Reforming churches

Should existing churches be reformed or should new churches be started. Well, that is sort of like asking whether you should love your wife or your kids. The two are not–indeed must not be–mutually exclusive. It is easy for us to slip into this dichotomous way of thinking about church life particularly if we are do not keep a realistic view of what a reforming ministry in a church looks like.

Sometimes those who are committed to the doctrines of grace entertain romantic ideas of what constitutes a “reformed church.” This was driven home to me many years ago through a conversation with one of our pastoral interns. After three months in Cape Coral one of his seminary friends called him and asked him what it was like to be in a church where “Calvinism is preached every Sunday”? The intern burst his friend’s bubble by reporting that in three months he had not heard even one sermon on the so-called five points. The expectation was that a “reformed church” would surely be ringing five bells every Sunday.

Another misconception stems from a utopian view of church life. Once a church is reformed, the thinking goes, then it will have arrived and will be free of problems–at least from major problems. As anyone who has been a part of a confessionally reformed church will testify, that simply is not the way it works. Why? Because reformed Christians (including Reformed pastors) are not exempt from remaining sin.

It may prove more helpful to speak of “reforming” rather than “reformed” churches (at least in contexts where the latter is not used as a denominational identifier). A reformation motto is very instructive here. A local church that is pursuing healthy biblical renewal should consider itself as ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda–a church that is reformed and always reforming. The task is never over.

When a typical evangelical church begins to pursue a course of biblical re-formation its path may be marked by various significant milestones: adopting or reaffirming a clear confession of faith, committing to the gracious practice of church discipline, adopting a more concientiously biblical view of church leaders and officers, attempting to regulate worship by Scripture, eliminating unbiblical practices that had become almost sacramental in their place and importance in church life, etc. All of these, and more which could be added, are good and healthy steps. But none of them establish a church as having arrived on some hallowed ground that we can now call “reformed” in a final sense.

There will always be a need to press further down the path of living biblically together as a body of believers. That is true for established churches that are being led into more healthy spiritual streams of church life and practice and for churches that are being started by those who are already share basic commitments on these important matters. We desperately need to see a large number of healthy churches planted across our nation (and across other nations), but we must not naively assume that starting a new church will eliminate the need to have an ongoing reforming ministry.