This is the last in a series of articles looking at the spiritual health of the URCNA. I wrote as an admitted outsider, that is, not one born, bred, and buttered in our churches, and I believe that allowed a more objective perspective on our well-being or lack thereof. Additionally, I wrote as one who loves our history and tradition which has flourished for more than four hundred years. I desire for that to continue and to increase, yet remain deeply concerned as to whether or not that will happen. Admittedly, we live in a low point in the history of the church universal which transcends denominations and affects all of them. Some of our own condition is attributable to that, but not all. My biggest concern is whether we can accurately self-assess and correct our course. In my articles I have tried to evaluate our spiritual condition. It is not pretty. I always tried to offer a corrective in order to remedy the illnesses. You have to judge whether I have been successful in those suggestions. I suggest the test could be whether or not they are implemented.
Allow me to conclude where I began and then review the series with concluding comments.
I began with a plea to diagnose correctly our condition. In the secession we misdiagnosed the problem as having to do with issues (hermeneutics, biblical authority, and their attendant fruit). The real problem, which went unrecognized, was spiritual declension in the lives of our people. Can we admit this? Will we seek to remedy it? It cannot and will not be overcome adequately by doubling down on being more Reformed. This is not a doctrinal problem (although it has doctrinal aspects to it) but a spiritual one. The prescription must fit the malady, and thus it calls for spiritual solutions. As examples I surveyed various aspects of the life of our churches and advocated spiritual solutions. Let me review.
Love for the Lost
Historically we have been excellent in making disciples of our covenant youth, but biological growth alone does not fulfill the Great Commission. Nor does transfer growth, as in “let the Pentecostals (or Calvary Chapel, Baptists, etc.) get ’em saved and we will make them Reformed.” We need the heart of Jesus for those who are without God and without hope in the world. We do not need to program our churches with evangelistic efforts. Rather, we need to program the hearts of our people to be like Jesus, who came to seek and to save the lost.
As the spiritual fathers of the congregation, the elders are to be examples to the flock by embodying spiritual maturity, wisdom, and pastoral care. I suggested we train and examine men for this office. We can no longer afford to fill vacant seats on councils or perform mere administrative duties. Let the elders lead by example in every aspect of their lives, as Scripture expects.
Doctrinal purity must be coupled with spiritual piety. The heart of the human problem is the problem of the human heart. Unless our hearts beat with the love of God and love for God, we are not properly orthodox. Christianity is an inside-out religion, that is, it starts in a renewed heart by the work of the Holy Spirit and then spreads outward to affect all of life. In all our teaching and preaching and living we must aim for the hearts of our people.
Examine the history of the church from Genesis to the present. Where is the church that has survived prosperity? I do not see one! We began as humble immigrant stock, many with no more than the few dollars in their pocket and their possessions in their bags. For the most part we are blessed people with large material blessings. This is in accord with God’s covenant promises (Deut. 8:18). Will we maintain our obligations in the covenant? Our orthodoxy cannot and must not be in our forms but in our hearts filled with passion and devotion to the Lord. When God called us to love him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength it was not some sort of pre-evangelistic law in which he knew we would fail and thus cry out for mercy instead. Rather, he expects us to respond to is grace with all we are and all we have (read Jerry Bridges on this for details).
“Backward Christian Soldiers” is not in our hymnals. We need to make proper adjustments in order to be a church that can do ministry in a twenty-first-century context. As one of my seminary professors wrote, “Eternal Word and Changing World: Theology, Anthropology, and Mission in Trialogue.” Fear cripples, and we cannot afford such a handicap if we are to be of service to our Lord.
Losing Our Youth
I stated this was “the canary in the coal mine.”1 What was once our greatest strength—retaining our youth—has now become a perilous and ominous barometric index. Can we interpret the signs of the times and course correct?
Recently I spoke with a minister who had read this series. The church he pastors belongs to another NAPARC2 denomination. He lamented that these problems were widespread across Reformed-ville, not just within the URCNA. “We are unhealthy and in need of a cure,” he said. Is there hope? The head of the church is also the Great Physician. He has promised to build his church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. Such a promise calls us to an offensive not defensive posture.
Let us petition God in prayer seeking a fresh move of the Spirit to fan the embers into flame once again so that we might be used to make him known to the ends of the earth until all nations are made his disciples. Soli Deo gloria!
1. A saying of miners who would test the toxicity of the mine’s air by sending a canary in to see if it lived. It came to be seen as an indicator of life or death.
2. NAPARC is the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council, www.naparc.org.
Rev. Paul T. Murphy is the missionary pastor of Messiah’s Reformed Fellowship (URCNA) in Hell’s Kitchen, NYC. He has been an elder and pastor for more than thirty years.