Reforming churches


Should existing churches be reformed or should new churches be started. Well, that is sort of like asking whether you should love your wife or your kids. The two are not–indeed must not be–mutually exclusive. It is easy for us to slip into this dichotomous way of thinking about church life particularly if we are do not keep a realistic view of what a reforming ministry in a church looks like.

Sometimes those who are committed to the doctrines of grace entertain romantic ideas of what constitutes a “reformed church.” This was driven home to me many years ago through a conversation with one of our pastoral interns. After three months in Cape Coral one of his seminary friends called him and asked him what it was like to be in a church where “Calvinism is preached every Sunday”? The intern burst his friend’s bubble by reporting that in three months he had not heard even one sermon on the so-called five points. The expectation was that a “reformed church” would surely be ringing five bells every Sunday.

Another misconception stems from a utopian view of church life. Once a church is reformed, the thinking goes, then it will have arrived and will be free of problems–at least from major problems. As anyone who has been a part of a confessionally reformed church will testify, that simply is not the way it works. Why? Because reformed Christians (including Reformed pastors) are not exempt from remaining sin.

It may prove more helpful to speak of “reforming” rather than “reformed” churches (at least in contexts where the latter is not used as a denominational identifier). A reformation motto is very instructive here. A local church that is pursuing healthy biblical renewal should consider itself as ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda–a church that is reformed and always reforming. The task is never over.

When a typical evangelical church begins to pursue a course of biblical re-formation its path may be marked by various significant milestones: adopting or reaffirming a clear confession of faith, committing to the gracious practice of church discipline, adopting a more concientiously biblical view of church leaders and officers, attempting to regulate worship by Scripture, eliminating unbiblical practices that had become almost sacramental in their place and importance in church life, etc. All of these, and more which could be added, are good and healthy steps. But none of them establish a church as having arrived on some hallowed ground that we can now call “reformed” in a final sense.

There will always be a need to press further down the path of living biblically together as a body of believers. That is true for established churches that are being led into more healthy spiritual streams of church life and practice and for churches that are being started by those who are already share basic commitments on these important matters. We desperately need to see a large number of healthy churches planted across our nation (and across other nations), but we must not naively assume that starting a new church will eliminate the need to have an ongoing reforming ministry.

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10 Responses to “Reforming churches”

  1. You’re right. We must reform our churches and keep them reforming. We must also plant them.

    I’ve learned that one way to plant them is to declare limitations on the size we allow our churches to grow. (This, of course, would mean we have to abandon the megachurch mentality). I learned this from my Mom’s church.

    They are compromised in large part, by former members of the largest SBC church in the area, a church with just over 5000 members (most of whom actually do show up on Sunday morning). The small church was well established in the community before many of them became members there. These members left the larger SBC church precisely because they felt it had grown too large for them. Eventually, the elders and the members in the church realized that churches can grow so large as to be unwieldy as they kept hearing, “I’m coming here because you teach sound doctrine (which they really, really do well) and you are small and I can know the folks in the church. Therefore, they changed their Constitution so that, if they reach 500 or more members, they must plant a new church in a different part of the community with a core of members from their church. The folks in the local PCA session have also adopted this idea, and, as a result, in the past three years, the largest of the PCA churches has been able to successfully plant two daughter churches.

  2. Genembridges,

    It’s so encouraging to hear that churches even mandate church planting when numbers get too big.

    I used to be a big fan of megachurches – they were quite rare in Australia in the early 1990s. As time has gone by I have realised that authentic, loving Christian relationships have difficulty flourishing in a “big church” environment. People can be members for years and not have any good friends at the church.

    There’s also so much attention to administrative detail that needs to be done in these large churches. Parking, filing, building maintenance and so on.

    I go to a church which numbers around 80 people. I think it is too big – we should split and form two churches (500 to me is still way too large).

  3. Gene and Salient,
    Please don’t take this the wrong way, I understand that what you have discussed is very practical, but I just wanted to share the immediate thoughts that occurred to me as I read through both responses.

    “…the size we allow them to grow.”
    “…we have to abandon…”
    “…mandate church planting when numbers get too big…”
    “…I think it is too big”

    Granted, that which is bound in heaven is also bound on earth when the churches function properly, but who decides numbers and sizes of churches? Isn’t that the Lord’s business as he adds to the church such as should be saved and places them in the Body where it pleases Him? Shouldn’t church planting be done simply because the New Testament mandates it?
    I know that the answers to those questions are obvious (or should be) but I thought that I saw in your discussion the danger of not allowing God to work as He said He would. If the churches are involved in discipling (as they are mandated to do) then men will naturally be grown in the congregations “who will be able to teach others also” and then we have a sound basis to plant other churches, providing men who can shepherd them. We must allow ourselves to be lead by His Spirit in these matters, and for us to determine numbers presents a danger towrd that end.
    If that was already a given in your discussion, as I’ve have already stated please don’t take this the wrong way. I think that reformation will come only as we function by what the Scriptures say.

  4. Tom, great words. It is far too easy for those of us in the Reformed tradition to rest in having the right doctrine. As if, when a church adopts a reformed confession and the body has embraced that system we are done. Thanks for reminding us that reformation is an ongoing work of purifying doctrine and the heart.

  5. Yes, Joe, we should do church planting because the New Testament mandates it, and it is the Lord’s business to add to the church such as should be saved and place where He sees fit. Yes, in an ideal world men would be raised up who are able to teach others and plant new churches, and, praise the Lord, He does so, very often, in spite of the environments fostered in some of our churches. However, if the Lord moves a congregation to declare a limitation on its size for the purpose of planting new work, then how can we not say that is the way God has chosen to plant new work through that local congregation? It is because of the introverted mentality within many of our churches that these other congregations have made the decision to act in this matter in the way they have.

    Mom’s church is independent of a denominational structure,though Baptist, so, in order to plant churches, absent the NAMB or another support structure, they have chosen this method. The quality of their members is also extremely high. They run their congregation almost like a seminary in terms of the level of Christian education. Seriously, these people can dialogue with a seminarian about the finer points of Christology or Pneumatology, and, yes, they live the lives of regenerate church members. These folks remind me of Jonathan Edwards congregants who used to read their Greek New Testaments while plowing their fields. They put most of our SBC people to shame. I’ve had the opportunity to consult with one of their college students @ the local university with regard to a class on Christian apologetics that he teaches for other students. This guy is 19, and, if I didn’t know better, I’d think he was a student in one of our seminaries. He’s been taught that well. This church is producing a generation of teachers, but it is small and they wish to stay small, precisely to make them grow with a few to doing new work and not turning in on themselves. The PCA session here is comprised of a handful of churches. Our association, in contrast, has over 80 churches and is in a large state convention with a great deal of horsepower behind it. The prevailing mentality is that church planting is something best done by the NAMB, not the association, unless its a hispanic church. Somehow, “that’s different.” Don’t ask, I don’t “get it” either.

    Right now, we’ve got a smaller urban church in the association that just dismissed its pastor (who I understand from my grandad who is a deacon there was just not a nice person anyway…Note to new pastors, include your people in leading worship on Sunday morning and never, ever yell at your secretaries) that is trying to understand why it’s not growing, but they haven’t quite figured out they are in the middle of a community that has more Spanish speaking people in it now than English speaking folks. Seems to me they would do well to call a bi-lingual pastor and grow their church in their community or merge with the hispanic congregation who is renting space in my church’s building right now, since their pastor is bi-lingual, as are most in his congregation. Rather than them dying on the vine, they could merge the two congregations into one and place the congregation we’re hosting ourselves in the middle of the hispanic community, not out “in the country,” and miles away from where most of these folks drive as it is, but, hey, that’s just me.

    If its an English speaking church, its supposed to be an established church, and that’s how it is here. I’m not endorsing that mentality; I’m just reporting it. Please, don’t kill the messenger.

    Case in point: The largest SBC church in my area has planted 2 churches in 10 years, in both cases, even though it has more horsepower than any other church in the area within it, they refused to do it unless at least 2 other associational churches assisted them, which is fine, because it gets our churches to work together. Meanwhile it has continued to grow in size. At the same time, many of the long time members who were there when I was on staff myself have begun to drift into smaller congregations already established in the area, like mine, saying “Its too big, they’re getting too ‘seeker friendly, (coffee and donuts served in the church lobby on Sunday mornings with “No food or drink in the auditorium” signs posted is, IMO, going over the edge)’ the teaching has become shallow (which bothers me the most),” etc. In contrast, the largest local PCA congregation which is approximately 1/4 the size of the largest SBC church plants a new church out of its own congregation every 2 or 3 years, and each of those new congregations is based on a similar model and will likely plant new work within 5 years. So, the smaller PCA congregation ends up planting 3 to 5 congregations to the other’s 2, AND each of those daughters ends up planting a new work about 5 years out themselves, for a total of 5 to 7 new churches to “our” 2, which, in ten years are not growing a nearly the pace that these churches are growing. Moreover, the new plants are started out of their Sunday evening worship services at the parent church, which they nuture as a congregation within the congregation after each church planting, so that they are “taking a cutting from their vine and planting it in new soil” when it is ready to take root. They participate as one body in the education ministries of the church (which includes seminary level extension classes offered to all the members, congregation wide teaching on historical theology and church history, in short, it’s rigorous) on Sunday morning, but the evening group is comprised of volunteers who wish to stay together for their Sunday night worship. A new TE is called to pastor them, so they serve as an on campus church for the new TE, who is also the pastoral intern under the parent church’s TE for the whole church as well. Thus, these daughter churches start out with a new TE, who does a 2 to 3 year internship before being set loose himself, a board of elders, and a membership already in place, and their membership ranges from 50 to 100 by the time they are planted. They go to a new part of the community and by the time they build their own buildings, they are ready to begin looking to establishing daughters themselves. God is doing marvelous things in the PCA here. In the absence of a large session to help them, they have undertaken this as their plan, and it seems to be working more effectively than ours.

    If they chose to cap the size of their churches, and they believe the Lord has led them to do so, then who am I to oppose it? After all, I’m a Baptist and I’m all for local church autonomy. By following that rule, they grow their churches with a view toward planting new work in the area, not turning their congregations into megachurches. Moreover, the way they are doing it, they are providing a wonderful opportunity for the training of seminarians. One of the biggest complaints that we have in my state convention about seminarians and that seminarians themselves have is that many of them come to pastor a church and have very little, if any field experience. By growing their churches this way, this local church is also able to intern a new TE (pastor), make sure he’s well established himself, and that he and his congregation have a rapport with each other. Thus, they mostly avoid “first church” syndrome for their TE’s, which, I’m sure the pastors here will agree, is often one of the most difficult periods in ministry.

  6. I was surprised once when I heard visitors refer to our church, Sheridan Road Baptist, as a “large” church. Well, it is physically large, I guess, but nowhere near filled to capacity, as it once was. I guess we average about 200-250 in the worship service each Sunday. “Large” and “small” are often in the eye of the beholder. Better ways to look at church size are “large enough to do what?” Some churches, by virtue of the size of their congregations and facilities, are capable of things other churches are not, and it seems to me that this works both up and down the size scale.

    I often think that people who don’t feel “connected” in a large church aren’t active enough in Sunday School, cell groups, or what-have-you. It shouldn’t require a small body of believers to produce that intimate feeling; just a body of believers desirous of and well-organized for helping one another grow and learn.

  7. The question, “Should existing churches be reformed or should new churches be started?” is a question that half my congregation is wrestling with right now.

    My husband has been a Pastor of our congregation, a Southern Baptist Church, for the last four years. He preaches reformed messages. The congregation tolerates his messages, yet about half of them would say they don’t embrace his reformed views.

    Recently, a Deacon of our church found out about the “Baptist Fire” website and has began accusing us of secretly sneaking in the Reformed view. He has accused us of holding “secret meetings”. Since the only volunteers we have to teach in our Sunday School classes hold to the reformed view, this deacon thinks we have an agenda. He has caused a huge division in our church.

    A few weeks ago a meeting was held to discuss these issues. We were not at this meeting. The congregation voted to keep my husband as Pastor unanimously, then spent the rest of the meeting arguing about scripture and reformed views along with other accusations. People were hurt.

    Amazingly, no one has left the church yet. Both sides are wondering what to do. Forgiveness has been asked by some, others still need to repent over their words and actions. My husband has decided to teach from the book, Amazing Grace by Timothy George (put out by Life way) on Wednesday evenings. He is hoping that this course will help teach that Reformed teachings aren’t unscriptural (as some have accused). We are hoping that we will all be able to worship together as one congregation. Some have already said they will not come to learn on Wednesday’s. They still come to worship on Sunday’s, but they do not want to be taught this divisive doctrine.

    So, the question, “Should existing churches be reformed or should new churches be started?” is one close to my heart. I believe the answer is yes. Existing churches should be reformed, but not all churches will do so willing without a price. It will cause arguments and divisions. Some people may be able to withstand the hardship, sufferings and false accusations caused from differing opinions. I don’t think all will be able to pave a way like Luther did. That is what my husband says frequently, “ I am not Luther. I don’t know if I can take this much longer.” Who knows, perhaps we have been appointed for this time. Honestly, I do believe we have. Please pray for us.

  8. Cacapon,

    I have been where you are… and believe me I know just how hard to minister the truth when such dishonest and anti-Christian slander as is posted on the “Baptist-Fire” web site is being spread within your church. But let me encourage you to hang in there, God is up to something good in your life by allowing you to walk through this valley. Trust me you will look back and thank God for this trial of your faith.

    One thing you might wish to share with those of your congregation about the “Baptist-Fire” web site is that whoever is behind the slanders things that are posted there is apparently ashamed to let anyone know who they are… I have tried to find out just who these people are and they refuse to identify themselves… You cannot find any names, addresses, or phone numbers posted on their site. You might wish to ask those who are using this web site for their information that if what is being posted on this site is true then why are those who are posting it ashamed to let anyone know who they are?

    Praying God’s strength for you and your Church,


  9. Or church was successfully reformed by our pastor. It was a dying American Baptist church. In fact, they probably would have shut the doors in a few years if our pastor hadn’t come. But now it’s an Independant 1689 confessional church and almost full on Sunday mornings. Reform can happen, but I think there are a lot of variables and few instances of successful reformation will be the same just as few failures at reformation will be the same. is the successfully reformed church in Portland, OR.

  10. I just read over Baptist Fire’s article “crept in unawares” and quickly saw how they don’t understand true Reformed positions. However, I would also have to think that part of this is because of what we are not teaching in our churches. We need to be teaching, when we talk about passages such as Romans 9 and Ephesians 1, the fact that God DOES indeed love everyone (Doctrine of Common Grace) and does desire the salvation of all per 1 Timothy 2:4 (God’s decretive will versus preceptive will).

    Because there is so much widespread confusion thinking that the doctrine taught in the above passages are opposed to each other we need to make sure we are sensitive when teaching such things.

    It would also be a good thing to do what I think Gene was talking about. Some friends of mine at church and I have lately been talking about bringing the seminary to the church, actually teaching courses like Hermeneutics, Spiritual Disciplines, Worship, and other things in our churches as discipleship studies. Many of our church members, those who really are saved, are getting inundated with the need for evangelism (which is good) but are not taught the primary basis of it (God’s glory per Psalm 96). I think the lack of that perspective is hurting us as well, making our churches a mile wide and an inch deep theologically. Anyway, I guess I just wanted to comment about BaptistFire and a few other needs we have in our churches. All for now.



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