Archive for the ‘Parish in American Context’ Category

Writing more than a century before the McDonaldization of the Church, Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847) exposed the fallacy of faith in structures for evangelization.  It is a “Quixotic imagination, that on the strength of churches alone, viewed but in the light of material apparatus, we were to Christianize the population – expecting of these new erections, that, like so many fairy castles, they were, of themselves, to transform every domain in which they were placed into a moral fairyland” (Works 18:109).  While perhaps most evangelicals would probably deny the bald proposition that the building can birth a believer, yet it is very easy subconsciously to think that outward can allure the natural man out of his state of spiritual rebellion.  The fact is, if you build it, they just won’t come.  It is fleshly to think otherwise, for the arm of the flesh – and the fleshly mind – are powerless.

Yes, but what if it is well stocked with professionals?  Professional preachers, counsellors, and administrators?  All with D.Mins?  What if the attractive building is complemented with wide array of wonderful programs for young and old, and for every other conceivable demographic slice?  If you build that, will they come?  No doubt.  But then there is coming (Jn. 6:24-26), and there is coming (Jn. 6:65-66)!

Yet, church buildings are of  value.  Chalmers believed as much and zealously campaigned for the provision of more church buildings in his day.  By his efforts, more than 200 were built in the 1830s throughout Scotland.  But buildings are nothing unless they are furnished with a faithful ministry.  What is more, he contended, they must not serve the public indiscriminately.  To the church and its ministry a fixed, geographical district ought to be assigned for its regular and faithful cultivation.  A church ought to be a neighborhood church, a parish church, with a busy parish minister.  

Build that, and they will come.  Those whom the Father draws, that is.


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Below are (yet) a few more extracts from William Smith’s Endowed Territorial Work (1875). Smith certainly was on to something in his critique of the so-called American success story, allegedly vindicating religious Voluntaryism. From a confessionally Reformed standpoint, time seems only to have further confirmed his thesis. With Christianity subordinated to the laws of supply and demand, populism has compromised ministerial fidelity and has accelerated the decay of orthodoxy.

As I dwell on it, is there really a twofold problem, traceable to something other than gold standard Reformational thought?  Our spiritual fathers fought for biblical freedoms, not absolute ones. They preached freedom from papal tyranny, freedom from slavery to human traditions, freedom to form a private judgment on the letter of Scripture. But there was a trajectory of freedom that pushed further still – the Enlightenment. That freedom knew no restraints, because it was not ultimately tethered to any authority besides its own.

Within the pale of Protestantism, it seems to me that this non-Reformational lust for human autonomy reared its ugly head in the walls of the confessing Church. That was Arminianism. While Dort repressed it for a time, it lived on, and in America it burst into open flame in the ministry of Charles Grandison Finney.

At the same time, a more seemingly innocuous manifestation of Enlightenment freedom was gaining ground in Reformed communions. That was Voluntaryism. What was deceptive about that system was perhaps its frequent affiliation with theological Calvinism. No free will soteriologically, but free choice ecclesiastically. Interestingly, American Presbyterians as early as 1729 embraced Voluntaryism, before it even became a major force in British evangelicalism. Great men, too – some of them my heroes. But Smith’s reflections here, plus more than a century’s worth of all too painful confirmation, draws me to the conclusion that a major fault in American Christianity lies in this twofold concession of ground to the Enlightenment by the sons of the Reformation.

Read this, and see what you think.

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“Dr Magee, formerly Rector of Enniskillen, now Bishop of Peterborough, in his trenchant treatise on the Voluntary system, proves with reference to the current fables of its success in the great Western world, that out of a total of 42,359 churches, there were no fewer than 12,829 without any settled pastoral ministry,— that out of a population of twenty-seven millions, more than a third were not even under the influence of pure Christianity, and much less than a sixth were members of any pure Christian Church, — that upwards of five millions either make no profession of any religion whatever, or are open and avowed infidels — that over and above these, another million connected with Mormonism, Spiritualism, or other such monstrous abortions, cannot be regarded as Christians at all—that not less than one hundred different denominations, some of them calling themselves by the most ridiculous names, and glorying in the most absurd peculiarities of faith and practice, are enumerated in the American Census—that the occupants of the pews exert the most degrading and pernicious influence on the occupants of the pulpits, who dare not, as they value their salaries or the place they fill, denounce national sins, and who, as the result of this subserviency, were the great abettors and upholders of slavery so long as it subsisted in the South—that with churches crowded in the cities, hundreds of thousands are living on the territory without Sabbath or sanctuary influences, without a pastor, and without any one to care for their souls—and that in America, as elsewhere, Voluntaryism tends to promote Congregationalism and commercialism, instead of a system of faithful and devoted pastoral superintendence in connection with the ministry of the Gospel” (229-30).

[Quoting a minister in western Canada] “I must pass by the other still greater evil of the Voluntary system; I mean the evil effect which must be the natural consequence of the want of independence in the clergy themselves upon the doctrines of the Gospel. The multitude of sectarian creeds produces a very general indifference to all religion’” (232-33).

“Voluntaryism, therefore, it is very evident, does not change its hue on the other side of the Atlantic. It is fruitful of the same evils there as here. With all the free scope and fair-play it enjoys under the starred and striped Republican banner, it leaves tens and hundreds of thousands uncared for. With a Beecher there, as with a Spurgeon here, planted in a large and populous city, enshrined in a temple where fashion helps to swell the votaries, and sensationalism or genius impregnates the winged words spoken from the pulpit with power to awe, entrance, or excite, Voluntaryism will win for itself such victories as impress the vulgar or unthinking with the idea that it is the system best fitted to succeed” (233).

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Few in confessional Reformed circles would question the ‘McDonaldization’ of the Church thesis.  So much of evangelical Christianity in America has caved in to consumerism.   But historically, I have to ask whether we’re at the end of a long journey begun by 19th century Voluntaries?  Or was it perhaps commenced inadvertently by the 17th century devotees of “gathered churches?”  The following quote from William Smith (a la Chalmers) at least raises the question, given that his central critique of Voluntaryism is its commericialization of the Church:

“But the radical and fatal defect of the Voluntary system lies in this, that from its very nature it tends to occupy and engross itself with the fat places of the land, leaving the lean neglected and uncared for—that it absorbs and isolates into self-supporting confederations the very portion of the population that ought to be caring for the perishing souls of others less happily conditioned—that the more successful it is in any field, the more neglectful must it be of those persons connected with that field who most require the ministrations of the Gospel —and that its besetting and generally irresistible temptation is to make the grace and ordinances of religion a matter of mere competitive shopkeeping on the one hand, and of ready-money purchase on the other” (William Smith, Endowed Territorial Work, 100-1).

Yet, I fear that Smith’s critique of consumerism cuts both ways.   

Smith wrote at a time when the integrity of evangelicalism had not been radically vitiated.  Many (most?) Voluntaries were Calvinist.  Smith really was criticizing all Voluntaryism, Calvinist or not, because it tended to make the faith once delivered gravitate to where the money is.  Voluntaryism of whatever stripe simply had no internal mechanism to ensure that everyone in the land, including the working classes, were provided the pure ordinances.  The old Kirk, with its principle of endowed territorialism, did. 

Reformed churches in North America are de facto if not de jure gathered churches.  And while many of us have been kept from the abyss of crass McDonaldization (so far), yet we tend to exist only where we can be financed.  Does this explain not only the temptation to dilute our confessionalism, but also why there are so few confessionally Reformed churches in urban America?

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The following essay by A. T. Pierson, successor to Charles Spurgeon at the Metropolitan Tabernacle, is a nice little overview of Dr. Chalmers’ heroic Christian labors among the urban poor.  Before wading into Pierson, two observations from the essay. 

While I’m very familiar with the old West Port story, one of Pierson’s statements raised yet another angle on territorial outreach that I hadn’t considered in awhile.  The old, Reformed territorial plan helps reduce evangelistic recidivism. 

Second, I’m reminded of how Chalmers’ care for the unchurched aimed to ‘elevate’ that culture, if you will, into the culture of the Church.  Here’s a positive model for modern Reformed missions.  Cultural sensitivity, o.k.  But faithful mission ultimately means the inculturation (reformation?) of the outsider.  That may seem patronizing; but then again, so is mission.  For more on that, read on!

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By A. T. Pierson, D.D. (Presbyterian), Philadelphia.

Dr. Thomas Chalmers is a name especially worthy of a permanent record, as one of the men who led the way in the practical solution of that great problem of our civilization: How to deal with the masses in our great cities.

At his sixty-fifth year we find this greatest of Scotchmen on fire with all his youthful ardor, in this mission to the masses in Edinburgh, in which, as in Ephesus, the gold, silver, and precious stones of the sacred fanes and palaces were in strong contrast to the wood, hay, stubble of the huts and hovels of the poor. With sublime devotion Chalmers at this advanced age, when most men retire from active and arduous toil, entered upon the most difficult experiment of his life, that he might demonstrate by a practical example what can be done for the poor and neglected districts in a great metropolis.

The West Port, in the “old town” of Edinburgh, was the home of a population, whose condition may be described by two words, poverty and misery.  He undertook to redeem this heathen district by the Gospel, planting in it schools and a church for the people, and organizing Christian disciples into a band of voluntary visitors.  The name “territorial system” was attached to the plan as he worked it, and has passed into history under that sonorous title.

In St. John’s parish, Glasgow, he had already proved the power of visitation and organization.  Within his parochial limits he found 2,161 families, 845 of them without any seats in a place of worship.  He assigned to each visitor about fifty families.  Applications for relief were dealt with systematically, and so carefully yet thoroughly that not a case either of scandalous allowance or scandalous neglect was ever made known against him and his visitors.  There was a severe scrutiny to find out the fact and the causes of poverty, to remove necessary want and remedy unnecessary want by removing its cause.  The bureau of intelligence made imposture and trickery hopeless, especially on a second attempt.  And not only was poverty relieved, but at a cost which is amazingly small.  While in other parishes of Glasgow it averaged £200 to every 1,000 of the population, and in many parishes of England it averaged a pound for every inhabitant, in St. John’s it was but thirty pounds for 1,000 people!

It was an illustration of heroism in these latter days, when a man passed threescore years, whose public career both with his pen and tongue had made him everywhere famous, gave up his latter days to elevate the physical, mental, moral and spiritual condition of a squalid population in an obscure part of the modern Athens.  His theory was that about 400 families constituted a manageable town parish, and that for every such territorial district there ought to be a church and a school, as near as may be, free to all.  This district in West Port contained about this number of families, which were subdivided into twenty “proportions,” each containing some twenty families.

A careful census, taken by visiting, revealed that of 411 families forty-five were attached to some Protestant church, seventy were Roman Catholics, and 296 had no church connection.  Out of a gross population of 2,000, 1,500 went to no place of worship; and of 411 children of school age, 290 were growing up entirely in ignorance.  It is a curious fact that these 411 families averaged one child each of appropriate age for school; and that of these 411 children there were about as many growing up untaught as there were families without church connection.  This careful compilation of statistics revealed that the proportion of ignorance and of non-attendance at church correspond almost exactly; in other words, families that attend a place of worship commonly send children to school, and the reverse.

Another fact unveiled by this effort at city evangelization was that about one fourth of the inhabitants of this territory were paupers, receiving out-door relief, and one-fourth were habitual, professional beggars, tramps, thieves, and riff-raff.

Here was a field indeed for an experiment as to what the Church could do in her mission among the masses. Chalmers was hungry for such an opportunity; it stirred all his Scotch blood.  So he set his visitors at work.  But he did not himself stand aloof.  Down into the “wynds” and alleys and “closes” of West Port he went; he presided at their meetings, counselled them sympathetically, identified himself with the whole plan in its formation and execution, while his own contagious enthusiasm and infectious energy gave stimulus to the most fainthearted.  He loved to preach to these people, not less than to the most elegant audiences of the capital, or the elect students of the university.  He would mount into a loft to meet a hundred of the poorest, as gladly as ascend the pulpit of the most fashionable cathedral church, crowded with the elite of the world’s metropolis.  And those ragged boys and girls hung on his words with characteristic admiration.

Two years of toil, with the aid of Rev. W. Tasker, enabled Dr. Chalmers to open a new free church in this district; the Lord’s Supper was administered, and out of 132 communicants one hundred were trophies of the work done by him and his helpers in that obscure district. With a prophetic forecast Chalmers saw in this success the presage of greater possibilities, and a practical solution of the problem of city evangelization; and hence he confessed it was the joy of his life, and the answer to many prayers.

The plan pursued by Dr. Chalmers was not at all like the modern evangelistic services, an effort spasmodic if not sporadic, preaching for a few weeks in some church edifice or public hall or tabernacle, and then passing into some other locality, leaving to others to gather up results and make them permanent.  From the most promising beginnings of the sort, how often have we been compelled to mourn that so small harvests have been ultimately gleaned!  He organized systematic work that looked to lasting results.  The plowman and the sower of seed bore his sickle and watched for the signs of harvest.  And whenever the germs of a divine life appeared, they were nurtured, cherished, guarded, and converts were added to the Church, set at work, kept under fostering care, and not left to scatter, wander at will, or relapse into neglect.

As to his mode of dealing with pauperism, the sagacious Chalmers saw that while a ministry of love to the poor, sick, helpless, was a first necessity, it would be unwise and hurtful to their best interests to encourage them to depend on charity. The Church must not be an asylum in which indolence and incompetence and improvidence should take refuge. The poorest must be educated to maintain, not to sacrifice, self-respect, and must be compelled to form and maintain habits of self-help, industry, economy, thrift. Instead of clothing the poor with the half-worn garments of the better classes, he would have them taught to save money worse than wasted on tobacco, drink and vicious indulgence, and buy their own garments.  And the results of this wise policy were seen in the gradual and rapid improvement in appearance of the attendance at church—rags gave way to respectable raiment, and it was not the castoff clothing of their betters, either.

Chalmers had no less an ambition than to ameliorate and finally abolish pauperism; and his success in St. John’s parish, Glasgow, had proven that he was master of the situation; and no one can tell what results might have followed but for the poor law, enacted in 1845, which, by the admission of a statutory right to public relief, encourages improvidence, weakens family ties among the poor, conduces to a morbid satisfaction with a state of dependence, and thus sows the seed of the very pauperism it professes to relieve and reduce.

[Taken from The Pulpit Treasury: An Evangelical Monthly, Vol. 5, 1887-88]

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Being an armchair philologist, words fascinate me.  I am often allured by the suggestive hints from other cognate languages.  “Hmm. Could this word be related to that?  And if so, how?”   Soon I’m at the dictionary, probing unknown etymologies and discovering family relationships.  New shades of significance of even the most familiar of words give me an inward satisfaction.

But I really sit up and take notice when they are words that tap into domains of personal interest. So after several years of nursing a respect for Reformed parochial mission theory a la Thomas Chalmers, I’ve become really interested in expanding my grasp of related terminology and its significance.

One of the new words under personal review is ward.  I owe this one to Dr. Francis Wayland (1796-1865), the fourth President of Brown University and a strong American admirer of Thomas Chalmers.  In his biographical tribute to the great Scotsman, he mentions the word to explain Chalmers’ advocacy of the parish as a unit of evangelism.  “So far as I understand, the city of Glasgow is divided into parishes, as our cities are divided into wards” (p. 88).  Really, it was just an incidental statement in a larger explanation.  But this attempt to translate a somewhat foreign state of affairs for an American audience made me pause.  “Now if the British parish is analogous to the American ward (or district, precinct, borough), then what is its precise meaning?  And how could it be appropriated ecclesiastically?”

Well, the word as a noun basically means “the act or condition of guarding” or “being in a state of custody.”   Germanic in origin, the word developed through Old and Middle English to the current ward and related variants.  In the same family are beware, wary, guard, and warden.

The following seems to be central to its essence.  The ward is an authoritatively fixed responsibility assigned to some person or persons to regard, protect, and otherwise care for certain ones under their charge.  Usually a ward is not alone, but several wards are distributed throughout a general area, combining for the overall protection and provision of a larger body.  So, then, the ward is an organizational expedient for a broad charge.  In light of all this, we get a clearer insight into the significance both of city and hospital wards.

Turning to the ecclesiastical application, the Lord Jesus Christ has been invested with “all authority in heaven and on earth.”  He, however, chooses to send the Twelve throughout the nations with the keys of the kingdom.  Whatever they “bind on earth shall be bound in heaven,” while “whatever they loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”  He that hears them hears the Son, and whoever hears Him hears the Father.

The entirety of the nations are to be taught, baptized, and consequently further taught “in all things whatsoever [Jesus has] commanded them.”  The nations, then, are under the Church’s custody.  No doubt “the heathen rage” and attempt to throw off these “bands” and “cords.”  Yet, none of their mad fury alters in the slightest the dominion of God’s Christ or the authority entrusted to the Church as steward.  The world is Christ’s ward.

Yet the Church under Christ can only fulfill its charge by (in the words of Thomas Chalmers) an intelligent economy. Only by division can the whole be conquered.  So the Church, seeing herself as Christ’s city steward or the spiritual hospital’s administrator, divides and subdivides its sacred charge.  We may call these units any number things.  But given the ancient and contemporary significance of the ward, this offers itself as a great word for the Church’s missionary vocabulary.  And for that matter, it ought to be more than idea – but an abiding mandate.  The Church ought not so much to create wards as to realize and begin to take charge of them!

Perhaps these ideas seem Roman Catholic.  I would contend, however, that the Reformation Church – wearing the mantle of the true catholicism – affirmed them wholeheartedly.  It threw out the vain traditions of men, but not this theology of the Church’s spiritual stewardship over the nations.  And that is why the Reformation Churches kept establishments and the parochial system.  They were viewed as wise expedients to fulfill its sacred responsibility.

Nevermind the blight of secularism, with its contempt of all churchly restraints.  Let us not be browbeaten by the re-paganizing of the West.  It remains, as well as the East – and for that matter, the North and South too! – the territory of the Lord Christ.  It is His domain, as the rightful Heir of all things.  That means the nations are His, the states are His, the cities are His – with all its wards.  Let the Church assume its responsibility over them.  And in so doing, it will one day receive that cheering commendation, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.”

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Today, I was reading an article comparing Adam Smith’s argument in favor (!) of establishments furnishing religious instruction with that of Thomas Chalmers.  The essay concluded that, in light of their views, contemporary tax policies are warranted in exempting religious organizations from such standard civil obligations and in allowing deductions for contributions made to them.  This statement reminded me of a recent post in which the author I was treating  contended that such tax policies were not just warranted, but that they placed distinct obligations upon churches actively to work for the common good.  They are, in a way, post-establishmentarian state subsidies of religious organizations to improve the social order.  If that is the case, then ought we as Church to consider our tax benefits as advance payments from Caesar to perform our Christian mandate (Mat. 28:18)?

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“A Plea and Plan for a Coöperative Church Parish System in Cities,” by Walter Laidlaw

In this essay, published in the American Journal of Sociology (1898), Walter Laidlaw advocates among the Protestant church a voluntary ‘cooperative parish system’ in the large cities of the United States for the spiritual, moral, and socio-economic benefit of the people. His argument is threefold. First, it is the mandate of Christ to seek the entire well-being of men, both body as well as soul. Secondly, Laidlaw contends that the Church owes it to the taxpayers to seek the ‘moral uplift’ of the working classes. They ought not receive tax exemption for nothing in return. Quite an interesting take on the role of the Church in relation to a non-establishmentarian state! Last, the particular plan he advocates is the surest way to satisfy the mandates both of heaven and of earth.

Map of Lower Manhattan, 1847Positively, I think the article reproduces both the zeal of Thomas Chalmers on the need of Church to evangelize (and that wholistically) the burgeoning modern cities and his level-headed practicality in how the work ought to be done. Energetic, cooperative territorialism is the answer. While Chalmers is not mentioned, his fingerprints are all over it.

Further, Laidlaw certainly continued this legacy by endorsing the elevated philanthrophy that gives intelligently.

My only qualm is the faint note of evangelicalism throughout. It is there, but it is too subdued for my comfort. Presently, I’ve not found out much about Laidlaw’s theology (if anyone can shed some light, I would welcome it). I’m not sure whether he was an advocate of the Social Gospel or whether he retained a distinctive evangelical stance. But the essay is almost altogether devoted to the cooperative parish plan for the relief of outward human misery. I would say ‘Amen and Amen’ to Laidlaw if he unequivocally made the efficient dissemination of the apostolic Gospel the ultimate justification of the system. But right now, I’m at just one ‘Amen.’

Below are some great quotes, with a few comments interspersed.

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“Originated by the Holy One from one of the largest cities of Judah, commissioned in Palestine’s largest city, her literature christened with the names of the ancient world’s greatest cities and city, her social ideal a city let down from heaven, the church has the opportunity to take the primacy, beyond all question, in altruistic movements, by the institution of a coöperative parish system in cities” (796).

Lamenting over the relative failure of Protestant over Roman Catholic churches to retain their adherents in the large cities, Laidlaw writes,

“Protestantism’s families are not in Protestantism’s church because Protestantism’s church representatives, attending to the people on their communion and pew rolls, scattered all over the 13,000 acres of Manhattan island, have not time or plan to discover and recover the families found on no communion or pew roll.

“It should be a humiliation to Protestantism in New York that three Roman Catholic churches get at more families in the district than do ninety-five Protestant churches, among which are three resident churches. It is idle to ascribe the difference of efficiency in the district to denominational tendency, or national characteristics. It is rather due to the difference between regimentation and somnambulism [sleepwalking]. “Except the Lord keep the city, the watchmen waketh but in vain,’ says Protestantism; and she does on underestimating human wide-awakeness and gumption through her admirable reverence for divine grace. She walketh in a dumb show of saving the city for herself or her Lord” (799-800).

Appreciating the work of the Evangelical Alliance (itself a brainchild of Chalmers) before him in seeking to bring the Gospel wholistically to the cities, Laidlaw critiques the over-idealism of a previous plan that had doomed it to failure. That plan failed in part precisely because of an overemphasis on cooperation:

“It is too ideal … in intermingling denominational visitors. The first step to be taken would [rather] seem to be to induce the churches to regard a geographical area as a special responsibility, and many a church would undertake this if, as a church, it were held responsible for the area, when it might not be willing to share the responsibility with workers from other churches. Spiritual life is systole and diastole indeed, both organization and individual discharging both organic functions at time, but if the church is a divine organization, we must concede her arterialism and assume that individuals are venous” (801).

“Christianity’s warm heart will say to her cool head, when she sees that her alms and uplift must be with both left hand and right hand: ‘Had, you must direct this business for me, or I shall fail in meeting this need. The Master himself did not feed the multitude by Galilee as a mob. He divided the five thousand into companies, and gave each of the twelve his sections to care for. And they did all eat and were filled, no one was overlooked. And they gathered up twelve baskets of fragments, a basket for each disciple, more food than they started with. Head, this need is so great that some hungry one is sure to be underfed, and some greedy one is sure to be overfed, unless there is method.’ And when Christianity talks in this strain, it will not indicate a cooling heart, but a glowing one, one that responds to the Redeemer’s desire, and ‘mind and soul, according well, / will make one music as before’” (803).

Last, Laidlaw gives a number of guidelines for such a cooperative parish system. Cooperation is more than inter-church – it also involves cooperation with civic officials for the ultimate blessing of the community. He gives one interesting instance of such cooperation in New York City during his time:

“For instance, the committee on parks recently circulated a petition, signed by everyone of the pastors in the area, asking the city authorities to locate a small park in the region. When the park is actually opened, it cannot but advertise throughout the whole neighborhood the fact that the church is interested in the people’s well-being” (806-7).

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