This January marks the second anniversary of a major change for Jennifer and me. Having attended Baptist churches for the entirety of our married lives (and, for me, my entire life), and after weeks and months of prayer and deliberation, we decided to become Presbyterians. I can say looking back that this was a positive change for us, one that has brought us into fellowship with believers whose understanding of Scripture is much more in agreement with our own. We are very grateful for the people that God has brought into our lives and for the things that we have learned and experienced as part of congregations in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church and the Presbyterian Church in America.
As a lifelong Southern Baptist, it was my study of the writings of nineteenth-century Southern Baptist theologians that was largely responsible for my becoming a Calvinist, something about which I have already written in a previous post. I didn’t realize at first just how controversial the Calvinists’ teaching about God’s sovereignty—particularly regarding election and predestination—were in modern Southern Baptist life. I simply saw that these teachings were more consonant with what God’s Word says than was my previous understanding, and readily embraced them. Over time, though, I began to realize that my understanding (and teaching) of the sovereignty of God in salvation was “going against the grain” of what most Southern Baptists—and more importantly, the leadership of my own local church—believed on these matters. I slowly came to believe that the action that would best preserve my own conscience and the “peace and purity” of the church that I was attending would be for Jennifer and me to depart to another church which shared our understanding of God’s Word on these matters.
It was at this time that I began exploring Presbyterianism. Since Calvinism was a sine qua non of Presbyterian churches (conservative ones, at least), I knew that my “five-point” Calvinism would not be a matter of controversy in such a church. Still, I also knew that Presbyterians were paedobaptists, and while I had begun to study that issue a bit, at the time I couldn’t understand why these brothers were baptizing their infants when Scripture so “clearly” indicated that baptism was for professing believers only. And so, while I was a little conflicted, I abandoned my exploration of Presbyterianism and continued to faithfully labor in our Southern Baptist congregation.
In January or February of 2008 I first met Lamar Cranston and Robert Williamson, two former Southern Baptist pastors who hoped to someday start a Reformed Baptist church in or around West Monroe, Louisiana (where we lived at that time). They had contacted me after seeing my name listed on the Founders Ministries website, and were hoping that I was a Reformed Baptist pastor already serving a church in the area. While I had to disappoint them, we had a delightful time of discussion and fellowship over coffee. I, for one, was thrilled to discover that I was by no means the only Calvinistic Baptist in our area, but I didn’t think anything would come of their idea of planting a church. Nevertheless, that following September, Providence Reformed Bible Church was born with our three families, a tiny meeting space, lots of prayer, and lots of dreams.
In retrospect, planting the church at that time was perhaps a foolhardy venture…from a purely human perspective, anyway. We had too few people, extremely limited resources, no outside support, and an infinitesimally small local community of Reformed and Calvinistic Baptists that might want to join with us. In the two-and-one-half years that we struggled to begin a lasting work, our attendance never consistently rose above ten people, despite a number of major efforts at outreach. Statistics say that most church planting efforts fail, and Jennifer and I can prove that from personal experience—of the three church planting efforts in which we have been involved in our adult lives, only one has survived and become a viable church. Of those three, though, this is the one into which we poured the most time and resources, and the one that has left the most lasting impression upon us. I would like to share ten reasons that I am thankful for our time with this small, short-lived, but vibrant work.
1. We experienced worship that was saturated with Scripture.
Like many Christians laboring in churches obsessed to one degree or another with the “latest fad” in evangelical worship, we knew that there was something not entirely right with what we had experienced in our previous churches, but we couldn’t quite identify what it was. At PRBC we experienced worship that was ordered, reverent, and sober (not somber!), and most of all, saturated with God’s Word. Between the Scripture readings, prayers, and even the songs sung, every week we were fed with Scripture over and over again—before we even got to the sermon!
2. We experienced preaching as the central part of Lord’s Day worship.
The centrality of preaching to the worship service is a distinguishing feature of Reformation theology, and this was certainly true at PRBC. More than half of each 90-minute worship service was devoted to preaching. No, not every one of these long sermons was an example of magnificent oratory, but just as in the rest of the service, the Word of God was approached with reverence and with gravity, something we had so craved in the past but never consistently experienced. Most of the preaching at PRBC used the lectio continua method of preaching verse by verse, section by section, through books of the Bible. This is a wonderful way to ensure that the “whole counsel of God” is faithfully preached.
3. We celebrated communion every week.
Of all of the great things about worship at PRBC, this is perhaps the one that I miss the most. We celebrated communion every week. While some believe that this would cause the sacrament to become a mindlessly dull and boring exercise, we found that our appreciation of it actually increased over time, and we lamented its absence when we had to worship elsewhere. As I think I recall hearing Michael Horton (b. 1964) argue, taking communion each week allows us to respond in faith by eating and drinking Christ each time the Word of God is preached. It truly never “gets old.”
(Also, we broke off larger chunks of bread and used bigger glasses, not those little thimble cups. I miss that, too!)
4. We learned that that the use of a regular—and even repetitive—liturgy does not have to lead to dull and lifeless worship.
Those of us that grew up in broadly evangelical circles have an inherited distrust of structured liturgies, particularly those that involve written-out prayers, recitation of creeds, and the like. The worship services at PRBC (which, by the way, were more “liturgical” than what we have experienced in any of the Presbyterian churches we have since attended) showed us that such forms, when, again, saturated with Scripture and offered in faith, are not dull and lifeless but rather full of both reverence and vigor.
5. We learned and quickly came to love many great old hymns of the faith.
I have always preferred “traditional” worship to “contemporary.” There are lots of reasons for that: some good, and some bad. Still, I’m not entirely sure I really knew what “traditional” worship was until we came to PRBC. Many of the hymns (and, occasionally, Psalm settings) we sang there were old. Not 1940s “old.” More like 1640s, or even older. What a joy it was not only to sing songs imbued with both theological and poetic rigor, but also to realize that the songs we were singing had been sung by generations of Christians before us!
6. We developed an appreciation for the ecumenical creeds.
Having grown up sometimes hearing the rallying cry “no creed but Christ,” I wasn’t sure what to make of churches that recited the Apostles’ or Nicene Creeds in their services. Just as I quickly came to appreciate the liturgy, though, so I came to appreciate the creeds, particularly the Nicene, which is a little more thorough than the Apostles’ (but not as long as the Athanasian). Repeating a short summary of the faith, week after week, month after month, year after year, is a way of helping the congregation to internalize these great basic truths. Additionally, recitation of the creeds unites us, like the old hymns, with our forebears, and even unites us with fellow Christians across denominational lines that hold to the same fundamental truths.
7. We came to understand and appreciate confessionalism.
PRBC subscribed to the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith. Like the creeds, confessions are ways to set forth right doctrine and to guard against error, but are much more detailed and particular to each church or denomination. While most ministers, elders, and members of confessional churches take exception to their confessional standards on minor points, subscribing at least in large measure to these documents helps a church or group of churches to readily define and decide what teachings are consonant with the church’s beliefs, and which are not. When used well, confessional standards provide a safeguard against error seeping into the churches.
8. We were exposed to authors, teachers, and ministers that remain among the most influential in our lives.
I have been an avid reader for all of my adult life. As a university music professor with an earned doctorate, I have clearly spent a lot of time reading and writing about music, but I have also long enjoyed reading theological works. While I had begun to dabble in reading Reformed authors before attending PRBC, armed with the longer and greater exposure Lamar and Robert had enjoyed, I was introduced to authors and resources I never knew existed. Lamar in particular had a large theological library which was a joy to peruse. In reading and studying these Reformed authors and ministers I discovered the work of Joel Beeke (b. 1952) of Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, and eventually took 18 hours of systematic theology courses via correspondence with that institution. Our time at PRBC was thus certainly a boon to my theological knowledge and understanding.
9. We were encouraged to explore and exercise our gifts in the service of the church. Indeed, we had to do so!
Anyone that has ever been involved in church planting knows that it is hard work. After all, if you don’t do something, that thing might not get done! From preparing fellowship meals to authoring websites to teaching Sunday School to purchasing literature and supplies, I was called upon to do just about everything at one point or another during our time at PRBC. One Sunday I was even asked to preach! For someone that has at times considered leaving his current profession to enter the ministry, this was both a joy and a challenge. While my “performance” was by no means perfect, that sermon wasn’t terrible…at least, not for a novice like myself.
10. We developed close and enduring friendships.
Although we are now separated by nearly five hours’ drive, Jennifer and I still consider the Cranstons and the Williamsons to be among our greatest friends. Having worked and served and prayed and labored together for so long, it is hard not to emerge with such a bond, despite the age difference between us.
It was these friendships that made departing so difficult, as we knew that with our departure, which we announced in late December of 2010, PRBC would effectively cease to exist. As I am too prone to do with difficult situations involving those that we love, I handled telling Lamar and Robert very poorly. Still, after over two years and effectively no growth, I think everyone knew that, in the providence of the sovereign God we so faithfully proclaimed, studied, and discussed, our little church plant was not going to be a lasting work. Besides, with an SBC church across town beginning to explore Reformation teachings, there was no need—at least, not at that time—for competing Reformed Baptist congregations in West Monroe, and I am happy to report that, to the best of my knowledge, Edgewood Reformed Baptist Church is still doing well, and the Cranstons and the Williamsons are happily serving there.
As for Jennifer and me, strangely enough, during our time at PRBC and our consequent exposure to the best Reformed and Presbyterian authors and ministers, we were able to study Presbyterianism—and particularly paedobaptism—more deeply, and eventually came to agree with that understanding of church government and of baptism (a subject about which I hope to write here in the future). Having become more familiar during this time with the various denominations within conservative Presbyterian and Reformed circles (and there are many—perhaps too many), we were better equipped than we had been previously to choose a church and denomination that would be most appropriate. Additionally, because the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith to which PRBC subscribed is very nearly identical (teachings on baptism and church government excepted) to the Westminster Confession of Faith used in Presbyterian churches, the change for us was actually quite small—much smaller than it would have been had we joined a Presbyterian church immediately after leaving the SBC. We view this incremental change as a blessing from God, a providence that only He could have orchestrated in such an ideal way.
This is not to say that our move into Presbyterianism was altogether without “bumps in the road.” In fact, the first Presbyterian church we attended was a PCA church plant that ended up being even shorter-lived than PRBC was! Still, our Lord brought us to a wonderful church home at Calhoun Presbyterian Church (ARP), where we happily and faithfully served until we moved to Mississippi this past summer, where we are now attending—and quickly finding work to do in—Christ Presbyterian Church in Oxford.
The Apostle Paul wrote, “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28) Ten years before we joined PRBC, I had barely even heard of Calvinism, much less confessionalism. Even five years before joining PRBC if you had told me that I would ever leave the SBC, much less become a committed Presbyterian I wouldn’t have believed you. As I reflect upon the past five years of my “ecclesiastical life,” if you will, it looks like a story of too much change and upheaval—certainly not what I would have chosen for myself were I able to determine the providences that would come my way. And yet, as I look back, God has indeed worked all things together for His glory and our good. Out of so much seeming disorder Jennifer and I emerged with great friendships, a much deeper knowledge of and appreciation of Scripture, a greater understanding of the importance of the local church and of our involvement in it, familiarity with some of the greatest authors, teachers, and ministers—past and present—in the church, and an overall greater sense of love for, reverence for, and dependence upon the God who has been so gracious and merciful to reveal Himself to us. For all of this I am exceedingly thankful.
“Now unto him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us, Unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end. Amen.” (Ephesians 3:20-21)