Archive for January, 2009

The minister’s house has historically been much more than a place for the man of God to hang his hat.  It was a base for mission, a fountainhead of mercy, a refuge for strangers.

Private residences of course played a major part in the growth of Christianity in the early church.  “Greet the church that meets in their house.”  This strategic utilization of private brick and mortar passed into the practice of successive generations and particularly the Reformers and their successors.  As I understand it, ministers often resided in large manses (‘parSolomon Stoddard's House (flickr.com)sonages’ in America) precisely because they were to be used as tools for doing Christian good in the community.  Just look at Solomon Stoddard’s home  in Northampton, Massachusetts (right).

Here, I think, is one major strategy we can glean from the past in our witness to modern day communities.  Let Christians use their homes as tools – and especially ministers.  May they become once again channels of Christian mercy to God’s people and catalysts for recreating Christian communities from our socially atomized neighborhoods.  Our home can be an oasis in the spiritual desert of those who reside near us.  From the living waters God has put in our home, let us irrigate the streets, lanes, and drives nearby.  And may God give us the increase.

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Parochial VisionIn Parochial Vision: The Future of the English Parish System (2004), Nick Spenser offers a very intriguing argument for the reimplementation of the ‘minster’ church model of England’s early medieval period. His main argument is that parish system of the Church of England is in major decline due to demographic shifts, the disappearing of traditional communities, and especially the spiritual declension of the British people. Spenser doesn’t reject the parish system, yet he contends that it needs recasting into a more flexible, regional, and collegial (cooperative) pattern. This pattern is the old ‘minster’ model.

Regrettably, this valuable book won’t find a wide readership this side of the pond, since the entirety of the book pertains to the U.K. situation and to the Anglican Church in particular. This is too bad, since Spenser gives a very compelling example of strategic, ecclesiastical proactivity within the tumult of social change. And he does this without giving up on the age-old principles of territorialism and locality. Like Thomas Chalmers, he analyses the human and brick-and-mortar realities, harvests strategic principles from the Church’s past that are relevant, and suggests the how an old model can successfully be redeployed.

My own criticisms of the book are from an evangelical perspective. Spenser is too theologically inclusive. He advocates this model for both ends of the doctrinal spectrum, conservative and liberal. Certainly, he reflects the via media ethos of the Church of England. Yet there can be no middle way when the alternates today are light and darkness (2 Cor. 6:14). I am stimulated by his overall suggestion, but add a strong qualifier that unity must be in truth.
Second – and in light of the first, this should come as no surprise – there is little if any place dedicated to preaching as the means of renewing the Church in Britain. The whole book suggests a fix by changing administrative models. Now, I’m all for improving efficiency and open to strategy changes consistent with the Word of God and common sense. But if rigorous, expository and applicatory preaching is not central, changing forms will yield a formal change at best.

These reservations notwithstanding, Spenser’s book is a fascinating read.

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The labor of the Gospel is the labor of sowing seed.  The seed is the imperishable doctrine of Christ, and His ministers are privileged to share in this service.  We scatter the Word.  For many who hear it, there is no lasting benefit.  For others, there is.  And when it does, it bears fruit – thirty, sixty, or a hundredfold.

This dissemination is both narrow and systematic on the one hand, yet broad and sporadic on the other.  In recent years, I’ve been quite taken with the narrow and systematic type of dissemination.  It’s the main focus of this blog, a focus that seems to have been lost in contemporary Reformed evangelism.  The modern day ministry ought to reengage in localized, systematic district visitation.  We ought to rediscover and reapply the old parish principle amid the disarray of the American, market-governed scene.  Without focus and system, we will not subdue the inheritance of Christ.

And yet, this model isn’t everything.  The parish plan is not the evangelistic silver bullet.  Dissemination is also broad and sporadic.  We must preach the Gospel indiscriminately.  Not just to folks in parishes that we define and adopt.  But folks passing through, on the bus, at work, on the plane – even on the (cough!) information superhighway.  Folks we will likely never see again, but folks who, having the imperishable seed planted in their souls, might take root where they land.

Both approaches are necessary, and both are complementary.  Who knows what God will do?  Let us sow narrowly and sow broadly.  Let us sow systematically and let us sow sporadically.

And once we have sown, let us look to God who alone gives the increase.

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Special offer

One main purpose of this blog is to  facilitate renewed interest in Thomas Chalmers, the great 19th century Scottish preacher, churchman, and social reformer.  I am convinced that he needs to be rediscovered again, A Short Appreciationespecially in the place of his spiritual birth – the Reformed community.

As a small contribution to getting the word out, I’ve decided to make a special offer.  I am going to give away 5 copies of W. M. Mackay’s Thomas Chalmers: A Short Appreciation randomly to church leaders or those preparing for the ministry.  For the next two weeks, from today until January 21, anyone who would like to get a free copy can enter the drawing by e-mailing me (michael@reformedparish.com) with your name & e-mail address.  If you are selected, I’ll let you know on Jan. 22 and will then request your mailing address.

If you aren’t a church leader, feel free to check back in a week.  If I don’t get many responses, I’ll open it up to anyone.

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Being a huge Chalmers fan, one of the things I love the most about him is his vision, his idealism.  He longed for the Christianization of Scotland.  He wanted the Lord’s will done on earth as it is in heaven.  And he worked for it, being a wise and faithful steward.

He had reason to be hopeful.  The Bible gives great promises about the success of the Gospel among the nations.  The leaven will leaven the lump.  The small mustard seed will grow into a great tree, the glorious refuge for the fowl of the heavens.

And yet, as I read critical historians on Chalmers and others sympathetic with him (most recently, I’ve been reading up on Thornwell and Smyth in the antebellum South), I am reminded that our hopes must never morph into our Messiah.  Promises are one thing.  But we need to give ear to other portions of biblical revelation that qualify how those promises will work out in this world.  Prior to the return of Christ on the clouds, there will be no Christian utopia.  History can have a brutal way of giving us a reality check.  Chalmers had hopes for Scotland, but they were disappointed.  So with Thornwell and with Smyth for the American South.  Heaven on earth is ever elusive; and though it comes close, it is at the same time just beyond reach.  Frustratingly so.

But lest our hopes of a better day for Christianity in the West be dashed to the ground, we need the reality check of the Scriptures.  Jesus also said that in the world we shall have tribulation.   The love of many will wax cold.  The tares must remain with the wheat.  We must suffer with him, and then on the day of Christ we will be glorified.

That shouldn’t mean we must be resigned to pessimism.  Or that we shouldn’t hold out ideals – even concrete ones – and vigorously strive after them.  I long to see once again what Wells called ‘the delicious paradise’ of New England Puritan community; and I’m convinced I have a mandate to drive me and a (general) promise to encourage.

But may it never become my Jesus.  May I ever learn to say with Him, not my will, but thine be done.  May I learn to be patient.  And may I ever lay up treasures in heaven where moth and rust do not corrupt, where thieves do not break through or steal.  Because even if Rhode Island becomes Christianized, it will still remain a part of this age.  And the fashion of this age is fading away.

The now and the not yet is a biblical tension.  So it is not surpising that we feel the strain now.  We are caught in the middle.  Our strain in this world may find partial relief, here and there.  But “that which is perfect” must wait for another day.

Even so, come, come quickly, Lord Jesus.

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