Why Don’t Confessional Reformed Churches Grow More Quickly?

When newcomers enter confessional Presbyterian and Reformed (hereafter, P&R) churches they have entered a world that is different from that with which they are familiar. I have written a very brief tour guide for such pilgrims and their hosts. In this essay I hope to try to provide some explanation for why most Reformed churches are small and for why they tend to grow slowly.

There are many ways to analyze churches, e.g., liberal (mainline) v. conservative, confessional v. non-confessional, and doctrinal v. experiential to give but three examples. Churches can also be analyzed by their relation to a given neighborhood. There are community churches and commuter churches. In America, community churches are typically congregational and the principle around which they are organized is the distance members live from the church building and from each other. People are bound by a proximity and a personal relationship before anything else (e.g., doctrine, piety, polity, or practice). Thus, other considerations (e.g., doctrine or polity) necessarily take a backseat. Such congregations tend to be doctrinally pluralist. Members (however that is defined in a neighborhood church) may be Baptistic or they may believe in infant baptism. The minister may do whatever fits a given member’s preferences. Some members may be charismatic and others not. Some members may desire a “high” liturgy and others a lower, more informal approach to worship. In other words, in such congregations, it is not doctrine or even practice that binds people together. It is proximity and relationships that bind them together. I recall visiting a congregation overseas, perhaps it was the only church in that small town, where the minister preached a sermon that was Anglo-Catholic for five minutes, evangelical for five minutes, and latitudinarian for five minutes. Those, I guessed, were the constituencies of that congregation. I could not tell you what the minister himself believed. I wondered if he believed anything at all?

Contrast our neighborhood congregation with a confessional P&R congregation. Most of these are not organized by proximity nor by a democratic principle nor by pluralism. They are bound by the Word of God as confessed by the P&R churches. They have a set theology, piety, and practice. They cannot be whatever a family in the neighborhood might want them to be. They are what they are. Typically, confessional P&R congregations are commuter churches. Years ago I remember reading that most Americans do not like to drive more than 10 or 15 minutes to church. I suppose that most members of P&R congregations drive at least that long and some longer. Recently I heard about a family, who lives in a remote area, who regularly drive two hours one way to worship in a P&R congregation.

That most confessional P&R congregations are commuter churches means that they are not going to have the same sense of community that a neighborhood congregation may have. Commuters to a P&R congregation may live in different cities. They shop at different markets. They are not necessarily united by a common (secular) culture. What binds them together is their shared confession of the Word of God. A commuter church may struggle to organize fellowship opportunities away from church. Even basic things like a second service in the afternoon may be impossible for those commuter churches in high-density urban areas were rental space is costly. They might have to pack both services into the period from 9:00 AM to Noon. Perhaps there is a fellowship time between services or a lunch afterwards and then the commuters separate. Members of the same congregation might not see one another (because they are separated by time and distance) until the next Lord’s Day.

These are two different ways of existing as congregations. Arguably, the neighborhood or community church is more amenable to American culture. The neighborhood congregation is not any one thing. It is inclusive. It is egalitarian. It is, to a given member or family, whatever they need it to be. To be sure, commuting is also a truly American habit but it is one thing to commute to work. It is another thing to commute to church out of a commitment to a theology, piety, and practice. Thus, drawing American Christians into such a neighborhood congregation bound as it is, by proximity, relationships, and pluralism, is one thing and drawing them to a confession (an objectively defined theology, piety, and practice) is another.

Confessional P&R congregations, organized around a fixed confession as they are, are a tough sell to independent (i.e., autonomous), pragmatic, Americans. Since the early 19th century anyway, evangelical American Christianity has been dominated by something much more like the Anabaptist movements of the 1520s than it has been by the Reformation movements of the 1560s. The P&R churches are strangers on American soil and are estranged from the dominant American approach to Christianity, which is pragmatic and relational more than organized and confessional.

This does not mean that P&R congregations are always slow to grow but it does mean that they tend to grow more slowly. They tend to be smaller. Most are 100 members or fewer. By Willow Creek and Saddleback standards, the average P&R congregation is tiny. Depending upon the economic sociology of a given P&R congregation (e.g., a rural RCUS is likely to be blue-collar, a suburban OPC might be slightly more white-collar, and a suburban PCA might have the highest percentage of upper class professionals) the resources of the congregation may be quite limited. Most church growth probably comes through natural networks (friends, relatives, neighbors, co-workers) rather than more confrontational evangelistic methods. Thus, P&R commuter churches are at a decided disadvantage. Further, when a newcomer does arrive, he does not find a malleable community but a community of believers committed to a particular confession, a historic piety, and a defined way of practicing the faith. It does not conform to him. The congregation effectively asks him to conform to them.

These are not excuses but they are realities. Confessional P&R congregations are typically not neighborhood churches. Their roots are not in the nineteenth-century frontier revivalism but in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century theology, piety, and practice transported from the British Isles or the European continent to the New World. The P&R church confess that the Holy Spirit is the “Lord and giver of life,” and so he is. We preach the Word, administer the sacraments and discipline and reach out to our friends, neighbors, and co-workers with the expectation that he will save his elect and add them to his church but we should not judge ourselves by alien standards, as if we were something we are not. We belong to a different theological and practical paradigm and we ought to use that paradigm as the measure of our growth.

—R. Scott Clark, Escondido