Esteemed Fathers and Brethren:
The purpose of the President’s Report is to summarize “the state of the Church” (Article 81). This is done by evaluating the various reports presented to Classis.
However, I must admit to being rather nonplused by some activities of the pastors of the Western Classis. One, for example, mentioned that he had set himself on fire! Another reported that his congregation now has a 20-guage shotgun in the office and armed guards in the back pews. And a third graded his own sermons. His average is a good B+, although at least one message achieved a commendable A+ and another rated a solid F.
I’m confident that the Bible did not have such things in mind when God’s spokesmen declared that we are a peculiar people (Deuteronomy 14:2; Titus 2:14; 1 Peter 2:9), but advertisements of our eccentricities at least bring a little chuckle to those who read them, proving once again that our beloved RCUS does not lack for character (or characters!).
On a more serious note, your reports testify to the marvelous grace of God. They express a profound gratitude to God for his covenantal faithfulness to his people. The marks of the church are evident in our congregations. Committee reports demonstrate a love for and commitment to the Word of God as our ultimate authority. Even our “retired” ministers are anything but superannuated; as the Sabbath Psalm says, They shall still bring forth fruit in old age (Psalm 92:14).
The Preaching of the Gospel
I’m glad to report once again that the preaching of the Word of God is faithfully carried out in our congregations through Lord’s Day sermons, Sunday school instruction, Bible studies, catechetical classes and membership classes. Without a doubt, our uncompromising commitment to the truth of God’s Word and the doctrines it teaches is our greatest strength. I say this with humility, knowing that none of us (least of all myself) has done anything to deserve our gracious Lord’s merciful kindness.
To advance the kingdom of our Savior, the pastors of the Western Classis have been and continue to be involved in many different kinds of labors. Some serve on the faculty and/or boards of Heidelberg Seminary and/or City Seminary. Others labor with Westminster Biblical Missions. Pastor Doug Schlegel will miss the first day of this year’s Classis meeting due to a trip to Eastern Europe (he was under the mistaken notion that our meeting was scheduled to take place next week). Pastor Hank Bowen has also contacted an organization called Reformation2Germany, which seeks to plant churches in Germany that are modeled after the sixteenth-century Palatinate church. The leaders of this organization were unaware that an emigrant version of the Palatinate church still exists. Here at home, Pastor Jimmy Hall expresses a desire to engage in a church planting effort in Reno, NV. And finally, several of you mentioned that you are writing books on various topics or, as is the case with Pastor Valentin Alpuche, translating Reformed literature into the Spanish language.
As I read your reports, I was also impressed with the number of churches that now use SermonAudio.com as a means of communicating the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. Your sermons are available to anyone who has an internet connection, anywhere in the world, at any time. In fact, they’re available instantly. Sermons preached in Sacramento, for example, are often online before we lock the doors to go home, thanks to the diligence of one of our deacons. The positive side of this is obvious. For very little money our ministries are much bigger than they used to be. In some cases, there may be more people listening online than attending our services. But there’s also a negative side to SermonAudio.com, viz., it provides no way to contact listeners. We can’t invite them to church because we have no idea who they are. Thus, we cannot expect a superabundance of visitors from this service alone. Perhaps its efficacy can be improved somewhat by cross-linking it to our church websites and other social media.
I’m not suggesting that we give up using SermonAudio.com. Far from it! I can’t tell you how many times members of the Sacramento church have expressed their appreciation for the fact they can hear their own pastors whenever they have to miss a service due to illness, travel or some other providential hindrance. But I am recommending that we make good use of methods that actually put us in contact with others.
Let me give you two examples of what I mean:
- To a large degree, SermonAudio.com has eclipsed radio ministries. This is no doubt due to its cheaper cost and easier access. But radio ministries, by offering free CDs and literature, have the advantage of obtaining contact information for those who call in. Pastor Alpuche reports great success with this. He writes, “The Lord has truly blessed our radio ministry. We are giving away Reformed booklets to our audience, and they call me every Sunday asking for them.”
- On the other hand, there’s no substitute for actually going out to where the people are. The Apostle Paul preached anywhere — in marketplaces and synagogues and along riverbanks. One of our congregations has adopted this strategy and has invaded a local college. As a result, it now hosts six Bible studies, which give Pastor Michael Voytek “many opportunities to counsel and pray with” the students. “The increasing number of students who attend our Sunday services” also encourages him. The Lord has blessed this outreach. Pastor Voytek notes that the average number of visitors per Lord’s Day is twelve.
These are not the only examples of outreach mentioned in your reports. Evangelism is a high priority for several of our congregations. Yet, what gives me overwhelming joy is that every mention of evangelism in your reports is coupled together with prayer. Our outreach efforts must always start at the throne of grace. That’s how it must be, since we confess that God alone can transform a sinner into one of his dear children. It takes an act of sovereign mercy to bring even one person to Jesus Christ, let alone many.
We should also note that the Western Classis currently has two students preparing to proclaim the glorious gospel of grace: Mr. Colin Samul and Mr. Matthew Davis. At this meeting we will examine Mr. Samul for licensure. Mr. Yevgeni Kogay, a licentiate in the OPC who seeks to transfer to the RCUS, is hoping to complete his examination as well. Further, the elders of the Sacramento church are recommending that Classis add Mr. Paul Liberati, a member of the Sacramento congregation and a student at City Seminary, to our list of students under care.
Your reports indicate, and the Clerk’s statistics confirm, that the sacraments are properly and regularly administered in the churches of the Western Classis. The frequency of the Lord’s Supper varies between four and twelve times per year. The frequency of baptism, of course, is determined by need, as the Lord brings new converts and covenant children into our fellowships.
Church discipline is critical for the health of the body of Christ. Every believer needs to learn self-discipline, as the Spirit of God conforms him or her to the discipline of the gospel. The mutual admonitions and exhortations of members one to another are part of this process.
Sometimes our faithfulness to Christ demands formal discipline. Your reports indicate that such discipline, though often painful, is nonetheless carried out. Our statistics show that fifteen individuals were “lost by erasure or discipline” (down from twenty-six the year before). We grieve for them at times, particularly for those who have been removed from the Lord’s Table, but we never grieve for them without hope. Instead, we cast ourselves on the certain mercy of a God who is always faithful to his promises.
Whenever discipline is necessary, we hope and pray for the offender’s repentance. The apostle Paul delivered the incestuous man of Corinth to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus (1 Corinthians 5:5). Question 85 of our catechism also anticipates the possibility of restoration when it asks, “How is the Kingdom of Heaven shut and opened by Christian discipline?” Because we do not know to whom the Lord will grant repentance, we must steadfastly hold the gospel of salvation before each of them. With great joy, Pastor Tracy Gruggett testifies to God’s restorative grace. He was privileged to oversee the restoration of two individuals last year — one was a member who had been suspended, and the other was a man who had been excommunicated several years earlier.
We can thank God for encouragements such as these. As pastors and elders, we always struggle with the temptation to think that we should base our actions on anticipated outcomes — if we do certain things, we can make it work. But the results in Bakersfield remind us that the Lord doesn’t call us to act based on our own prognostications, but to obey his commands and leave the results to him.
The Western Classis was also involved in disciplinary issues this past year. At a special fall meeting, the body heard three appeals, which resulted in each case in the reversal of actions taken by the original judicatory.
Membership and Finances
Membership statistics continue to be somewhat disconcerting. During the 2015 calendar year, the churches of the Western Classis lost a total of 21 communicant members. Only two congregations — San Diego and Yuba City — reported gains. These two churches added 1 communicant member each. This leaves us with a total communicant count at the end of the calendar year of 637, the lowest it’s been since 1999. The total baptized membership is 854. The Western Classis hasn’t seen a lower total membership since 1995, when we had about half the number of churches that we have today.
The financial statistics are a mixed bag of sorts. Overall, the giving of our members increased slightly (0.01%) in 2015, for which we give God thanks. However, only about half of the churches met their guidelines to Classis. Of particular concern is the Home Missions fund. But two churches also gave to specific needs within the Classis, thus helping to offset some of our concerns. The Treasurer, Mr. Chris Fellersen, will give a full report to this body.
With seven of our congregations having a communicant membership of 25 or less, finances continue to be a concern. It is particularly a concern for the Chico congregation, since Classical and Synodical funding for this work has now ceased. Pastor Gary Mancilas, however, reports that the church’s deacons continue to fulfill their duty by “making known … the needs of the church,… [and cultivating] the spirit of liberal and cheerful giving.” Likewise, due in part to the loss of seven communicant members, the Los Angeles congregation failed to meet its budgetary expectations and had to draw from its reserves. Brethren, let us keep the temporal concerns of all of our churches, especially the smaller ones, before God in prayer!
One of the overtures that the Western Classis will be asked to consider this year concerns the Article 81 questions to the elders. This overture seeks clarification as to when and under what circumstances a “yes” answer can be given to the question, “Is the temporal contract between minister and people adequate to meet his temporal needs?” That is, is a church fulfilling its financial obligation to its pastor if the pastor must rely on outside work, a wife’s income, or a pension from a previous employer in order to survive? Are his needs being met if neither he nor the church can afford to make contributions to his retirement plan or if there are no provisions for his post-retirement housing? Since the Lord has ordained that they which preach the gospel should live of the gospel (1 Corinthians 9:14), this is a question that we must take seriously.
Special Committee Reports
The two special committees of the Western Classis will be reporting this year.
The committee studying Two Kingdom Theology is finding it increasingly more difficult to wade through the volumes of literature being published on this subject, but comes with a report that it believes addresses the basic issues. One of its recommendations is to send the final report to Synod for its consideration and action.
The committee on Child Safety is ready to present some of its findings, but asks for another year to complete its assignment.
Several retired RCUS pastors reside within the bounds of the Western Classis (viz., Lloyd Gross, Vernon Pollema, Neale Riffert, Dennis Roe, Gene Sawtelle, Paul Treick and Jim West). Each of these men continue actively in the service of Christ, although in some cases their ability is limited by their health.
Five retired pastors remind us that our race — serving the Lord Jesus in this world — will soon come to an end. Pastor West wrote, “Nevertheless, I am acutely aware that life is much shorter than before, making the urge to be productive for Christ all the more intense!” Pastor Treick faced the threat of the villainous “C-word” this past year, and thankfully reports that “no prostate cancer was found.” The trials of Pastors Roe and Riffert were more severe, requiring extensive hospital care and the very real possibility of awaking in the sweet presence of our dear Savior. Using the words of a Southern Gospel hymn, Pastor Pollema calls us to cherish the days we have left while anticipating our glorious homecoming:
One day closer home; one less day ’til I see Jesus.
One more day to tell somebody God’s the only One to free us.
If I live to see tomorrow, when this day is past and gone,
No, I don’t feel any older, but I’m one day closer home.
Brothers, we press on, not hopelessly chasing after a mythical fountain of youth to save us from the unrelenting forward march of age, but rather confident that our labour is not in vain in the Lord (1 Corinthians 15:58). When the Lord calls us home, he will doubtless raise up many others to pick up where we leave off.
Before closing, I would like to make a few comments about matters of concern to the Classis that do not fit neatly under any of the preceding headings.
In his report to this body Pastor Schlegel notes that times are changing, and the first change that I noted in his report is that his Scripture quotations come from the New King James Version of the Bible. The elders of the Sacramento church are also considering the possibility of recommending a change to the local Constitution that would allow the NKJV to be used in the church’s public ministry. Over the next year, the elders will assess the needs and concerns of the congregation. Whether there’s enough support to make this change remains to be seen.
Change also seems to be in store for the Grass Valley church and the Stockton mission work that it oversees. As you know, Pastor Roe retired from his pastoral position last summer. Shortly thereafter, Elder Chris Case resigned from his position on the Spiritual Council and left the congregation. This left Matthew Davis as the only local elder, although Pastor Jonathan Merica and Elder Greg Goehring continued to serve on the Consistory. At the Consistory’s request, the Executive Committee met with the elders and recommended that it would be in the best interest of both works to separate, with the Stockton work coming under the oversight of the Modesto church, and the Grass Valley Consistory being augmented by the men of the Sacramento (or another) Consistory.
On February 14th of this year, the members of the Stockton work voted to transfer their membership and oversight per the Executive Committee’s recommendation. The Modesto Consistory had already agreed to assume oversight. Lord willing, the members of the Stockton work will be dismissed to the care of the Modesto church in the near future.
The situation in Grass Valley is more complex. The Grass Valley Consistory decided to follow the Executive Committee’s recommended course of action in regard to the Grass Valley congregation. The Consistory had also decided not to continue Pastor Mayville’s services as pulpit supply. However, before the congregation had an opportunity to vote on the Consistory’s recommendation, Pastor Mayville, “at the request of Pastor Emeritus Roe,” submitted a letter to the members of the congregation offering his services as a temporary pulpit supply on a part-time, half-salary basis, with a view toward possibly making the relationship more permanent. At a congregational meeting held on February 21st, the congregation tabled the Consistory’s recommendation and adopted a motion from the floor to convene again on March 6th to consider Pastor Mayville’s offer.
I mention this because concerns were expressed about the oversight and direction of the Grass Valley Consistory at the fall meeting of the Western Classis. As you can see from the foregoing, this situation presents a number of pastoral concerns, anomalies and Constitutional questions. Elder Davis requests counsel on how to proceed.
The Western Classis currently has two churches with vacant pulpits. The Anderson church is looking forward to Mr. Samul passing his licensure examination with the hope of eventually calling him as its pastor. Mr. Samul believes that the church’s resources will allow him to minister there for at least eighteen months — longer, of course, if the Lord mercifully grants growth. At present Mr. Davis is teaching Sunday school and filling the pulpit in Grass Valley, with RCUS pastors administering the Lord’s Supper when requested.
Without a doubt, the day in which we live is one of powerful spiritual warfare. In your reports, several of you mentioned your particular battles. Pastor Sam Powell speaks of members of his congregation “struggling with intense chronic pain, [concerns for] elderly parents, and those whose bodies seem to be falling apart.” Yet, he also reports that the congregation remains “joyful, even in tribulation; hopeful, even in pain; rejoicing, even through tears; and always growing in the Lord.” Pastor Paul Henderson reminds us of the great theological warfare that rages all around and encourages us to be always “on the ‘attack’ with the glorious good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ…!”
All in all, the Western Classis is faithful to its task of proclaiming the glorious grace of Jesus Christ. May the sovereign King of nations see fit to crown our labors with his blessing!
Christ’s servant and yours,
Frank H. Walker