The ARP Church in 2024

The ARP Church in 2024 by Chuck Wilson ARP Talk ARPTalk

According to the “Statistical Report” (pp. 164-193), in the 2023 Minutes of the General Synod, the health of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (ARPChurch) is in freefall. Warning lights are flashing and storm flags are flying. Does anyone care? It is no stretch to say the leadership of the denomination is unconcerned and focused elsewhere — flittering away as they are Facebooking in a fantasy land of self- importance.

Though not an exact depiction, the photograph above is an uncomfortable representation of Sunday morning attendance in most congregations.

According to the summary of presbyteries (p. 164), the membership of the ARPChurch has declined from 26,871 to 23,130. The most important indicator for health and size is “Average Weekly Attendance.” Up from a Covid-low of 10,371 to 12,771, the Sunday morning size of the ARPChurch is less than 13,000 congregants. Membership numbers are often inaccurate; however, the number of people reported in pews and chairs is fairly accurate.

Reporting numbers about congregations in the ARPChurch is a challenge. At least 68 congregations either did not report or past reports were used in the “Statistical Report.” What does this mean? (1) Does it mean no one in the congregation took responsibility for the report? (2) Does it mean the report was so dismal no one wanted to mail the report? (3) Does it mean the pastor doesn’t trust the folks at the Greenville office and doesn’t want them to know what he and his congregation are doing? Notwithstanding, below is an analysis of what is found in the “Statistical Report.”

Many ministers in the ARPChurch say they believe worship is the most important business of the local congregation. Well, if people present is an important indicator, business is failing and near bankrupt in the congregations of the ARPChurch!

The following is a list of the two congregations reporting the largest weekly attendance in each presbytery:

  • CANADA: (1) Grace Presbyterian Church, 175; (2) Covenant Reformed Presbyterian  Church, Covenanters Presbyterian Church, and Trinity ON ARP Church, 75;
  • CATAWBA: (1) First Presbyterian Church, Columbia, 1050 (2) Ebenezer Presbyterian Church, 225;
  • FIRST: (1) Gastonia ARP Church, 352; (2) City Church of Asheville, 225;
  • FLORIDA: (1) North Creek Presbyterian Church, 190; (2) Lake Wales First Presbyterian Church, 154;
  • GRACE: (1) Christ Covenant Church, 447; (2) Hope Chapel ARP Church, 190;
  • MISSISSIPPI VALLEY: (1) French Camp Presbyterian Church, 125; (2) New Albany Presbyterian Church, 120;
  • NORTHEAST: (1) Church of the Atonement, 156; (2) Good News Presbyterian Church, 130;
  • SECOND: (1) Greenville ARP Church, 240; (2) Oconee Presbyterian Church, 141;
  • TENNESSEE-ALABAMA: (1) Fayetteville ARP Church, 125; (2) New Days Mission, 120;
  • VIRGINIA: (1) Redeemer ARP Church, 140; (2) Old Providence ARP Church, 136.

Regrettably (and this news has not been and will not be reported in the ARPMagazine, for negative news is verboten), the Oconee Presbyterian Church (the most dynamic and fastest growing congregation in Second Presbytery, and the congregation having the second highest Sunday attendance at 141) withdrew from Second Presbytery and the ARPChurch on December 3, 2023 (and presently the Sunday attendance is 180).

Of the 266 congregations in the ARPChurch, only 41 reported an average Sunday attendance of 100 or more. That is, only 15% of the congregations of the ARPChurch have an average attendance of 100 or more.

I think the most depressing statistic reported in the “Statistical Report” is this: of the 266 congregations of the ARPChurch, 208 congregations did not report a single adult profession of faith. That is 78% of the congregations of the ARPChurch did not see a single adult profession of faith.

An analysis of the “Statistical Report” also reveals that 99 congregations have an average Sunday attendance of 55 or less. Unless a congregation is a beginning church-plant, these congregations are on the verge of collapse. The demographic factors to overcome in order to see revitalization and renewal are a hill too high for most of these congregations. These 99 congregations represent 37% of the congregations in the ARPChurch.

Who is responsible for such a dismal showing?

Because the ARPChurch is 200 years old, a few of these “skeleton” congregations are “legacy” congregations. That is, the congregation was founded 200 or more years ago. Because of population migration and other such factors, a large building with an old graveyard is left “high-and-dry” in the middle of Nowhere, USA, with a greatly diminished membership to maintain a historic building and care for a large graveyard. A thriving community has disappeared, leaving a few homes scattered in a national forest.

However, the above does not explain the congregations which are drying up in the midst of populated areas. For example, how is it there is in Charlotte, NC, a congregation reporting an average Sunday attendance of 20 when it sits in a forest of occupied homes? This is not made-up. The data for the “Statistical Report” are totaled and submitted by someone in the congregation.

Frankly, the responsibility lies with the ministers of the ARPChurch. Some congregations are so depleted they need to be closed and replanted; nevertheless, the maxim remains applicable: “a local congregation succeeds or fails because of pastoral leadership.”

Everything Begins With Pastoral Leadership

If the maxim, “Monkey see; monkey do!” is true, then the future of the ARPChurch is bleak. Name the present leaders of the ARP Church. Which ones have had a stellar middling career in evangelism, church growth, and renewal? Certainly, one cannot name the present Stated Clerk of the General Synod. His last year at the Lancaster First ARPChurch saw no adult professions of faith, no baptisms of any kind, a loss of membership, and an average weekly attendance of only 55. The statistics regarding other leaders are also disappointing. So, once again, if the maxim of “Monkey see; monkey do” is true, what is expected of run-of-the-mill pastors?

Going Forward Backwards

Not having a ministry plan for the present or the future, many ministers in the ARPChurch obsess over what they call the history of the ARPChurch. A candidate for the ministry is expected to know the story of the Associate Presbytery (i.e., the “ Succeeders” ) and the Reformed Presbytery (i.e., the “Covenanters”) in Scotland. A candidate is also expected to know (1) dates in the history of Scotland like 1733, (2) names like Ebenezer and Ralph Erskine, and John McMillan and Thomas Nairn, (3) places like Gairney Bridge, (4) ecclesio-political acts like the Patronage Act, and (5) theological debates like “the Free Offer of the Gospel.” But for what reason? Remember all that is mentioned is from Scottish history. And, since the ARPChurch was founded in 1822 in the USA, none of these people, dates, and events from 300 years ago in Scotland is significant in the identification and future of an American denomination called the ARPChurch in 2024. It seems the history of the ARPChurch in America has not been noteworthy, and its future is uncertain.

Over the years, I have wondered why Associate Reformed Presbyterians were obsessed with the history of Scotland and Scottish denominations. Is it an inferiority complex? Is it because there is so little of which to boast in America? Or, is it because they are still attempting to untangle the issues of 18th Century Scotland as if those issues were salient today? What does Scottish ecclesiastical history have to do with the present and future of the ARPChurch in the USA?

Many of the present ministers in the ARPChurch were educated at RTS-Charlotte. If the reader took a course or two from Frank Kik, do you remember an admonition that went something like this: the problem for some of you is you want to preach sermons about the gospel to Puritans who died 400 years ago!?

With heads buried in the sand, presbyteries fail to ask important questions like these to men being examined for ordination: (1) You are being called to a congregation of 92 members, a congregation which has a Sunday morning attendance of 41, and a congregation which hasn’t seen an adult profession of faith in recent memory: what are your plans to change the death trajectory of the congregation, and how are you going to implement your plans? (2) You are being called to a dying congregation: are your plans to collect a salary for as long as the congregation has money, read more theological volumes, and hope for a more prestigious call? (3) So, you want to attend seminary and become a minister, but you have never led someone to faith in Christ: what do you think a minister is called to do?

If one goes forward backwards, one will never see the present or find the future (and ARPs are expert at going forward backwards). If ministers attend presbytery and synod meetings and talk endlessly about the Great Commission, church planting, and church renewal, but nothing happens, then what is the problem? Has the gospel failed? Jesus promised to build His church no matter the obstacles (Matthew 16.18). Is Jesus unable to keep His promise to the ARPChurch? Did He lie to the ARPChurch?

What’s the problem? Is it because many pastors attempt to sanitize ministry in philosophical-theological inquiry rather than a purposed outreach of hard work that comes along side the non-Christian and leads him to Jesus? Is it because many pastors dream of recapitulating an 18th Century Scottish ministry model and repristinating Puritanism, and, therefore, they have become insensitive to and clueless about the challenges of 2024?

More pointed: is it because pastors become religious social worker-pastors rather than prophets of the gospel? What part do religious social work-pastors have with Jesus and His disciples, with the seventy disciples Jesus sent out (Luke 10), with Paul, Barnabas, and Silas, with Timothy and Titus, and with Peter, James, and John? Even more pointed: what part do our religious social worker-pastors have with the Erskine brothers, the Succeeders and Covenanters, and with the Puritans who were willing, in Jesus’ name, to work hard, undergo persecution, be rejected from congregations and lose livelihoods, and, yes, many were also willing to brave the stormy waters of the Atlantic Ocean in small, wooden ships in order to dream dreams of “a city on a hill” in a new land? These men brought bags full of souls to Jesus, while we bring broken buckets full of NO adult professions of faith to Jesus in 2023.

If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result is correct, are the ministers and elders in the ARPChurch insane? If “insane” is not the proper word, what is the proper word?

I think the 2023 Erskine College football season works as a metaphor for the ARPChurch in 2024. In 2023, the Erskine football team was 0-11. The season was so terrible, I suspect there was a discussion about changing the name of the team from The Flying Fleet to The Aeronautical Disasters. What is the answer to the problem? Well, one might begin with firing the coaches and hiring new coaches!

In Conclusion

For a group of people who speak much about the role of the Ten Commandments in the life of the believer, does years of discussions by ministers and elders at presbytery and synod meetings constitute a violation of the Third Commandment? Has the name of the God of the Bible been taken in vain with years of sermons, investigations, reports, and discussions about the imperative of the gospel and the Great Commission which have led to a declining denomination, shrinking congregations, and relatively few adult professions of faith? We sing “Onward Christian Soldiers,” and go nowhere. We sing “Christ Shall Have Dominion,” and, on our watch, we have led in the regress of Christ’s Dominion.

Some will say, “Don’t despise the day of a small beginning!” Well, I don’t! However, after 200 years, the ARPChurch is way beyond the day of beginnings. What I see is a day of no beginning.

Has Christ who cares for the lampstands of the church extinguished the flame of the ARPChurch (Revelation 1.12-20 and Matthew 5.14-16)? Is the condition of the ARPChurch in 2024 that of a flameless lampstand?

With a few remaining thoughts, I am

Charles W. Wilson