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Archive for the ‘Parochial Strategy’ Category

Chalmers-09-SepiaThe following is a guest post by Dr. George Grant.

The great Scottish pastor, social reformer, educator, author, and scientist Thomas Chalmers was born on March 17, 1780 at Anstruther on the Fife coast. His father was a prosperous businessman in the town and Thomas grew up as the sixth in a large family of fourteen children—he had eight brothers and five sisters.

Showing early signs of prodigy, at the age of three, he went to the local parish school to learn the classical trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric in English, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. His parents were people of strong Calvinist conviction and keen that their family should grow up to bear witness to a lively and relevant Christianity. Piety and intellectual rigor marked their daily lives.

Before he was twelve, he had sufficiently mastered language, literary, and philosophical skills that he was recommended to advance his studies at the University of St Andrews. His brother, William, who was just thirteen, accompanied him. At the time, Thomas was the second-youngest student at St Andrews and widely recognized as a student with extraordinary promise. Although a great part of his time in the first two sessions at the university were apparently occupied in boyish amusements, such as golf, soccer, and hand-ball—in which he was remarkably expert, owing to his being left-handed—he had already begun to demonstrate the great intellectual power which was to be one of his chief characteristics throughout adult life. For mathematics he developed special enthusiasm and to its study he gave himself with great energy and dedication. Ethics and politics were also themes of special interest to him as he sought to integrate his life and faith with the evident woes of the world around him.

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One of my personal heroes is Scottish Presbyterian minster, Aeneas Sage (1694-1774). I’m not quite sure if everything written about him is totally accurate; I get a whiff of the hagiographic if not the legendary in some of the stories.  Yet, something in my gut tells me it is too good and so must be true!  (Like a historian friend of mine quipped, ‘If it ain’t true, it should be!’)  Whatever the case, Aeneas Sage captivates me, for as a pastor he knew how to captivate an audience – in more ways that one.

I’ve retold the following story countless times, from John Kennedy’s The Days of the Fathers in Ross-Shire.  I still remember first hearing it by an idiosyncratic minister having his wispy locks trimmed by his wife in his living room.  How his eyes sparkled as he struggled to repress laughter!  As I remember it again, it also gives me some tantalizing ideas in drawing a crowd for open air preaching, and of course, to win hearts for King Jesus in an increasingly secular age.  I already know one friend whose church has had good success gaining a crowd by basketball.  Then they preach a solid, Reformed sermon for 45 minutes – to public schoolers.  Maybe they took a chapter out of Aeneas Sage’s playbook.

If  you like the following, you’ll no doubt appreciate this piece about him too.  Now, without further audieu …

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Mr. Munro was preceded by the famous Mr. Aenas Sage —”a man of an undaunted spirit, who did not know what the fear of man was. He had, however, the fear of God, and great zeal for the good cause in its highest perfection. He was the determined enemy of vice, and a true friend of the gospel.” Such, according to Mr. Lachlan, was the character of Mr. Sage, the first minister who is known to have preached the Gospel in purity and with success in Lochcarron. At the time of his induction, the state of the parish was very much the same as it was found by the Presbytery to be in 1649, when after visiting it, they reported that “there were no elders in it, by reason of malignancy; swearing, drunkenness, cursing, Sabbath profanation, and uncleanness prevailed.” As to the church, there was found in it “ane formal stool of repentance, but no pulpit nor desks.” The stool, if the only, was truly the suitable seat for all the people of Lochcarron in these days; but the more it was required, the less power there was to make it aught else than “ane formal” thing, as the solitary occupant of the church.

Matters continued in this state till the induction of Mr. Sage, nearly eighty years after. He was just the man for the work of breaking up the fallow ground of a field so wild, and a rich blessing rested on his labours. On the night of his first arrival at Lochcarron an attempt was made to burn the house in which he lodged, and for some time after his induction his life was in constant danger. But the esteem he could not win as a minister, he soon acquired for great physical strength. The first man in Lochcarron in those days was the champion at the athletic games. Conscious of his strength, and knowing that he would make himself respected by all if he could only lay big Rory on his back, who was acknowledged to be the strongest man in the district, the minister joined the people on the earliest opportunity at their games. Challenging the whole field, he competed for the prize in putting the stone, tossing the caber, and wrestling, and won an easy victory. His fame, was established at once. The minister was now the champion of the district, and none was more ready to defer to him than he whom he had deprived of the laurel. Taking Rory aside to a confidential crack, he said to him, “Now, Rory, I am the minister, and you must be my elder, and we both must see to it that all the people attend church, observe the Sabbath, and conduct themselves properly.” Rory fell in with the proposal at once. On Sabbath, when the people would gather at their games in the forenoon, the minister and his elder would join them, and each taking a couple by the hand, they would drag them to the church, lock them in, and then return to catch some more. This was repeated till none were left on the field. Then, stationing the elder with his cudgel at the door, the minister would mount the pulpit and conduct the service. One of his earliest sermons was blessed to the conversion of his assistant, and a truly valuable coadjutor he found in big Rory thereafter. Mr. Lachlan thus describes the result of his ministry: —”Mr. Sage made the people very orthodox.” They “seem to have a strong attachment to religion.” “There is a great appearance of religion in Lochcarron; and as the fire of God’s Word is hereafter to try every man’s work, there is cause to hope that some of it will bear the trial.’

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Thomas Chalmers here responds to a close friend who felt the secularizing influence of unconverted company.  His reply?  Aspire for the emergence of Christian communities and restlessly work to build them by aggressive soul-winning.  Again, Chalmers exhibits a wholesome blend of romanticism and realism.   He also gives some other helpful words to those engaged in the task of reaching the lost.

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“You speak of uncongenial business or society in the evening, which broke up in some measure the religious frame of your mind on the preceding part of the day. Now, mark well that there will be no such interruptions in the Millennium; there are none such in a Moravian village at this moment; and there would be much fewer than there are in Glasgow had we a more extensive Christian community. The direct road to this is just to make as many Christian individuals and Christian families as we can; and in the exact proportion of our success shall we be rewarded by a freedom from all these temptations which the deadening and secularizing influence of the great majority of companies brings along with it. Let us ever keep by this object, then, as our great aim and purpose of our lives here below, combining, at the same time, all that discretion and skill which are necessary in the important work. Let us pray for that most desirable wisdom, the wisdom of winning souls—not forgetting that He who says, Keep thyself pure, also says, Lay hands on no man suddenly; and taking care, at the same time, never to convert the latter direction into a shelter for cowardice, or a plea for denying Christ before men. Oh, my dear sir, you are right to feel your shortcomings, and it is at the same time right to strike the high aim of being perfect, even as God is perfect. It is only wrong to conceive such a purpose in a dependence on ourselves; but who shall limit the power of His Spirit?”

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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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I just read a great piece by Carl Trueman on the virtue of self-restraint when engaging in theological controversy.  He essentially argues that we ought to be much more modest about our usefulness beyond the sphere God has placed us.  Most of us ought simply to retire our capes, roll up our sleeves, and channel our energies our own small, local plot.  While Trueman’s piece is by no means a formal endorsement of parochialism, my parochial mind can’t help thinking about Chalmers’ celebration of the “power of littles” and his famous dictum, “Locality, in truth, is the secret principle wherein our great strength lieth.”  Chalmers also repeatedly burst the bubbles of the pretentious who thought they could and should assume larger fields of work.  They ought rather be “sober minded” about their gifts and celebrate the giftings of others.  And work.  Locally.

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