline and reach out to our friends, neighbors, and co-workers with the expectation that he will save his elect and add them to his church but we should not judge ourselves by alien standards, as if we were something we are not. We belong to a different theological and practical paradigm and we ought to use that paradigm as the measure of our growth.

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  1. Your observation is spot on. I drive over an hour to attend services at the church in which I am a member. Also, I think the reasons we have fewer church plants is because we wait for a group who has communal ties to form up before consideration is made to send a minister. This was fine in days gone by where advertising in the local newspapers made the community aware of the churches existence. However, I think consideration should be made to send men into areas with little or no group existing and rely on the new social media forms to communicate he is in town conducting services of word and sacrament.

    • How does that affect evangelism in your community? Do you expect someone you evangelist and disciple, who may be brand new to the Christian faith and life, to take up the same commute? Would you recommend them go to a local church you don’t attend?

      • Ethan,

        This is a good and fair question. How one answers this question is probably determined by their view of the visible church. I subscribe the Belgic Confession (1561), which lists three marks of a true church: the pure preaching of the gospel, the pure administration of the sacraments, and the use of church discipline. I would take someone whom I might be discipling with me to church.

        The need to reach the lost is a great impetus to plant more churches. This was my argument to my consistory c. 1999–2000 when we began looking at planting a church in Oceanside (18 miles to our west). Some argued that the folks in Oceanside should commute 18 miles to Escondido but my argument was that if we’re going to reach the coastal communities with the gospel and the Reformed confession, we must take the opportunity presented to us by the development of a core group to plant a congregation. So, that’s the long-term solution. Commuting is a reality but we hope and pray that it’s not a permanent reality.

        • Thanks for the reply! I’m a big fan of church planting. Seeing sheep without a shepherd burdens me.

    • That’s not my point. I have the very problem you are pointing out. I will commute to a confessional church. But for the city I live in, to wait until a group forms, plays into the old form of gotta have a community before you plant a church. What needs to be done is essentially is air drop a minister in, start Lord’s day services, so I can invite someone. All the while making our presence known through modern social media.

    • Hi Thomas,

      I understand your frustration. It is challenging under the best of circumstances for confessional P&R churches to plant new congregations. We lack two necessities: money & manpower.

      Further, there is a methodological debate between those who think we should wait for a core group to develop and those who think we should put a minister in a field to form or foster a core group or a new congregation. The core group approach has been the dominant model for the years I have been in pastoral ministry. The “send a man” approach is even more expensive for the sending churches inasmuch as he’s starting with nothing. On what basis is a sending Classis or congregation to send a man? When one person calls, two, three? Someone, somewhere (a consistory or some committee) must make an assessment of some kind. To send a man to a field for a minimum of 3 years is a commitment of perhaps $200,000 (on the low end). Remember, most of our congregations are 100 people or fewer and most of them are not upper class folk.

      Making things worse, in a large geographic section of the USA the confessional P&Rs are scattered hours apart so that supervision is even more difficult than usual. The OPs have a good idea with Regional Home Missionaries and the URCs are getting more organized regarding domestic church planting but it’s a slow process. All the men on the committee (ministers and elders) have their own congregations and/or jobs.

      We can do better and we will but it will take time.

  2. When Christ said “I will build my church…” wasn’t he declaring that he alone was in charge of “church growth”?

    • Bob, I think you raise an important point. I think we must always remember that God builds the church, not we. We can only respond to God’s call to plant a church. I think that comes from people He has raised through His Holy Spirit, who see the Reformed church as the most faithful representation of the Christian faith. Perhaps a missionary approach might be worth considering. In my town, Dutch immigrants originally created a demand for the Reformed church where I am a member. They acted as a type of missionaries for the Reformed faith, simply through their presence and witness in the community, which attracted others, like myself, to their church. Perhaps a core group of committed lay Christians who move to areas with no Reformed church could use social media to create awareness that they represent the confessional Reformed faith, and would like to meet with like minded individuals, and then leave it up to God to raise up the church, if it is His will. I think that is how the Apostles and disciples spread the Christian faith.

  3. Thank you Scott. There is a scenario in our booklet on starting a reformed church where a ordained minister or seminary student has a desire to plant a church in a given geographic area. My prayer is that men would be burdened with this desire. I understand the practical realities associated with church start ups. I am not inexperienced in this so my knowledge comes with personal experience. I am sure our men are working on this. Please pray for the state and area I live in and please tell your young men of our need. Thank you

    • Thomas,

      There two main schools of thought, 1) that denominations ought to train pastors; 2) they shouldn’t. I don’t know that either has an advantage. The churches did not control the universities or the theology faculties in the Reformation and post-Reformation periods. The American experience of denominational seminaries is not very promising. They rarely remain orthodox for more than a century and most do not last that long. Typically progressives or latitudinarians gain control of institutions (e.g., the denominational seminary) and use the seminary to spread their agenda. It’s happening right now in some places.

      Machen raised the question whether the Lord has commissioned the church as church (as an institution) to teach Greek and Hebrew or church history, which is what seminaries do. I think he had a point.

      On the other hand, I couldn’t say that denominations should not operate their own schools but the very idea of “denomination” is a modern invention so the whole thing is, to some degree, unchartered territory compared to the great history of the church. There are faithful denominational seminaries. There is some advantage to having a school that serves primarily a particular denomination. For smaller denominations, however, it can be a great financial strain. There is an economy of scale. A small school that educates say 10 at a time is spending a tremendous amount of money per student. A school that educates 150 at a time is spending proportionately much less money per student.

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