President’s Report on the State of the Church
The 268th Synod of the RCUS
Emmanuel Reformed Church, Sutton, NE
May 19-22, 2014
Esteemed Fathers and Brothers:
Article 111 of the Constitution stipulates that the President of the Executive Committee shall annually submit a report on the state of the Church, making use of the reports of the Presidents of the Executive Committees of Classes. A review of those reports reveals the following concerning the present state of the RCUS.
From the eastern most parts of “fly-over country,” Rev. Klynsma of Covenant East Classis comments: “As I’ve read and reviewed the parochial reports of the pastors serving the churches of Covenant East Classis, it is clear that the work of the ministry is being done. We can and should rejoice that each of our pulpits is filled and that our pastors are enjoying sufficient health to continue their labors.” Klynsma goes on to report that one pastor in the classis was challenged with significant health issues. Pastor Steve Altman “has gone through two hip replacement surgeries . . . and now reports being nearly pain free.”
Covenant East Classis currently maintains three mission works. Rev. Klynsma notes a particularly praiseworthy development in one of those works. This event is recounted in the words of Rev. Wesley Brice, who “. . . on behalf of the Grace Reformed Church of Northwest Arkansas, joyfully shares the story of how they have found and were able to purchase a church building: ‘. . . at about the middle of last [year] we heard about a church building that had just come on the market at 3320 North Second Street in Rogers, Arkansas and this time offers were made, received, conditional use permit sought and granted and with thankful hearts we are now in own building, rejoicing and giving God thanks for answered prayer.’”
There are three men under care of the Classis, studying at three different seminaries, who desire to pursue a call to the ministry.
“The statistical reports show that overall our congregations are doing quite well . . . Most (if not all) have been able to pay their classical and synodical guidelines and a couple have made substantial progress in paying down their building debt.”
“Overall, we can rejoice in all that the Lord has done and is continuing to do through the churches of Covenant East Classis.”
Working our way westward, we learn the following from Rev. Dawn’s report on Northern Plains Classis: “I do not believe that complacency is, at present, a temptation with which we are faced. However, which of us has not been tempted to discouragement? We need to remember that the church is not ours, but Christ’s. We may plant and water, but it is God who gives the increase.”
The oil boom in North Dakota, by the providence of God, has become an opportunity to plant and water. Two congregations in the classis are favorably located in areas where populations have swelled from an influx of workers migrating to the oil fields. The president writes: “Rev. Phil Poe reports from Minot that attendance is good, and there is a possibility of an increase of up to 20 new members.” The Classis’ current mission work is in Dickinson, in the southwest corner of the state. “Rev Clark’s ministry in Dickinson has included opportunities for teaching both on Sunday and during the week. This city is in the centre of North Dakota’s oil boom. As a result, there is much movement within the population. This is reflected in the ebb and flow of visitors to the worship services of the church.”
An encouraging note of progress for the Classis is this description of the work in Watertown, SD: “One matter of joy is the fact that the church no longer receives financial support from Classis . . . We are thankful to God for the way he has brought this congregation through difficult times and is providing for their needs.”
Rev. Dawn’s report reveals that there are four vacant congregations in the Classis. Sadly, the prospects for at least two of those congregations are uncertain. Dawn writes: “The church in Anamoose is a cause for concern. Statistically, they have19 communicant members . . . the membership is elderly and many cannot attend meetings. This church has no pastor. When they meet, generally it is to listen to a recorded sermon. The lack of pastoral care and the inability to have regular formal worship services is a great concern. On the other hand, there is a desire on the part of the membership not to disband.” The Ashely and Hosmer congregations have cooperated in the support of a pastor for many years. However, due to the departure of Rev. James Grossmann from Ashely to Eureka, Pastor Dawn observes: “There are real questions regarding the viability of our Hosmer church. We need to pray that the Lord will provide a man for Ashley and give great wisdom to the remaining members at Hosmer concerning the future of their church.”
I think the following is a thoughtful summery that frames for us the challenges before Northern Plains Classis: “Our classis membership has again fallen. In the past year, membership has declined . . . 5%. What these statistics represent is the fact that we have an aging membership that reflects the older population of the Dakotas. Our churches do not have a self-sustaining membership. For the classis to continue into the next generation, we need new membership from those outside the church at this time. I want to emphasise that evangelism is the duty of every church, regardless of the size of its membership. We do not evangelise to pump up our membership or our finances. Nonetheless, I believe the state of our classis is one means by which God is reminding us of our duty to spread the gospel. I believe the primary purpose of the church is the proper worship of God. Secondly, and inseparable from the first, is evangelism. I fail to see how one is possible without the other.”
Next we head south, to consider the report of Rev. Jon Blair, South Central Classis. As Rev. Blair reflects on the state of the classis and the work of the churches, he is asking this question: “Am I / are we being faithful in the care of the sheep Christ has entrusted to us? This can be convicting, as it gives cause for self-examination.”
“Though the answer to that question will no doubt fluctuate between minister, elder, and deacon (not to mention church members), when I read the parochial reports I think the answer on the whole is, ‘Yes’. I say this primarily because it is apparent that the churches are striving, however imperfectly that might be, to maintain the marks of the true church, use the keys of the kingdom, and administer the means of grace. As we know, this is . . . essential to faithfully tending and feeding Christ’s sheep out of love for Him and them.” Blair concludes this line of thought with the following reminder: “For it is not the size, but the health of the body that is to be our chief concern.”
Rev. Blair mentions the unusually high number of changes in pastoral relationships within the classis. This is the result of the opening of two new mission works, the resignation of one pastor, and the retirement of Rev. Robert Grossmann. Yet, with all this change, only one charge remains vacant at present—Trinity Reformed Church of Sioux Falls, SD.
The president notes a number of matters to be considered at the spring Classis meeting: “. . . the Special Committee on Pastoral Relations appointed at the 2013 Classis meeting will present its report, especially pertaining to a minister’s right of conscience. In relation to the Omaha charge, the Missions Committee is recommending the continuation of funding at the prior year level, contingent upon a new assessment by the Classis Home Missions Committee. In relation to the Limon charge, Rev. Carroll reports that the definition of voting members was changed in the church Constitution, which results in allowing women to vote in congregational meetings.”
Rev. Blair informs us that “. . . the teaching and training of men for the ministry continues through the two seminaries which we support within the bounds of Classis—Heidelberg Theological Seminary and New Geneva Theological Seminary. It is also being recommended that the two students currently under care for the ministry . . . remain in that status this next year.”
And finally, this should receive our attention: “As mentioned earlier, Rev. Robert (Bob) Grossmann retired from his charge in Vermillion at the end of 2013, after serving in the pastoral ministry of several congregations in the RCUS across five decades. Although he plans to remain active in various ministry activities (for it is hard to imagine him doing otherwise), we want to especially recognize his faithful service in the pastorate. As he will be reading his final pastoral report of his labors in Vermillion, let us then pause to express our thanksgiving, and pray with thanksgiving in the name of the Great Shepherd of the sheep, for His gracious provision and continued blessing upon Bob and his wife Polly.”
The final destination on our tour of the denomination brings us to the “left coast” and the report of Rev. Frank Walker from Western Classis: “There are . . . a lot of exciting things going on the Western Classis. It’s not very often that we see seven adult baptisms in one church in the same year (San Diego) . . .. I rejoice with exceeding great joy to see many of our pastors involved in the training of the next generation of servant-leaders. By the grace of God, all the churches in the Western Classis, except perhaps Anderson, either have a pastor or at least a reasonable hope of securing one in the near future.”
“But the one thing that has piqued my enthusiasm more than anything else is the effort of the Shafter congregation to start a Spanish-speaking Reformed church from scratch. What a wonderful opportunity this is! And not only is the Shafter church aggressively pursuing this, the San Diego consistory has its heart set on doing something similar . . . Brothers, it looks like God has heard our prayers. Praise his name!”
Rev. Walker then raises the salient point of financing these endeavors. This is a serious challenge. With the highest classical guideline in the denomination Western Classis must support its share of the Classis/Synod mission work in La Habra, a number of churches needing benevolent aid, and now the prospect of a new mission work. The question of how the Classis can practice good stewardship with its finite resources and step out in faith in the face of this new endeavor without overwhelming the congregations is a pressing concern.
I want to include a portion of Walker’s reply to his own question. He writes: “The Lord used twelve apostles to effect the conversions of at least 100,000 souls before the end of the first century. Couldn’t he do the same today?” The President then continues with this point: “And second, our resources may be small, but those of our God are not. He owns the cattle on a thousand hills, and, as a dear Christian woman said to me thirty years ago, ‘All we have to do is ask him to slaughter one for us.’ Our God can stretch the widow’s mite and make it do more good than all the money of Bill Gates and Warren Buffet put together. But do we trust him enough to step out in faith?”
Rev. Walker reports that Western Classis would consider three Special Study Committee reports: The Special Committee to study our practice of adult baptism in light of Article 185; the Special Committee on musical instruments in worship; the Special Committee to study Two Kingdom theology.
With regard to numerical statistics, Walker notes that “the Western Classis lost eleven communicant members in 2013.” He further notes: “Since 2004, the number of communicant members has decreased . . . more than 12% . . .. The problem is not that we’re failing to bring new members in. Nor is it that we don’t provide sound instruction . . .. The problem is that we’re not bringing in more people than we’re losing.”
It is heartening to read this further thought provoking paragraph: “Being reformed, we understand that Jesus Christ is Lord of the harvest, giving an increase by his Spirit as he sees fit. Thus, discouragement need not turn into despair. But we must ask ourselves some hard questions. Are we making the best use of our resources? Are we equipping our members to engage in personal evangelism? Do we ourselves go out into the highways and byways and compel people to come in? Is our elder visitation program effective? Do we as a classis have a long-term plan and vision to expand our horizons, or do we just take things as they come? Do our churches have plans to improve their outreach? Are we using modern technology to its fullest potential in promoting the gospel of salvation? What about the social media? How much is the economy to blame for our losses? Are fraternal churches losing members proportionately?”
“I don’t know the answers to these questions . . .. But I do know that we need to talk about what we’re doing and how we do it with a view toward improving our ministry. We need to make evangelism a much higher priority, and we must devote ourselves even more rigorously to seeking our heavenly Father’s blessing in prayer.”
Rev. Walker concludes his report with this summary: “The marks of the true church are certainly evident in the churches of the Western Classis. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. We can all be thankful that the Lord has given us a church where the preaching of God’s Word is central, the sacraments are reverently administered, and Christian discipline is carried out, however painful it may be at times.
Yet, there is MUCH work to be done. The fact that the Lord has blessed us so richly should arouse us to greater zeal and enthusiasm. We have the promise of Jesus himself, who said, Upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it (Matt. 16:18).”
Turing to the Permanent and Special Committee reports, there are a number of matters that bear on the state of the denomination. I will mention those I believe to be most notable.
I think we can hardly underestimate the importance of the Web Site committee work. While it might appear to some to be somewhat extraneous to the work of the Synod, we simply have to understand the times we live in. It has become an almost proverbial saying today that for 16-30 year olds, if you don’t exist on social media, you don’t exist. Building and maintaining an aesthetically pleasing, user friendly web site is essential in today’s world. We need to support and encourage the committee to continue its good work and press on to greater heights with it.
The Interchurch Relations Committee report, at 28 pages, is the longest permanent committee report I have seen in twenty years of the ministry. I trust the report’s length is a demonstration of the care with which we maintain our fraternal relationships with an eye to mutual accountability in faithful service of Lord Jesus Christ. In a day when we see much declension in historic orthodoxy all around us, we must prize and welcome the opportunity to walk with our fraternal churches in fidelity to the Triune God and His Word. With that thought in mind, the report encourages this body to consider our fraternal bonds with the Reformed Church in the Netherlands (GKV). There are some matters of grave concern before that body, and we ought to be in prayer for them and be thoughtful about how we can humbly urge them to hold fast to the faith once delivered to the saints. How we maintain and labor for mutual accountability with our fraternal churches says much about the state of our own concern for the witness of Christ in the world.
The reports of the Home and Foreign Missions Committees will require much thoughtful and careful consideration at this Synod. For a small denomination, the Lord has given us many opportunities to participate in the spread of the gospel both at home and abroad. We ought to rejoice in that. On the home front, we see that some of the works are flourishing, while at least one, the Omaha work, appears to be floundering. Yet, the Classis and Synod Home Missions Committees recommend forging ahead in Omaha. The question of supporting a Hispanic outreach in the Shafter area is also before us. May God grant us wisdom in considering these recommendations.
Giving to the mission works has been steady and generous. With gratitude to God, we read the account of the aid already administered to the churches in the Philippines in response to the devastating typhoon of last fall. Not to mention the ongoing diaconal efforts in Congo among the churches there, and the crucial support of the ministers in Congo and Kenya.
The recommendation coming before this Synod to designate a “missionary-at-large” for the foreign works is intriguing. Having “boots on the ground” is undeniably useful in giving needed counsel and providing well aimed aid for our sister churches. Perhaps the office of a missionary coordinator best fills the need to shepherd these churches into fuller maturity and order.
But what I missed is a clear and concise job description and manual of procedures for this endeavor. For instance, what body will oversee this missionary, and how would that oversight be administered week to week, month to month? What is the term of his service: one year, three years? No doubt such things would need to be modified with time and experience. But some starting point would seem to be prudent if we are to proceed. Related to this question is the practical matter that Synod would need to draft a Letter of Call.
The Special Judicial Committee is recommending some amendments to the Constitution. While I won’t make comments on the substance of the recommendations, I would raise the issue of the proposed renumbering of the articles of the Constitution from articles 40 onward. Admittedly the total renumbering would be only two articles off from the present number. However, every past synodical decision referring to an article in the Constitution from 40 and onward would now need to be annotated. If the body decides to adopt the Committee’s recommendation on the articles in question, perhaps we should merely add the amended article, bracket the former article numbers with an asterisk ( [41-42*] ) explaining our action, and retain the numbering sequence as it is.
Finally, I would like to mention the retirement of the Rev. Paul Treick from the editorship of the Reformed Herald. Clearly this has been a labor of love, for the honorarium stipulated for the editor of the Herald does not begin to approach anything like real compensation for the hours spent on producing each installment. By all measurements, Rev. Treick leaves the Herald in better shape than when he took it on. We thank you for your faithful service, brother.
So what is the state of the RCUS? A number of things impressed me. First, we are in a period of change. A number of our oldest congregations in rural areas are made up of elderly members and in the near future likely will be closing. While this is a sad reality, that trend reflects the general demographic of many rural areas. We have also seen the retirement of a number of our longest serving pastors in the RCUS over the last few years. As the transition in leadership progresses, we must not lose the staunch commitment of this older generation to Scripture, the Confessions and proper church order. These men also provided us with a wonderful example of love for God, allegiance to the Truth, love for the church, warm camaraderie, and sacrificial pastoral labor. May we be as faithful in our generation, and by God’s grace more so, as they have been in theirs.
Second, even as we have lost men from the active ministry of the church to retirement, we have a healthy number of men studying and preparing for a call to the pastoral ministry in approved seminaries. We also have received a number of men into the ministry in the RCUS from other church communions. The Lord is providing for the needs of His church, in answer to our prayers. We praise His Name for remembering us in His mercy.
Third, there is a great deal of energy and resources committed to pastoral training spread over a variety of seminaries. Many of our ministers have become professors and adjunct professors. It is a sign of health and vitality that a Church should have in her midst a broad number of godly, mature, wise, orthodox pastor-scholars.
Fourth, the realities of numerical declines in some of the Classes have already been noted from the President’s reports above. This is disheartening. All the more so since all Classes report great care in striving to maintain the marks of the church in purity. We long to see the fruit of the gospel in the Lord adding to the church.
A hopeful sign for the state of the church is that there have been no reports of Elijah-like flights into the wilderness to sit under a broom tree to await death. Under the chastening of the Lord, it is fitting that we consider our ways. Each President rightly urged his respective classis to do that. Brothers, what have we done with their urgings?
Are there special Classis meetings called to do some strategic planning? Rev. Walker’s list of questions seems to be an appropriate agenda for discussion. But I would also remind us that the Scriptures teach us to consider our trials with the question: Is there sin in the camp? Let us address it with true repentance. Is there discouragement? Let us stir one another up to love and good works. Let us hold fast our confession. Let us pray fervently for God’s wisdom and blessing.
Jesus said, “You are the light of the world.” He said this to surprise us; he said it to encourage us; he said it to challenge us. By all accounts we are not hiding this light under a basket. Think of this indescribable gift: the gospel of Christ, his word of Truth, the knowledge of the richness of the Reformed faith, the keys of the kingdom of heaven. With such riches twelve men heeded the voice of the Lord and preached and taught, making disciples. And God turned the world upside down by their witness (Acts 17:6). Let us continue to be faithful with these little things trusting God to glorify His name according to His will. And as we pray, let us do so with the conviction of our confession that “my prayer is much more certainly heard of God than I feel in my heart that I desire these things of Him” (HC #129).
Rev. James Sawtelle