Thursday, June 25, 2009

Reflections on the 2009 General Assembly - Final

As I conclude my thoughts about the 37th General Assembly I want to choose my words carefully. I don’t share the generally upbeat assessment of Joel Belz and Phil Ryken (see previous post). Rather, I came away from the General Assembly somewhat troubled and disillusioned. Part of my response had to do with the debate and subsequent vote on the women’s study committee. Though it went my way I was dismayed at the pathetic speeches for the study committee and the sheer number of them. At one point those speaking for the committee out-numbered those speaking against it by at least 2 to 1. Since when did the PCA become so concerned about stepping on toes? Contending for the truth kind of has that affect. Why the rush to send everything to a study committee? Why the panic over the possibility of losing some churches that aren’t happy with our standards?

There are other reasons for my dismay. First, I found myself out-of-step with a couple of denominational agencies. The informational report by Christian Education and Publications (CE&P) rubbed me the wrong way. Front and center was the report from last fall’s conference whose theme was, Making the Invisible Kingdom Visible. Chuck Colson was the keynote speaker and their video included a couple of quotes about the church changing and transforming culture. Ho-hum. A little Abraham Kuyper goes a long way. Mission to North America’s (MNA) presentation was painful to watch. In addition to their leader’s comments they showed a video entitled, Every Church Plant a Church. Great idea but the video clearly showed that their philosophy of ministry, from southern New England to Utah, has little to do with Word and Sacrament. Seems to me that MNA considers the most important traits a church planter can possess are a goatee and the ability to lead praise music on the guitar. Creeds and confessions might be used in an officer’s training class but that is about as far as it goes. In this model the church exists to instill a philosophy of church-planting in its members rather than impart the faith through catechesis.

Second, the evening worship services left much to be desired. The opening night’s service started off well but when the praise band took over things went down hill with unfamiliar choruses being sung and vocalists drowning out the crowd of 1,400+. The trapset (drummer) was over the top especially when we sang, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross. All in all the service was a little too progressive for me though the Communion liturgy was done well. The services on Wednesday and Thursday were more of the same with ever-increasing attempts to create intimacy with God (Jesus is my girlfriend music). Added to this displeasure was the generally tepid use of the Trinity Hymnal when the assembly was called to order. Worse, we sang only one psalm.

Third, the new rules governing General Assembly make it a yawner. The only time for debate is when the Overtures Committee brings its report. Commissioners are basically passive the rest of the time. Is it any wonder that folks don’t attend or that at any given moment a significant number of commissioners are out of the hall talking and doing other things than the work of the assembly?

In many respects I came away from GA feeling like an outsider looking in. I first got involved in the PCA in 1991 while serving with Campus Crusade for Christ. At that time the PCA was new and unfamiliar to me, yet very attractive. I found a theological depth that I hadn’t known coupled with a historical perspective lacking in much of evangelicalism. After sensing that God might be calling me to pastoral ministry I attended my first GA in 1992 (Roanoke, Virginia) as an observer. I still remember being introduced to Paul Kooistra and Bryan Chapell by my pastor and being allowed to sit at their table. I had a front row seat for everything: Os Guinness preaching to the Assembly, the study committee debate on marriage and divorce, a large number of ministers signing their names in protest to a particular vote, and PCA founding fathers quite active as commissioners. That GA was instrumental in helping me decide to become a pastor in the PCA.

After seminary I attended GA consecutively from 1997-2001 and saw many of the same things. In God’s providence I was prohibited from attending GA from 2002-2006 but have attended since 2007. These last three years I have served on a committee of commissioners which has been enriching. However, during these last three assemblies I have seen a drift in this denomination that I hadn't seen before. We are more concerned about numbers and strategy and pragmatism than anything else. Our ethos is not one rooted in Word and Sacrament but church growth and cultural sensitivity.

Look, I’m no superstar pastor or up-and-coming cultural exegete, nor will I ever be. I’ve never written a book and probably don't know enough to start one. Yet in the nearly 20 years that I’ve been in the PCA it is apparent that something isn’t right. When I came into this denomination I knew that I was making a conscious decision to leave broad evangelicalism behind. I lost a lot of friends because of that decision just as I suffered loss when I came to faith and left the Roman Catholic Church. Now I find much of the denomination running in the opposite direction striving for relevance and cultural impact. No one seems to have any use for Luther's Theology of the Cross: we are caught up in the Theology of Glory.

I’m not alone in this assessment. Daryl Hart, who is infinitely more eloquent than I, has written a piece that every PCA minister ought to read. It is the perspective of someone in a sister denomination who asks some pretty tough questions of us. For once I’d like to see the folks at the PCA headquarters in Atlanta, or those at By Faith magazine, or those in St. Louis and Chattanooga be as brutally honest about who we are, where we’ve come from, and where we are going. Click on the links and do some soul-searching.


Anonymous said...

Wow, pastor Dave. Same old stuff. This is like the "Glob" I suppose you remember the slippery stuff that creeps along the floor and through every crack, under every door until every room in the house is infected, everywhere where the cracks were not carefully sealed the glob went.
Instead of the Gospel i.e. the Scriptures being central to worship, self help, emotionalism, consumerism, advertising and staging is the method. The keys to increased church membership are guitar players singing songs that only the microphone sucking tee shirt blue jean wearing beer garden performers know. This has proven to be true, hasn't it? These churches do bring them in?
Audrey and I found this kind of pre-preaching activity (it isn't worship) while attending the Memorial Day services at Gull Lake Bible camp ministries featuring Ray Vander Laan. After standing for a long time and with a dozen people singing out of 600 I finally sat down. I thought if I were attending a concert I wouldn't be required to stand, so why am I standing?
This is the problem with the church of today. It's lacking people who are members of the invisible church. The church today in general is not the church, it's another vaudeville act.
The very things you mentioned in your remarks have taken over the Evangelical Presbyterian Church this very day.
It's for the reasons you mentioned and for reasons I experienced in churches I have attended that I devote myself via the reformation societies to encourage pastors and Christians of the five solas. I find the reformation society idea is the best vehicle to do that.
We were unable to have the scheduled (6/25/09) conference call on Scripture Alone/Post Modernism by Jim Harrison due to a great lack of participation, its a bad time of the year it seems. I hope there will be Methodist, Baptist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Bible, and other pastors and members of churches that will take hold of the theology of the reformers. The PCA seems to be into the same old stuff, I really hope they begin to plug the holes and mend the cracks. The glob will come in and infect the whole building.
Ken Clouse

Dave Sarafolean said...


Yeah, it is creeping in everywhere. Perhaps many have lost confidence in the ordinary means of grace as sufficient to build God's church. Part of what I see in the PCA is what soured me on Campus Crusade -- the push for numbers and new strategies.

I know that I'm airing some dirty laundry and that I run the risk of turning off some people about the PCA. However, Daryl Hart's question still rings true: should there be a huge discrepancy between the worship and practices of a PCA church vs. the worship and practices of other NAPARC members? After all, each NAPARC church is confessional and adheres to the regulative principle of worship. I think not. Sure there will be differences but there ought to be more similarity than differences.

Yes, the EPC had imbibed from the same well. I don't know what will become of it if they welcome New Wineskin churches en masse.

Dave Sarafolean said...


I should've added that if one wishes to visit a PCA church they ought to do their homework. More than once while traveling I've dropped in to worship at a local PCA work and been sadly disappointed.