Archive for the ‘Parish in Perspective (Qualifications)’ Category

Next Meeting: Thursday, November 18, 2021 @ 4:00 p.m. EST

“A Charge to New Elders at the Tron Kirk, Glasgow” (1816)


For some background reading on this period of Chalmers’ ministry, here are selections from James Dodd’s, Thomas Chalmers: A Biographical Study (1870). And for more about this study, see here.

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old-door-knocker“Behold, I have set before thee an open door, and no man can shut it” (Rev. 3:8).

I do door-to-door evangelism and actually believe in it – in 2018. In making that admission, I suppose I should feel like Sarah Sanders trying to tap-dance around a newly minted presidential tweet. But I simply don’t.

I’m not a JW or a Mormon. Nor am I a Fundamentalist Baptist. I’m a confessional Presbyterian, relatively well educated, and (somewhat) comfortably middle-class. So why embrace what many Reformed and evangelicals consider pointless at best and counterproductive at worst?

Since I was converted back in the early 90s, I’ve practiced a number of methods of evangelism. I do not consider any one of them ‘the’ silver-bullet, nor do I think that door-to-door is always and in every case the most ideal method. But for the last thirteen years, I’ve engaged in regular, door-to-door evangelism as key part of my overall outreach effort. I do not presume to have the final answer on all questions, nor can I boast impressive success. Do I do this perfectly? Not at all. I’m always going to be on a learning curve. And consequently, I’m open to other suggestions and critiques. But after these many years and after many, many discouragements, I still keep coming back. I still plod and hope.

Here are a number of reasons why I believe it’s worth a serious re-think.

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Here is a great contemporary summary of Thomas Chalmers’ (1780-1843) ‘district visitation’ or parish model for evangelism and holistic, biblical philanthropy.   It was originally published in 2000, in Foundations, the theological journal of the British Evangelical Council (now Affinity).

Ad urbem!

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Here’s a great quote from Thompson’s Parish and Parish Church (1948 ) concerning the flexibility of the old parish principle to the modern urban context.  While it was written from within the milieu of the established Church of Scotland, I would suggest that the idea carries over:

“The problem which faces the Church, therefore, is mainly confined to large towns and cities, and it is twofold: how to organize itself so as to minister effectively to these communities as a whole, and not in piecemeal fashion and with indiscriminate or overlapping agencies; and how to revive in them that intimate sense of community which has been so largely dissipated and all but lost.

“In general, and with many practical suggestions in detail, the solution proposed for this twofold problem is an emphatic endorsement of the territorial system along parochial lines, and its thorough-going application in every type of community large or small. The territorial system is described as a cardinal principle of the Church, and the parish remains as the territorial unit. Every ‘several kirk’ should be a parish church, and should bear that name, with a parish of its own as its special field, to be cultivated intensively by regular and systematic parochial visitation, and by all the agencies for old and young with which the Church can foster the spiritual, social, and cultural life of the community. This of course has always been the ideal, however imperfectly it may have been realized. Its significance in this connection is that it is put forward as the best, and indeed the only, plan which can be devised whereby the community as a whole can be evangelized, brought under Christian influences, and enabled through a common fellowship to share consciously in a finer and fuller quality of community life. The age-long method of the Church has been emphatically reaffirmed.

“To meet the special conditions in large towns and cities various expedients are proposed. These are prefaced by the readjustment of the Church’s agencies and the realignment of its forces – a process which has been in operation and must be steadily kept in view. Parish churches and parishes must be as nearly as possible in the midst of that portion of the community which they are meant to serve. Given that fundamental premise, three main suggestions are made whereby the work of the Church and its impact upon the community may be unified and strengthened, and the community itself be made practical aware not only of the unity of the Church but of its own unity.

“These are (1) the grouping of parishes into what is styled a ‘Common Parish,’ and close co-operation among their churches in united services, common evangelistic efforts, and joint meetings of office-bearers to discuss local problems; (2) the formation of Church Councils in towns of 50,000 and under, composed of four representatives from each congregation, to plan and organize united efforts, and to see that no interest of the community is overlooked and no essential service left undone; and (3) the appointment of team ministries where circumstances seem to demand it, each minister having his own distinctive office and function, but all together responsible for the work of the Church from a common center and over a wide area.

“Two outstanding features of this survey have a special relevance to the subject of this book. This first has already been noted – the emphatic endorsement of the parish as the territorial area in which the Church can most effectively exercise its ministry and fulfill its mission. Under modern conditions the parish remains the organic unit of the Church’s life and work, as it was in the earliest days of the Faith, and as it has continued to be throughout the ages. The second feature is no less noteworthy. It is that the parish is not a rigid but a flexible conception. It never has been stereotyped, either in respect of its size and population or in respect of the ecclesiastical agencies and methods at work within it. It is adaptable to changing conditions and changing methods, just as the Church is which has used it as its chosen instrument. What is essential is that, however modified, it consist of a defined area and community, with the Church in the midst as the spiritual power-house of the communal life” (288).

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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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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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