Reformed Evangelism in the South

The Reformed faith has a great future in the South. Population and industry are moving in that direction. On the state and local level the Chamber of Commerce is going all out to attract new industry from the North. Low taxes, a labor force untouched by labor unions. and escape from big city problems are presented as allurements to tired northern companies. James Meredith, the symbol of integration at “Ole Miss,” has moved back into the South. He is telling blacks that there arc many opportunities for them in the new South. Reformed churches should concentrate their energies in the newly developing South.

The Presbyterian Church in the United States – The large body, which for a century has upheld and propagated the Reformed faith in the South, is the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS). General Stonewall Jackson was a deacon in the church, and Robert L. Dabney and J. H. Thornwell were its mighty theologians.

The PCUS has been slower than its northern sister, the present United Presbyterian Church of the United States of America (UPUSA), in receiving theological liberalism. However, in recent years, theological liberalism has gained control of the major committees of the PCUS. The trend is reflected in much of the literature published by the Covenant Life Curriculum and in the selection of new candidates to the mission fields. The official seminaries have one by one succumbed to a rejection of historic Christianity as summarized in the Westminster Standards. Evangelical churches have an increasingly difficult time finding a minister who preaches the gospel.

In 1959 the evangelicals in the PCUS had enough support to prevent a three-way union with the Presbyterian Church USA and the United Presbyterian Church. The two latter joined to form the UPUSA. In the PCUS three fourths of the Synods must favor union for a merger to take place. The unionists have failed to reach this majority in the past. The PCUS General Assembly has been made up of fifteen Synods.

In 1970 a plan was submitted to the General Assembly to redistrict the Synods and reduce the number from fifteen to seven. The plan failed in 1970. It passed in 1971. The evangelical forces have been scattered and absorbed into Synods with theological liberals in the majority. This manipulation by the liberals will guarantee a favorable vote for merger with the UPUSA whenever this comes before the body. Merger has already begun in some areas in anticipation of union. In Abilene, Texas the First Presbyterian Church (PCUS) and the Central Presbyterian Church (UPUSA) are now the First Central Presbyterian Church. This is not an isolated case.

The evangelicals see the handwriting on the wall. Four groups, made up of ministers and laymen in the PCUS, are laying the foundation for a continuing Presbyterian church. For lack of a better name, we will designate them CPC. The four groups are: 1) The Presbyterian Evangelistic Fellowship, ministers who hold evangelistic services mostly in the PCUS to bring about spiritual renewal at the local level; 2) Presbyterian Churchmen United, a large number of ministers desirous to spread the gospel and bring the church back to the Reformed Standards; 3) the Concerned Presbyterians, a number of influential laymen throughout the church under the leadership of Mr. Kenneth Keyes of Miami, Florida, concerned with the inroads of the social gospel to the exclusion of biblical preaching; 4) and The Presbyterian Journal, the voice of evangelical presbyterianism in the South, edited by Rev. C. Aiken Taylor.

A seminary which will playa key role in this new movement is the Reformed Theological Seminary of Jackson, Mississippi. The faculty comes from various Reformed bodies. Its president, Dr. Morton Smith, is solidly Reformed in the best tradition of the PCUS. This seminary is not officially recognized by the PCUS and has been under considerable investigation from the highest judicatory. All who teach believe that the Bible is infallible and authoritative. This seminary undoubtedly will be the school where many of the ministers of the CPC will receive their training.

With the great advantage of being indigenous to the South, the CPC will have to wrestle with several problems. One is the present indecisiveness as to which way to move. Representatives from the fifteen present Synods are working on the realignment technicalities, as they reduce the number from fifteen to seven. The CPC is praying and waiting to see which way the Holy Spirit will lead them. Further confusion will be in the minds of some because of the strong stand of Dr. Nelson Bell, father-in-law to Billy Graham and a leading spokesman for evangelical Presbyterianism in the South. He has resigned from being the Associate Editor of The Presbyterian Journal, believing it is not the right time to begin such a new development.

Ownership of local property will certainly be taken into the civil courts if the CPC tries to keep the local building. There is an escape clause in the proposed merger plans with the UPUSA. This will allow the local body to decide what to do. The legality of this is being challenged by leaders in the UPUSA. In the sixties two churches withdrew from the PCUS in Savannah, Georgia and kept their property. The PCUS took the case to the United States Supreme Court and lost. The CPC believes that this gives them strong legal grounds for the retention of the local property, should any change take place in the basic structure of the church.

Another problem is mixture of doctrine. Fortunately dispensationalism has not had much inroad in the PCUS. Years ago dispensationalism was shown to be inimical to the Reformed Standards. Arminianism in one fonn or another exists among some of the ministers. Those who have studied at Westminster Theological Seminary and the Reformed Theological Seminary under professors like John Murray and Morton Smith are clear in their thinking. Some from the other seminaries are weak on the third point of Calvinism and the doctrine of reprobation. It has been expressed, at least privately, that such belief does not make an effective evangelistic appeal.

The Presbyterian Journal has had a very unfortunate stand on the race issue in the past. When merger was proposed with the three large Presbyterian bodies in 1959, the Journal opposed it. The two drum beats were, theological liberalism in the North and the biblical reasons for segregation. The CPC has made itself clear that it has reversed itself on the second issue.

To some Reformed churches the existence of Free Masons among many ministers, elders, and deacons in the present PCUS will create a problem. Masonry is one of the great traditions of the South. Masonry and church membership are the badges of respectability. To be for Masonry is to be patriotic. Who would question the patriotism of honorary thirty-third degree Masons Senator Goldwater and J. Edgar Hoover? To oppose Masonry is to oppose orphans, widows, and the Bible. Many see no inconsistency with holding the Christian faith and being a Mason.

Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church of Fort Lauderdale, Florida – A church in the PCUS which has become the symbol of evangelism to the rest of the world is the Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Dr. James Kennedy is its pastor. Each February ministers and laymen from many denominations spend a week at Coral Ridge to be trained in evangelism. The method, they often say, must be caught rather than taught. The book Evangelism Explosion, published by Tyndale House, Wheaton, Illinois, presents in great detail the program which has built Coral Ridge from a handful to a church with four morning worship services, four ministers, a Christian academy, and a proposed building that will cost in the neighborhood of six million dollars.

What has made the Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church the IBM in Reformed evangelism? Opinions will differ from those who live in the vicinity and have lost members to Coral Ridge to those who make a casual visit. That the area is one of the fastest growing in the country would certainly contribute to the success, yet this does not fully explain it.

Dr. Kennedy preaches very movingly and effectively the historic Christian faith. He also puts his people to work witnessing to those who have attended the worship services. Before the laymen go out, they are trained carefully and memorize a well-worked out presentation of the gospel. The book Evangelism Explosion shows how the one being witnessed to is led from the natural to the spiritual with good questions that lead to positive responses. Great stress is placed upon the doctrine of justification by faith. The new convert is not left dangling. A follow-up program gets him into God’s Word and into the fellowship of the church. One needs only to glance at the church bulletin to see that almost every hour of the day and night is filled with one activity or another.

When one first hears of or sees this program, he is usually swept off his feet with admiration and enthusiasm. As one observes and analyzes the plan over a period of years, a few blemishes appear on an otherwise excellent plan. To be able to assure one of salvation after a favorable response to a thirty-minute presentation of the gospel appears premature. The transition from death to life is immediate, yet it is usually preceded by a period of awareness of sin and repentance. It is dangerous to assure one of salvation when there is no time to observe the fruits of the new life.

Also the idea is fostered that Coral Ridge is the only church that is really doing an effective job of evangelism. One hears this personal testimony constantly, “I was in such and such a church all my life. I thought I was a good Christian. Then I came to Coral Ridge, and I have never been so happy in all my life.” The implication is that, if one goes to any other church than Coral Ridge, he is living far below his potential.

The recent formation of W’estminster Academy at Coral Ridge illustrates this point. The Fort Lauderdale Christian School, a member of the National Union of Christian Schools. has served the Christian community for over a decade. In recent years the grade school has met in the Coral Ridge building. Board members were chosen from several churches and denominations subscribing to the Reformed Standards. At an improperly called board meeting of the school, the Coral Ridge members had a motion passed. At the regular school board meeting the legality of this action was questioned. The Coral Ridge members walked out and started the Westminster Academy which opened in the fall of 1971. Most of the faculty remained with the Christian school, but they lost a majority of their pupils to the new academy.

Apart from these blemishes, this is the bright spot in effective evangelism in the PCUS.

Christian Reformed Church – The Christian Reformed Church (CRC) has concentrated most of its energics in Florida. This is because of the great influx of winter visitors from the North. Many of these churches reach their high in February and the low in midsummer. The permanent members of the church are trying to reach those outside the CHC with the gospel and erase the image that the CRC is exclusively Dutch. The casual visitor from the outside feels lost when the men light up after the service, gather in their circles, and ask, “Do you know so and so from Grundy Center or Holland?” “Oh, Ja! He’s my cousin!” One CR family visited the Miami Christian School and asked the principal if there were many outsiders attending. The reply was in the affirmative, about twenty percent. They were the Christian Reformed.

The new field opened in Jacksonville, Florida illustrates the desire to get out the gospel. The labor of love and mercy among the Cuban refugees in Miami demonstrates Reformed evangelism at its best. The work of the Christian Reformed World Relief after natural disasters in the South shows the real concern of the church.

The Back to God Hour has been well received in the South. Dr. Peter Eldersveld was loved and respected everywhere. His death was grieved by all Christians throughout the South. I talked with several Presbyterians in San Antonio, Texas. They consider Dr. Joel Nederhood their pastor. They are not hearing the gospel in their churches.

Reformed Church in America – The conservatives in the Reformed Church in America defeated the motion to merge with the PCUS, though the PCUS favored merger with the RCA. The churches in Florida are for the most part orthodox. The DeWitts of the Missionary Monthly have been active in expanding the RCA in Florida.

Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod – The Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod (RPES) has struggled in the South with its former affiliation with Dr. Carl McIntire. These churches were first Bible Presbyterian, then Evangelical Presbyterian, and now with the merger of the Reformed Presbyterian Church, General Synod, the name is RPES. The RPES covers a large area of the South. Their great strength is Covenant College near Chattanooga, Tennessee. Covenant draws its teaching staff from most Reformed bodies and is gaining increasing influence among the evangelicals of the South.

Orthodox Presbyterian Church – The Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) with churches in the past in South Georgia and Florida has expanded into Atlanta, Georgia; Harriman and Greeneville, Tennessee; Raleigh, North Carolina; and Abilene, Texas with chapels in Eastland and San Antonio, Texas. The OPC has a missionary at large who is concentrating his efforts particularly in the Southern United States.

Challenge – There is plenty of room ill the South for the CPC,the CRC, the OPC, the RCA, the RPES, and other Reformed churches. Ministers who have been effective in their outreach should place the South high on their priority list. Young men in seminary should feel a burden for the South. They should pray for open doors. They should pray for cities specifically; Dallas, Houston, New Orleans, Mobile, Little Rock, Tallahassee. If the door opens, move out. Go even if there is no financial backing.

Several OP churches have been started in recent years with no aid at all from the denomination. Some men are working part time at secular jobs to help their incomes. It is thrilling to see God’s “math” in multiplying new families and support.

Send the best men. These are new areas. The ambassador must be well-equipped. His message must never be narrow sectionalism, neither Northern nor Southern. God’s men must be cosmopolitan. One does not adapt to the South by out-segregating the segregationist. The church will not be built by constantly attacking Communism, the National Council of Churches, or the U.S. Supreme Court. A church is built by going into the highways and byways, and compelling sinners to come to the wedding feast of the Lamb. All sorts of labels will be hurled at one bringing the Reformed Faith—obscurantist, fatalist, schismatic. By love, by involvement in worthwhile community projects, by the proclamation of the age-old gospel, the foolishness of ignorant men is put to silence.

It is relatively easy for Reformed laymen to find fault with the church, sit back and do nothing. Of course, the message must be guarded. Otherwise the church has no purpose for existence. However, if the Reformed Faith is firmly believed, as set forth in the Scriptures and formulated by Calvin, Kuyper, Bavinck, Berkhof, Hodge, and Dabney, then it is criminal not to do all in our power to get it out to those who have never heard. Reformed laymen, who have done well in business, ought seriously to consider opening a business in the South. Go with the determination that, by God’s grace, a Reformed witness will be built. Too many businessmen with solid Reformed training become absorbed into the shallow Fundamentalism of the Bible belt. One needs only a few families to begin a church. The churches I have served have begun with from three to five families.

In a small philosophy class at Calvin College in the fifties the subject of an oversupply of Christian Reformed ministers came up. Apparently there was fear then as there is today. I’ll never forget the comment of Dr. Henry Stob: “We will never have to worry about that. There will always be a vacant church building out in Texas where people want to hear the gospel.” I’m sure that had no influence on my being the minister of the first OPC in Texas, but that is the spirit all who hold the Reformed Faith should have. Never lose the vision. There are always more fields to conquer. Let us lift up our eyes.

“Ye Christian heralds, go proclaim
Salvation through Emmanuel’s Name!
To distant climes the tidings bear,
And plant the Rose of Sharon there.”

Jonathan D. Male is pastor of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church of Abilene, Texas.