I’m old now, and I’m too old to do much but sit in my rocking chair and rock in my living room with my dog beside me, look out our picture window at the world, observe the curious goings-on, scratch my gray and balding head, and I wonder in amazement. One of the things I wonder about is this: WHY DOES THE ASSOCIATE REFORMED PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH CONTINUE HER SLOW AND STEADY MARCH TO THE GRAVE?
PAROCHIALISM AND XENOPHOBIA CONTINUE
I have now been in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church for so long that most people think I am an hereditary- Associate Reformed Presbyterian. I was ordained by Second Presbytery at the White Oak Presbyterian Church, Moreland/ Senoia, Georgia, on Sunday evening, May 30, 1976, 46 years ago.
In 1972, 50 years ago, when my wife and I joined the Covenant Presbyterian Church (Associate Reformed Synod) in Winter Haven, Florida, I learned I was “second-class.” I was told I wasn’t a real Associate Reformed Presbyterian; rather, I was a “Bapto-ARP.” Now, I wasn’t offended; I was amused. It took me a while to understand what was being said. What was being said was I didn’t have the right family name and, therefore, the right kinships. What was being said was I did not grown-up attending youth conferences at Bonclarken, and, moreover, I did not attend Erskine College or marry a proper Associate Reformed Presbyterian girl (that is, a cousin), who attended conferences at Bonclarken and graduated from Erskine College. As time passed, I learned what was said was the manifestation of a sense of superiority used to cover the fear these detractors might be wrong in their estimation of themselves and the superiority of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. What I found was this: most of the detractors had no idea what being an Associate Reformed Presbyterian meant. The only thing they really knew about the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church was their local congregation, and, in their provincial bubble, they thought all Associate Reformed Presbyterian congregations were just like their congregation. They had no idea that other congregations were different (and, sometimes, drastically different). This is called prideful parochialism and self-induced ignorance which always gives birth to the kind of pride God hates. And, hating this pride, God withdraws blessing, sends judgment, and withering.
Obviously, I haven’t given up on the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. I haven’t left or died. Usually, if Rob Roy McGregor doesn’t show up, I’m the oldest minister attending meetings of Second Presbytery. In vain, I have prayed, worked, and waited for a new awakening and revival in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. Alas! the parochialism which met me in 1972 has not dissipated; rather, it has reappeared as an odd form of xenophobia.
Most of us, in the small presbyterian world in which we live, are aware of the unrest which is pervasive in evangelical presbyterianism today. Particularly, the Presbyterian Church in America is rocked by contentious and continuing debates over Critical Race Theory and Revoice (the hideous idea of the Christianization of homosexuality as normative). I suppose most of us who are ministers have had more than one conversation with a pastor or other leader of a congregation in the Presbyterian Church in America who is distressed over the direction of their General Assembly. A few have moved to the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. Others say they are contemplating a move — perhaps to the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church.
One would think our leaders in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church would be jumping up and down with joy at such a prospect. Not so! When I have spoken with leaders, they are xenophobic and terrified by the idea of too many PCAers transferring into the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. Once again, I am met with the tired ideas of “they are not like us, and they don’t know how to be Associate Reformed Presbyterians.” They add: “they might change us, and we would lose our identity” (as though we had an identity worth losing!). What is really meant is this: “in the little Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church our positions are not challenged.”
In a parochial and xenophobic bubble, they are unable to say, “Here is a grand opportunity for change! Here is an opportunity to welcome conservative, evangelical brothers who attended classes with us at Reformed Theological Seminary! Here is the opportunity to gather new congregations which may be able to strengthen some of our old and moribund congregations! Here is the opportunity to embrace brothers who have been more successful than we have been, and perhaps the old-dogs of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church can learn new tricks! Is it possible we have a new opportunity for life? By God's grace, is this an opportunity to retard our slow march to the grave?” Yes, it is!! But, mark my word, in fear of change and in the comfort of our parochial and xenophobic bubble, we will miss the opportunity!
What I hear from friends is fear! What I hear is this mantra: “Chuck, they ain’t like us!” Dear God, I hope not! We don’t need more like us! We need those who savor of life and not death!
Having been a minister in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church for 46 years, I have seen a lot. I have prayed and worked for growth. I have prayed and worked for a new awakening and revival. Though disappointed, I’m still praying, but I fear God’s hand of blessing has been removed from the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church for a good long time. I fear all that is left for us is “a certain fearful expectation of judgment,” for I fear our lampstand is no longer trimmed by the High Priest who is called “the First and the Last.”
May God grant I am wrong in my assessments!
A LOOK AT THE 2021 STATISTICAL REPORT
I said above, it pains me the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church is dying. Recently, while rocking and wondering about the imponderables of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, I turned to pages 182 through 215 in the 2021 Minutes of General Synod: that is, the “Statistical Report.” Once again, the totals are fouled up by whomever does the recording (but not as badly as some years). Thankfully, I have a calculator. Oddly, the reports of 34 congregations are flagged as reports from past years (with congregational statistics for these congregations going back as far as 2011 and 2012). Why are they included? They skew the totals. However, once the irrelevant totals are removed and recording errors are eliminated, it is clear we are dying. In any direction one looks, we are declining. Even though our giving is up, it’s not something about which we want to brag. Our giving reflects our dilemma: seniors have more disposable monies to give than young people starting out and young couples with small children. Obviously, seniors like myself are not long for this world. Then, what?
Our demographic is old. I have an acquaintance in the PCUSA who takes pleasure in irritating me by reminding me that the median age of 63 in the PCUSA is younger than our median age. He likes to say, “You’re closer to 70 than we are!” Well, neither one of us has room for chest-beating.
I can’t argue with my PCUSA nemesis. I have visited many congregations in Second Presbytery, Catawba Presbytery, and First Presbytery. Indeed, old we are! In many of our congregations, I have observed an odd phenomenon: congregations with a large percentage of seniors and a large percentage of young couples with infants, but with few congregants/attendees in the middle. In Second Presbytery, this creates an interesting challenge. Most of our congregations do not have Junior High students and/or Senior High students to attend the youth camps at Bonclarken or elsewhere. This means we have little reason for a presbytery program in Christian Education. This also means, unless the old people in our congregations (who, out of a good habit) want a Bible study on Sunday morning, Sundays Schools are not necessary.
Having been a church planter and revitalizer, who labored to plant congregations in Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina, I am disappointed by the slow pace of church planting I see in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. I know the Covid pandemic has been a hinderance. However, even during this time of Covid, Second Presbytery is blessed with what appears to be two successful church plants (one in Greenville and one in Savannah). However, we can’t do much crowing over our church planting successes, for we have also closed four congregations. Our success rate is minus two (-2).
Now, we can’t blame Covid for our failure; we weren’t doing much before Covid.
While watching the confirmation hearings for Judge Jackson, I was shocked when Sen. Blackburn asked Judge Jackson to define “woman,” and she wasn’t able to or would not define “woman,” saying, “I’m not a biologist.” Good grief! That is dodging! Why didn’t she say, “If a person thinks he or she is a woman, then he or she is a woman regardless as to what the person is sexually.” But such clarity and forthrightness is rare in the political world nowadays, isn’t it? And, yes, it is also rare in the church.
With regard to the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church and our descent into oblivion, I wonder if our ministers (board executives and lay members of our boards) were asked to define the word “minister,” how would they answer?
I have come to the place where I think “ministry” is a nonsense word. The word “ministry” has become a religious catchall for something someone wants to do in Jesus’ name somewhere. It may mean to pastor a congregation. However, there are other less specific usages: for example, it may mean to teach something somewhere; it may mean to travel to a foreign country and have spiritual conversations with someone while playing chess in a coffeehouse; it may mean to coach football; it may mean to take acting classes; it may mean to run a soup kitchen; it may mean to head a denominational agency and bean count; it may mean to be a professional beggar (usually, called “fundraiser”); and it may mean to become a professional counselor. Well, I’m sure I have forgotten something, but these are some of the ways we twist the word “ministry.”
We have trivialized and bastardized the word “ministry” to the point we have made the word meaningless in the nomenclature of the church.
A quick glance at the New Testament (particularly, in Acts and in Paul’s writings) “ministry” is associated with preaching, planting local congregations, and caring for local congregations. If I’m not mistaken, in our Reformed tradition, the word “ministry” is usually identified with and used specifically with the preaching of the Word of God written and the right use of the sacraments (sometimes referred to as “the ordinary means of grace”).
In contrast, our sense of “ordination to the ministry” is not much better than a certificate sold for $50 by the United Seminary of the Divine Presence of the Church of the Universal Mystic Light of Morphetic Preaching and Apodeictic Uncertainty.
And we wonder why our efforts in promoting the cause and the name of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church turn to dust! Jesus didn’t promise to bless our level of dumbness and drivel.
Well, some of you are saying, “Chuck is being mean again!” Okay, how do you explain that the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church is little more than a casket being lowered into a grave at three o’clock in the afternoon at the Cemetery of God-forsaken Churches? Is it because so many of us are working our tails off in planting new congregations or revitalizing and growing existing congregations?
I have two questions:
- “Don’t you love the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church?” and
- “What are you doing to move the chain down the field for the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church?” I’m all ears!
By the way, if you’re a pastor, and the name of your congregation is in the “Statistical Report of 2021,” you’re probably not doing much to move the chain down the field for the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. This is the clear, unavoidable, and unsettling conclusion drawn from an analysis of the “Statistical Report.” Indeed, if the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church is floundering, it is probably because of the failure of our pastors who have no idea what ministry means, but they are fond of making long gratuitous speeches about ministry.
One of the reasons we see failure and ineptitude among our pastors is because we have set such a low bar for them. In many cases, our expectations for men entering the ordained ministry are so low a three-legged dog with two crippled back legs could jump over the bar. Oftentimes, even after a terrible examination, we say, “That’s good enough for ecclesiastical work!”
In 1977, I attended a meeting of Second Presbytery where the presbytery “licensed to preach” a Union Seminary grad who denied the doctrine of hell, was a universalist, rejected the Nicene-Constantinopolitan formalization of the Trinity as “too complicated for people to understand today,” and rejected the authority of Scripture, saying the Word of God was found as one was led by the Holy Spirit to find it under, over, and beside the words of the text of the Bible.” That day, I even overhead a conversation of a former Erskine Theological Seminary professor who said it was about time for Second Presbytery to have more liberal candidates. Thankfully, a few months later the candidate left the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church and joined his wife as co-pastors in a PCUS congregation near Anderson, SC.
Of course, this is an extreme example; nevertheless, that is where we were. Thankfully, a great deal has changed. Today, we are more theologically precise. We have raised the bar against overt liberalism; however, not too high for evangelical incompetence. In the near past, we have licensed men who stumbled in parsing the differences between justification and sanctification, transferred in a man who had no idea who Arius was or what Arianism is, and licensed a man who did not know the proper pronoun for the Holy Spirit is “He.”
I would like to say the situations I have enumerated are isolated to Second Presbytery. However, as I have spoken with brothers in other presbyteries, these problems are not isolated to Second Presbytery.
In dealing with dying congregations, one of the things I have found true about all of them is this: when they speak of growth, they don’t mean change; rather, what they want is an infusion of people just like they are so they don’t die. They are unable or unwilling to grasp the idea that growth cannot come without change.
Now, anyone who knows me is aware I’m not advocating theological change. However, the ethos of who we are is not inviolate.
Let me close with a question: have we become so enamored with the sound of the music of our funeral dirge we can’t remove ourselves from our parade of death? Very few of our congregations can be accused of being incubators of life!
These are my thoughts,
Charles W. Wilson