A Reflective Journey
Theodore J. Georgian
The approaching sixtieth anniversary of our church startled me when I realized that I've lived through nearly fifty of those years, having begun preaching in my first charge in the fall of 1948. What follows are my selective observations on church life, with special focus on the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. In making them, I entertain no delusions of having superior wisdom, unique experiences, or timeless insights.
First, let me tell you what this church means to me. After wandering in an ecclesiastical wasteland, I found my spiritual home in the OPC, and I thank the Lord for our church. It is here that my wife and I nurtured our children, who, by God's mercy, are now serving him, two in the OPC and one in the PCA.
As more than one church father has taught, the church is our mother. I thank God for our church's commitment to our sovereign Redeemer and to Reformed orthodoxy, for which she enjoys something of worldwide renown. I am aware of her warts and failures; in recent years, I have been concerned about the views of some on certain theological and ethical issues. But through all her ups and downs, the OPC, by God's grace, has been steadfast in proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The Doctrine of the Church
This is a neglected subject among evangelicals. Even Reformed seminary curricula and pulpits give short shrift to it, and solid books on the subject are in short supply. Two welcome books on the church come from J. A. Heyns (1980) and E. P. Clowney (1995). Most evangelicals today hold an appallingly low view of the church, the covenant community of God's people, preferring an individualistic approach to God and salvation.
The Congregational Cambridge Platform (1648) speaks of a church covenant as a "Voluntary Agreement, Consent or Covenant," defined as a mutual covenant between church members, with the emphasis on a man-to-man compact rather than on God's covenant with his people. (The Rev. Raymond E. Commeret first drew my attention to this.) This idea of the church as a voluntary, consensual society has been bought, by and large, by evangelicalism. Church affiliation is, for many Christians, a matter of "have membership certificate in hip pocket, will travel," resulting in membership transfers best described as cavalier.
Some of my colleagues take too seriously the statement in our Directory for Worship, "The office of the minister is the first in the church for dignity and usefulness," thinking that it endorses the minister/pastor as the authority in the church. What they forget is the principle of parity of elders. Our Form of Government states that the pastor "joins with the ruling elders in governing the congregation" (chap. 8, emphasis added). The following scenario is fairly typical:
A pastor insists that the session get off dead center and forthwith discipline a church member, or he pushes a program that's the greatest thing since Calvin's Geneva. The session demurs, leaving him frustrated and even angry. He expects "my session" (many pastors do speak that way) to rubber-stamp his agenda. As a result, pastor and session become adversaries. Pastors are accountable to their elders, who "have particular concern for the doctrine and conduct of the minister of the Word and help him in his labors" (Form of Government, 10.3).
Another session consists of strong-minded men who are highly successful in their careers and who don't mind throwing their weight around. They, too, forget about the parity of elders, and may show little respect for their pastor, making life miserable for him. Neither pastor nor session should run roughshod over the other.
In one of my pastorates, I was blessed with a session of strong-minded men of diverse personalities and gifts. How much I enjoyed the stimulating give-and-take of session meetings! We exchanged views freely in mutual love and respect, accepted decisions as votes were taken, and continued our work together. I looked forward to session meetings. Honest!
This is a delicate subject. Ministers tend to peg their own preaching at the ninety-seventh percentile! Since I've been in the church, we've lamented the dearth of great preaching. Yet, with a few notable exceptions, the results seem to be the same. How does one preach memorably?
Preachers do well to ask themselves, "Does this sermon address the question, 'So what?' " Chip Stonehouse has recommended listening to great black preachers, to learn effective communication. Years ago, Paul Woolley urged preachers to be interesting in what they have to say. An adage warns that it's a sin to bore children, which agrees with R. B. Kuiper's advice to gear sermons to the twelve-year-old mind. (In light of Mark Noll's The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, should that be adjusted to the ten-year-old mind?) Some years ago, in a conversation with friends, Allen Curry recommended the telling of stories to make sermons memorable. He was not advocating the stringing together of stories unrelated to the text or topic. Much of our Lord's teaching took the form of storytelling. Preaching is, of course, a vast area of inquiry.
The Supreme Mystery
The older I get, the more powerfully I'm impressed by the utter mystery of who God is and how he works among men. It has given what piety I possess a greater depth. The Trinity and the Incarnation are two great mysteries of the faith, but there are others.
God's providence is shrouded in mystery. We borrow trouble when we try to penetrate it, instead of letting God be God. A particularly knotty problem is posed by the existence of evil.
God's grace in salvation is mysterious; it is both simple and profound. And after we have come to Christ, God's grace drives all that we do; yet it is we who do the living. Or do we? Scripture teaches that God works in us to will and to do for his good pleasure and glory. A healthy incentive to humility is to acknowledge God's grace in our life and work.
Prayer is a mysterious undertaking. It is we who pray, yet it is the Lord who moves us to pray. Prayer weds the simplicity of children approaching their father to the sublimity of finite creatures approaching the throne of the King of the universe. We're bound to bow in reverence before him, yet this mysterious God embraces and delights in his children, redeems us in his Son, and guides us by his Spirit. Hallelujah!
Talk about rushing in where angels fear to tread! Worship is man's supreme calling. The church's supreme activity is God-centered worship. That being so, do our words and music in worship boil down to a question of taste? Now there's a scary thought!
First we must ask, "What creates and molds taste?" If it is popular culture, may the church cater to taste so molded? We read thoughtful books by David F. Wells, Kenneth A. Myers, and others, who plead that the church not give in to popular culture, but rather influence it, "taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ" (2 Cor. 10:5 NASB). If that is true overall, should popular culture dictate and dominate public worship? Paul's principle of being all things to all men does not mean marketing the church as a seeker-friendly church.
Is the church in danger of neglecting, and losing, the rich heritage of Christian hymnody going back to the earliest Christian centuriesto say nothing of the Psalter? Has the overhead become the church's new worship center? Are so-called praise and Scripture songs here to stay, or are they merely a fad?
Let me tell you a story. A few years ago at family devotions, our son asked his children what they wanted to sing. Now, I'm not easily surprised, but I was "blown away" when Holy, Holy, Holy was requested. I thought, "Are these kids weird?" Do some of us know what we're talking about in assuming that the unchurchedand the churchedcannot appreciate the church's hymns? Do praise songs bring us closer to God than hymns? (Yes, my grandchildren also sing children's songs and some praise songs.)
I react most against what I hear as mantras in praise songs: repetitious singing of words like Jesus and Hallelujah. (I'm familiar with the argument that the Hallelujah Chorus has such repetition. But the critical difference is the musicbetween majestic, quality music and sinuous melodies that leave worshipers swaying and glassy-eyed.) We must worship God with our emotions; we must also worship with our minds. Why can't a laid-back Ted Georgian offer worship to the Lord with deep gratitude and joy, without holy dancing, holy laughing, holy shouting, or holy applauding a performance?
On Being Spoon-fed
How did our grandparents and parents survive their marriages without a raft of books and seminars on marriage? (I'm in the market for a book pegged to couples in their early seventies.) How did we and our parents raise our children without a spate of books and videos on rearing children? An antidote to much of such blather is Wendy Kaminer's I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional, a brilliant, witty, and devastating assault on the likes of the recovery movement, codependency, positive thinking, etc.
Where do I stand? I'm in denial. By the way, can someone help me find a Life Application Inductive Study Bible for Retired Pastors? After all, there's one for just about everyone else. I'll forswear comment on how the Tenth Commandment bears on such enterprises. Let me assure you that I don't intend to wage a vendetta against biblical counseling. But do we still believe that the Lord in his wisdom has ordained "the outward and ordinary means" (Shorter Catechism, Q. 88) through his church's ministry, to bring us to glory? And whatever happened to common sense informed by the grace of God?
As we approach a new millennium, let us be neither apologetic nor chauvinistic about our heritage. As a Reformed church, we must be ever reforming, for complacency and pride ill behoove us. Let us remember that we don't have a corner on the truth.
I believe that the Lord has carved out for us a significant niche in which to serve him in a broken and needy world. May the Lord grant us the vision and the will to do so.
Mr. Georgian is a retired OP pastor. He served churches in Trenton, N.J., Rochester, N.Y., and Williamsport, Pa. Reprinted from New Horizons, June 1996.