I became a Calvinist in seminary. I knew much of what was going on in evangelicalism was wrong-headed at best, unbiblical at worst. I knew that shallowness pervaded preaching and entertainment was mistaken for worship. I was reading Reformed theology and knew that it had to look like something in the life of the church. Theology must be applied and lived out. I had read the Second London Confession (the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith). I had read about the regulative principle of worship. I just wasn’t sure what it all looked like in the worship and life of the church. Nothing in my past or present experience had given me a “model.” For that I am glad.
I just wasn’t sure what it all looked like in the worship and life of the church. Nothing in my past or present experience had given me a “model.”
In many ways, without a model (or cookie cutter) to depend on, we were forced to work through issues on our own. Yes, there were those who offered counsel, but we were a hot horseshoe, and the Bible was our hammer and anvil. One of the things that never changed was our theology of preaching. The Bible needed to be preached, primarily through consecutive exposition. Topical series were rare, consecutive exposition was our main diet. Application was also vital, although my view of application was not what some people expected. One of the main complaints against my preaching in the early days was that I was not practical enough, not enough application, and on occasion, that I did not preach the Gospel. What the latter complaint meant was that I did not give an altar call. The sermon is the invitation, I would say. As for application, I didn’t see it as giving people four things to do the following week, but rather, how do you take what was preached and make a highway from the head to the heart? Earnestness and passion is vital, and contagious. Application was comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.
Application was comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.
What were the things that changed? For one, we stopped sending our kids out of the service before the sermon. This seemed unbiblical to me if we believe that “faith comes by hearing.” So I preached on Children in Worship, distributed an excellent article by John and Noel Piper, and we implemented keeping the kids in whole service. There was some backlash. People thought the kids would be a distraction, or that the sermon would be over their heads. Some people visited and never came back because there was “nothing for their kids.” Frankly, some adults were more of a distraction than the kids ever dreamed of being! And as for over their heads, well, who learns unless they pick up their heads! I started providing sermon notes for the younger kids to help them follow the sermon (hopefully NOT training future generations to be notetakers during the sermon, but that is another story).
Another thing that changed was that we adopted the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith as our confessional standard. We still kept our statement of faith, which is Reformed, as the standard for membership, but the Confession is the standard for our teaching. We have taught through the Confession twice and are gearing up for a third time here soon. People have always responded well to it because most evangelicals have not been exposed to systematic doctrinal teaching.
There were other things that we did in our worship service. We stopped special music. We stopped the greeting time. We put announcements up front so as to not interrupt the flow of worship. We started with a call to worship, by consecutively reading the Psalms. We were picky about what we sang. I was never convinced that Reformed meant only singing hymns from the 18th century, so we have always had a blended worship service, that is, old and new combined. There are crummy old hymns, we don’t sing those (although once in a while one slips in). There are lots of crummy new songs, we don’t sing those. The source of a song is not a deal breaker, it is content. There are Catholic and Arminian hymn writers that our standard Reformed hymnal includes, but it includes them because they are good hymns. Once in a while the words are tweaked to bring a hymn or song more into alignment with our theological perspective. But the bottom line was that the public worship of God’s people should be both reverent and joyful. We have passionately pursued both over the years.
But the bottom line was that the public worship of God’s people should be both reverent and joyful. We have passionately pursued both over the years.
One of the events that shaped our identity in a more public way happened in the summer of 1998. Tom Hess asked me to do a Bible study that summer, which was held at his house in Carson City. The study would be on “An Introduction to the Reformed Faith.” He asked for 13 messages. I prepared a study based on the Solas and TULIP. Tom, unbeknownst to me, had Charlie Schreiber show up with a huge reel to reel tape recorder. Those studies were aired on Pilgrim Radio, and later on Family Radio. The response was overwhelming. Soon we had sent out a few thousand tapes of that series. This really started an important aspect of our ministry, sending out tapes, later CDs, and now Sermon Audio. We wore tapes out. Whether it was Ruth, Isaiah, Mark, you name it, people from all over were receiving recordings and over the last 10 years we have had 1,250,000 downloads on Sermon Audio.
One final dimension should be mentioned. Church life was family life. Family life was church life. We had people that were travelling from some distance and so we spent the Lord’s Day together. We would go to Lampe Park and eat during nice weather. We opened homes. We loved each other, and loved being with each other. Although we have grown over the years, that sense of family remains. For me, I would rather be at Grace Community Church and preach at Grace Community Church more than anywhere else in the world. It is my family.
Our identity was taking shape as a church that tried to be biblical. This meant practicing church discipline, governing our worship by the Word of God, preaching the whole counsel of God, and holding firmly to “Things Most Surely Believed Among Us” (i.e., Reformed, confessional theology), and trying to live out life together under the Lordship of Jesus and the authority of His Word, as a family. My prayer is that in the years to come we stay true to that identity.