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Archive for the ‘Locality & the Law of Residence’ Category

Here is a delightful vignette of old parish ‘missions,’ if you will, in 17th century Presbyterian Scotland.  The minister, William Guthrie (1620-1665), labored to be all things to all men, that he might gain some.

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After William Guthrie came to Fenwick, many of the people were so rude and barbarous, that they never attended upon divine worship, and knew not so much as the face of their pastor. To such, everything that respected religion was disagreeable; many refused to be visited or catechised by him; they would not even admit him into their houses. To such he sometimes went in the evening disguised in the character of a traveller, and sought lodging, which he could not even obtain without much entreaty, but, having obtained it, he would engage in some general amusing conversation at first, and then ask them how they liked their minister. When they told him that they did not go to church, he engaged them to go and take a trial; others he hired with money to go. When the time of family worship came, he desired to know if they made any, and if not, what reasons they had for it.

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0_engraving_-_one_2_224_west_portI recently gave a lecture (sermon?) on the fascinating and inspiring story of Thomas Chalmers’ West Port Experiment in the slums of Industrial Edinburgh, from 1844-1847.  You can listen to it hereAd urbem!

 

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Reformations are unsettling. They always involve a critique of the old order, a prophetic protest against wrong. And when those protests give way to action, things change. The Protestant Reformation of the 16th century was no different. So when it reached the shores of Scotland, there was quite a shaking up. [To read further, see full article here – starting at p. 9]

 

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Glasgow_map_1878“Now the specific business which we would like to put into the hands of a Christian minister is, not that he should fill his church any how – that he may do by the superior attractiveness of his preaching, at the expense of previous congregations, and without any movement in advance on the practical heathenism of the community: But what we want is, to place his church in the middle of such a territory as we have now specified and to lay upon him a task, for the accomplishment of which we should allow him to the labour and preference of a whole lifetime; not to fill his church any how, but to fill this church out of that district. We should give him the charge over head, of one and all of its families; and tell him, that, instead of seeking hearers from without, he should so shape and regulate his movements, that, as far as possible, his church-room might all be taken up by hearers from within. It is this peculiar relation between his church, and its contiguous households, all placed within certain geographical limits, that distinguishes him from the others as a territorial minister.”

– Thomas Chalmers

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Chalmers standingThe following are the words of exhortation Dr. Thomas Chalmers gave to his ruling elders upon their induction to office to the newly formed St. John’s parish in Glasgow, in 1819.  These men were installed not simply to attend to the communicant and baptized membership, but each was assigned a small district of contiguous households  within the parish.  They were thus ordained as missionaries to all within the limits of their assignment, visiting each house in turn, seeking lost sheep.  The address below highlights the tension frequently stressed by Chalmers – the obligation diligently to use all lawful means to reclaim the unsaved and at the same time to look alone to the Mighty Spirit to bring it all to pass.

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“The whole habit and tendency of my thoughts on the subject of Christian usefulness incline me to attach a far higher importance to your relationship with the parish of St. John’s than to your relationship with the Church, and I do honestly believe, that never till the rights of parishes come to be better respected, never till the attention of ministers and elders be more restricted to the population of a given local territory, never till God put it into the hearts of men to go forth among our heathen at home with the same zeal and enthusiasm which are expected of missionaries who go abroad, will there be any thing like a revival of religion throughout the mass of our city families, or a reclaiming of them from those sad habits of alienation from God and from goodness into which the vast majority of them have fallen.

“There is one circumstance of encouragement which you will soon in the course of your movements through the districts that arc assigned to you be enabled to verify by your own experience. All the householders, with scarcely one exception, and whatever be their character in respect of Christianity, will welcome you with the utmost cordiality and courteousness. There is something in the very presence of one human being when he comes with the feelings and the desires of friendship, which serves to conciliate and to subdue another human being. Bear an honest regard to the people, and the people will, in spite of themselves, bear you an honest regard back again. This is what may be called an open door for you in the first instance, and the effect of frequent intercourse between the higher and lower orders of life in tranquilizing the general spirit of a community, and softening their malignant antipathies which else might ferment and fester and break out into. open violence, and consolidating something like a system of brotherhood through a mighty aggregate of human beings, this I say would confer a civil blessing on the establishment of an eldership that is altogether incalculable.

“But it must be remarked, on the other hand, that so wide and universal a welcome from the families may lead at the outset to a most delusive anticipation. A civil comes more easily and readily than a Christian effect. You are not to infer, because the good will of the people can be so immediately carried, that the conversion of the people will therefore speedily follow in its train. There is much of what is constitutionally attractive among men distinct and apart from any religious tendencies; and there is none who sets himself in good earnest to the working of a Christian effect, that will not soon feel himself engaged in a business where aids and instruments are necessary that are altogether superhuman. You will, in particular, be struck with the obstinate and determinate stand which the manhood of the population will make to all your proofs and all your earnestness. In sad proof of the progressive hardening of conscience will it be seen how arduous if not how impossible it is, with all the arts and resources of Christian philanthropy, to make any sensible advances on those who have been suffered to ascend from boyhood without the Word and without the ordinances.

“It is this which has shut up so many adventurers on the field of Christian usefulness, both at home and abroad, to the melancholy conclusion, that the grown-up generation are to be given up in despair, and that the hope of brighter and better days all lies with the capabilities of the young; and I certainly do recommend, among the foremost objects of your attention, the encouragement of those religious schools which may be situated within the limits of your respective localities, and for the discouragements which you will experience in the obstinacy and immovableness of many parents, you will often meet with a cheering compensation in the

promise and docility of their children.

“At the same time, I would never give up any human being in despair. Forget not the affirmation of the missionary Eliot, that it was in the power of pains and of prayers to do any thing. We are apt to confide in the efficacy and wisdom of our own arrangements—to set up a framework of skillful contrivance, and think that so good an apparatus will surely be productive of something—to please ourselves with parochial constitutions, and be quite sanguine that on the strength of elderships and deaconships, and a machinery of schools and agents, and moralizing processes, some great and immediate effect is to follow. But we may just as well think that a system of aqueducts will irrigate and fertilize the country without rain, as think that any human economy will Christianize a parish without the living water of the Spirit—without the dew df heaven descending upon the human administrators, and following them in their various movements through the houses and families under their superintendence. Still it is right to have a parochial constitution, just as it is right to have aqueducts. But the supply of the essential influence cometh from above. God will put to shame the proud confidence of man in the efficacy of his own wisdom, and He will have all the glory of all the spiritual good that is done in the world, and your piety will, therefore, work a tenfold mightier effect than your talents, in the cause you have undertaken; and your pains without your prayers will positively do nothing in this way, though it must be confessed that prayers without pains are just as unproductive, and that because they must be such prayers of insincerity as can not rise with acceptance to heaven. It is the union of both which best promises an apostolical effect to your truly apostolical office; and with theso few simple remarks do I commend you to Him who alone can bles3 you in this laudable undertaking, and give comfort and efficacy to the various duties that are involved with it.”

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In the following quote, Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847) is urging that the Church of Scotland in his day stick to its parish principles, that is, attaching a church to a district, charging its minister to evangelize it, and giving preference to its residents in seating during the services.  A church should be a local, or a ‘territorial’ church.  It should not operate on the law of supply and demand, thus drawing any and all irrespective of residence.  When it does, as Chalmers here points out, it occasions the worst in those who are already religious, fostering a culture of religious fastidiousness – and church-hopping.

Without a territorial arrangement, the “population” of the parish “might still abide in a state of unmoved heathenism; and the chapel congregation, instead of being formed or recruited out of their families, will be drawn very much at the expense of previous congregations, from that class of the community whose habits of church-going are not only already established, but may be said to have been refined into fastidiousness; to whom change is luxury, and who, ever agog on the impulse of novelty, are, in fact, the deadliest adversaries of that territorial system, wherein the great strength of our establishment lies” (Collected Works 16:184).

Again, Chalmers exposes the commercialization of religion that has only grown from embryo to full monster.

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I serve in a Presbyterian denomination with congregations generally consisting of first-generation converts to the Reformed faith and their children.  We don’t have swarms of young people, and many of them either leave for ‘greener’ Christian pastures or, sadly, go prodigal.  So retention is a problem, and ‘sustainability’ (to use an overused term) is a regular worry.  Sometimes, it is easy to feel like we’re on the high seas in a leaky rowboat, and the winds are kicking up.

I must confess that I look wistfully at some of those Presbyterian and Reformed congregations that are large, established, and multi-generational.  Without having sold out.  They are not many, of course.  Usually in the present day large equals compromised.  But God has been faithful to some communions.  The ones I know are Dutch Reformed.  They don’t just have Christian but Reformed schools.  That is, teachers have to subscribe to the subordinate standards.  Many of the children usually profess the faith in the congregations where they were baptized.  They then find mates, marry, settle down, bear children and further populate their ranks.  If not in their original congregation, then not far off.  Often in the same denomination.

When I went to seminary, my wife and I attended a Dutch Reformed congregation with 900+ in church attendance.  Both services.  Clockwork regularity.  The back pew, I remember, was more or less dedicated to one particular extended family.  Four generations right there.  And Grandpa usually kept a busy blonde grandchild occupied on his lap.  Or, at least he tried.  Beautiful – but vanishing.

I know, of course, that such congregations have their problems.  There is no ecclesiastical utopia, short of the Church Triumphant.  Also, I know that we must wait on the outpouring of the Spirit.  Only by such heavenly showers will the desert blossom as the rose.  Prayer, therefore, is the order of the day.  But two things right on its heels.  First, shouldn’t we be praying that our churches will stay faithful and become established and multi-generational?  And shouldn’t we wait on the Spirit and use lawful means to reverse the process of desertification?

A few proposals on this last point, in order of importance and clarity.

1. As parents, and especially fathers, we must be intoxicated with God in Christ.  This is a non-negotiable.  If we lose our first love, how shall it become or stay the first love of our children?  If we are Spirit-born and the Spirit blesses our children with the new birth, there will be a principle of spiritual gravitation reinforcing the natural, familial pull.  If God in His providence calls them away from us geographically, parents and children must resign to separate.  At least, then, we are one in the Spirit, and we can do second best with phone and Skype.  But would it not also incline them – all other things being equal – to stay close to home?

2. As parents, and especially fathers, we must win the affections and hearts of our children to us.   So much to say here.  Firm discipline goes without being said.  We will lose their heart if we spare the rod.  But winning them to us and to our God will take much more than enforcing our authority.  If they are going to want to be with family and enjoy it rather than always looking outside the family for their social outlet, then it is going to demand nothing less than a paradigm-shift.  Family time must be carved out and kept sacrosanct.  We must be together.  Dine together.  Read, play, and laugh together.  And of course, worship together.   Parents, and especially fathers, need to create an esprit de corps in their families.  Love, devotion, and the desire to stay together will mean we need to be almost if not altogether clannish.

The strongest families I have ever seen were ones where children really liked being with family.  Not that they didn’t have original sin.  I knew better than that.  But by the grace of God, the parents didn’t make an army, compliant but loveless.  What they made was a team.  A team with a positive brand.  And loyalty sprang from love.

Now please don’t misunderstand.  I am not advocating a kind of family-olatry.  By striving to be tight-knit, I am not calling for families to be islands, cut off from church and society.  Quite the opposite.  The very point of this post is about creating multi-generational churches. I am a churchman and proud of it.  I want my son and daughters to be churchmen.  Card-carrying, catechized, psalm-singing Presbyterians!  I want them to have friends, young and old, outside our family in the family of God.  Further, parental authority should not cancel out ecclesiastical authority.  While my ruling elder is not the natural father of my children, he is still a father to them.  See Larger Catechism 124 and proof texts.  I rest my case.

3. As those in church leadership, we must cultivate 1 & 2 in every household.  Family religion has always been paramount within Reformed Christianity.  If minister and elders invest in family religion, they invest in the church.  And the more families are established, the more the church is established.  And under the blessing of God, the future generations join those before them in the praise of God (Psa. 78, 102).   More specifically, we must father our fathers and husband our husbands.  As the father goes, as a rule, so goes the family.  He is the linchpin.  As Baxter once put it, get the father, and half if not most of your pastoral work is done.  So we absolutely have to stress family religion from the pulpit, and regular household visitation cannot be optional.  Really, this one should go at the top.

4. Let us all be devout churchmen and make church-matters paramount.  We must be in the house of God every Lord’s Day, at each service.  As long as we are not laid up with some illness or away on necessary business.  We have to nip flimsy excuses in the bud and fall into ranks.  And we must love it there.  “One thing have I desired of the LORD, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the LORD, and to enquire in his temple” (Psa. 27:4).  If it is not so with us, it certainly will not be with our children.

Also, we must make decisions of residence conditional on whether we will be near a good church.  In our affluent and extremely mobile society, it is very easy to hearken to the call of opportunity.  And a bigger income.  This has been going on for a long time.  Recently, we have been reading the Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls-Wilder.  It is rather quaint and heart-warming.  But Pa Ingalls made his decisions to move his family apparently without the slightest thought of church.  Not good, Pa!  If we love our families, we will put church first.  We cannot sacrifice the bread of life for a bigger slice of the bread that perishes.  If this kind of churchmanship isn’t in our hearts, it won’t be in our children’s hearts.  If we are loosely attached to our churches, they will also.  They will move somewhere, and will settle for something spiritually sub-par.  Or worse, without mom and dad to wake them up and get them moving, they’ll sleep the Sabbath away.

5. Let us invest locally and bloom where we are planted.  This is a far-reaching concept, but I’ll just focus on its particular application to the issue.  Jeremiah called the exiles to unpack their bags and settle down in Babylon.  “Build ye houses, and dwell in them; and plant gardens, and eat the fruit of them; take ye wives, and beget sons and daughters; and take wives for your sons, and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters; that ye may be increased there, and not diminished.  And seek the peace of the city whither I have caused you to be carried away captives, and pray unto the LORD for it: for in the peace thereof shall ye have peace” (Jer. 29:5-7).  Now, as confessional – and not ‘New’ – Calvinists, we don’t believe in the ongoing gift of prophecy.  So I can’t say we must chain ourselves for ever to where we presently live until a further word is received.  But I do think that there is a timeless principle here.  That is, we must recognize that God calls us to be faithful where He plants us, and we ought to be slow to leave our assigned plot until the orders are clear.  And the more skillful we are in the Word of God, the better we’ll be able to read providence and be sensitive to His real and not imagined guidance.  Time to unpack, folks.

If this is the case, then why not involve our children in the reverse-desertification right where we are?   Why not help them marry, plant gardens, and build houses nearby?   In the same state, city, or even neighborhood?  There is strength in numbers.  Of course, God may veto all of this.  He may call one of our children to be a missionary and live half-way around the world from us.  But shouldn’t this be an exception and not the rule?  What law of the Medes and Persians makes us expect that our kids and grandkids must live ten states away?  I wonder how much of this comes from assumptions we have just taken over uncritically.

6. Let us rethink, then, the law of sending off to college.  It has become more or less a rite of passage in modern America that a child will automatically leave home at 18 to go to a college far, far away from one’s parents and home church.  Now, I am not saying that it is necessarily wrong.  I am just saying that we should at least rethink it.  Must they?  Are there educational and vocational opportunities closer to home?  And nowadays, options online are expanding exponentially.  More often than not, there is gold in these hills.

Here in Rhode Island, there is still a sizeable Roman Catholic population.  While what is good in this culture is certainly eroding, immediate and extended family is still at a higher premium than elsewhere in the U.S.  At least, from my armchair.  As an indicator, many people go to college in state (the smallest in the union), marry in state, and settle in state.  Why do they do this?  Well, why not?  And why can’t we seek to restore it – at least a Protestant version?

Further, while I would suggest we rethink the law of sendingour children off to college, let me make a further distinction.  Sons are one thing, daughters are another.  We really need to protect our daughters, especially as the modern college scene is often at its best unwholesome, and at its worst a den of wolves.  Not in every case, I admit.  But in most.

If, however, we’ve already puffed the dandelion and the seeds have drifted far and wide, is there anything we can do to incentivize them to come back?  I’ve heard some states and countries hemorrhaging their young because they don’t see a future back home.  Other countries suffer from ‘brain drain,’ which makes their economic prospects bleak.  So what do they do?  They talk policy.  Provided that we adhere to biblical principle, isn’t there room for shrewd policy?  Let us be harmless as doves, yes.  But also wise as serpents!

7. Last, let us seek ‘rest’ for our children.  A lot of good things are being said today about how bad casual dating can be.  I couldn’t agree more.  And many are saying good things about how parents and especially fathers should be significantly involved in the courtship process.  But when I read the very, very long lists of extremely detailed questions some fathers have for prospective suitors, I sometimes get worried.   I understand 100% that we have to be guardians.  Even bulldogs at times.  But if we are only guardians and are not actively involved in building healthy family relationships within and without our congregations, we will have no pool of possibilities for our children.  And then they’ll have to go out and shift for themselves.  If we are not actively looking out for our Isaacs and our Ruths, then we will shoot ourselves and them in the foot.  And maybe even the heart.

If we’re doing this, though, and take the fatherly initiative, why not stock the pool strategically?  Why not include location to the wish-list?  No, location cannot trump piety or confessionality.  I’m not marrying my child off to an Arminian because he or she lives on the next street.  But can’t I put location somewhere on the list?  And within the location category, different ratings?  Best location, second best, third, and so on?   With three of my four children daughters, I may need to be prepared to kiss some of them goodbye.  But if I’ve done my work well, I hope to send them to second best location and not twenty-third.  And even then, only after I’ve made my best appeal to hubby to ‘come and stay for awhile.’

But while we think, plan, and busy ourselves in Kingdom building, we must do it always on our knees.  Only by the Spirit will the Church be built up.  And only by the Spirit will our seed be blessed in her walls.  “Make us glad according to the days wherein thou hast afflicted us, and the years wherein we have seen evil. Let thy work appear unto thy servants, and thy glory unto their children. And let the beauty of the LORD our God be upon us: and establish thou the work of our hands upon us; yea, the work of our hands establish thou it” (Psa. 90:15-17).

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