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Towards Being a Confessional Church – Ministry Spot

Ministry Spot

Does your church promise to stay in alignment with, say, the Three Forms of Unity, the Westminster Standards, the London Confession, or your own statement of faith? Or does your church merely have a few sentences on its web site as a vague expression of its doctrinal commitment? A confessional church promises to embody a set of convictions with other congregations as a concrete investment in church unity: together we all agree that the Bible teaches the following points. Non-confessional churches refuse to be very specific about how they interpret the Bible – they have a lot of independent freedom but not much lived-out unity. The confessional church opens itself to accountability, saying to its sister churches, “Please hold us accountable to this summary of who God is, who we are, how our relationship with God was broken by sin, how God redeems sinners, etc.” Maybe it’s the etcetera part that worries you: confessions of faith can get rather long. Or maybe it’s the archaic factor: should theologians from another century be setting the tone for us today when our situation requires engagement with new issues?

I grew up during the 1970s Southern California Jesus Movement in a non-confessional church where we “just believed the Bible.” I was a pastor’s kid and for the life of me I could not tell you what “justification” was. We thought catechism was for Catholics. We just memorized Bible verses. The upside to this approach was that our church was a welcoming place for Christians of all persuasions. The downside is how vulnerable the church was any time it had to call a new pastor or raise up local leaders. I lacked clarity on what the gospel was. Even into adulthood I thought my salvation was grounded in my sincerity, in the fact that I had prayed the sinner’s prayer, in my maintenance of my personal relationship with God. When a Reformed brother walked me through a confession of faith, I was blown away that what Christians in earlier centuries taught their children I lacked even the categories to comprehend. Once I started understanding the doctrine, I was blown away by the assurance and peace of knowing that Christ – not my response to Christ – was the solid ground of my salvation.

Your childhood might have been quite different from mine. Perhaps you grew up in a severe and joyless church that forced rote memorization of a catechism, bored you to tears with Sunday evening sermons on the Canons of Dordt, and paid more attention to doctrinal precision than to love and evangelism. When the seeker-sensitive church growth movement came along you were ready to ditch doctrinal distinctives in favor of a minimal tipping of the hat in the direction of orthodoxy – “If you dig deep enough into our archives, you’ll find we are Reformed, but we’re never going to talk about those things on Sunday.” I appreciate the pendulum swing dynamic, but here’s what I need to say from anecdotal experience: in my conversations with teenagers and twenty-somethings in a dozen Reformed Australian churches, very few of them can unpack the gospel. When I ask them to summarize the Christian faith, they almost always give me a moralistic answer in which they talk more about their commitment to Christ than about who Christ is or what he has done. They did not grow up in Hillsong, you understand.

Fear not – I am not proposing we swing back to the joyless days when we had no interest in loving our next-door neighbours because we were so obsessed with distinguishing ourselves from the Arminians. I am proposing that we cease being embarrassed by what might actually fascinate a non-Christian seeking for answers. Many seekers are interested in old things: Buddha, Mohammed, Bahai – these are all very old, and people who are on a religious quest are accustomed to trafficking in old documents and disciplines. Don’t under-utilize the old stuff you’ve got. Our Reformed confessions are an untapped treasure that with proper use could be a huge blessing. When church growth researchers survey the experiences of recent Christian converts, the data reveals that new church members gravitate towards churches that stand for something, articulating what they believe and why.

What do I mean by “proper use”? Here are a few suggestions that I’ve personally field-tested. One of my older brothers is a pastor, and when I was his assistant, we launched a Catechism Club for children. We had club T-shirts, prizes for memorization, special songs, games, and pizza every week. But we did not expect our silly puppet show to be the big hit (even with the teenagers)! Years later the children (now turned adults) would contact me to talk about what the puppets had said about sanctification, the three offices of Christ, and the things the ten commandments positively require and negatively forbid. If you were to do something like a Catechism Club or a week-long Catechism Camp, there are more resources today than we had thirty years ago. Do some online searching for New City Catechism, Dana Dirksen’s music, and someone who calls herself the Reformed Mama.

If copious amounts of pizza and puppet shows are not advisable in your situation, there are lower energy ways of weaving the confessions into the fabric of your church’s life. The weekly enews or the monthly newsletter could devote one paragraph to expounding the significance of a Heidelberg question that retains particular relevance for today. Consider what Joel Beeke writes about “catechetical evangelism” and tailor it to your context. Read William Boekestein’s illustrated children’s history books on the Three Forms of Unity – they might awaken an interest in theology. Encourage families to include a mealtime, commentary-free reading of the Belgic Confession, making your way just three sentences each evening – if anyone chooses to discuss it, great, if not, at least contact was made with your doctrinal roots.

Do you think of your church’s confession as a peculiar Dutch or Scottish tradition that might not be appropriate for the wider world, something like the eating of haggis or the distribution of King’s mints during the sermon? Michael Horton helps us see that our confessions were not trying to be partisan pieces but rather generic statements of what all biblical Christians should believe: “In my view, it is inappropriate for us to refer to our confession as the Reformed Faith. The reformed churches did not (and do not) believe that they were confessing the Reformed Faith, but that they were confessing the ‘undoubted Christian Faith’ in their confession and catechisms. There is a reason that this wing of the reformation called itself ‘Reformed.’ Unlike the Anabaptists, Reformed churches understood themselves as a continuing branch of the catholic church. At the same time, the Reformed wanted to reform everything ‘according to the Word of God.’’’

Being a confessional church means introducing new members to your doctrinal standards. They need to know what the pastor and elders’ starting point is, what their shared assumptions are about God and the Bible. A confessional church will require its leaders to study the confessions and to sufficiently agree with them, to revisit them not merely when a controversy arises but for their own growth, for pondering the great claims of the Scripture. It is true that if you reintroduce your church to the confessions, some people will mistakenly believe themselves to be the unofficial doctrine police and you will wish you had never said anything. But I would rather have occasional arguments with people who are referencing the confessions than allow random blogs, podcasts, and Christian radio to fill the instructional vacuum with shallow sentiments. If I had to choose between teaching the Bible and teaching the confessions, I’d choose the Bible every time. But I don’t have to choose. Our churches can continue to focus on the gospel, while benefiting from confessional summaries of who the biblical Christ is, summaries which specify the unity we share with sister churches all over the world.

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