Embers to a Flame Conference: Presbyterian Church Growth

 

I've just returned from the Embers to a Flame conference in Northern Ireland (11 – 12th Feb 2015).

It was a fascinating and enriching experience in many ways. Enriching because of the fellowship (I went with a group of  Free Church of Scotland Ministers/Elders);  enriching, because of the Irish hospitality — we were looked after incredibly well by a Church of Ireland Minister and his wife, who allowed us to stay in a vacant manse, hired a car for us, chauffeured us back and forth; and took us to a great wee cafe for an Ulster Fry Up. Further it was enriching because of the ministry of Lynn Downing and Harry Reeder — Harry's passion for the gospel and church renewal was inspiring and Lynn's careful and considerate teaching on issues like prayer, repentance, intercession and communion with God was transformative — I certainly took a lot away from those sessions.

The conference was also fascinating, here we were as a group of mostly Scottish guys, all working in a Scottish reformed presbyterian context, in a reformed presbyterian conference in Northern Ireland, listening to reformed presbyterians from Southern USA.

Cultural Differences

I was struck by the difference between American presbyterianism and Scottish presbyterianism, in particular three differences stood out. 1) American presbyterians are far more confident and bold in declaring their reformed and calvinistic doctrines. They are not shy about subjects such as election and predestination. Scottish presbyterians, probably due to living in a predominatly arminian context, seem to be more reserved about these issues and whenever they do talk about them, they are always wrapped in disclaimers. 2) American Presbyterians are unashamedly, well . . .Presbyterian. They seem to have a strong Presbyterian identity — they are proud of it, in a good way. By this, I mean they speak about it and refer to themselves as presbyterian, a lot. 3) American presbyterians have a great balance between the need for right doctrine and the need for spiritual experience. They talk about the Holy Spirit, not just in an abstract way, but in an experiential way. Perhaps I was hearing echoes of Edwards in the conference, I don't know, but I do know they really pushed the importance of knowing God's presence, feeling God's presence and developing genuine intimacy with God — this was refreshing.

Church Revitalisation

The conference was crammed with content, I may blog in more detail at a later date, but I decided early on in the conference to try to identify the most essential areas for my own ministry situation in Bracadale. What do I think are the areas which need to become a priority for church revitalisation (in addition to the regular worship activities of the church)? Quite simply there needs to be a focus on prayer, developing discipleship for men (which in turn should evolve into developing leaders) and developing long-term vision. By God's grace, and God willing, I hope to focus on these three areas in the remaining time I have at Bracadale.

Personal Revitalisation

Of course, revitilisation is not a method, it must begin with individuals. Lynn Downing's sessions, while not as exuberant  as Harry Reeder's, were for me, the most beneficial in terms of personal spiritual development. His sessions on prayer, communion with God, and repentance were powerful. My priority? To make room for "Unhurried time" in God's presence.

A few surprises

There were also a few surprises at the conference. Overall, I was surprised to see the presence of church growth methodologies and also teaching, which I recognise from my time in the charismatic movement, which emphasises "body ministry". They even used the phrase. I was really surprised to see Eph 4 taught in a way that highlighted that that leadership exists to "equip the saints for works of ministry". And the application was clear, every member is a minister, and every member is a missionary. This was encouraging because there is a lot of truth in this, although care is needed in how it is applied.

Having said that, and I won't dwell on this too much in this post, I am interested to see how the emphasis on church growth methods (vision statements, mission statements, church departments etc.), coupled with "body ministry" works out in the long-term for presbyterianism.

Certainly within wider evangelicalism, the church growth movement has ultimately led to weak theology and shallow practice. I have to be honest, 'Embers to a Flame' is the most healthy presentation on church growth I have ever listened to. It was rooted in a solid gospel-centred, reformed and presbyterian theology. However, having said that, I do wonder if the fusion of church growth methods,  the concept of "body ministry" and the traditional Presbyterian church government, will ultimately have a negative impact upon Presbyterian, theology, government and practice.

Why do I say that? Take a look at the following section of the Embers to a Flame presentation.

Let me explain the notes. Firstly,  the traditional three "roles" Pastor, elder, and deacon, have each been attributed certain characteristics. Secondly each role has been assigned an Old Testament equivalent, the pastor is prophet, the deacon is priest, and the elder is king.

I'm not convinced about this. I'm not sure it is biblical, I'm not convinced the break down of the "job descriptions" are right, and I'm pretty sure it is counter-presbyterian. In many ways, I think the problems of the church growth movement are still at work, even in a solid reformed presbyterian context. Why do I say that?

Many writers have observed that the church growth movement has led to the substitution of the pastor, with the CEO. In other words, when the pastor becomes a growth specialist, he ceases to be a shepherd. It is interesting that the above notes, actually assigns "shepherd the flock" to the elders and "vision initiator" to the pastor. This is problematic since by definition a pastor is a shepherd, and further he is a fellow elder. Therefore there are two issues here, one the pastor is ceasing to be a shepherd, and a wedge is being driven between the pastor as a pastor, and the pastor as a fellow elder. You could also argue that there is a loss of the concept of ruling elders and teaching elders. In traditional presbyterianism, the ruling elders rule, and the teaching elder (pastor) teaches. To make the teaching pastor a visionary, is to create a hierarchy with the pastor ruling the other elders. This hierarchy can be seen in the notes which followed the notes above.

 

Having been in the charismatic movement for many years, I recognise both of the models above, they are both standard charismatic/contemporary church models of leadership. While they are contemporary, I would argue that they are not biblical. The church should be governed by a plurality of elders (presbytery), whereas the above model creates a situation where you have a principal leader at the top (visionary) and leaders under him (basically middle-management).

This was reinforced by another diagram.

What do we have at the heart of this approach? A leader at the top.

No doubt this approach is effective for mega churches. They would not work without it. However, I'm not sure this approach will be helpful to presbyterianism in the long run. Ironically, America is seeing an exodus from mega churches, many Christians have become sick of the consumerist approach, and many are abandoning the mega church for "simple church". I myself have been attracted to presbyterianism because it operates on a more historic and biblical basis, in contrast to the contemporary CEO model. It would be a tragic scenario if presbyterians abandoned their rich, biblical and godly heritage for a more contemporary and pragmatic model.  

Conclusion

I really enjoyed the conference, I was blessed by the ministry, fellowship and hospitality. I have taken away key things to help with my own ministry situation, and I have taken away key things for my own spiritual development. I was deeply encouraged by the ministry of Harry and Lynn, although I remain skeptical about the long-term implications of integrating church growth methods and ideology with presbyterian church government.