In the past two articles in this series, we’ve looked at the health of the PCA through the lens of Mark Dever’s book, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church. In this issue, we’ll address the next three of Dever’s “marks”: conversion, evangelism, and church membership. Once again, we asked a handful of PCA pastors in various areas of the country for their input. Here’s what we heard:
A Biblical Understanding of Conversion
The Reformed—or Augustinian—view of conversion seeks to reflect the biblical view, that is, that salvation is the sole work of God from first to last. If that is true, are we teaching it and why is it important?
Steve Bostrom, church planter of All Souls PCA in Helena, Mont., writes: “To the extent that teaching ‘election’ reminds us that we are naturally impoverished in spirit—worse than we know—it is important. We are loved more than we know, too. To the extent that affirming election gives us grace to be clothed with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, I rejoice.” Bostrom then adds this caveat: “To the extent that such teaching stamps our elite membership in a church ‘club,’ it is to be handled with caution.”
Joshua Moon, pastor of Good Shepherd PCA in Minnetonka, Minn. says, “I don’t attach a special value to eternal election over and above any other doctrine of the church. However, Paul emphasizes it to the Ephesians, but not the Corinthians, or the Galatians, or the Philippians. [The prophets of the Old Testament are] by and large silent on the issue of divine (eternal and effective) election: they are more interested in the reality of ‘covenantal’ election, and urging those elected into the people of God by birth and promise to become and live like true people of God. That I take as more central to my task in preaching.”
Chris Harper of Trinity PCA in Rochester, Minn., adds, “We try to be faithful in teaching the Reformed view not so much as it is the ‘Reformed view,’ but because it is what we believe the Bible teaches.” He also commented that “we speak about salvation being God’s work from start to finish. We tend to speak about it every time we talk about the work of salvation in the life of a person.” Shaun Nolan of View Crest PCA in Eighty-Four, Pa., adds, “The gospel is the power of salvation in Romans 1:16-17, namely a life lived by faith. Every aspect of our having been saved, being saved, and final saving is God’s work in us through Christ.”
All of our responding pastors said that they speak of salvation as being the monergistic work of God (through the Holy Spirit working effectually to bring about salvation/spiritual regeneration without cooperation from the individual), particularly as it is germane to the text being preached or taught in a class. Also, each said that a high percentage (even as high as 100%) of their congregations understood and agreed that in the order of salvation, faith is subsequent to regeneration, or the new birth, not the other way around. They also agreed that they had seen conversion in their ministries. Shaun Nolan added that they do see conversions, “though not as many as we are seeing in our work on foreign mission fields.”
We asked a final question out of curiosity: “Have you ever questioned the validity of a member’s conversion?” They all agreed that they had been called upon to do that on occasion. Chris Harper said, “Unfortunately, yes. We always temper our questions with the knowledge that we cannot know someone’s heart. But there are times when someone who claims to be a Christian has no outward fruit to prove the claim, and even evidence to the contrary.”
A Biblical Understanding of Evangelism
We in the Reformed church are sometimes accused of a certain laxity in evangelistic motivation. An Arminian might be overheard saying, “Since God ‘does the saving’ why even bother to call people to follow Christ? Doesn’t He do it all?” To this Shaun Nolan argues, “The Reformed view of election grants God’s people both purpose and power to live and evangelize for Christ. An Arminian position makes obedience and evangelism at best pipe dreams. Reformed folks actually believe God can save sinners.” Joshua Moon agrees and adds, “Both [Arminianism and Augustinianism] agree that faith comes through hearing, but the location of the persuading voice of the preacher/evangelist—much less the will of the hearer—is the work of the Spirit who works through, and in spite of, the speaker and hearer. But the practice of the two will often look very similar, at least in the best cases.”
Steve Bostrom adds, “Reformed evangelism may open the door to greater partnership with the senior partner—God—as well as more honest vulnerability, less fear, and more patience or boldness with others.”
We asked our pastors if they held regular instruction on evangelistic methods. Steve Bostrom said that he had used Evangelism Explosion literature in the past. “Presently we are looking at book discussion groups—using books such as The Reason for God, The Prodigal God, Jesus for President, unChristian, and The Open Table.” We also asked, “Instead of relying on connections already in place by tradition, do you build relationships as you establish a common vocabulary to speak persuasively to others about the grace of God in Christ?” Shaun Nolan said, “We are not opposed to [evangelistic methods] but we would prefer people see evangelism not as something we rise to through programs, but something that is as natural as breathing. If you are saved, you know how to tell someone else how to be saved … unless you aren’t saved. Unfortunately, I think fear of other’s opinions or just fear of the unknown often keeps genuine believers from actively talking to people about Christ.”
Chris Harper replied to our question this way: “It is God’s Word that actually does the converting. He calls Christians to be ready to give an answer to the hope that is in them. So, Christians need to be prepared and equipped to talk to people about Christianity. But they also need to remember that it is God alone who can change hearts.” Most of our respondents believed that a fairly high percentage of their congregations were prepared to share their faith with those outside the church.
Finally, on this subject, we asked, “How would you briefly define the term “proselytizing”? Moon answered succinctly, “Induction into the worldview and life of a particular group, making disciples.” Nolan defines the term more derisively: “Evangelism with a bad rap,” he remarked. Bostrom went a bit further: “‘Proselyte’ seems to have the connotation of a person having been induced to change religious orientations without a true change of heart. There seems to be something intrinsically impersonal about the term proselyte—proselytes are statistical commodities, products.”
A Biblical Understanding of Church Membership
We found that a high percentage of our respondents’ congregations were communicant or non-communicant members. Answers ranged from 75 to 100 percent with the average being about 90 percent. But is church membership important? If so, why? Chris Harper wrote, “Church membership is very important because it provides accountability to Christians, and gives them opportunity to make use of the full scope of the means of grace to help them grow as Christians.” Shaun Nolan agreed, adding that fellowship—a “connection with God’s people”—is important. A somewhat different answer came to us from Joshua Moon. “Depends. … If [membership] means having the name in the directory with an asterisk (as opposed to not having an asterisk), then I’m ambivalent … . Then of course, church membership is important in order to be faithful to some of Christ’s commands—like living in submission to elders, not neglecting to meet together, etc.”
Steve Bostrom said, “As we follow Jesus, we discover that it was His custom (literally, part of His ‘ethics’) to worship in the synagogue. The Triune God desires more than our personal worship—He desires corporate worship too. The flock—the ‘called out ones,’ are numbered and have an identity. We participate in such glory when we become a member of a church. In the church we can find an antidote to our selfishness and our flights of fancy. We have new opportunities to repent, forgive, learn, and love. We can be part of a dynamic gospel culture that is unique—and yet blesses the common grace God demonstrated in other cultures. How important is it? To the extent that church membership reflects glory, it is to be prized. To the extent that it facilitates an inward missionless faith it is to be handled with caution.”
We then asked about membership vows and what they mean. Do pastors occasionally speak of them from the pulpit? Shaun Nolan wrote, “Each time we receive members or children make professions we talk about their importance.” Joshua Moon and Chris Harper agreed and said they spoke of the importance of membership vows whenever the occasion presented itself. Steve Bostrom answered, “In previous churches I had a 13-week membership class which discussed each of the membership vows. As a pastor, this process gave me an opportunity to better understand those who were joining the church, and for those joining, to better understand this new community.”
We then gave our respondents the following definition of church membership, and asked them to respond to it. “Membership should reflect a living commitment to a local church in attendance, giving, prayer, and service; otherwise it is meaningless, worthless, and even dangerous. We should not allow people to keep their membership in our churches for sentimental reasons or for lack of attention. To be a member is knowingly to be traveling together as aliens and strangers in this world as we head to our heavenly home.”
Shaun Nolan liked it as did Joshua Moon, who added this caveat: “Seems fine to me up until the very last line: ‘ … as we head to our heavenly home.’ I would say something like, ‘To be a member is knowingly to be traveling together as aliens and strangers in this world, living together as a concrete outpost of the new creation, waiting for and pressing toward the consummation of all things.’ The definition [you gave us] ignores the central role of the body of Christ in the world now beyond just ‘getting to heaven.’”
Steve Bostrom also had questions. “As the definition is written, why should it be focused on the local church? What if the church loses the focus of the kingdom of God? Why not be more explicit in regard to that larger call from God?” He continued, “I am persuaded there is more benefit in asking people to make a living commitment to Christ—to continue His earthly ministry—in word and deed—through a local church—and beyond. As His Spirit is present in the church there will be three things: Gospel astonishment (how can such a holy God love sinners like us? Since God does, we worship the Father, Son, and Spirit). Gospel culture (life together for these similarly astonished ones forms a unique and cherished reality—a distinctive community based on Christ). And gospel movement (the nature of the gospel is that it does not turn in on itself but it grows—sending us across the street and around the world).”
Bostrom went on to say that one church he knows has done away with membership. “In their culture they have found that membership brings with it connotations of receiving services. They now ask for partnership—with a written paper by a new “partner” describing how he or she will partner with the local church.”
Beasley and Belz are ruling elders at Trinity PCA in Asheville, NC. Beasley is a 1997 graduate of Westminster Seminary in California, a state in which he lived for over 40 years before moving with his wife Amy to North Carolina. He is the author of five Christian books,including the recent “101 Portraits of Jesus in the Hebrew Scriptures.” Belz, Associate Editor of byFaith, is the editor of three books and the former publisher of Explore! magazine for children.