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Archive for the ‘Parish in American Context’ Category

On Saturday, made some more progress in my S. Providence district. Hoping to get it finished before it gets too cold.

Balcom St. has a lot of history for me. It was there I met a Liberian who seemed like he was just waiting for a fisher of men to come after him. In the same building now is a refugee family of the Karen tribe from Southeast Asia. One of the young Liberians in our church had invited the daughter, a good friend of hers, to church some time back and came for a number of weeks. And a Congolese family that live next door, very dear Christian people, worshipped with us regularly for some nine months. They are living stones amid the rubble of sin and misery.

Prayer_in_Cairo_1865Saturday was no disappointment. Above our Congolese friends is a small Somali family. The young man, a Muslim, was very polite and listened to the Gospel of the “Lamb of God” who takes away the sin of the world. Above them we met a single Iraqi woman, also Muslim, complete with prayer carpet and ornately decorated Qu’ran lying out. She was clearly needy, in more ways than one. A lonely soul who needed friends, and of course, the Friend who sticks closer than a brother. We spoke of the story of Joseph (“Yousef” as she recalled from the Qu’ran), and how he was lonely and abandoned, yet not abandoned by God. And we shared that he was a picture of the Christ to come, who would be abandoned by his friends that He might die and redeem them. We got her contact information and hope to follow up with her on some practical levels – and hopefully she continues to be open to the Gospel.

Please pray for our new Muslim friends. Pray that God would open their hearts to Jesus, the True Asylum from those on the run.

Please also pray for a special evangelistic meeting we are holding within walking distance of their homes on Nov. 3. It will be held in English with Spanish translation.

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Over the years, I’ve heard about different pastors in America, from various evangelical traditions, more or less acting like old parish ministers. That is, they didn’t just look at their faithful congregations as the limits of their pastoral responsibility. Their ‘cure of souls’ reached to the communities where they were placed.

Not long ago, a friend of mine told me about an Assembly of God pastor he knew who fit this description. The following is used with permission from David Shedlock.

And if you know of a similar story, would you kindly forward it to me?  Feel free to drop me a note at mjives dot refparish at gmail dot com.

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Grinnell, IAWhen I first met Pastor Reaves, he had just finished mowing. I didn’t know this, because he came into the house wearing a tie. He shared with me later that he did this so that he would be ready in case he got a call to the hospital. I would also learn soon that a visit to the hospital with him, in this town of about 9,000, could turn into an all-day event. That is not because he overstayed his welcome. On the contrary, he seemed to know just how long to stay, usually less than 15 minutes. No, it was because he visited so many patients.

Back then, a minister could freely visit anybody in the hospital, whether or not they were members of his denomination. Pastor Reaves, of course, did not force his way into people’s rooms, but kindly asked if he might pray for them. Hardly anyone turned him down. You see, he believed the whole town was his church. And many in the town, who never darkened the door of the small, Assembly of God Church he pastored, would think of Sam Reaves as their pastor, and as their friend.

One of the family’s favorite stories was this: If one of the members in the congregation was being rushed to the hospital in Des Moines, he would often beat the ambulance there. A time or two, he got pulled over by the police. But, he would nicely tell them, not ask, that he was headed to the hospital, and they would be better off tagging along, and use their lights to help him get there, not to slow him down. You would have to have known him to know that his look was serious and no policeman ever held him up after his little speech.

Here are thoughts about that, from his daughter, Debi:

“Yes, this is correct. If he could, he would try to get behind the Ambulance rolling out of town and the police knew dad’s car. Then they would radio ahead. Many times he would have family members with him because they were too upset to drive. He was basically the chaplain for the community back in the day. Today I think every pastor should try to be a police chaplain to have the same effect that dad did in Grinnell. I never realized the impact he had till the day of his funeral. They had been away from Grinnell for over 12 years at the time of his death and the place was packed!”

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Sowing_seedWent out in my nearby Lakewood parish Friday. Very encouraging overall. First, approached a couple of fellows who were talking in their driveway. Not wanting to interrupt, I handed them my literature. “Don’t let me interrupt you … unless you’re open to talking religion!” Well, they were. The one fellow, a 40-something biker type with a braided beard, told me that Christianity was suspect, having come down to us through the ages through oral tradition. He didn’t mention the telephone game illustration, but that was the gist of it. I explained to him and his friend the radical concern the early Christians had in bearing witness to the truth. Eventually, I gave the great ‘for instance’ in Saul of Tarsus. Open enemy. Jihadi type. A card-carrying, high profile Jew who hated the Christians. Then he claimed he witnessed the risen Christ, then began “preaching the faith he once destroyed.” At the very least, we should sit up and take notice. I invited him to church, and he indicated that I would probably see him someday.

Another fellow was on his phone, standing outside of his car. This chap professed to be a Christian and named a local, evangelical church where he had attended. But life had got in the way and his employment wouldn’t let him off to worship on Sundays. In the course of the conversation, I admonished him about his duties to follow Christ all the way. “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.” I told him I was rather concerned about his soul and that he was really taking a gamble spiritually. He took it well, but I fear not well enough.

My third talk was a briefer one. The fellow was on his way, and I try to be courteous. But we did talk long enough to hear a similar story to the neighbor above, though this one was Roman Catholic in his background. I did urge him to consider the call of God, “Seek ye the Lord, while he may be found …”

Last, the second ‘none’ (no religion) was a 30-sometime white lady. Very nice, but had her doubts about God. I began to speak to her of reasons for God, when her husband/partner came up, asked what all this was about, and tried to wrap things up. “Could I possibly finish my thought?” As I did, it seemed as though a chord was struck. Something in the first none’s eyes told me that the second none was getting in the way of something important. Someone important. The One who is All.

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One day several years back, I was making my way door-to-door on a short dead end street in my South Providence district. It could very well have been an unremarkable day – no one answering the door, or just short interchanges. Thanks, but no thanks.

Then I knocked on the door at the end of the block, a typical three level, three household rental home in urban New England. A short, dark fellow answered. When he spoke, it was clear he ‘weren’t from these parts.’ Of course, then again, neither was I! Henry (not real name) was originally from Liberia. After we spoke some, I invited him to church. He was very interested. Now, I’ve heard that before. But sure enough, he was there at church the following Lord’s day – only, we had to make arrangements to get him there since he didn’t have his own vehicle.

His family soon began coming as well. A sweet, quiet wife, and two special children. Eventually, he got his own car and came without our help. They worshipped very consistently with us for about six months and were a joy to have. It did my h800px-Africa_(satellite_image)eart good to see our congregation reflect something of the multi-colored army of the Church Triumphant. And I admired their willingness to be different in a very different kind of church.

Sadly, they fell off for whatever reason. I eventually lost track of him, when at one point his number went out of service. And when I went to his apartment, I realized they had moved.

But after perhaps a couple of years, I thought I’d try to find Henry again. It was probably futile, like searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack. But I had a contact with connections with many different African communities, so I called her up and told her my story. She said she’d see what she could do. Later that evening (!), she called back. “I have found him, and I have his number.” “What? That fast?” I exclaimed. She explained that she knew a leader of the Liberian community – and refugee communities are tighter-knit than others. Of course he knew Henry and had his new number. So I called. When he answered and realized who it was, I could hear the big smile on his face. “Ohhh! Hey, Revreh!” (=Revrend)

Since then I have invited him back to church, and he has come a couple of times. I’ve also gone to visit him in his home, sometimes with my family and sometimes on my own. We’ll visit, then read the Scriptures and pray. For a while, he was getting mixed up with the Mormons. Now I’m not sure he’s attending anywhere. He professes Christianity, but as I see it, his profession is shaky at best. But we’ve forged a connection. And I still have his phone number.

Liberians are beautiful people. Ever since I went there some years back, it has had a special place in my heart. I’m glad I’ve got a little Liberia to visit back here.

Please pray for Henry, that he will develop a deep hunger for the Word of God and its faithful preaching. Pray for his wife, who has dealt with difficult health issues, and for his children, that they may become children of the Most High.

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I’m beginning a new series of occasional posts on my ‘parish’ outreach efforts in R.I., mostly vignettes from door-to-door district visitation. If you would, please pray for these efforts. New England truly has ‘rocky soil’ spiritually – but we know that stones stand no chance before Jesus. More at ‘Reformed Parish Mission‘ page.

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Last Friday I was doing outreach in my neighborhood in Warwick, R.I. A number of doors remained closed, one after the other. Some days are busy, some are slow. Nearing the end of my time, I approached a house with a car in the driveway – plastered with secular, left-leaning bumper stickers. You know the type. Would this be a clash of two very different fundamentalists?

Not surprisingly, the fellow who came to the door fit the bill. He sported an armful of tats, his head shaved on the sides with a shock of purple hair flowing down, and a black shirt with pro-science imagery. We talked for a good while, his two children occasionally interrupting. He told me he was a science teacher in a middle school and was an atheist. A former Roman Catholic, he had given up on religion, though he didn’t tell me why.

John (not his real name) was rather polite. Kind of nice, for a strident atheist! After some discussion, I engaged him about whether there is any transcendent value or worth to human beings. Something that justifies our shared belief that we should treatCharles_Darwin_aged_51 them with dignity. We cut down trees for our benefit and harvest wheat for our consumption. Why wouldn’t we do that with humans? What makes some matter more valuable than other forms?

We eventually wrapped things up after I shared a verse with him summarizing the Gospel, “But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels for the suffering of death, crowned with glory and honour; that he by the grace of God should taste death for every man” (Heb. 2:9). May the Fisher of men save one of Darwin’s footed fish!

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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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