Subscriber? Login. No? Subscribe.

Rebuilding the Walls

08. March 2017

Features, Theme Articles,

  —Daniel and Esther Howe

In the dramatic opening of his book, Nehemiah, a trusted official in the Persian Empire, receives news of Jerusalem from Jewish travelers: “The remnant there in the province who had survived the exile is in great trouble and shame. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates are destroyed by fire” (Neh. 1:3). Nehemiah’s response is powerful. After seeking the Lord in weeping, fasting, and repentance, he travels to the holy city, reconnoiters, and leads in rebuilding the walls.

Atlantic Presbytery was once the center of our denomination’s life, but it is now on the periphery. Our antislavery stance was forged in Coldenham, N.Y. Our seminary started in Philadelphia. In 1890, there were three RP churches in urban Philadelphia, five in New York City, and two in Boston. Of these 10, three remain, but they are now located outside the cities. What is now Atlantic Presbytery declined 86 percent in communicant membership from 1896 to 2015 and dropped from 27 congregations to 9. (Thanks to Elder Emeritus Chris Wright for gathering statistics.)

As Protestant Christianity dwindled in secular eastern cities, so did the RP presence. The reasons for this decline are many and complex. One major factor was westward migration. As Scots-Irish enclaves relocated, so did churches. Suburbanization also took its toll. Members moved outward, but not to the same neighborhoods, weakening city churches. Vermont Presbytery and New Brunswick and Nova Scotia Presbytery disappeared as farming communities shrank.

Our denomination has historically been strong where Christianity has been strong. In an increasingly secular society, this is cause for concern. A recent Barna survey of the Most Post-Christian Cities in America (http://cities.barna.org/america-more-post-christian-than-two-years-ago) found that 8 of the 10 most post-Christian cities in the U.S. were in New England or New York (outliers being Las Vegas and the Bay Area). But the heartland is also changing, influenced by (and sometimes reacting against) the coasts. Churches in the heartland are starting to deal with pressures already faced by Christians on both coasts. (For a story on those pressures, see Duran Perkins’s article in this issue.)

What does this mean for the future of the RPCNA? It doesn’t leave us in despair. But it leads us to hope that more of our brothers and sisters will grasp the urgency of learning to minister here in the Northeast, where Christians are few, people aren’t quite as friendly as in the Midwest or the South, and growth is slow. If we can build healthy churches here, we can build them anywhere.

We suggest it’s time to rebuild walls in the Northeast.

God’s Providence

There are a lot of reasons for hope for the future of the RPCNA in a secular age. We’d like to share a few lessons we’ve learned in our efforts over the last decade to plant Christ RPC in Providence, R.I.—one of the least evangelical Christian cities in the country. We honestly expected it to be more difficult than it has been. God has truly been our guard and guide in this process, and all glory and credit goes to Him.

We began holding worship services in 2006 with a membership of 11, including children. Today our membership stands at 81, with worship attendance higher. Almost half of those worshiping are African refugees. We think Reformed Presbyterianism has strengths that equip us to proclaim the gospel well in the Northeast. What has worked in New England may not work equally well throughout the region, but we see reasons for encouragement in the work of the gospel:

Sovereignty & Psalm Singing

RPs have two resources that are deeply valuable in places hostile to Christianity: we believe in the sovereignty of God over our children’s salvation and we sing the Psalms.

Often we hear that the Northeast is a hard place to raise a Christian family. It is true that there are few Christian schools, and homeschooling is rare and heavily regulated. Public schools push abortion and LGBT agendas. It is not unusual to be the lone evangelical on a school sports team.

But society does not save our children; God does. Our children are part of the church, bearing the covenant sign of baptism. The two of us can testify that the Lord has been faithful to our families (we were both raised RP in the Northeast). We are not afraid for our children, but we think there is wisdom in teaching them to live as Christians in a secular culture.

We also sing worship songs that reckon with the reality that we have enemies. Psalm after psalm talks about God’s deliverance and protection from the wicked. We are the spiritual descendants of the Covenanters: should we fear a tense conversation with a coworker or being maligned by atheist neighbors? Weekly in worship, and daily in family worship, the psalms speak truth to us and constantly remind us that God saves and protects us. Singing the psalms lets us be okay with the fact that our votes often don’t count for much. Anti-Christian politics has dominated both coasts for a long time. But we don’t put our trust in princes or presidents:

“Let the nations tremble, for the Lord is reigning from His throne above the angels” (99A from the Book of Psalms for Worship [BOPFW])

“My trust is in the Lord; how can you say to me: ‘Now like a bird make your escape, and to your mountain flee!’” (11B from BOPFW)

“So in peace I lie down; I will rest and sleep, for, O Lord, You only will me safely keep.” (4B from BOPFW)

We live under the rule of another King: Jesus.

Old-School Church

Second, the way Reformed Presbyter­ians “do church” feels pretty comfortable to many New Englanders. Small is good: there are no megachurches in the state of Rhode Island, and most churches of any denomination are small (81 is a respectable size!). Institutions are good: New Englanders rarely enter one another’s homes unless they are already close friends or family, so going to worship in a church building is less strange than a Bible study in someone’s home. Having Presbyterian in our name is an asset because it means we’re not a cult. Historic is good: New England identifies with the Old World culturally, so our Scottish heritage is attractive. Psalmody is weird but cool.

We have seen a number of church plants try and fail during our time in Providence, using gimmicks that work elsewhere. But classic, Protestant, church ministry—substantial preaching, the sacraments, congregational singing, personal warmth, membership, and church discipline—does well. By God’s grace we are not the only such church in Providence, R.I.!

The Committed Core

Third, Christ RPC has thrived because of our people. We started out 10 years ago with a small but dedicated core group who are mostly still here. Only one of these folks was a native Rhode Islander. Most of them grew up in the RPCNA or joined the denomination while college students, and several of them were shaped by short-term RP Missions experiences. They came here not simply because of a job but because they felt God’s call to a place where Christianity was weak, and they have stayed and served. Without them, practically speaking, Christ RPC would not exist. (For the experience of one of these core members, see Kelli Trexler’s article in this issue.)

How You Can Help

Pray

Please pray for this region. Imagine the gospel reaching the blue states in power. Imagine it reaching the coal miners of eastern Pennsylvania and the floor traders on Wall Street. Imagine it reaching the college professors of Cambridge and the welders of Providence. Pray for it! Pray for the gospel to reach the rural poor and the urban poor. Pray for it to reach the elites. Pray for it to reach the millions of Jews, Italians, Irish, Dominicans, East Africans, and Chinese in our cities. Pray for creativity in outreach for the RP churches here. Pray for pastors for the congregations that need them. Pray for powerful and effective preaching. (Much of what we have written here applies to our brothers in St. Lawrence Presbytery, both in New York and in Canada. Please pray for them too.)

Send

Send us people to help with the ministry. Be sending churches to the mission field of the Northeast. Send us pastors; send us members and elders and deacons. Encourage people in your congregations to find work here. Encourage young people to come to college near our congregations.

Come

Consider moving here. Seek employment here, seek a pastorate here, seek education here. We need experienced, serious Christians, as well as new believers, to work alongside us. If you have a job possibility in the Northeast, please don’t dismiss it. If you are a student, look at some of the excellent universities close to Atlantic Presbytery congregations (including four Ivy League schools). The members of our congregations could use your help and encouragement. We are not only fewer, we are smaller than we were; so a first step is strengthening small churches. And we can serve you. We know this spiritual climate and can walk with you as you learn not just to survive but thrive here. We can be your family when your own family is far away.

We know that there are great spiritual needs throughout North America and the world. Jesus stayed in Judea, the religious heartland, and He preached against its hypocrisy. But He also ate with people that good Jews of His day were uncomfortable with—prostitutes, tax collectors, and sinners. Then He sent His servants to the ends of the earth. Like Nehemiah making the trek back to ruined Jerusalem or Paul crossing from Asia Minor into Europe, some of us are called to hard places, perhaps the hard places in our own countries. We have the tools, do we not? Our faith is not a hothouse flower that needs constant shelter and protection (nor are our distinctives, for that matter).

The Northeast is the cradle of American history, independence, and culture. It is also the cradle of American Christianity, but it has long been in ruin. The Northeast, North America, and the world need redemption, repentance, and peace with God. The good news we embrace is that the Son of God did not stay at a distance, condemning us for the mess we made. He became flesh and dwelt among us.