We’ve all been there – away from home on the weekend, and there’s no NAPARC congregation within a reasonable driving distance. What can you do, other than make the best of the situation? In recent months, I was in a similar circumstance and took the opportunity to attend a church whose credentials in its region are unrivaled. It’s large, influential, and considered a model of orthodoxy. It was formerly pastored by one of the great Reformed-Evangelicals of the 20th century, and this very fact is enough to reassure me that I will at least participate in a rich liturgy, if not also hear a faithful sermon.
The building’s architecture is gorgeous. Its vaulted ceilings remind us that we encounter a transcendent God in worship. But its simplicity and layout draw our eyes to the source of our covenant dialogue – the pulpit, upon which rests God’s holy word and behind which stands God’s minister. Wait. Where’s the pulpit? That’s a stage and a lectern. And where’s the minister? That’s a choir director, and she’s telling us about her recent religious experience, which is advertised as being our call to worship. We sing a handful of songs, which are quite difficult for us non-choir and non-band members to sing. They’re broken-up by some verses that this choir director has experienced as personal favorites.
Then, the choir director turns over the stage to a “member of staff”, who is prepared to deliver the sermon – still no sighting of a minister or elder. Before reading Scripture and preaching talking, she prays that God would “use the Bible and sermon to speak”, as if God isn’t objectively speaking in the reading and preaching of Scripture – Karl Barth would be so proud. The text that’s read has no relation to the gimmicks and tips she offers us in the sermon talk. Apparently, Christ’s work in me is my hope. And, as if the service isn’t Anabaptistic enough, we now have healing stations, so we can have our own personal experience with an elder for all to see. I was getting tired of hearing about the personal experiences of others, but this is no remedy! I’ll just have mine from a distance, thanks.
Finally, we have a Geneva-gown sighting! It’s time for the Supper, but he gives no instruction or warnings, except that we should consume the elements when we’re personally led to do so. I’m personally led not to do so, to the confusion of the elder that’s offering me the trays. At the conclusion of the post-Supper prayer, I open my eyes a second too soon and catch the minister with his hands raised. I want to yell, “Right posture, wrong time!” but I refrain. The benediction closing words are more law. What a Lord’s Day.
Being a young minister, what can I learn from this? And what could another officer or Reformed Christian learn? One lesson is, certainly, the importance of being confessional for the long-term vitality of a church. This can be promoted by any Christian, whether an officer or not. The minister that served this church a few decades ago certainly was confessional, but he never succeeded in molding this church as such. (I suspect he tried.) Though his ministry is viewed as a great success by the watching world, the course of time suggests otherwise. When his successors stepped behind his pulpit (and eventually disposed of it), the congregation recognized them as similarly-gifted orators but, without the confessions, couldn’t see the underlying difference in their doctrine. Over time, the temperature rose, and this frog cooked. The church embraced his personal legacy instead of a confessional legacy (again, it’s probably not his fault.) After just one generation, the doctrine that thundered forth from his pulpit appears to be as absent from that church and its worship as the pulpit itself. The children that he baptized, if they’re still in the church, now hear a different version of Christianity. Those he catechized to make public profession, who are now in their riper years, lack the liturgy and doctrine that are fit to bolster them during death’s travails. When the church celebrates the minister instead of the confession he administers, the flock that is gathered, large and healthy as it may appear, is in danger of being led from Geneva to Schleitheim, in only a single generation.