An Update On Ventura Reformed Church

But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. And he prayed to the LORD and said, “O LORD, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster… And the LORD said, “You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” (Jonah 4:1-2, 10-11 ESV)

And he said to them, “When you pray, say: “Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come… What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?
 13 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:2, 11-13 ESV)

Setting aside for now the varying expectations of others, among the challenges I find in church-planting is my own sense of entitlement to have a ‘successful’ church. What I mostly mean by ‘successful’ is: humble pastor being faithful in life and ministry, ending up with an at least one-generation-enduring critical mass of people worshiping the Lord weekly as a confessional, Reformed church; this community growing in love, piety and doctrine; and cultivating especially its personal and corporate witness to the large number of local people who do not attend any church regularly (so that we see some adult baptisms), while remaining/becoming conversant with different kinds of churchgoers about church history and theology (so that we shepherd some of them into our franchise of the True Visible Church). The tension is, while I know working for this is a good thing, as I think this is the kind of church God wants and so he sent me here to work and pray, it’s up to him—he doesn’t necessarily want and certainly doesn’t need this work to blossom into such a church. I do not mean to pour cold water on the good hopes for our URCNA church plant project in Ventura, California, nor do I want to sap its precious energy, however I do want to address what I think is better news about this whole dilemma of, “Adam, go work for it, be faithful, give your life to it, but I am not promising you anything as far as your actual institution goes.” Go ahead and fill in your own name and your own church-plant or established congregation and its good institutional hopes to thrive for the glory of God.

Here’s that better news: If you are asking for the good things he taught you to ask for, things that all begin and end with his own glory, he will give them to you (but maybe not in your church or ministry, which you’d be fine with, right? Since what you really want is for him to be glorified and for us to be even forgotten—taken care of in this life, yes, but truly, happily satisfied beyond imagination with him and his providence alone, needing nothing more, no other ‘success’). So go ahead, Father, let’s see the good Reformed churches (well at least High Church Protestant churches) being established, and growing, and being maintained, and people being saved and sanctified; make my church one of these, or not, but, build your church! I think this is so freeing. I think it is the right balance between understanding God’s certain commitment, his promises to build his church, and the critical importance of our self-denial as his servants.

Consider God’s promises. Of course God can rescue the idolatrous, gross Ninevites. What other proof would we need than to see that the whole community (more or less) promptly repents after Jonah’s concise, uncouth, off-putting preaching: “Forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown, you savage degenerates.” Then, immediate repentance, only explained by the miraculous power of God’s Spirit accompanying the message. What embitters Jonah is that God (who, being holy, lest Jonah forget, is even more offended by the Ninevites than Jonah) is also deeply moved for the lost Ninevites. I love it that we don’t find out until later that Jonah had already told God he didn’t want to go preach there, because he knew that their repentance was inevitable, not just the power but the heart of God being what it is, that he almost can’t help himself but to send them rescue. That their rescue would come at some annoying temporary inconvenience to Jonah is the but icing on the self-righteous, self-important, resentment cake. Anyway, the point is that when we ask God to rescue people from sin, he will rescue some of them because that’s who he is, but we shouldn’t asterisk that prayer with, “save people and ensure they come to my church plant or my established church.” We would pray like that because that is convenient for us and somewhere deep down we think we are necessary for God’s glory. It’s something like James said: “you don’t get because you don’t ask right.” Does God not care for them (the way he puts it is stronger, “should” I not care for them?)? If we ask him to spread the knowledge and fame of who he is to lost people, Jesus tells us in effect, “Yes, the Holy Spirt who has the power to answer that will do it because it’s a good thing I’m telling you to ask for.” We can qualify this: I don’t think it’s a promise for the salvation of every individual for whom we pray, but asking him to use our lives in the lives of others for their rescue? Even off of our radar? Yes, sir. Take that to the bank. It’s more than just, “Well, maybe there are some elect out there maybe there aren’t,” but it’s less than, “There are elect out there and you will catch them in your institution.” We should be good with that, and in fact that spurs us on with better motivation.

So I keep this in mind and heart as we labor on in Ventura. Some of you are thinking, “Wow, OK, things are not going well for them—they must not be growing.” Cynics, I can feel you! It’s not true. We actually have ticked up in regular attenders and visitors in this recent season, however, more importantly, I think we are learning about what ways we are more gifted and able such that more people come into our lives and become aware of our church. We tried an extremely modest social video campaign for a men’s reading group, targeting certain demographics with tailored one-minute spots: one, for the unchurched (“Why believe God exists and that the Scripture is his reliable communication?”); two, for the lapsed (“Why do people drift from church when they live out here?”); and three, for the churched (“Since people interpret the Bible differently, how do you read the Bible correctly?”). Many watched a longer click-through video and perused our website, and four people gave us their names and email addresses. Unsurprisingly, we haven’t seen any of these four, but now they get our emails, and many new people seem to now know we’re here. I’m getting more one-off texts and questions from people I don’t know. Please pray for these contacts to develop into real meetings and relationships. What’s great is that two old friends of one of our core guys have unexpectedly attended that reading group—we have been hanging out with these guys and praying, hoping for them. It’s exhilarating, really, for us to see them respond to how the book of Hebrews unveils Jesus in a rich, multi-faceted way from the Old Testament. Very powerful! They’re asking for more; we’re anxious to provide it.

Like almost anywhere in the Western world now, here on the Oxnard Plain is a varied and desperate, Jesus-needing populous. Fascinating people! “All politics is local,” “all evangelism is personal and individual.” Daniel is in his early 30s, bright, from the South, grew up Baptist, not now in church. He is a down-to-earth westernized panentheist. All is ‘God’ and God is all; life is a journey to the nirvana, learning mindfulness. He has “progressed,” reinterpreting the religion of his youth: Jesus is but a guru, the Scriptures are but one people’s record of their “path,” prayer is but meditation. When I was growing up, panentheists were all new-agey and soft, not this guy. He’s actually an African-American MAGA dude (and clearly a Jordan Peterson fan, you can see it a mile away, though I have yet to confirm that). I was walking the dog this morning and one of the neighbors told me she was a Bible student and as it turns out she is Jehovah’s Witness. I can’t wait to tell her that not even the New World Translation can obscure from Psalm 102 in Hebrews 1:10-12 that Jesus is Jehovah. Nonetheless, if I am forced to generalize, we find here big groups of typical, wealthy, high-minded progressive agnostics as strange bedfellows in a community that birthed the Hells Angels and still has a low-middle class of blue collar, “conservative” whites (a lot of these are “Christian,” of course, but never attend church). I think we will keep praying for rescue and trust that the Lord will answer for his glory, and we will be all the more humbled if he uses us in that glorious work more than our prayers! “Let all the earth fear the Lord! Let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe before him!” (Psalm 33:8).

© Adam Kaloostian. All Rights Reserved.


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