2015 Report of the President
of Western Classis
of the Reformed Church in the United States
Esteemed Fathers and Brethren:
The purpose of the President’s Report, according to Article 81 of the Constitution, is to summarize and assess “the state of the Church.” In previous years, these reports have commented individually on each parochial report, but this year I have decided instead to make general observations drawn from your parochial reports, the reports of the various permanent and special committees, the Treasurer’s Report, and the statistics of Classis. Even this is no small task considering that the Western Classis includes 22 of the 57 ministers of Synod (39%).
So, what do your parochial reports and the other reports reveal? Let me answer this by focusing on several very specific areas.
The Preaching of the Gospel
All of your reports affirm that the pulpits of the Western Classis are ringing with the pure doctrines of the gospel. In addition to regular Lord’s Day services in which the Word of God is faithfully proclaimed, most of our congregations also provide Sunday school instruction, Bible studies, and discipleship training. Even the Anderson, CA, church, the only congregation in the Western Classis currently without a pastor, has regular preaching provided by various seminary students and RCUS pastors.
A particular cause of celebration is the fact that our youth are regularly catechized in the doctrines explained in the Heidelberg Catechism, as both our Constitution (Art. 192) and our Standing Rules (Rule 4) require. I believe that this is one of the unique strengths of the RCUS. In a day when almost 70 percent of youth leave the church between the ages of eighteen and twenty-two, the Lord has been pleased to use our catechetical program to strengthen our young people’s faith against an onslaught of humanistic ideas and lifestyles. For that, we must render to God our unfeigned and sincerest praise!
Furthermore, many of our pastors continue to serve on the board and/or faculty of City Seminary or Heidelberg Seminary. Three are also involved in the ministry of Westminster Biblical Missions, which has a record of promoting the gospel in central and eastern Europe, Korea, Mexico and Pakistan.
The Sacramento and Modesto churches have a special reason to rejoice in that their pulpits, which were vacant a year ago, have been filled. Rev. Bowen accepted the call to Modesto, and Rev. Hall (whom we now welcome to the Western Classis) assumed his pastoral duties in Sacramento last June. Both men have zealously proclaimed and taught the Word of God both publicly and privately.
The report of the Candidates and Credentials Committee states that we currently have two students under care: Mr. Matthew Davis and Mr. Colin Samul. Lord willing, Mr. Samul will have completed his theological training and internships by our next annual meeting, at which time he plans to pursue licensure and a call. The Anderson church has already expressed an interest in having him as its next pastor. As a point of interest, neither student is requesting tuition assistance thanks to the generosity of City Seminary. City Seminary offers free theological education to all RCUS students under care. This is one way in which City Seminary hopes to ease the financial burden of Synod. According to last year’s Synodical Abstract, tuition for full-time students at other RCUS-approved seminaries varies between $5,200 and $8,925 per year. This amounts to a guideline of $2.00 per communicant member per student.
But declaring the gospel within the local church only partly fulfills the preaching mandate. The Great Commission instructs us to “go … and teach all nations” (Matt. 28:19), i.e., to summon unbelievers to repentance and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Some of our churches approach evangelism in an organized and systematic way. The Shafter congregation, for example, called Rev. Alpuche to serve as a missionary pastor to reach its Spanish-language community. Rev. Alpuche’s report shows how much the Lord has already blessed his labors. Similarly, Rev. Bowen is busy in Modesto instructing the people in Evangelism Explosion.
After several years as a missionary outpost, the Permanent Home Missions Committee is recommending that the Calvary Reformed Chapel of Stockton be approved “as a viable home mission work of the Western Classis.” The assessors noted that the members of this work are committed to evangelism and have “a definite conviction” that they should continue as a conservative Reformed witness in the Stockton area.
While our church websites may make our churches accessible to people who happen to be looking specifically for a Reformed church, the concern I raised last year is far more fundamental than that. Our job is not to wait for Reformed people to find us. Rather, we need to develop strategies to reach unbelievers, so that we might call them out of darkness into the marvelous light of the gospel. Jesus instructed us to “go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled.” (Luke 14:23) Paul did this not only by preaching in the synagogues, but also by going out into the marketplace. He challenged unbelievers to come to Christ wherever and whenever he found them.
In the RCUS we have a strong and necessary emphasis on systematic theology and apologetics. I would never want to see that changed. On the other hand, I would like to see a much greater emphasis on plain old evangelism. Remember, we have to summon lost sinners to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ before we can explain the gospel to them in depth or defend it against calumnious charges.
Your reports indicate that the sacraments are properly and regularly administered in the churches of the Western Classis. The Lord’s Supper is celebrated four times per year in some of our churches, while others prefer twelve. The frequency of baptism, of course, is determined by need, as the Lord brings new converts and covenant children into our fellowships.
The statistics that the clerk distributed by email show that there were only four adult baptisms in the Western Classis last year. Although I realize that many people join the church having already been baptized (in a lot of churches baptism is more sentimental than religious), this number is far too low. It highlights again the fact that every congregation of Classis needs to focus more on evangelism and outreach.
One of the questions we ask our elders every year is, “2. Is careful attention given to … the reception of members into the Church…?” (Art. 81). In all the years I’ve been in the RCUS, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone answer it in the negative. I suspect that’s because we have adopted a narrow view of what it means. We think that we have given attention to the reception of members if we offer membership instruction to visitors who express an interest in joining the church. But would we have to answer the question differently if we viewed it through the grid of evangelism, adult conversions and adult baptisms? Whether that’s really the point of this question or not, we should nonetheless ask ourselves whether we’re giving necessary attention to evangelizing the lost so that we can get them into the church in the first place.
Wouldn’t it be great if we saw fifty or a hundred adult baptisms every year?
Ecclesiastical discipline, while considered one of the least pleasant aspects of the ministry, is nonetheless necessary for the church’s continuance. It glorifies God and maintains the purity of our Savior’s bride. Although we tend to think of discipline in a formal sense (i.e., written charges brought before a Spiritual Council), the truth is that the primary discipline of every congregation is simply the preaching of the Word of God. As Jesus addresses His people through His ordained servants, His commands and promises summon us to serve Him with our whole hearts. In that sense, we can affirm that discipline is always exercised wherever and whenever the Word is proclaimed.
Church discipline also takes place behind the scenes, so to speak, as believers mutually admonish and exhort one another in the Lord. When private admonition is encouraged and regularly practiced, there is rarely a need for the courts of the church to act.
But let us remember that we are sinful pastors of sinful sheep. Once in a while, therefore, formal discipline cannot be avoided. With much sadness I note that such discipline was necessary in some of our congregations in 2014, and yet with great joy I see that our elders have been faithful and willing to carry it out, even though it often hurts.
Some of our congregations report that they gained more members than they lost in 2014. Ebenezer in Shafter added 9 communicant members in 2014. Calvary Chapel in Stockton added 4 communicants and 5 covenant children. Lancaster, Willows, Yuba City and San Diego also report increases. Altogether, this year’s statistics show an increase of 8 communicant members. This is the third increase we’ve seen since 2003.
Other churches report an overall loss. The membership of Grace Reformed Church in Bakersfield declined by 22 (12 communicants and 10 baptized members). The Modesto church also saw a significant decline, losing almost a third of its members in a year. As you know, that’s only part of the picture since many of its former members left before the beginning of 2014. But by God’s grace, the hemorrhaging there seems to have come to end. Those who remain are faithful and committed to the work. The Modesto congregation can now concentrate on healing and building.
Reports of frequent visitors in our congregations is encouraging. However, the sad reality is that visitors do not always stay. Rev. Gruggett, for example, laments the fact that the last time a young family joined the Bakersfield church was 2010. He says that most of those who have visited want a church of the “New Calvinist” variety. With competition from many Calvinistic Baptist groups that claim to be the true heirs of sovereign grace and covenant theology, it might be wise on our part to develop a strategy to counter this misunderstanding.
In preparation for our discussion of evangelism and missions, I compared the statistics of the RCUS to a few other small Reformed denominations. Although I’ll flesh this out more for you later, one point of comparison was particularly shocking to me. Between 1960 and the present, the OPC has grown from 9,615 to 30,224 members (an increase of 214 percent), and the Protestant Reformed Churches have grown from 2,822 to 8,187 members (an increase of 190 percent). Even the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, which experienced some major setbacks in the 1960s and early 70s, grew from 5,306 members in 1975 to 6,786 today (an increase of 28 percent). But over the last fifty-five years, the RCUS has added only 305 members (a total increase of 9 percent — an average of 0.165 percent per year). See the graph below.
Our lack of growth has changed the dynamics of how the RCUS operates and has created a number of issues that we’ll have to face sooner or later. Nowhere is this more evident than in our finances. We have more churches, but our churches are significantly smaller on average and therefore simply don’t have the resources to support the broader work of the church.
In his report to Classis, Rev. Henderson wrote that the Shafter congregation continues “to be encouraged and challenged from our Lord” to trust Him to out-give them as they give Him His due. What a wonderful way to express the Biblical principle of joyful and generous giving! It reflects an attitude that all of our churches, and particularly our pastors and elders, should embrace.
A few of our churches continue to struggle financially. Rev. Roe reports that the Grass Valley congregation, by the mercy of God, suffered a smaller shortfall than expected, due to the addition of new members and the generosity of its people. Although not a church that usually struggles to make ends meet, the Bakersfield church, as reported by its pastor, ended the year $40,000 in the red. Its deficit came as a result of repaying Synod and Classis, giving to the new Spanish-language ministry in Shafter and upgrading some of its classrooms. Thankfully, Rev. Gruggett does not expect this trend to continue, at least not to the same degree.
The Western Classis currently provides missions support to Rehoboth Reformed Church in LA and the Valle de Gracia of Shafter, as well as benevolent aid to Covenant Reformed Church in Chico, Grace Reformed Church in Lancaster, Trinity Reformed Church in Modesto, and Covenant Reformed Church in San Diego. Funds have also been set aside for Faith Reformed Church in Anderson, which will be made available once it calls a new pastor. In addition, direct diaconal support was provided to Pastor Mayville to help with his insurance needs. Overall, half of the churches in the Western Classis are receiving aid from Classis in one form or another. If we approve the Stockton work, more than half of our churches will be receiving aid, increasing the Classis’ guideline for Home Missions by $17 per communicant for 2015 and $21 per communicant for 2016.
According to the Treasurer’s Report, only six of the fourteen churches in the Western Classis paid their guidelines in full. One church paid approximately 25 percent, another about 11 percent, and a third paid nothing at all. This resulted in all of our guidelines (except dues) being funded at 90 percent or less. The Heidelberg Camp fund received only 83 percent of its expected income, increasing its deficit from $2420.86 to $3464.25. The other funds ended 2014 in the black, although a good share of their income came at the end of the year.
All of this is to say that the guidelines are becoming an increasing burden to the churches that pay them. Is the fact that less than half of our churches paid their full guidelines a sign that we need to rethink our approach to the whole subject? I don’t know, but it does take me back to my original concern. Our churches need to grow. While we beg the Lord to bring his people in, we must also go out and fetch them!
The retired pastors of the Western Classis continue to preach and teach insofar as they are able, and serve on various committees of Classis and Synod. In some instances, the infirmity of age has prevented even regular attendance at Lord’s Day services. Please pray privately and publicly for these brethren, who have served the Lord faithfully and have given a worthy example for those of us still in the trenches to follow (viz., Gross, Pollema, Riffert, Sawtelle, Treick, West, and — soon to be added to the list — Roe).
Although Rev. Mayville is not retired, he is not currently pastoring a church. I would be remiss not to ask for your prayers for him and his dear wife Carolyn, that the Lord would guide them concerning their future service.
All in all, I am not only thankful but overjoyed to be part of the RCUS. We’re not perfect by any stretch of the imagination. We know many of our faults; perhaps we’re blind to others. Yet, the one strength that towers above all our weaknesses is our firm commitment to the inerrant, infallible Word of the living God and the Savior it reveals!
Like the rest of our denomination, the Western Classis must face the challenges of each new generation. By the grace of God, we will continue in the faith that we have clung to heretofore. May God make us strong and stout-hearted to do his will!
Christ’s servant and yours,
Frank H. Walker