Saving the PCA

Sensing a great deal of unrest on several fronts in the PCA; is there a remedy?

The older men want a return to what they perceive as a conscious commitment and allegiance to our doctrinal standards. This includes adherence to six day creation, complementarianism, traditional Reformed and Presbyterian worship using the great old hymns of the faith, expository preaching, and intentional one on one evangelism and discipleship. The younger men, on the other hand, seem not to value these practices, preferring instead, as they have “exegeted the culture,” a way of doing ministry they believe better resonates with younger people.

 

Brethren, join in following my example, and observe those who walk according to the pattern that you have in us (Philippians 3:17).

In my travels around the PCA I am finding a great deal of unrest on several fronts. People are deeply concerned, fearing that the denomination that so many sweat blood to build is now going the way of all flesh. Their concerns include the ordination of women, theistic evolution, Anglican worship, abandonment of Reformed worship, hyper-grace, the absence of intentional evangelism, licentiousness in eating, drinking, and using foul language, prayerlessness, formalism, lethargy, worldliness, event driven ministry, and disingenuousness concerning subscription to the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Book of Church Order.

I believe most, if not all the Teaching and Ruling Elders in the PCA, genuinely desire to reach people with the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ and to see them built up to maturity within the church. However, it seems to me that serious division exists.

Here’s a broad generalization which I am sure is not all together accurate, but which, nonetheless, I wish to make-older men, say over fifty, desire the old days, and younger men want change. The older men long for the days of Jim Baird, Kennedy Smartt, Frank Barker, James Kennedy, Don Patterson, John Oliver, et. al., who were/are zealous for bold, expository, Spirit anointed preaching, discipleship, evangelism, world missions, and traditional Reformed and Presbyterian worship. The young men, while respecting and honoring the old guard, believe the new wine demands new wineskins.

Consequently, the older men want a return to what they perceive as a conscious commitment and allegiance to our doctrinal standards. This includes adherence to six day creation, complementarianism, traditional Reformed and Presbyterian worship using the great old hymns of the faith, expository preaching, and intentional one on one evangelism and discipleship. The younger men, on the other hand, seem not to value these practices, preferring instead, as they have “exegeted the culture,” a way of doing ministry they believe better resonates with younger people. So music, dress, preaching style, methodology of evangelism and discipleship have changed to relate, as they see it, more effectively with the dominant culture of their communities. And predictably (look at any period of historical theology and we find the same phenomenon) the ecclesiastical and theological pendulum is swinging wildly from one side to the other.

What is the remedy? What is needed to save the PCA from splintering due to real or perceived accommodation to the culture? I don’t think it is that complicated. We older men need to take seriously the admonition of the Apostle Paul to the beloved saints at Philippi. He told them to look at him and to follow his example. He also told them to look around and find other men who held the same values and emulate them, too.

A cursory look at Paul’s ministry is astounding, is it not? Here was a man filled with the Spirit, courageous, bold, zealous, intentional, and sacrificial. So here’s what I am after- older men, if you don’t like what you are seeing, then do something about it.

This exhortation assumes at least two principles. First is the fullness of the Spirit. Are you renewed and walking in the Spirit? Dead orthodoxy, as good and right as that orthodoxy is, is still dead. It will not promote life. Could it be that younger men have not seen our willingness to invest time and prayer in them? Where are they getting their “stuff?” To whom are they looking for inspiration and mentoring? Maybe they are looking in the wrong places. Is it possible that while they see theological integrity in us they also fail to see power, fruitfulness, spiritual discipline, holiness, humility, or servanthood?

Second, we need to live out what we say we believe. Ours is a rich heritage of New Side, Old School Presbyterianism which embraced wholeheartedly the Westminster Confession of Faith while at the same time living out a “religion in shoes.”

James Alexander Bryan was such a man. Known by everyone in Birmingham, Ala., as Brother Bryan, he was born in Kingstree, SC, March 20, 1863, in the middle of the War Between the States. His family suffered severely from the war and Reconstruction, but God graciously supplied for his education at the University of North Carolina and later at Princeton Theological Seminary, where he studied under some of the great men of the nineteenth century – William H. Green, Casper Wistar Hodge, Francis Patton, B.B. Warfield, and John D. Davis.

Brother Bryan went to Third Presbyterian Church in downtown Birmingham in June, 1889 and served there until his death in 1941. While fully subscribing to the Westminster Confession of Faith, including a strict Lord’s Day observance, morning and evening family worship, and teaching the children of the church the Shorter Catechism, Brother Bryan was a man of profound faith, prayer, evangelistic zeal, and tireless service to rich and poor, black and white. By 1926, thirty-six years into his ministry (he still had another fifteen years to go) the Birmingham Post-Herald newspaper wrote that Bryan had officiated at 4,589 weddings and 7,926 funerals, preached 49,120 times (that’s nearly four times daily), and led 7,627 people to faith in Christ (one every two days).[1] On his death bed, his son heard him whisper, “Too many people.” His son thought Bryan was referring to too many people in the room, that perhaps he wanted them to leave, to which Brother Bryan said, “No, too many people without Christ.” By the way, all six of his children loved Jesus and served Him faithfully.

This is the heritage of the PCA. This is New Side, Old School Presbyterianism at its best.[2]

Here’s my challenge to you older men who are grieved by what you see in our beloved denomination, or in whatever denomination of which you are a part – live out your faith, make yours a religion in shoes. Get out to the streets, be intentional in evangelism, walk in the Spirit, seek the Spirit’s power and fullness daily, live by faith, be earnest in prayer and take young men with you. Find two or three young men (Ruling Elders, this includes you, too) for whom you will pray regularly and invest your life in them. Bill Iverson in Newark, NJ is such a man. I remember preaching at a gathering a few years ago in Newark with some fifty pastors, most of whom were African-American or Hispanic, and almost to a man, they said Bill had led them to Christ many years before, had discipled them, and encouraged and trained them for ministry.

The “old” ways of doing ministry, contrary to what many are saying, still work. People are no different today than at any other time. All men without Christ are blind rebels on their way to perdition. Only Jesus can save them. You know that. Renew daily your walk with Jesus, going deeply with Him, falling more and more in love with Jesus. Get out of your comfort zone. Venture to the streets. Find a fishing hole and go fishing for souls every week. Pray without ceasing. Ask God to direct your steps that very day. Serve people. Love people. Expect God to do something, today!

I wonder if our problems, noted above, come from a lack of trust in the authority of Scripture, doubting the sufficiency of Christ, not believing in the immediacy of the Spirit or the efficacy of prayer. I wonder if cowardice and worldliness have crept in and blunted our zeal for bold, intentional, faith-filled venturing out into the deep waters of our community. Perhaps we fear man.

If this is you (and believe me, I look in the mirror and see these very things) then repent, go back to Jesus, ask for the fullness of the Spirit to dominate your life, and then seek to reproduce these disciplines in a few young men. It is not rocket science. We can do this, by the grace of God.

Al Baker is a Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church in America and is the Director of the Alabama Church Planting Network and an Evangelistic Revival Preacher with Presbyterian Evangelistic Fellowship.