In the early years of my ministry, people told me that churches like mine would be dead in ten years. I have often been surprised how wrong these folks have been. I know of several churches that left the foundations of their past. They changed their worship, their programs, and got a total style transformation. Over the years, there has been a lot of pressure to change. Yet many of these churches, once the newness of these changes wore off, often shrank back below what they were before the major overhaul. They built on the novelty of innovation rather than the foundation of who they were as reformed churches.
As our culture and society change, the church does find itself at a crossroads. Do we chase after our market share of the Christians in our community? Do we seek to discover what these people want in church and give it to them? Or, do we seek what God would have us to be as His people? Do we trust God to bless us through the means of grace, even in a changing world?
Our churches can flourish if we will embrace our Reformed roots. Now, some want to run back and use our roots as an excuse not to engage with our modern culture. It is more comfortable to live in the past than in the present. Others dismiss our roots as dated, old-fashioned, and even legalistic as we embrace a standard. However, we face the storm winds of a secular America and as we see churches and denominations swept away with the culture and times, it is important to embrace our roots, so that we might not only hold fast but even flourish in our day.
Here are four ways I would suggest we can embrace our Reformed roots:
- Embrace our traditions but reject our traditionalism. There have been many over the years who have spoken of this distinction between tradition and traditionalism. Those traditions based on solid biblical and theological teaching are great ways of continuing in the path of our forefathers. Traditionalism is the doing of something the same way because that is how it has always been done. Traditionalism is the doing of what is comfortable and familiar for the sake of making it easy. My former Practical Theology professor used to say that the seven last words of a dying church are, “we've never done it that way before.” If you have good traditions, embrace them. If you are stuck in the rut of doing the same things over and over again, then maybe things need to be adjusted. Our traditions should flow from our theological heritage and understanding of Scripture. For example, Psalm singing for my denomination has been a mark of who we were for years, even after we introduced hymns in the 1940s. However, in the late twentieth century, it met with a sharp decline. Psalm singing is making a recovery in our churches as we embrace our understanding of Scripture and our heritage. However, we have not returned to our old Bible Songs book, but rather with the help of the Reformed Presbyterians published our psalter. We have embraced our traditions while rejecting our traditionalism.
- Embrace Reformation in your church. Change is not a bad thing. The Gospel changes us from death to life. We go from the old man to the new man. God is changing us every day, killing sin and making us more like Him through the power of Christ’s Gospel. The change that is needed in most churches is not a major modern overhaul of music and style. What most congregations need is a reforming of the church to the Word of God and the orthodox theology that has been given to us through the church. We need to see the authority of the word of God for our lives and our church. We must regain our biblical and confessional understanding of what the church is to believe and what the church is to do. The church needs to embrace a re-forming of itself to the Word of God.
- Embrace the Biblical Standard of success we see in the church of our roots. The generic evangelical church is obsessed with numbers. The number of people attending and the amount of money in the offering. Now, these are not unimportant parts of church life. But, the bottom line for the church should not be how many and how much. Our successes should be seen in our faithfulness to the ministry that God has called us to in our local setting. Do we see God saving the lost? Are lives being transformed by the power of the Gospel? Is there a real spiritual growth alongside numerical and financial growth? We can experience great growth in attendance and giving, but if we are not producing disciples, are we being successful in ministry? Our Reformed roots emphasize an experiential Calvinism that is more than just getting people into pews and opening up their purses. It is the Gospel inside the sinner, changing them and transforming them. It is God working in the heart of his people through the means of grace in the church. This is what we should desire and what we should seek. We should not look to a business bottom line but a spiritual one.
- Embrace the competitive advantage of our roots. A few years ago, a Southern Baptist pastor and I were discussing ministry. He talked about the advantages we had as a formal traditional church. He had been doing his doctorate of ministry research on church growth. He said they had discovered that many young people appreciated church service that actually felt like a church service and not a concert followed by a little talk. Now I am speaking pragmatically here, but we should not be afraid of being put at a disadvantage by embracing our roots. It is an advantage in that it separates us from other churches based on principles and not preferences. It also puts us on the solid foundation of our roots in Scripture and theology. We know who we are and what we believe because we are rooted in our past as we go forward into the future. It keeps us dependent on God and not on the new program being offered to the church.
I am sure others have said similar things in the past. These are in no way original. As I have pastored this congregation, God has blessed us as we have embraced our roots. Sometimes this means that we resist the changes around us, and other times it means we have to reform. But when you are rooted in a strong foundation, you have the strength to do what you need to do. Embrace your reformed roots!