Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Grace PCA - Forever Small?

Why Are We So Small?
I’m sure you’ve noticed that most Reformed churches are small.  “Why?”  I doubt the answer to that question is either simple or one-dimensional.  Over at the Gospel Coalition’s website, Augustus Nicodemus Gomes Lopes wrote an article entitled, “Solidly Reformed, Strikingly Small,” that got me thinking about Grace PCA and our small church size.  His article is about small Reformed churches in Brazil, but I want to focus on our church.  Here are the facts.  We were planted in 2001 as “Kirk of the Lake Presbyterian Church,” particularized in 2007, and, having entered 2013, we are now “Grace Presbyterian Church” and remain very small.

Church Growth Makes Me Nervous
Let me just go ahead and say that I am extremely nervous about “church growth” conversations because there is so much in the church growth movement that Christians should reject as unbiblical.  And I say that as a person who has read more than a book or two on the subject of church growth.  As Reformed Christians, we all know the biblical arguments against the seeker-friendly approach to the church (“no one seeks God”—remember?).  So I will not take the time to state the obvious problems that we would have with adjusting every aspect of church life and culture in order to get more people in the door.  After all, we should ask, “What happens after we get them in the door?”  So the seeker-friendly approach is something that we simply cannot accept.  Another part of the problem with comparing Reformed churches to other larger churches might be that there is a certain kind of numerical growth that is happening in larger, seeker-driven churches that is not really a reflection of the kind of numerical growth that we desire to see in our churches.  The ends don’t justify the means; we are not willing to do anything in order to get people in the door.

Finding Balance in Talking About Numerical Growth
On the one hand, we shouldn’t think that church size tells us everything about a church’s faithfulness, but, on the other hand, we shouldn’t completely ignore numerical growth entirely. Anyone who has read the book of Acts will realize that it was a church that was growing numerically and that it was a church where they were counting the numbers of people that the Lord was adding to the church (Acts 2:41; 4:4).  Of course, we would underline the fact that it was the Lord who was adding to their number (Acts 2:47).  Yet we should equally recognize that the Lord was adding to their number through the means of their faithful witness.  So we cannot eliminate our responsibility in this matter.      

So What About Grace PCA?
What I’m particularly interested in thinking about in this post is what bearing all this has on the life and growth of Grace PCA.  Why are we small?  Why aren’t we growing numerically?  I know that the membership is growing spiritually (2 Peter 3:18), but we aren’t growing numerically in the way that we desire.  Yes, we have had some people join the church, and, yes, we have been able, by the grace of God, to retain some regular visitors.  But, all in all, we have seen very little numerical growth.  So I’m interested in thinking about why that’s the case.  Here are some of my ideas about our specific congregation (and let me emphasize that these are specifically about our church and may not apply to any other church in the world for all I’m concerned).  As you read through these, which ones strike you?  What ideas does this generate in your life?  Here are my thoughts in no particular order.

Establishing Community Presence 
1.  On an intensely practical level, I think one of our major problems is that we haven’t established a presence in the community.  We rent a building from a local SDA church.  We don’t have a permanent sign at this point (something that we are exploring).  People often have trouble finding us.  Just this past Sunday, we had a visiting family tell us that they were PCA members who had recently moved here from another state, and they had been looking for us for two consecutive Sundays, only to find us on their third attempt.  “Third time’s the charm!” isn’t a good rule for finding the church.  So we need to work on getting our name out there and making it clear where we are worshipping.  If people who really want to come have trouble, then what about people who might make a casual attempt one Sunday morning? 

Cultivating Loving Community
2.  On a deeper level, I am willing to admit that one of the reasons that we may have trouble attracting and retaining visitors is on account of the ethos of our community.  People may think that we are unloving or unkind.  We may not do a great job of welcoming them; however, I have been pleased over the past few years with the way that the congregation has welcomed visitors.  I think we are growing in that area.  Another idea that I have is that we may intimidate visitors.  We are a group of Christians who take doctrine seriously.  Most of us know what we believe and why we believe it, and outsiders may be intimidated by our knowledge or the way that we express our theological commitments.  For example, imagine a non-Christian visitor, who recently decided to go back to church, stumbles into our church on a Sunday morning.  Let’s suppose someone asks him, “When did you come to Reformed theology?”  What kind of impact will that make?  Do you think that it might confuse him?  Is that a question that we should be asking?  I promise you that visitors are asked those kinds of questions.  Another aspect of our community’s ethos is that we tend to talk openly about partisan politics.  I hear conversations all the time about gun laws, the evils of Obama, the follies of political liberalism, etc.  Should we be discussing partisan politics in church?  I can tell you that most unchurched people in Duluth will be from liberal, Democratic viewpoint.  What bearing should that have on the way that we talk about things?

Loving the City
3.  Something else that comes to mind has to with our sense of mission and vision and with practical challenges unique to our congregation.  Firstly, when it comes to mission and vision, we don’t really have a concrete mission and vision for the city of Duluth.  We are starting to change that and reach out to the community, but it has been baby step after baby step.  That’s gotta change.  Secondly, half of our congregation doesn’t even live in Duluth.  I thank God for our commuters.  However, it’s hard to develop a sense of mission, vision, and place when people come from elsewhere.  This is our city.  We need to have a positive outlook on the city.  We need to love the city, serve the city, be involved in the city, and make known the good news of Jesus to it (see Jeremiah 29:3-7).  We cannot be isolationists or fall into quietism.  We are called to be salt and light in this place and at this time.  For those of us who live in Duluth-Superior, we need to ask questions like, “How can I be more involved in the community?  How can I develop kingdom-minded relationships with others in Duluth-Superior?  What am I good at?  What interests me?  How can I serve?  Where are there opportunities for me to interact with non-Christians?”       

The Reformed Faith is Demanding
4.  Another possibility—and I promise that this really isn’t an excuse for our small church size—is that the Reformed faith is demanding.  It demands a lot from our minds, hearts, and wills, but, then again, so did Jesus.  We don’t reduce everything to the ABCs and 123s.  We aren’t theological minimalists.  We have high standards for doctrine and ethics.  Now we can preach our hearts out about how biblical all that is, but if we are living in a church culture where we are competing with a consumerist version of Christianity that demands nothing and is all about meeting your felt needs, we are going to have a hard time.  Consider an illustration.  You have a small town with a McDonald’s and a Subway.  Now there’s no question that Subway is the healthier option, unless you are really, really careful and selective at McDonald’s, but in spite of how healthy Subway is, most people will choose McDonald’s over Subway because it tastes better.  It’s unhealthy, but it tastes better.  So that’s what a lot of this is.  Why would people go to a serious Reformed church when they could go to an entertainment-driven church with dozens of programs for their kids?  So we cannot completely discount the fact that Reformed churches are completely different than seeker-friendly, entertainment-driven mega churches.  If we add to this that there are many “Reformed” churches that have compromised and gone into this evangelical faddism, then we are set up for some disappointment.  A person who has gone to a progressive PCA church for years may move to Duluth and find that our church has almost nothing in common with it culturally.

Developping a Missionary Mindset
5.  Maybe some of this has to do with the fact that we lack the mindset to think about mission.  What kind of church would connect best with the unbelievers that you know?  This doesn’t mean that we change the message to accommodate them, but it does mean that we adapt the presentation.  Paul preached differently to the Jews in the synagogue than he did to the pagans atop Mars Hill.  It’s just a fact.  So we have to think about contextualizing the message for the people in our neighborhood.
Resistance to Change
6.  Reformed churches don’t like change.  One man defined insanity as a person who does the same thing and expects different results.  It seems to me that reformation and renewal calls for change.  And people don’t like change.  Well, if we don’t like change, we don’t like improvement because improvement is change for the better.  One of the biggest obstacles to making the necessary changes to reach more people is that we confuse what the Bible teaches with what we prefer.  Reformed people are great at that.  Let me give you an example.  When I first came to the church, I wore a robe.  Now some ministers prefer to wear a robe and others prefer not to do so.  I prefer not to wear it, but it really isn’t that important to me.  I did eventually stop wearing the robe, but what if someone thought that this was an indication that I was becoming liberal?  Or what if someone thought that this was an indication that I was unconcerned about our Reformed identity?  I’m not suggesting that anyone actually thought that, but if they did, they would betray the fact that they confused what the Bible teaches with what they prefer.  There is no biblical mandate for the ministers of the new covenant to wear robes.  So why fight about that?  It doesn’t mean that robe wearing is irrelevant or unimportant, but it does mean that we shouldn’t make it more important than it actually is.  Here’s a good exercise.  What are some of the aspects of our church life, worship, teaching, preaching, and culture which are not a matter of biblical teaching but of personal preference?  How should we think about those issues?  Do they make a difference in reaching people in our community? 

Do Not Forget the Ordinary Means of Grace
Let me emphasize again that I’m not saying that I’m willing to do anything to get more people in the door.  I believe in the ordinary means of grace (the Word, Sacraments, and prayer).  I believe in simplicity in our worship and fellowship.  I don’t want to lose what we have—biblical worship and biblical preaching.  That’s my heart.  At the same time, maybe we should think about other biblical elements that we need to add for the sake of faithfulness.  And maybe we should think about other biblical considerations that we need to think through for the sake of faithfulness.  Perhaps we are too quick and simplistic to wave our hands at the lack of numerical growth in our churches.  What do you think?

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