Category Archives: Church life

Walmart’s Wisdom

Every year each home in our congregation gets a visit from a pair of elders.    Over the years, in the congregations I’ve served, I’ve occasionally heard negative comments about this practice.  Some feel it’s invasive and maybe even a little cult-like.

However, even the world sees the value of similar practices.  Some time ago I was reading an article about Walmart stores in North America.  Walmart has one of the largest fleets of business jets in the world.  One of the reasons they have all these business jets is because they want their managers home every evening with their families.  Walmart has regional managers and these regional managers have to visit all the stores in their assigned area.  The company wants these managers to be out there in person.  I don’t know how the coronavirus pandemic has affected this policy, but certainly pre-COVID they recognized that a face-to-face visit was best.  If you’re running a big business like Walmart, that makes sense.

I’m not saying that the church is a business, but the same wisdom applies.  Elders are not managers, but shepherds.  The best way for shepherds to know what’s going on with their sheep is to get out there and visit with them face-to-face in their homes.  It just makes sense. 

It’s also taught to us in Scripture.  In Acts 20, Paul was saying farewell to the elders of the Ephesian church.  He told them he carried out his ministry in the church there by visiting people in their homes.  Paul did this with the idea that his way of working would set a pattern for the elders. They should follow his example.  And so should we.

Of course, the pandemic has affected church life in this regard too.  Here in Australia we’ve come to the end of our home visitation season and the elders in our church were eventually able to visit almost everyone in person.  However, there were a few months where home visits had to be suspended due to COVID restrictions.  If you’re reading this in a place where COVID restrictions are preventing in-person home visits for now, please realize the vital importance of this way God’s flock is shepherded and pray for the time when it can be re-implemented face-to-face.

Finally, for elders, let me highly recommend this article by Peter Holtvluwer on improving home visits.  He offers some great advice.      


Recommended General Resources for Elders

I created this resource for my elders and I’ll share it here too. These are just general resources about the office of elder — I haven’t included books, etc. that focus on specific elements of the office like home visits, counselling, or church polity.

Books

The Elder: Today’s Ministry Rooted in All of Scripture, Cornelis Van Dam.  Phillipsburg: P &R, 2009.  Paperback, 283 pages.

An excellent biblical study of the office of elder, with many practical pieces of wisdom scattered throughout.  Written by a retired OT professor from the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary.  A full review can be found here.

https://yinkahdinay.wordpress.com/2010/01/18/book-review-the-elder-todays-ministry-rooted-in-all-of-scripture/

*********

The Elder and His Work, David Dickson.  Phillipsburg: P & R, 2004.  Paperback, 129 pages.

Even though it’s an older book (first appearing in 1883), this one has retained its value over the years.  If you’re going to read just one book on the eldership, make it this one.  It’s not long, plus it’s both practical and biblical.  Dickson was a Presbyterian, but it’s not difficult to transfer what he writes over to a continental Reformed context. 

*********

With a Shepherd’s Heart: Reclaiming the Pastoral Office of Elder, John R. Sittema.  Grandville:  Reformed Fellowship Inc., 1996.  Paperback, 271 pages.

In every church I’ve served, the elders have studied this book.  It’s a classic.

**********

Called to Serve: Essays for Elders and Deacons, ed. Michael Brown.  Grandville: Reformed Fellowship Inc., 2008.  Paperback, 274 pages.

This volume is multi-author, with all the writers being pastors/professors who (at that time) hailed from the United Reformed Churches of North America.  Tends to be more on the biblical/theological side, but there are many practical pointers and discussions as well.

**********

Faithful and Fruitful: Essays for Elders and Deacons, eds. William Boekestein and Steven Swets.  Grandville: Reformed Fellowship Inc., 2019.  Paperback, 306 pages.

A follow-up to Called to Serve with much more practical content.  Our elders are currently studying this one together. 

Websites

–The online edition of a resource created by CanRC pastor Rev. D. Agema. 

**********

https://headhearthand.org/blog/2011/01/06/the-shepherd-leader/

–A helpful blog post by Dr. David Murray on what it means to lead the sheep, applies to pastors and elders.


Book Review: Becoming a Welcoming Church

Becoming a Welcoming Church, Thom S. Rainer.  Nashville: B & H Publishing Group, 2018.  Hardcover, 101 pages.

Come with me for a moment to visit two Reformed churches.  Both of them are faithful churches in the sense that they have gospel-preaching, faithful administration of the sacraments, and church discipline.  But we’re going to have vastly different experiences at each one.

I’m the guest-preacher at the first church.  After the service is over, I stand for a few moments at the back of the building.  All the members gather into their holy huddles.  No one speaks to me.  After a few moments of standing there awkwardly, I get in my vehicle and just drive away.  If that’s how they treat a guest-preacher, I wonder how they would treat a complete stranger?

With my wife and children, I’m a visitor at the second church.  I’m on vacation.  No one at this church knows me from Adam.  As we arrive, someone warmly greets us and shows us in to the sanctuary.  During the service, one of our children acts up (pastors’ kids!) and afterwards we’re in no mood to stick around.  We make a bee-line for the door.  As we’re out in the parking lot sheepishly heading for our van, someone comes running out after us.  A friendly voice beckons, “Hey, please stay with us for coffee so we can get to know you!  We’d love to have you come back in.”  We apologize and explain the situation with our kids.  But it leaves an impression…a good impression that we’ve never forgotten.

If you were a complete stranger in Jerusalem, to which church would you want to return?

That’s what this book is all about.  It’s about becoming that church which puts its best foot forward before, during and after that moment when guests walk through the door.  Thom Rainer is an experienced consultant and researcher in this field.  He’s written numerous books in the same vein, explaining how churches can do better at engaging guests.

I know what some readers may be thinking.  You may be thinking that this is all about becoming “seeker-friendly” or overhauling everything in our worship services just to accommodate non-members.  Definitely not!  Rainer discusses little about what goes on in worship itself.  In fact, the only thing he really mentions is a practice that most Reformed churches don’t do anyway:  the stand up and greet your neighbour moment.  Instead, this book is first of all about addressing our attitudes and then, second, about everything that goes before and around the worship service:  the website, church signage, greeters, etc.

What I appreciated most about this slim volume is its emphasis on how being a welcoming church is related to the gospel.  The hospitality mandated by Scripture is our thankful and loving response to the gospel.  But also when we are welcoming, it serves the cause of the gospel.

Since so much of it pertains to decisions made by those in leadership, this would be a great little book for consistories to discuss.  As Rainer points out, many churches believe themselves to be more welcoming than they really are.  This book will help churches to get to the truth — it includes two resources in the back which also serve that end:  a Church Facility Audit and a Secret Guest Survey.  Once you get to the truth, you’ll also find some help here in how to improve.  It’s jut a small book, but it punches far above its weight.  Check it out.


Why Should We Study Scripture Together?

It’s too easy to take for granted the blessings God has heaped on us.  Let’s stop for a moment and think about several of them.  We still have the blessing to freely worship.  Not only on Sunday, but during the week too we’re free to gather together for fellowship and study.  We have the blessing of God’s Word in our own language.  Unlike so many believers in the history of the New Testament church, we have the Bible in a language we can understand – and these Bibles are cheap and readily available.  Finally, we have the blessing of literacy.  The fact that you’re reading this puts you at a far greater advantage than many believers in the history of the church.  What incredible riches our God has lavished on us!

Do We Have a Heart For Searching Out God’s Word?

Yet it does seem that many church members take these things for granted.  In every church I’ve served, there is always the mass problem of Bible study.  Every consistory discussed it.  It’s the problem of encouraging individual believers to study the Bible for themselves.  It’s also the problem of encouraging believers to study the Bible together.  I’d venture to guess that, on average, probably 25% of the communicant members in the churches I’ve served regularly studied Scripture together.  Actually, 25% is on the generous side.

What can consistories do about it?  Here’s the problem:  office bearers can badger members into Bible study groups for a time.  But if their heart is not in it, typically they won’t persevere.  The heart is the issue – and how do you change someone’s heart?  You can’t.  The Holy Spirit does that.  He does it, however, through us.  He says in 1 Thess. 5:14, “And we urge you brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.”  We’re to do these things with the Word of God in our hand.

In this article, I want to lay out the Bible’s answer for why believers should study Scripture together.  There are two audiences I want to address.  The first is the office bearer who wants to encourage Bible study in his congregation.  The second is the believer who may be lagging in conviction about the value of this practice.

Psalm 119 as a Prayer for the Way We Want to Be

So, why study the Bible together?  When our thoughts turn to Scripture and our attitude towards it, Psalm 119 is a frequent destination.  This Psalm extols the Scriptures in exuberant terms.  It also speaks of the believers’ emotions/affections about the Bible.  For example, nine times the Psalmist speaks of his delight in God’s Word.  Seven times he testifies of his love for the Scriptures.  He witnesses to the joy that comes from the divine writings.  It’s important to read all these things with our eyes on Jesus.  He is the fulfilment of all these holy emotions – he exhibited them with an unparalleled depth and consistency.  Moreover, Christ did that in the place of us who often sag in our feelings about God’s Word.  His love and joy in the Word are credited to us by God.  When we see Psalm 119 that way, it puts it in a new light for us.  It speaks of our Saviour’s obedient life for us, but also his sanctifying power in us.  We look at Psalm 119 as a prayer for the way we want to be.  In our new nature, empowered by the Holy Spirit, we want to be like Christ.  We want to reflect our union with him – we want to love the Scriptures like he does!

When we do, we won’t have to be coaxed into Bible study.  It’s something we will love to do because, being united to Christ, we love God and we love his Word.  Personal Bible study will come from the heart, and so will group Bible study.  Then the rest of what I’m going to write will sound perfectly persuasive.

Getting to Know Our God

The chief attraction of Bible study together is a better view of the glory of God.  The Scriptures are all about revealing to us the glory of the Triune God, particularly in the gospel. I’m talking about his beauty, his splendour, his magnificence, his awesomeness.  Scripture reveals God to us in all his transcendent excellence.

When you study by yourself, you will see it.  But when you study with others, you will see more and see further than you will by yourself.  One person can only see so much.  One person can have blind spots.  But when several Christians gather together around God’s Word, they’ll find more to be amazed at about our God.  He will receive more praise and honour.  That’s what we want, isn’t it?

Encouraging One Another

However, there is not only a vertical aspect here.  It turns out that what brings more glory to God is also for our benefit.  When we gather together with fellow believers around God’s Word, there’s encouragement to be found.  We support one another.  We pray together.  We enjoy fellowship.  When it’s going as it should, Bible study can feel like Psalm 133:1, “Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!”

We could also think of what Scripture says in Ephesians 4.  There God speaks about how Christ has given the gift of office bearers to the church.  He says their work is to “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.”  They do that work with the Scriptures.  Bible study together will likewise build up the body of Christ and with exactly the same blessings described in Ephesians 4:13.  Bible study together will lead to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of Christ.  It will enable us to grow together in maturity.  It will help pull us into the “measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.”

Two Objections

Some church members have keenly developed reasons for not going to Bible study.  They could go (they have the health and the time), but they refuse to.  Let me briefly address two reasons I’ve heard over the years.

One objection is that it’s all the same:  “The same people talk and they always say the same thing.  It makes for a boring hour or two.  So it’s just not worth the time or effort.”  I’m familiar with this one because I used it as a young man.  I remember saying this at a friend’s house and his mom reamed me out.  She said, “If you don’t like the way it is, then it’s up to you to make it different.  You lead by example.  You’ll only get out of it what you put into it.”  She was exactly right.

Another reason comes from a darker place:  “Everyone at these Bible studies is so dull.  They don’t have a good basic understanding of the Bible.  It’s just frustrating listening to them ramble on in their ignorance.  Their lack of knowledge about the Bible is exasperating.” The essential problem here is pride.  One’s pride leads to impatience with other believers.  Bible study presents an opportunity to share our insights with one another.  One may have to pray for growth in holiness to do that humbly and judiciously, but rather than flee from that challenge, we should embrace it.  Moreover, we need to be open to the possibility that there is something to learn from other believers – perhaps we don’t have the exceptional level of knowledge we thought we had (cf. Phil. 2:3).

Conclusion

The Bible has famously been compared to a love letter from God.  Of course, love letters are mostly a thing of the past, but the idea is still current.  If you were to receive a love letter, you would treasure it and read it carefully several times.  The Bible is God’s love letter to his people.  Why would any recipient not want to read and study that letter as often as possible, both on your own and with other believers?  If you’re part of a Bible study, stay consistent with it.  If you’re not part of a Bible study, go and find one in your local church.  With your meaningful contribution, God will be praised and you’ll be blessed.

*********

This article was originally published in Reformed Perspective magazine.


Faithful and Fruitful: Essays for Elders and Deacons

I’m just dropping a quick note here about this new book for office bearers published by Reformed Fellowship.  If you’re an elder or deacon, veteran or rookie, I think you’ll find something helpful in this volume.  It’s got twenty chapters with the following titles:

  1. Training Church Officers
  2. Practicing the Mission of the Church: Apostolicity in Action
  3. Positive Leadership: Leading Like Jesus (Not Rehoboam)
  4. Continuing in Prayer
  5. Elders and Deacons as Hospitality Leaders
  6. Ministering to the Sick and Dying
  7. The Office Bearer and Household Management
  8. Classical Christian Catechesis
  9. Managing the Offerings of God’s People
  10. Getting Acquainted with the Congregation’s Needs
  11. Avoiding Burnout
  12. Tending the Shepherd (1): Honorable Provision
  13. Tending the Shepherd (2): Sabbaths and Sabbaticals
  14. How to Evaluate Your Pastor
  15. How to Be a Clerk
  16. Navigating the Broader Assemblies: Serving at Classis and Synod
  17. How to Serve on a Pastoral Search Committee
  18. What Every Elder Needs to Know about Congregational Singing
  19. Encouraging Lay Witnessing
  20. Promoting the Work of Missions

As you can see, most of the chapters are practically oriented.  The book includes study questions for each chapter.  Most of the authors are United Reformed ministers, though there are also CanRC and OPC contributors.  Some of the content is specifically oriented to a United Reformed context.  However, much of that can be easily adapted to other contexts, or otherwise safely disregarded.

For the last 10+ years, over two churches, I’ve gone through John Sittema’s With a Shepherd’s Heart.  That’s still a great book for office bearer training, but recently I recommended that we give Faithful and Fruitful a try.  We look forward to reading and discussing it together at our 2020 consistory meetings.