Category Archives: Church life

Pastoral Q & A: What If I Can’t Be Welcoming to Visitors?

It’s often stressed how important it is for our churches to be outward looking and, as part of that, to be friendly to visitors.  When you see a visitor at the worship services, be kind and welcoming.  But what if it’s taken everything in your power just to get to church?  What if you’re having an awful day and not feeling particularly friendly?

Let’s first recognize a few factors.  There’s a great difference between being or feeling unable to be welcoming and not wanting to be welcoming.  If someone doesn’t see the importance of being friendly and welcoming, that’s a more significant problem.  Hebrews 13:2 says, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”  If that’s true of our own homes, then it certainly it ought to be all the more true when we gather as God’s house for worship.  God’s house, his church, should also be a place of hospitality – a warm and welcoming environment.  If we’re going to reflect our Saviour Jesus, then we would want to be friendly and kind to visitors.  If someone doesn’t want to follow Christ in that regard, then that’s a spiritual problem that calls for repentance.

But that’s different than being or feeling unable to be welcoming.  There can be different reasons for that.  Sometimes it’s just a temporary thing.  You had a fight with your spouse that morning and, when you left for church, things were still unresolved.  Or maybe it was your children.  You arrive at church and you’re feeling less than friendly.  It happens.

There can also be more chronic challenges.  Sometimes there are mental health issues like anxiety or depression.  When these are ongoing, it can be a huge hurdle just to get out of bed and find the energy to go to church.  Arriving at church, you may not feel like talking to anyone, let alone to a complete stranger.

Last of all, people have different personalities.  Some are naturally more introverted and shy.  I count myself in that category.  I don’t like socializing in big crowds and find it difficult to strike up conversations with strangers.  I was once a missionary, but I’m the most unlikely person to be one.  When your character is more reserved, it can be hard to push yourself out there.

So, how do we deal with these real challenges?  We have to bring this down to what it really is.  It’s God’s will that we should be friendly and welcoming to visitors.  But, for whatever reason, it seems difficult or even impossible for us to follow God’s will.  We can’t do it.  The temptation here is to rely on our own wisdom and just walk away feeling absolved.  That temptation has to be resisted.  Instead, we need to ask:  what’s the biblical answer to this problem?  It’s to remember that God is sovereign over everything, including our hearts, our wills, and our energy.  When we say God is sovereign, we mean that he rules over it all.  He is the one who can change it.  Since that’s true, we’re called to pray to the sovereign God and ask him to change it.

Let’s put it into practice.

For the one who’s had family conflict on Sunday morning, pause and pray:  “Father, even though I’ve had a rough morning, help me not to take it out on anyone else.  If you bring a visitor across my path, please help me to be friendly and kind.”

For those dealing with the chronic health challenges, including mental health, pray regularly:  “Father, I’m struggling, but help me to look outside myself.  Despite my struggles, please help me to reflect the loving heart of Christ to those you bring across my path.”

If you’re shy and introverted, pray: “Father, even though I want to run away, help me to be bold.  Please help me to get out of my comfort zone and if there are visitors, help me to love them and say the right words to welcome them.”

If you pray along these lines, things will change.  The sovereign God works to change things through our prayers brought to him through the intercession of Christ.  God will begin helping you to overcome your circumstances and follow his will.  I’m not saying that change will happen all at once.  But persistently praying in this way will, in due time, have an effect.


Brooks: Safety in Unity

If you’re going to be preaching or teaching on the communion of saints, here’s a great illustration from Thomas Brooks:

Unity is the best bond of safety in every church and commonwealth.  We shall be invincible, if we be inseparable.  And this did the Scythian king in Plutarch represent livelily to this eighty sons.  He, being ready to die, commanded a bundle of arrows fast bound together to given to his sons to break; they all tried to break them, but being bound fast together, they could not; then he caused the band to be cut, and then they broke them with ease.  He applied it thus: ‘My sons, so long as you keep together, you will be invincible; but if the band of union be broken betwixt you, you will easily be broken in pieces.  (Smooth Stones Taken From Ancient Brooks, p.47)


Pastoral Q & A: How Do I Indicate My Aspiration to Serve as an Elder or Deacon?

Wanting to be an office bearer is a great thing – Scripture says so in 1 Timothy 3:1, “The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task.”  We certainly want to encourage men in our churches to have such aspirations.  For those who aspire to the ministry it’s relatively easy to indicate your aspirations.  You do pre-seminary studies and then go to seminary.  However, how do you let people know if you have an aspiration to be an elder or deacon?  Perhaps you could say it directly, or you might wait until your elder asks you on a home visit.  But what if verbally indicating your aspiration might be frowned upon or even seen as somewhat arrogant?

As it turns out, there are more ways to indicate the aspiration to serve as an elder or deacon.  Let’s look at three ways in particular.

Christian Maturity

Scripture speaks about the qualifications of office bearers in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1.  One should certainly go to those qualifications and use them as targets to aim for in a thankful Christian life.  However, they can all be summed up with one word:  maturity.  An office bearer has to consistently demonstrate Christian maturity.  There has to be evidence of a life lived in union with Jesus Christ.  That’s going to be seen first and foremost in a love for Christ and for the gospel.  If the gospel doesn’t personally excite you, if you don’t feel love for Christ in your heart, how would you lead others in that direction?  If you don’t love reading and studying the Bible, how would you guide others to do it?

If you aspire to be an office bearer, Christian maturity also has to be seen in the home:  “He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will be care for God’s church?” (1 Tim. 3:4-5).  As an outworking of that, an aspiring office bearer ought to be leading his children in daily family worship.  You have to be discipling your own children before you can be discipling others.

If someone aspires to office, there also has to be maturity evidenced in regards to the church and his involvement with it.  For example, an aspiring office bearer makes public worship twice on the Lord’s Day a priority.  Titus 1:9 says, “He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught…”  That implies being under the Word as often as it is taught.  An office bearer has to set an example in this regard and so an aspiring office bearer is going to aim for this too.

A Desire to Learn

In Hosea 4:6, God said “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge…”  Learning is essential for all Christians.  This is why 2 Peter 3:18 says, “But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.”  But this imperative to grow in our understanding of the Christian faith is sharper for those who are leaders in Christ’s church.  The young pastor Timothy was called to do his best to rightly handle the word of truth (2 Tim. 2:14).  He was to immerse himself in studying and teaching the Scriptures so that everyone could see his progress (1 Tim. 4:13-15).

So what about those aspiring to the office of elder?  An elder is called to first exemplify the learning and growing Christian.  Moreover, he’s also called to oversee the teaching and preaching in the church.  How is he going to be equipped for that if he’s not reading and learning more?  Even deacons are called to “hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience” (1 Tim. 3:9).  They have to have a good (and growing) grasp on the doctrines of the Christian faith.  After all, they’re also leaders in the church – governing the ministry of mercy.

If you aspire to be an office bearer, one of the best things you can do is go to your pastor or ward elder and say:  “I want to read a good book.  Can you recommend something?”  Readers are leaders – and serious readers in the congregation are going to get noticed.

A Desire to Serve

Last of all, being an office bearer is all about service.  Being a shepherd is about serving the flock.  What about the deacons?  The very word “deacon” means “servant” or “minister.”  Those who aspire to this noble task should strive for a track record of service in other capacities.  When the opportunity arises to volunteer, the man who aspires to office should be the first one to put up his hand.  Those who are keeping busy with non-office bearer work in the church community will often find themselves being noticed when it comes time to nominate for elders and deacons.

To sum up, perhaps you’ve noticed that these three ways have one thing in common:  they’re all things we ought to be striving for as Christians at any rate.  Every Christian ought to aim for growing levels of maturity.  Every Christian ought to desire to learn and serve.  So, basically, if you aspire to be an office bearer, live like a Christian.

    


Don’t Antagonize, Instead Pursue Peace

Back in 1982, the Free Reformed Churches of Australia (FRCA) were one of the founding members of the International Conference of Reformed Churches (ICRC).  This organization has proved to be an instrument for fellowship amongst like-minded Reformed and Presbyterian churches for nearly 40 years.  However, in the FRCA it proved to be a massive bone of contention – the reasons for this really don’t matter in what I’m about to write.  The key fact is that membership in the ICRC threatened to pull the FRCA apart in the 1990s.  So, in 1996, an FRCA Synod decided to terminate membership in the ICRC.  This was done for the sake of harmony and unity in the federation.  The cost/benefit analysis indicated it wasn’t worth it to break apart the federation for the sake of continuing in the ICRC.

Although I lament the attitudes and perspectives which necessitated it, I can see the wisdom in the 1996 decision.  No one wants to be responsible for unnecessarily causing disharmony in the bond of churches.  Because we love them, we aim to be patient with our brothers and sisters who differ with us.  To preserve the peace, we may even have to make accommodations for them.  This is part of what it means to live in a federation of churches.

The Bible and Fraternal Peace

Indeed, the Bible teaches us to “strive for peace with everyone…” (Heb. 12:14).  In Romans 14:19, the Holy Spirit says, “So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.”  Likewise, in 2 Cor. 13:11, he says, “Aim for restoration, comfort one another, agree with one another, live in peace…”  The apostles learned this as disciples of our Lord Jesus.  In Mark 9:50 he taught, “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”  This teaching is impressed not only upon all disciples of Christ, but also specifically upon church leaders.  Titus was exhorted, “But avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless” (Titus 3:9).  The pursuit of peace in the church is certainly a frequent topic in the New Testament.  It makes sense, since there are so many ways through which Satan and our own sinful hearts can break apart fraternal bonds.  There are many ways we can antagonize one another and drive a wedge in our fellowship.  When that happens, our gospel witness is impacted too.  We lose credibility as gospel witnesses when we can’t live at peace with one another.

That can happen within local congregations, but I want to focus on the way in which that can happen within church federations too.  Within a church federation, the decisions of a local congregation can antagonize the other churches and disrupt the peace.  Let me give a couple of generic examples.

Two Ways to Antagonize

I recently posted this article about the History and Character of Our Reformed Church Order.  I pointed out that the Church Order is our agreement for life together as churches in a federation.  We expect that the other churches in the federation will abide by what has been agreed upon.  A local church can make a decision or implement a practice which might be perceived as violating that agreement — we’ll leave aside the question of whether or not it is actually violating the agreement.  Such a situation can easily antagonize the other churches, particularly if no public clarification or explanation is provided.

There is another way that can antagonize and polarize.  In the aforementioned article, I also pointed out that there are unspoken assumptions and expectations in our Reformed church polity.  There are widespread consensual interpretations and applications of our Church Order.  These cannot be casually disregarded by a local church without causing dismay and concern to others.  You may technically still be following the letter of what’s agreed upon in the Church Order, but congratulations, you succeeded in jeopardizing the peace in your church federation.  What have you gained?

So, what is the way forward?  Just follow what Scripture says about the pursuit of peace.  If a church believes changes need to be made in local practice, we have to think about the consequences for our closest brethren elsewhere, for our federation.  We cannot afford to be independentistic.  Changes that fall under the two headings above need to be approached with extreme caution.  At the bare minimum, advice should be sought at a classis.  However, it could happen that a classical region contains a good number of like-minded people.  Then it would also be wise to seek advice from a wider pool of churches at another broader assembly.

There is one more angle to this.  I have often thought about the process of change, particularly changing a church culture, both locally and federatively.  There are different ways it can be approached.  It’s a question of leadership and persuasion.

Bad and Good Leadership

Bad leadership rams changes through and runs over all opposition in the process.  A good example of this is Mark Driscoll’s book, Confessions of a Reformission Rev.: Hard Lessons From an Emerging Missional Church.  He tells readers to ask whether they “have the guts to shoot their dogs.”  Dogs include “loser leaders” and “pathetic people.”  He writes, “…it is vital to name with brutal candor the people, programs, structures, and ministry philosophies that are dogs needing to be shot.  Be sure to make it count and shoot them only once so that they don’t come back and bite you” (34-35).  Elsewhere in the book he writes about how the church is a body and one of the most important parts is the colon:  “Like the human body, any church body without a colon is destined for sickness that leads to death” (131).  This is in the context of a discussion of getting rid of problem people in the missional church – “shooting the dogs” is the same thing as getting rid of waste from the body.  This is wicked, bad leadership – and one wonders whether it contributed to Mark Driscoll’s undoing at Mars Hill in Seattle.

Good leadership seeks to lead through timely, patient persuasion.  It’s not only leadership in the local church, but also leadership in the federation.  If we want to see cultural changes on a large scale, then we need to persuade our brothers and sisters of the need for such changes.  Try and dialogue.  Put the books out there, write the blog posts, send the articles into the church magazine, use social media – there’s no shortage of options.

You may have read this article, read between the lines, and imagined I had a particular situation or two in mind.  I did.  However, I especially wrote this for myself and my own local church.  Without going into details, we’re contemplating some changes falling under the second category of ways that might antagonize.  I’m sensitive to the possibility we could do that and I just don’t want to go there.  Instead, I want to “flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart” (2 Tim. 2:22).  Let’s do that together, shall we?

 


CanRC General Synod Edmonton 2019 (4)

The synod finished last week Thursday evening and all the acts are now available here.  As before, let me just review a few of the highlights from where I’m sitting.

Article 85 dealt with overtures from both regional synods regarding licensure of seminary students.  They both proposed that students be permitted to speak an edifying word after two years of seminary, as opposed to the current three.  The synod decided to give the green light for that under certain conditions.  One of the conditions is that students licensed under these provisions have to preach under the supervision of a mentor for a full summer immediately following.  But another condition is that the Pastoral Training Plan funding is still going to cover only one full summer internship, and usually that’s the internship following completion of the third year at CRTS.  I guess the students will have to sort out how this is going to work in practice.

Remarriage after divorce is often a contentious issue in Reformed churches.  In article 93, the synod considered an appeal from a couple concerning their consistory’s decision to pray for God’s blessing on such a marriage.  The appeal went up through classis and regional synod, and thus landed on Synod 2019’s table.  The appeal was denied.  One of the grounds was that there is exegetical freedom in the CanRC on this matter.  This is the way it should be, in my view.

Another appeal was considered in article 130.  Blessings Christian Church appealed a decision of Regional Synod East regarding article 55 of the CanRC Church Order.  In CO article 55, the churches agree that they will only sing “the metrical psalms adopted by general synod as well as the hymns approved by general synod.”  A proposal was adopted by a Classis Central Ontario to revise article 55 to read as follows:

The 150 psalms shall have the principal place in public worship.  The metrical psalms and hymns adopted by General Synod, as well as songs approved by the consistory that faithfully reflect the teaching of Scripture as expressed in the Three Forms of Unity, shall be sung in public worship.

This proposal then went to a Regional Synod East where it was defeated.  But this synod still ended up dealing with it via the appeal of Blessings.  However, the synod decided to deny it.  There are several grounds, some of which deal with the question whether it is a matter for the churches in common.  Synod decided that it remains so.

Article 139 dealt with the perennial topic of the United Reformed Churches.  Synod decided not to reappoint the Committee for Church Unity.  The process towards a merger is now officially on hold from both sides.  However, the CanRC and URNCA will continue as sister churches.

Finally, they left one of the most interesting items almost to the very end.  A Regional Synod West submitted an overture regarding the Trinity Psalter Hymnal (TPH) jointly developed by the OPC and URCNA.  The overture asked the TPH be adopted for public worship in the CanRC per Church Order article 55.  This overture was dealt with in article 142 of the Acts.  Essentially the overture was denied — but some of the substance of it was reworked.  The Standing Committee for the Book of Praise was mandated to consider improvements for both the psalm and hymn sections of the Book of Praise:

4.2  Mandate the SCBP:

4.2.1 Concerning the Psalms:

     4.2.1.1  to seek input from the churches as to which non-Genevan renditions of the Psalms could be added to enhance the Psalm section of the BoP.

4.2.1.2  to compile a list of suitable Psalm renditions for possible inclusion in the Book of Praise, using the TPH as a primary resource.

4.2.2 Concerning the Hymns

4.2.2.1  to seek input from the churches concerning replaceable and additional hymns for the 2014 Book of Praise, using the TPH as a primary resource.

4.2.2.2  to compile a list of such hymns keeping mind that at this time the final number of hymns in the Book of Praise should not exceed 100 (as per GS 2004) and being flexible with the structural template (Apostles’ Creed) of the hymn section of the 2014 Book of Praise.

4.2.3  To send, at least 18 months before the next general synod, an explanatory report to the churches together with a provisional list of songs for immediate testing, in the worship services if so desired, so there can be well-considered feedback to the next general synod.

To sum it up, you can be sure that the CanRC Book of Praise will still exist four or five years from now, but it will look quite different to the way it does now.  Additionally, it is going to be quite different to the Aussie Book of Praise which is probably going to appear in the next year or so.  I suppose change is inevitable — as long as it’s change for the better.  I do think that expanding the hymn section is warranted — there are some sections of the Book of Praise hymnary that are thread-bare.  For example, there could definitely be more hymns that are directly about the cross and Christ’s sufferings there in our place.  Expanding the hymnary carefully, looking to the TPH, and with a limit of 100 hymns seems a good way forward.