Recovering our Presbyterian Identity
One of the things that I have noticed in recent years has been lots of discussion (both on the internet, and through numerous books and articles) on two trends in American church culture: (1) The evangelical churches losing many of their young people to the secular world; and (2) Reformed and Presbyterian churches (like the OPC) losing many of their young people (and other congregants of various age groups) to either independent evangelical churches (often of a Baptistic, revivalistic or contemporary flavor), or (as with youth raised in evangelical churches) to the secular world. While there are obviously exceptions to these trends, I suspect that if we took an honest look at many of our congregations we would discover that in typical confessional Reformed and Presbyterian churches (like OPC churches) there are very few congregants of post-college age in their 20s and early-to-mid 30s on the membership rolls. Clearly we in the confessional Reformed and Presbyterian churches have not done a very good job at either attracting a younger generation of believers or of retaining the loyalty of our covenant youth (or even the long-term loyalty of older members, some of whom journey with us for a time but then decide to move on or return to independent and more broadly evangelical pastures where they perhaps feel more “at home”). What can we in the OPC do not only to attract new members, but also to retain a stable, loyal membership (especially among the younger generations)?
Probably the biggest challenge that confessional Reformed and Presbyterian churches like the OPC face in attracting and retaining a loyal membership (a membership which is committed to the church for the long haul) is the very cultural environment in which we live. Western culture in general and American culture in particular values independence and autonomy, and tends to emphasize subjective personal experience over external authorities (like the church) and objective forms (like the practice, liturgy and government of the church). In such an environment individual preferences and choices are more important than loyalty to communal and corporate structures and institutions (such as family, school, community and church). Individualism reigns, and thus corporate and covenantal loyalty to institutions like the church is in decline (indeed, has been in decline for years). This cultural environment of individualism and autonomy (combined with consumerism and the self-oriented emphasis on the therapeutic that pervades the American zeitgeist) is the very air we breathe, and we are blind if we think it has not impacted even our confessional Reformed churches. Of course, contemporary evangelical churches of an independent and revivalistic flavor tend to be more successful in attracting a larger membership than their confessionally Reformed counterparts, for the very reason that contemporary evangelicalism has tapped into the individualistic, subjective, therapeutic, experience-oriented spirit of the age, having inherited this spirit in large part from American revivalism. Yet even the contemporary evangelical “seeker sensitive” churches are losing their young people to fads like the “emerging/emergent church” and even to outright secularism. In such an environment, the objective, doctrinal, communal and “churchly” faith of Reformed and Presbyterian confessionalism is a very “hard sell”; which is all the more reason why we need to be concerned not only about evangelism and outreach to those outside of the Reformed faith (including outreach to generic evangelical believers as we seek to win them to the spiritual riches of Reformed faith and practice), but especially concerned about the retention of our covenant youth and of adult converts to the Faith.
So back to the question: What can we in the OPC do not only to attract new members, but also to retain a stable, loyal, committed membership (especially among the younger generations)? Regrettably, there is no simple answer to this question, especially since the Reformed Faith and Presbyterian practice not only must be taught (although these things certainly must be taught!); they must also be “caught“. And how is the Reformed Faith and Presbyterian practice “caught”? Ordinarily through consistent, long-term, active engagement with biblically-reformed theology, piety and practice, and in the context of the life, fellowship and membership of a confessionally reformed and presbyterian church. In other words, it’s not enough to win people merely to “the doctrines of grace” (i.e., the “five points of Calvinism”), as vital and important (and biblical!) as those doctrines are. Nor is it enough to demonstrate the errors of dispensationalism and make a sound biblical case for covenant theology (again, as important as covenant theology is to reformed faith and practice!). We must also seek to win them to a biblically reformed and presbyterian doctrine of the church and of worship. In other words, Reformed theology, practice and piety are meant to go together. We need to show our evangelical brethren, winsomely and in a spirit of humility, that a cafeteria approach to the Reformed Faith is neither consistent, nor biblical. It is not enough to adopt a Reformed or Calvinistic soteriology (i.e., “doctrine of salvation”), but ignore Reformed ecclesiology (i.e., the “doctrine of the church”) and Reformed liturgics (i.e., the practice of Reformed worship). (Believers who embrace a Calvinistic doctrine of salvation but who worship like charismatics, run their churches with a managerial, CEO style of leadership, and conduct their outreach in a man-centered, “seeker sensitive” form, send a very confusing message to their members, especially their youth; for their doctrine of salvation is contradicted rather than reinforced by their practice, piety and worship.) And we need to thoroughly catechize our covenant youth not only in the doctrines of our biblical Reformed and Presbyterian Faith. We also need to immerse them (though not in a Baptistic sense!) in the life and fellowship of the church, and we need to thoroughly instruct them in the history and heritage of the church (both of the historic Reformed and Presbyterian churches in general, and of denominational history in particular). The goal is to bring both adult converts and covenant youth to the point where being an Orthodox Presbyterian is embraced as part of their very identity (just as being a Christian is part of the very identity of a true believer in Christ; though obviously our identity as Orthodox Presbyterians is secondary to our identity as biblical Christians). But the problem here is that many of our Reformed and Presbyterian communions (including, to some extent, many OP churches) have lost some important “identity markers” that served to reinforce Presbyterian identity.
What are some of the “identity markers” of historic Presbyterian and Reformed churches? Such marks of Presbyterian identity included:
(1) The practice of family worship (with the husband and father in a family leading his family daily in Scripture reading, prayer, Psalm singing, and catechism instruction).
(2) A strict sabbath observance (with both morning and evening services and a course of instruction of covenant youth in the biblical truths of the catechism).
(3) Emphasis on catechism memorization (with Presbyterian youth memorizing the Westminster Shorter Catechism, and youth in confessional Reformed churches memorizing the Heidelberg Catechism).
(4) A high view of church membership (with removal from church membership and church discipline for unrepentant delinquency in doctrine or life being viewed by the church as a very serious thing).
(5) The congregational singing of Psalms (with many historic Reformed and Presbyterian churches practicing either exclusive or predominant psalmody). (Note: I myself am not an advocate of exclusive psalmody; though I believe our church would benefit greatly in recovering a confessional Presbyterian identity by eventually obtaining and using a good Psalter in addition to our use of the Trinity Hymnal.)
(6) A strong sense of denominational loyalty and working knowledge of the denomination’s history and heritage.
(7) A high view of the importance of church office and of church officers in the life of the church (Ministers of the Word, Ruling Elders and Deacons).
(8) An adherence to the regulative principle of worship.
(9) Affirmation of the five points of Calvinism (“doctrines of grace”).
(10) Affirmation of covenant theology (in opposition to dispensationalism).
Just as things like the Mass, the rosary (and rosary beads), statues of Mary, crucifixes, and parochial schooling are “identity markers” that serve to reinforce Catholic identity within the Roman Catholic communion; just as the presence of icons of saints in church buildings and in homes are “identity markers” which serve to reinforce Orthodox identity within the Eastern Orthodox communion; just as things like the altar call, the “sinner’s prayer” and special revival services featuring a celebrity evangelist are “identity markers” that serve to reinforce identification with revivalistic forms of Christianity; so things like the above ten “identity markers” have historically served to underscore and reinforce Presbyterian and/or Reformed identity within historic Presbyterian and Reformed churches.
Of these ten “identity markers” of historic, confessional Reformed and Presbyterian Churches, how many are strongly held to today in your typical Orthodox Presbyterian or otherwise confessionally Reformed congregation? I suspect that # 9 and 10 (and maybe also # 1) are still pretty strong in our churches. But I would guess that the other identity markers range from relatively to very weak. Is it any wonder that we are doing such a poor job of retaining converts and covenant youth, when we have not instilled into them a sense of Presbyterian identity?
If we wish to retain our members, we must recover and embrace our biblically and historically Presbyterian identity. I would argue that one of the keys to recovering our Presbyterian identity is to recover the historic marks of Presbyterian identity. This might take time, as reformation in the church is often a gradual process. But by the grace of God let us strive to recover the “old paths” from which we have strayed. As we do, perhaps our Lord will bless us with further growth from the outside, and greater success in retaining our membership from within.
Recovering the Reformed Confession: Our Theology, Piety and Practice by R. Scott Clark (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P & R Publishing, 2008)