Our spiritual well-being is to be nurtured primarily in the assembly of the whole people of God, led by ordained leadership, under the ministry of the word, with a full-diet of prayer, and the regular administration of the sacraments. These assemblies may not be cathartic but they are solid, and they are what we need most.
There are many different ways to “do church,” as we say these days. Multiple models of church life exist. We at IPC have a model that is biblical, historical, and coherent, but we recognize that other patterns of church life exist. Ours is not the only way, but it is a good way to run a church and organize its life. Let’s be specific.
Ours is an “ordinary means” congregation. Our philosophy is that of our Presbyterian heritage and is shared by the churches of the Twin Lakes Fellowship. We stress the gatherings of the whole church on the Lord’s Day in which the word of God is read, preached, sung, and prayed, trusting that sinners will be born again by the living and abiding word, that faith will come by hearing the word of Christ, that God’s people will be sanctified by the truth, and that believers grow by the pure milk of the word (1 Pet 1:23-25; Rom 10:17; Jn 17:17; 1 Pet 2:2).
If we read the evidence correctly, this approach has resulted in our congregation in a large number of growing, mature, and even victorious Christians. We think that the emphasis in the New Testament is on these primary gatherings of the whole congregation rather than on smaller groups within the congregation. The epistles brim with references to classes of persons who are present together in the assembly of the whole: the younger men and the older men, the younger women and the older women (Titus 2), parents and children (Eph 6), marrieds and singles (1 Cor 7), rich and poor (Jas 2 & 1 Tim 6), slave and free, Jew and Gentile, male and female (Gal 3:28). These combinations of persons give us an idea of what the early church looked like, and which we aspire to resemble. We avoid styles of music and speech that appeal to one group over another, and stick to church music, our “sacred music,” the traditional music as well as the traditional vocabulary of the church. This way we avoid preferencing one group over the others, and avoid building a church out of the preferred group, be they young or old, rich or poor, black or white. Our goal is to appeal to all groups equally. We don’t do rock’n’roll, or swing, or hip hop, or country-western. Something vital is gained when the whole congregation of diverse persons, young and old, rich and poor, married and single, the whole “body” assembles in a common worship (see 1 Cor 12; Rom 12). We think whole denominations would benefit if they could settle on a more uniform, a more catholic worship, as was the ideal of the Apostles. The Apostle Paul could speak of what was practiced “in all the churches,” or even more emphatically as he insists that Corinthian innovators conform, “we have no other practice, nor have the churches of God” (1 Cor 14:33; 11:16; cf. 1:2; 4:17).
Consequently our emphasis and energies are devoted to the Sunday morning and evening services in which the whole church gathers. We have not stressed small groups, though we have them. We break up into age-based Sunday School classes. The Garmers have a week-day Bible Study, as do the women, the youth, the college, and the 20’s. We have a reading group for men that meets monthly, monthly circles for women, a weekly men’s prayer breakfast, and a weekly women’s prayer group. Still, we stress the public assembly of the whole church, because we think that assembly is the primary place in which Christian growth occurs and healthy Christian lives mature. See Ephesians 4:11-16 for more on this. Our youth, college, 20’s, women, and men learn to see their primary identity not in terms of the worldly demographics, not as subsets within the church, but as members of the church as a whole. We think our emphasis on the Sunday services has been biblically correct, and proven in practice. We are blessed with a high concentration of warm, loving, caring people who are serious about pursuing holiness.
In the hands of some critics, an asset, “Our church is full of wonderful people,” becomes a liability, “Our church is full of people pretending to have it all together.” No, “ordinary means” congregations are blessed with large concentrations of believers who are actually are mature, growing, and even victorious. This is not a boast on our part. It is all of grace and all to God’s glory. We only mean to recognize that the ordinary means of grace do equip the saints and bring them to maturity (again, Eph 4:11-16). True, we all struggle with sin. Listen to our public prayers of confession of sin. No one is claiming to be anything but weak, needy, flawed, and foolish.
However, there is a very, very modern sense of “honesty,” or “vulnerability” that some would make a biblical norm. One will search in vain to see any trace of today’s popular understanding of “openness” prior to the 1960’s. Yet some wish to impose this popular meaning upon the church today. They want Facebook from the pulpit and Oprah Winfrey in the pews. I resist much of this. Most of our struggles are between ourselves and God. They are no one else’s business: not the priest’s, not my elder’s, not my neighbor’s. Moreover, little that is edifying is to be gained by you knowing what is going on in my thought life or when I’m in solitude. It’s bad enough that I am exposed to my twisted thoughts and my private tantrums. Other sins should only be confessed within the confines of the family. Typically, only notorious public sins are to be subject to public scrutiny.
Granted, there is a certain kind of encouragement in knowing that others share our struggles. The psalms can be helpful in this respect. Mutual honesty about weaknesses lets me know that I am not the only one plagued with problems. Still, to make the emotional striptease the norm and then criticize reluctant churches for not measuring up is unfair. The Apostle Paul warns us of the “unfruitful works of darkness” of which “it is shameful even to speak.” So sordid are “the things they do in secret” that the details should not be discussed (Eph 5:11,12). Simply put, there are things that we ought not to talk about.
We need to hear more about Spirit-empowered victories than flesh-induced defeats. The truth about each other is no mystery and needs little elaboration: we sin in our thought, words, and deeds, in the evil we do, and the good we fail to do. We are all weak and foolish, we all depend absolutely on the True Vine apart from whom we can do nothing (Jn 15:1-5). The church today has been overly influenced by a secular “encounter group” philosophy. As recent research has demonstrated, little of lasting value takes place in Christian small group meetings where participants share their opinions, views, and feelings. Unless led by someone trained in the Scripture, the net pooling of ignorance, failure, and feelings does little beyond providing an outlet for temporary emotional catharsis.
Home Bible Studies
We recognize that at times we need to supplement our ordinary practice. For this reason we have been revitalizing our Sunday School, ramping up our care groups and are offering home Bible studies this summer. From the first century to the mid-nineteenth century, everyone who belonged to any church in the world lived within walking distance of that church. All the members of that church lived in the same neighborhood. They knew each other, were in each other’s homes, and saw each other regularly. Since the establishment of fixed-rail transportation, and especially the automobile, this ideal of community has been lost. Members now are scattered all over a sprawling city, miles and miles from each other. We struggle to make up the deficit in fellowship dealt to us by the modern world. Hence, this summer we are having 6 weeks of home Bible studies. At times retreats and special services can play an important role. We urge your participation.
Yet let’s not mistake that which supplements with that which is the norm. Our spiritual well-being is to be nurtured primarily in the assembly of the whole people of God, led by ordained leadership, under the ministry of the word, with a full-diet of prayer, and the regular administration of the sacraments. These assemblies may not be cathartic but they are solid, and they are what we need most.
Terry Johnson is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and is pastor of Independent Presbyterian Church in Savannah, Ga. This article first appeared in the church’s newsletter and is used with permission.