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Archive for the ‘Parish Theory & Practice’ Category

“Ministers are the fishers of men; and the effect of an endowment is to lengthen their line, and enable them to reach downward to the lowest gradations of the commonwealth. The voluntaries are a kind of fly-fishers—whose operations do not reach to the muddy bottoms, to those depths and those fastnesses of society, which to them are inaccessible. And a chapel of ease, give it any ecclesiastical organization you like, is just such a voluntary [entity]. Nominally, you may give it the title of an established church; but you will never give it the power or the properties of an established church without an endowment” (Works 18:101-102)

In this quote, Chalmers is contending within his historical situation for the full inclusion of “chapels of ease” (more or less preaching stations) within the established Church of Scotland. But what is crucial, he argues, is that they should be territorial, assigned to focus pastorally and evangelistically on one defined neighborhood, and endowed, so that they do not have to be beholden to the more privileged classes attending from beyond their ‘parish.’ Without these two pillars, the ability to minister to all, both rich and poor, becomes extremely difficult. In fact, it becomes impossible when contemplated as a system for the entire nation, which is what an establishment is built to guarantee. In the end, you are back to the religious marketplace, and those who lack “wealth and will” are left to sink to the bottom.

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Last week, I had a Puritan Seminary student join me (Puritan alum, Class of 2005), for some intensive urban outreach in central Rhode Island. Anderson Oliveira, a Brazilian Presbyterian student, had sat in on my Reformed Parish Mission presentation in Grand Rapids last February and expressed interest in interning. So he flew out last Wednesday, and we logged many hours together over several days bringing the Gospel of the Kingdom to my Warwick and especially South Providence parishes. It was a joy to have him tag along and participate.

He started out helping me in the mundane task of printing and folding Gospel leaflets. Not glamorous, but ever-so-necessary. The particular one we used for most of the visits included the prophecy of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53. We often used this text as a launchpad – as Phillip of old – to announce to sinners the vicarious Remedy. Each doorstep talk was a doorway to heaven, opened on earth. But alas! Though heaven’s door is set open to sinners, the Spirit of God must move them to take that vital step. And so Anderson and I frequently stopped to plead with the Lord, that He might send forth His irresistible Wind, who blows where He wills.

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In the following quote, Chalmers explains how a territorial establishment, where parish missions bring the Gospel to every home and hearth, is a double blessing. Even if few souls are saved, the social and moral impact of the Gospel effort leavens the lump:

“And perhaps it will give in your eyes less of a Utopian, and more of an experimental character, to our anticipations of a result so general—if we ask you to consider the just observation of Mr. Wilberforce, on the effect of Christianity even beyond the circle of its own proper and genuine disciples. It elevates the general standard of morals, in every country or neighbourhood which it enters. Even though it should but spiritualize the few, it civilizes the many. Over and above its direct influence on those whom it converts, it has, through the medium of their example and their virtues, a reflex or secondary influence on the families of every little vicinity around them-insomuch that the sanctities and the extraordinary graces of a small number, with the influence of a purifying and preserving salt on the general mass, tell, by a certain overawing power, in restraining the profligacies, and so in raising the character for decency and morals of society at large. This will be remarkably seen in any parish that is under a reclaiming process from the out-fields of heathenism, if the experiment be but well and vigorously conducted. We do not say that the minister will Christianize all; or that he will introduce the worship of God, the voice of psalms, into every family. But the melody that is heard in the habitations of the righteous, will have a certain softening and subduing effect on the inmates of other habitations; and it will be found no romance, but in strict accordance with the realities of human nature, if-by means of his schools and of his other parochial institutes, and (of no small account either) if, by means of his own frequent and various intercourse with the people, and the dignifying effect upon all the householders of their personal acquaintance with the clergyman, and of the personal cognizance which he takes of them and of their families—he mollifies, and to a very great degree, the general aspect of that parochial community over which he presides ; and bequeaths to​ his successors a far blander and better generation, than he had to encounter himself at the outset of his great undertaking” (Works 14:334-335)

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The following quote from Thomas Chalmers in his Lectures on the Establishment and Extension of National Churches (1838) captures his ideal for domestic missions. The ‘parish’ is not a synonym for ‘congregation.’ Rather, it is the defined sphere of pastoral and even missionary activity by a minister and his elders. This is the local or territorial principle.

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“Now the specific business which we should like to put into the hands of a Christian minister is, not that he should fill his church any how—that he may do by the superior attractiveness of his preaching, at the expense of previous congregations, and without any movement in advance on the practical heathenism of the community: But what we want is, to place his church in the middle of such a territory as we have now specified, and to lay upon him a task, for the accomplishment of which we should allow him the labour and perseverance of a whole lifetime; not to fill his church any how, but to fill this church out of that district. We should give him the charge over head, of one and all of its families; and tell him, that, instead of seeking hearers from without, he should so shape and regulate his movements, that, as far as possible, his church-room might all be taken up by hearers from within. It is this peculiar relation between his church, and its contiguous households, all placed within certain geographical limits, that distinguishes him from the others as a territorial minister. And let the whole country be parcelled out into such districts and parishes, with an endowed clergyman so assigned to each, and each small enough to be overtaken by the attentions of one clergyman—we should thus, as far as its machinery is concerned, have the perfect example of a territorial establishment.”

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Would you like to get a basic introduction to Thomas Chalmers’ parish mission theory? And are you up to learning about how I’ve been applying these principles in South Providence, a multi-racial working class area?

I’m offering another live video presentation tomorrow (Saturday), at 1:00 p.m. Eastern lasting about 25-30 minutes, followed by questions and answers. Because I will be showing photos of a number of personal outreach contacts from over the years, I’ll be doing this by invitation-only via Zoom. So if you’d like to be invited and participate, please drop me a note at mjives dot refparish at gmail dot com. Or reply in the comments below with your e-mail address.

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“If, in virtue of the missionary doings abroad, we read that hundreds of families in some before untrodden field of heathenism have been Christianized—let us not forget, that many are the cities of our own island, where, without one mile of locomotion, we might have converse with thousands of families, which, but for the same doings at home, would be sunk in the apathy and the grossness of practical heathenism”

-Thomas Chalmers, Works 11:445

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“There is one lesson that we need not teach, for experience has already taught it, and that is, the kindly influence which the mere presence of a human being has upon his fellows. Let the attention bestowed upon another, be the genuine emanation of good-will, and there is only one thing more to make it irresistible. The readiest way of finding access to a man’s heart, is to go into his house; and there to perform the deed of kindness, or to acquit ourselves of the wonted and the looked for acknowledgment. By putting ourselves under the roof of a poor neighbour, we in a manner put ourselves under his protection—we render him for the time our superior—we throw our reception on his generosity, and we may be assured that it is a confidence which will almost never fail us. If Christianity be the errand on which the movement is made, it will open the door of every family; and even the profane and the profligate will come to recognise the worth of that principle, which prompts the unwearied assiduity of such services. By every circuit which is made amongst them, there is attained a higher vantage-ground of moral and spiritual influence; and, in spite of all that has been said of the ferocity of a city population, in such rounds of visitation there is none of it to be met with, even among the lowest receptacles of human worthlessness. This is the home walk in which is earned, if not a proud, at least a peaceful popularity—the popularity of the heart—the greetings of men, who, touched even by the cheapest and easiest services of kindness, have nothing to give but their wishes of kindness back again; but, in giving these, have crowned such pious attentions with the only popularity that is worth the aspiring after—the popularity that is won in the bosom of families, and at the side of death-beds.”

Thomas Chalmers, Collected Works, 14:49-50

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Just preparing for another Reformed Parish Mission (RPM) slideshow presentation, this time at my good friend Rob Ventura’s church, Grace Community Baptist in North Providence, R.I. Many thanks to him and the dear brethren there for allowing me the opportunity to share about the work!

As I’ve had to trim things some to make sure it fits in the allotted time, here is a segment that may be of interest to anyone who wants to learn about how Thomas Chalmers proposed for ‘general,’ non-local congregations gradually to transition to the parochial plan. I made this rough-cut video of the segment – maybe someday I’ll update with a cleaner version. For now, ‘What I have recorded I have recorded.’

Also, if you think your church or group would like to host an RPM presentation (30 minutes plus Q&A) drop me a note! I’ve also done it remotely by Zoom, so that is an option too.

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My recent journal article, “Pastor and Parish Redux: Thomas Chalmers’s Conversion & Kilmany Ministry, 1811-1815” (submitted copy), published in the July 2020 edition of the Puritan Reformed JournalImages used by permission. To purchase a copy, click here.

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IMG_5335District, door-to-door evangelism done right is distinctly Reformed, being a distinctly household-oriented approach to Gospel outreach.

Follow me here. Doesn’t God administer His grace to individuals as well as to households? Doesn’t it start with the head and flow to the members? Isn’t it interested in reconciling the father to the son and the son to the father? Abraham, Joshua, Cornelius, Lydia. “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt saved, and thy house” (Acts 16:31). We aim for the heads of households; and if we get them, we get the family. (more…)

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