President’s Report on the State of the Church
to the 2016 Synod of the RCUS
Esteemed Fathers and Brothers,
Among the ways the church is characterized in the Bible, one of those I most cherish is expressed in these words from the Apostle Paul: “Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her, that he might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that he might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot of wrinkle or any such thing, but that she be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:25-27). It is wonderful to contemplate the infinite and jealous love of Christ for His Bride. All the more so because we know from Paul’s words that she is still a work in progress as she exists in her earthly state. She is being sanctified—beautified. There remain spots and wrinkles to be washed and ironed out. Yet she may confidently confess that “there is no creature, whether in heaven or on earth, who loves us more than Jesus Christ” (Belgic Confession, Article 26). As we review the state of the church as she is manifest in the Reformed Church in the United States, it is good to keep before us and never forget the picture of Christ’s beautifying love for us. We are not yet the church in glory. We are not yet even the church triumphant. We are the church militant; the church under the cross; the church carrying on an incessant warfare against our three deadly enemies, the Devil, the world and our own flesh.
In accord with Article 111 of the Constitution of the RCUS, I will report on the state of the church by making use of the reports of the Presidents of each of the Classis Executive Committees. This stipulation is most appropriate, for the churches in each Classis are on the frontlines where our warfare is engaged.
In the report of the Western Classis (WC) President, Rev. Frank Walker notes that “without a doubt, the day in which we live is one of powerful spiritual warfare.” Earlier in the report Walker made mention of a comment by one pastor in his parochial report that “his congregation now has a 20-gauge shotgun in the office and armed guards in the back pews.” Talk about your church militant. Ah, what would we do without the comic relief our brothers in the Western Classis provide us with?
Walker fleshed out a theme that all the classis Presidents were careful to highlight: whether the Marks of the True Church are present in a faithful form. His assessment is succinctly expressed in these words: “I’m glad to report once again that the preaching of the Word of God is faithfully carried out in our congregations.” To this Mark of the Church was added the affirmation that the Sacraments were faithfully administered, as was Church discipline.
We learn also that 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.” The report also related the happy news from a particular church of the restoration of some individuals to full communion who had been previously censured. It is a blessing to see the vigilance of the churches and the classis in the matter of church discipline, and our Lord’s mercies demonstrated in it. Spots removed, wrinkles ironed.
Overall membership of the classis churches fell slightly in 2015, while overall giving increased slightly. Yet, only about half of the churches met their guidelines to Classis. And then this sobering disclosure: “seven of our congregations [have] a communicant membership of 25 or less.” So with four classis churches on benevolence, and two on Missions support, the financial burden of the classis is born by about half of its congregations. This scenario cries out for a different financial approach. But what is it?
As of the writing of the WC report, two of the congregations were vacant. There are two seminary students under care of classis, and one man was to be examined for licensure. The classis supports three mission works within its bounds, and most of the churches reported that they are actively engaging in evangelistic efforts to spread the gospel. Yet hearts are hard as the drought packed ground and unstable as the fault lines that run throughout the state. This is a most challenging field.
Turning to the Northern Plains Classis (NPC) report, Rev. David Dawn underscores the care with which the Marks of the Church are administered in each congregation. His report highlights some spots, wrinkles and blemishes our Lord is attending to among the saints that reflect the state of the church in that region. Membership was down; half of the decline was due to deaths, another significant factor being the downturn of the oil industry, a small portion of losses was unspecified. There were transitions in pastoral charges as the relationship between the mission congregation in Dickinson and the pastor was dissolved; the licentiate and stated supply in Ashley left suddenly and without counsel from Classis. A happy transition was noted in the licensure of Mr. Cody Schwichtenberg, who is serving the Herreid congregation, and Cody’s anticipated ordination exam at the spring classis meeting. In addition to the vacancy in Ashley, the work in Anamoose remains vacant as it has been for many years, but no mention was made as to its ministry or future.
The NPC has one mission congregation within its bounds and the report mentions some exploratory work in process for a new field. Two radio broadcasts are ongoing. There are no students under care in the classis at this time. Let us pray that the Lord’s love would sustain and increase the work among the churches in the Northern Plains.
Rev. Travis Grassmid reported on the state of the South Central Classis (SCC). Grassmid writes: “The state of our Classis has been relatively peaceful in this past year, and we praise God for granting this blessing… We are encouraged to report that the Word of God is being faithfully proclaimed throughout the Classis, and there is general peace within the churches.” After a couple years of some turmoil in the SCC, it is wonderful to see the fruit of our Lord’s washing and cleansing among them. What better attestation of Christ’s work to hear that the Marks of the Church are maintained with perseverance.
With thanksgiving we note that the membership of SCC increased slightly. One exploratory mission work was suspended, but the Casper, WY, work is gaining momentum. The Omaha mission work took a step forward with the arrival of a pastor to take up the labors there, full time. The classis is also exploring some possible new fields to press into for the extension of Christ’s kingdom. The SCC currently has no students under care for the ministry.
South Central Classis has one vacant charge, and another anticipated vacancy. The President reports: “Dr. C.W. Powell noted that this is his forty-seventh, and likely his final parochial report. Certainly the Lord has greatly used this honorable pastor in his 58 years of ministry. We have been blessed to have our brother serve in our midst, and to enjoy the benefits of his wisdom and encouragement. Not many have the strength or fortitude to continue daily in the ministry until they are 81 years of age; the Lord has greatly blessed this brother, and blessed His church through the faithful labors of His humble servant.” I add my heartfelt “AMEN!”
Finally, President Pro Tempore Rev. Ryan Kron presented the state of the church report for Covenant East Classis (CEC). Kron began the report this way: “Acts 2:42 says: And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. John Calvin comments on this verse and says: ‘Wheresoever the pure voice of the gospel doth sound, where men continue in the profession thereof, where they exercise themselves in hearing the same ordinarily that they may profit, without all doubt there is the Church.’ Our marching orders, given to us by Jesus Christ, are to shepherd the flock of God as we preach the whole counsel of God, faithfully administer the sacraments, and exercise church discipline (Belgic Confession, Article 29). I am thankful to God these “marks of the true church” continue to be present among the churches of the classis.”
The overall classis membership remained virtually the same as last year, with a decline in communicants but a healthy rise in non-communicants; this despite the fact that two churches suffered a considerable loss in members due to conflicts in 2014 and 2015. By this we are reminded to deal with conflict as it arises rather than hoping it will resolve itself. Kron observes: “Sadly, when conflict is not handled biblically people will sometimes abandon the relationship and leave the church. We all know examples of this kind of division. Handling conflict biblically is a way that we grow in holiness, and it is an important part of growing in our love for each other.” More spots, wrinkles and blemishes that our loving Savior stands ready to sanctify and cleanse with the washing of the water by the word.
There is one vacant congregation, and three active mission fields at various stages of development. Two licensure exams and two ordination exams were conducted this past year, all sustained. Two men were ordained and added to the rolls of classis. Another awaits confirmation at synod. There are two students under care. And one pastor is without a call.
The state of the church is discerned not only in the worship and ministerial labors in our congregations, but also in terms of our agreed upon labors as a Synod, which are summarized in Article 101 of our Constitution: “The Synod shall give necessary attention to the education of pious men for the gospel ministry…The Synod shall diligently prosecute the work of Home Missions, of Foreign Missions, of Christian Education, and of Ministerial Relief by committees….”
The RCUS labors to obey our Lord’s command in the Great Commission to make disciples in our homeland and on foreign fields. I will make mention of the Foreign Ministries Committee (FMC) report. Today the FMC oversee contact with sister churches on three foreign mission fields: Kenya, D R Congo, Philippines, as well as participating in support and oversight of the French language radio ministry of Rev. Eric Kayayan. There is a growing partnership with RCUS ministerial members involved in Westminster Biblical Missions, and an inquiry about partnership from a Reformed Church in Germany. Such diversity of fields is a wonderful reminder that the Lord who loves, redeems and sanctifies His church has been given the Nations as His inheritance.
It was a great joy to read of the first hand report about the Synod of the URC Congo by the brothers who represented the RCUS there. I have long believed that to maintain good relationship with these foreign churches and advise and encourage them well, it is crucial to send regular delegations. Language and cultural differences are difficult enough to overcome in person, let alone from a distance through written communications. To go in person, to express our love and care for them and our unity with them, and to teach among them is indispensable for cementing our bonds of fellowship with them. Personal visits also provide an opportunity to be encouraged by them. What a wonderful privilege our Lord has given us to be part of this mission work and to encourage and contribute in some small way to the extension of His kingdom.
The area of Ministerial Relief continues to be a pressing issue for the denomination. It is a great privilege to serve our retired ministers and widows of ministers called to the church triumphant. To put into perspective, the growth of this need over the years, I would remind the body that in 1990 six couples/individuals received support. In 2016 we can anticipate there will be at least 18 separate requests. In the late 80’s and early 90’s a Ministerial Aid Fund (MAF) was started in anticipation of exactly this kind of growth in relief requests. Twenty-six years later the fund has grown to around 1.4 million dollars. We praise God for the fund’s growth. However, it is now estimated we will need a fund of three million dollars to keep pace with the needed ministerial relief. At the present rate of the fund’s growth it will take another twenty-eight years to reach our goal.
Over the past few years each Synod has discussed strategies for soliciting contributions to this fund. Last year a committee was appointed to promote charitable giving for this fund. As of the writing of this report, no word has come regarding this committee’s activities. So each year we talk about the need to develop this MAF, and each year we kick the can down the road till next year, losing precious time. Meanwhile, Synod has deemed it necessary to draw down the fund to meet the yearly requests for relief to keep from overwhelming the guideline. The result is predictable: the fund growth has stalled. In our present economic reality, we cannot rely on compounded interest to grow the fund.
It seems it is time to consider a more effective and stewardly approach to financing our Ministerial Relief needs, and for that matter, perhaps our foreign and home mission needs.
The Christian Education Committee report reveals a healthy and careful interest in the theological instruction and ministerial training carried out in the seminaries the denomination supports. The quality of the training in these institutions was demonstrated this past year in licensure and ordination exams sustained by four men from four of those seminaries.
What is the state of the church? We find that our Lord has given us a true theological vitality and unity. A growing number of our men labor to articulate the faith for our generation by writing and publishing books on various theological and biblical topics. Several men teach in seminaries with a view to passing on the faith to a rising generation of men who will be equipped to teach others. Careful attention is given to the preaching of the gospel, missionary labors, support of the needy, and the worship of the triune God in spirit and in truth. After all, that is the primary reason we exist: to worship, glorify, honor and enjoy God.
But our great hope is in the fact that our Lord Jesus Christ loves us with all our spots and wrinkles. He is mercifully ministering to us with the washing of the water by the word. Truly many blemishes remain in us. We honor Christ by acknowledging this and asking Him to correct and renew us daily. I would remind you again of the comments of John Calvin on Acts 2:42 quoted earlier. “Wheresoever the pure voice of the gospel doth sound, where men continue in the profession thereof, where they exercise themselves in hearing the same ordinarily that they may profit, without all doubt there is the Church.”
Respectfully submitted, Rev. James Sawtelle