Presbyterian and Reformed congregations occupy an odd space in American Christianity. We do not really belong to American Christianity in significant ways. Our roots are not in the nineteenth-century revivals nor even in the eighteenth-century revivals. We are no part of the Pentecostal tradition. Our roots are in the sixteenth-century Reformation and in the post-Reformation outworking of the the early Reformed theology, piety, and practice. American Christianity has long been dominated by impulses and movements that are hostile to Reformed theology, piety, and practice. So, we do not neatly fit. At our best we are not American revivalists or fundamentalists, i.e., we are neither on a quest for the next great religious experience (usually euphoria), the QIRE, which is so exhausting, nor are we absolutely certain about those things about which certainty is neither desirable nor possible (the QIRC). At our best we are not weird, quirky, or idiosyncratic. At our best we are haven of rest for those who are exhausted by the QIRC and the QIRE. We are a place where weary travelers, who need to hear a word of grace and find a kind face, can find shelter.
We are not always at our best, however. Too often we mirror the twin sisters of American Christianity, the QIRC and the QIRE. Sometimes, however, even if we mostly avoid those two extremes, we face another challenge: confessional Reformed congregations can be a little awkward socially. In this case I do not refer to the way we appear to those who are outside the P&R tradition or even to newcomers. I have addressed those issues before (see the resources below). In this case I am thinking about the fact that, even for those of us who are very familiar with the foibles of the NAPARC world (the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council) world, some of our congregations—too many of them—can be difficult to visit and even more difficult to join. Why is this and what can be done about it?
The Congregation Of The Committed
Confessional P&R congregations are not community churches. They may sometimes bear that name, but our congregations are governed by elders, not by the congregation. The elders (and sometimes the entire congregation) are bound by Scripture as confessed in binding confessions of faith and catechisms. They tend to be doctrinally committed. That very fact and the additional fact that they hold doctrines that represent minority views in American Christianity, tends to draw personalities who are at least potentially interested in doctrines firmly held. Such people tend to be pioneers. This perception is not unique to me. Church growth analysts have been saying this for years. They have tended to counsel church planters to chase such people off and some church-growth oriented pastors actually do that as a matter of principle and practice.
Pioneers can be prickly. They are deeply committed and they expect everyone else to be as committed as they are. They can be impatient: “Why are those others so slow to catch on? Come on!” In the planting of a confessional P&R congregation they are essential but they can be practical liability sometimes. The same dogged determination that drives them to show up in all kinds of weather, to scoop the snow in the church parking lot and mow the church lawn in the heat of summer, to persevere, to attend planning meetings, and to keep the church going (from a human point of view—of course it is the providence of God who sustains and preserves the church) until it can become established and self-sustaining can also drive visitors, whom the church growth gurus call settlers, away.
Let us consider one personality type. Experience and anecdotal evidence suggests that confessional P&R congregations have a disproportionate number of engineers. A very senior pastor warned me years ago, “Never let an engineer on your session. They tend to read the Bible like a manual.” Now, I have known engineers who did not do that but he was speaking from years of experience. Engineers, accountants, and programmers work with details. They often work alone. In their work, as in surgery and other fields, precision matters. They develop their own way of doing things. A word out of place in computer code or a millimeter here or there can make a big, sometimes unhappy, difference. We should be glad if the surgeon is precise but visitors to church are not engineering projects, spreadsheets, or patients. They are messy human beings with problems (a great number than you will ever know), a past, and confusion. Our pioneers tend to be more interested in ideas and doctrines and, frankly, less interested in people but congregations are built with both. A congregation that does not believe the historic Christian faith is not a church. It might as well be another service organization. Yet, a congregation without people is an oxymoron. People must congregate to make a congregation.
The Congregation Of The Caring
First, let us appreciate the precise pioneers. Without them, where would we be? It is easy to dump on them and yet we rely on them, do we not? Still, it is incumbent upon the pioneers to become aware of their strengths and weaknesses. If one’s interpersonal skills are not polished, perhaps one should not the first to greet guests? Think of the pioneers like single malt whiskey. It is not for everyone. It is an acquired taste. Some never acquire the taste but no one tastes it for the first time and says, “Yes, I must have more of that!” To be sure, I am speaking of Yanks here, not Scotsman. I suppose a Scotsman has had his first wee dram while teething. Typically, one is more likely to sherry before dinner. So it should be when meeting and greeting guests and visitors. Over time, our guests, as they become integrated into the congregation, will develop an appreciation for the peaty pioneer who keeps the place humming while the rest are drinking coffee.
Little things, like smiles and warm handshakes (or elbow bumps) matter. “No one spoke to me” is one of the worst things a pastor can hear when he follows up with a guest. There are certain subjects one probably should not broach with visitors, e.g., politics or the culture wars. We hope that your guests have come to hear the gospel and, if they have not yet believed, we pray fervently that the Lord is in the process of bringing them to new life and true faith. Now is certainly not the time to try to make sure that they are on the “correct” side of a given issue. It would be a dystopian world indeed, were the nurse at the hospital desk to inquire about your politics before getting you signed in for treatment.
Think about your guests. Is your building amenable to guests? Is there space? Is there an easy, inconspicuous place for visitors to sit or are they forced to make the march of shame to the first row of the congregation? Are there enough bulletins? Guests can tell if you have given thought to them. Is your order of service (liturgy) clear? Do you explain briefly the things that might be unfamiliar? Is there someone assigned to say hello to visitors? It is also important to know when to quit. It might not be a good idea to chase down a fleeing visitor. If your guest is on a dead sprint to her car, that might be a signal or it might have nothing to do with the congregation. She might have received an emergency text message. Say a prayer and wish her Godspeed. If she breaks down in tears after the service, is there someone there who is prepared to help her? Are the deacons prepared? Is there someone with some counseling experience?
There are two other important things you can do for guests and visitors: pray for them before they come and preach gospel when they arrive. The single biggest stumbling block for guests is the impression that a congregation is intended for the folks who are already there. E.g., it will be a great temptation for pastors to opine this Lord’s Day on the things that have transpired in Washington, D. C. this week. Is that the pastor’s vocation? Is that why your guest braved the uncertainty of meeting new people to visit an unfamiliar congregation, to hear amateur social and political analysis from your pastor? I quite doubt it. Conservative P&R types complained bitterly when the mainline pulpits become mouthpieces for liberal culture war points and partisan politics. If it was wrong of them to do that, then it is wrong for conservatives to do it too. Your guest has come, like the Gentiles in John 12:21, to see Jesus. Even if your guest has come for the wrong reason, what they need to hear is Jesus.
Yes, they need to hear the law in its pedagogical use, but the law cannot save them. They need to hear the good news, that Christ came to save helpless sinners, whose lives are a mess, who have wrecked their homes and are estranged from their children. We are awash in pundits explaining who is right and who is wrong in the culture war and in politics but we have precious few people talking plainly and graciously about sin and the free forgiveness that is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.
Dear P&R congregation, love your neighbor by caring for guests before they arrive, while they are with you, and after they have gone. Perhaps they will not return. Perhaps, even at your best, a confessional P&R congregation is just not their cup of tea. There is not much to be done about that but let them be put off, if they are to be put off, by Christ and his gospel and not by our thoughtlessness, foibles, and idiosyncrasies. Perhaps, however, your guest will see that you love them and will be attracted by your genuine concern for their well being and salvation. That should be our prayer.
© R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
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- “‘Magic and Noise:’ Reformed Christianity in Sister’s America,” in eds. R. Scott Clark and Joel E. Kim Always Reformed: Essays in Honor of W. Robert Godfrey (Escondido: Westminster Seminary California, 2010), 74–91.