“Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”
I begin my report with these verses from Hebrews 12 as a testimony to our fellow laborer in the Gospel, Rev. Chester Ploeger, and the many guarded saints and servants, who have now run their races and finished their course. It is remarkable to think that our labors today are part of the same work and ministry as those who have gone before us. For us, the passing of loved ones is bittersweet, but not so with our heavenly Father, who remarks through the Psalmist, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.”
As we work and labor in the present, let each of us remember our connections to the past¼ our parents and grandparents, our former ministers and godly teachers and others, all who played a part in making us who we are today. But let’s do more than just remember them, let us also labor to honor them and their memories and show ourselves faithful in this generation.
As the parochial reports started coming in, I found myself intrigued and encouraged to hear about the labors and ministries of the ministers in Covenant East Classis. Some overflowed with thanksgiving, others were eager to share what the Lord was doing in their midst.
Perhaps the most noteworthy events in the Classis were the planting of a new congregation in the greater Minneapolis area and the steps taken by two of our mission works toward particularizing (becoming self-governing congregations). The faithful labors of Rev. Brice have resulted in the organizing of the Northwest Arkansas mission work into the Grace Reformed Church, while those of Rev. Ron Potter are bringing the Waymart, PA, congregation close to the same.
The church plant of Redeemer Reformed, formerly known as “The Minneapolis-Metro Mission Work” has become known as the “Emmaus Road Reformed Church.” After meeting for Bible studies and planning sessions for many months, a handful of families from Redeemer, being led by Rev. Ryan Kron, began holding worship services at Eden Lake Christian School on October 23, 2011. We are thankful to hear that their services are well-attended and that as a new work they are growing together in the grace and admonition of the Lord.
Rev. Jim Sawtelle mentioned the sense of loss he and the rest of the congregation experienced when part of their congregation left to start the Emmaus Road work. “Seeing the start of services at Emmaus was a day of great joy, first and foremost. At the same time, I consider it as the second most emotionally-challenging thing I have worked through in almost twenty years as a pastor. It was not until a couple of weeks before the first worship service of Emmaus that I realized how profoundly it would affect me on a pastoral level. Those continuing at Redeemer miss the presence of so many beloved members on a weekly basis.”
In addition to hearing about the pulpit ministries and the various books of the Bible being taught, I was heartened to hear about the many Bible studies and study groups meeting for fellowship and mutual learning. Some groups were studying the confessions, while others were studying classic Reformed works like Calvin’s Institutes and Berkhof’s Manual of Christian Doctrine, still others books on living the Christian life and church history. May the Lord be pleased to bless all of these labors for His glory and the building up of the saints.
Each report also indicated that our ministers are laboring toward the instruction of the youth. Many of the ministers have participated in our summer church camp. We are all grateful for the faithful labors of the Manitowoc congregation and Rev. Sorensen for the organizing and hosting of each year’s camp. “Thank-you!” It has been a wonderful ministry and a blessing to all. We were even joined this year by a family from Gettysburg, PA, who came over 800 miles to attend the camp.
Each report indicated that the truths of the Heidelberg Catechism and the Reformed confessions are being taught. In my estimation the catechization of our youth is one of the most important things we do as pastors. In memorable fashion, the Heidelberg Catechism summarizes the simple truths of the Christian faith and applies it to the everyday life of God’s people. What a blessing has been handed down to us.
A number of consistories have been making a concerted effort to bring their membership roles in line with their active membership. While some denominations allow absenteeism and the neglect of the means of grace, on the whole we are pretty clear about what it means to be a Christian and to live the Christian life. All should realize that membership vows are made when we join a church and are really the condition for continued membership in the church as well. Our membership vows ask for some pretty fundamental commitments. When can we stop believing in the truth of Scripture and our Reformed Confessions? When can we stop confessing our sinfulness and trusting in God’s grace in Christ? When can we stop acknowledging the Lordship of Christ and serving Him with our whole hearts? Or when can we not yield to the godly counsels of our pastors and consistories? Of course the answer to all these is “never.”
Most of our ministers indicated a growing use of the internet for the promotion of their congregations and the spread of the Gospel. A couple of the reports were remarkable. Rev. Altman comments: “The second thing we have witnessed this year, and about which we are praising Almighty God, are the many visitors that have passed through our doors this past year! In January, Mark Priestap (a member here at PRC) built a new website for our church that has dramatically increased our visibility as a congregation of the Reformed Church of the United States, here in Northwest Ohio¼. He has also set us up on Sermon Audio, which has also increased our visibility in the area. As of the writing of this report, our website has logged almost five thousand hits from forty-nine different states and nine different countries! Our sermon audio site has logged over twelve hundred hits and five hundred sermon downloads from all over the world. We praise God for this wonderful opportunity to see that His glorious Word, and the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is heard all over the world!”
Another of our pastors has started sending out Bible verses and brief devotions several times a week. These were initially sent to the members of his congregation and then friends and visitors of the congregation, and now through various social media (Facebook, Twitter, and blogs), he estimates that these devotionals are read by hundreds, perhaps even thousands of people each time.
Another growing aspect of our joint ministry is the relationships that are developing between our ministers and those preparing themselves for the Gospel ministry. Interestingly, we held a classical discussion a couple of years ago on things we might do as pastors and congregations to encourage men to consider studying for the Gospel Ministry. Remarkably, I believe there are five of our ministers presently in mentoring relationships with those studying or beginning to study for the Gospel ministry. Perhaps this is a wake-up call for all of us to begin considering how we might utilize these prospective pastors in the future¼ perhaps as church planters, or maybe co-laborers in fields where much work remains. Perhaps we will have to enlarge our vision for how we might impact our communities and surrounding cities with the Gospel.
As I look over the statistical report it looks like our churches are fiscally sound. There was an overall increase in giving and each organized congregation met their guideline. It might be somewhat attributed to the change in our fiscal year, but our reported giving to Classical and Synodical guidelines was up 17 percent. I was encouraged to hear our ministers express gratitude to their respective congregations for the provision of their temporal needs. Those of us who receive our living from the Gospel truly are blessed that we can give ourselves wholly to the work and ministry of Christ’s Church.
While there are clearly some changes of note, most of these seem consistent with the ebb and flow of congregational life. It seems clear that the Golden Valley congregation has been the most fruitful, accounting for over half of the 15 infants baptized this year. And speaking of fruitfulness, we extend congratulations to Rev. and Mrs. Steve Altman, as they are expecting a new baby this May.
It was also noted that a number of congregations took significant steps in updating their buildings and facilities, marking a 133 percent increase in property value compared to last year. Also, significant progress was also noted for the two congregations with mortgages, which were reduced by 13 percent. Also, quite impressive was a 68 percent increase in the amount of special offerings compared to last year. Likely, part of this was the generous outpouring of benevolent aid that was gathered from RCUS sources for Japan Disaster Relief which totaled (denomination-wide) almost $30,000.
We also have a minister, Rev. Jay Fluck, who is ministering in a somewhat unusual circumstance. He is laboring within the geographic bounds of the Covenant East Classis, but outside of our ecclesiastical bounds. He has been called and granted permission to serve an independent congregation, the Sovereign Grace Church in Gettysburg, PA. This congregation has gone through some difficult times and for several years has been in contact with our classis. It is moving in the direction of eventual union with the RCUS. Rev. Fluck reports that his labors seem fruitful and are largely well-received. So far his work has been a learning and growing experience for both himself and the congregation. As an aside, he also expressed gratitude to the Lord for His providence in giving him the opportunity to spend more time with his dad in the last six months before his death, than in the previous ten years.
We also note with gratitude to God our brother Ron Potter’s presence among us. We rejoice that the Lord has seen fit to restore him to sufficient health to continue his labors in the gospel ministry. We are grateful for the support of his wife Sharon and the members of Heritage Reformed who assisted greatly during his illness.
In summary then, it seems the Lord is using and blessing the ministry of the Gospel of the churches of Covenant East Classis. Let’s all give ourselves afresh with renewed zeal that we might “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” Let’s all remember this admonition of the Apostle Peter: “Therefore, brethren, be even more diligent to make your call and election sure, for if you do these things you will never stumble; for so an entrance will be supplied to you abundantly into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”