President’s Report of the State of the Church

For the 266th Synod of the Reformed Church in the United States

Rev. Jim Sawtelle

Esteemed Brothers,

“Although the Reformed Church in the United States is a church of history, we recognize that she has re-entered a form of organization only a year ago. Now again, as a Synod, with four Classes, she is a year old.” These are the words of the late Rev. Robert Stuebbe, whose task it was to write the president’s report summarizing the state of the church after that first year of reorganization. The year was 1987.

As I re-read that report it was interesting to note the inevitable struggles he enumerated that come with doing something none of its living members at the time had ever done—coordinate the work of the synod under four classes rather than one, the Eureka Classis. So, I wondered, how are we doing at twenty-five? I was especially hopeful for our condition as I had recently read a report from a prestigious study demonstrating that the age of twenty-five is when a person truly begins to think and act like a mature adult.

However, before I could even finish reading the reports from the classes’ presidents and synod committees, the executive committee received an urgent note from our synod treasurer informing us that, according the State of North Dakota, the RCUS has not even existed since at least the year 2,000! Thankfully, it seems the report of the dissolution of the RCUS has been greatly exaggerated.

Well, how are we doing at the age of twenty-five? We begin the summary of the state of the church by offering the following excerpts from the various Classis President’s Reports.

Highlights from the Western Classis

“Like last year, the financial posture of some of our congregations is not improving. Some churches are operating on a shoe-string budget and barely able to pay their bills; others remain strong and solvent, even though there has been a substantial decline in giving and in their treasury funds. Two churches continue to receive diaconal aid from Synod.

“There are two theological issues that some of the churches are grappling with. The first concerns the use of different musical instruments in worship, including instruments like the electric guitar and drums. Is the day of the organ or even the piano on the way out? How does Psalm 150 impact our choice of musical instruments? Grading the worship of a church on the basis of its music is not always a symptom of wanting “to go Hollywood.” While this matter is perhaps settled in the minds of those who have been raised on the organ and piano, it is by no means settled for the coming generation of young adults, who passionately desire to praise God with other musical instruments. The second concern is what is called Escondido Theology, or the Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms, which is streaming out of Westminster Seminary in California… upon reflecting upon it and also reflecting upon the faithfulness of the Reformed men in Escondido who are in the vanguard of the fight to preserve the doctrine of justification by faith alone, I think we owe it to them to study their views coolly and wisely.”

Highlights from Northern Plains Classis

“Of course, the biggest news out of the committee reports concerns our new mission work in Dickinson, ND. The present situation can be summarized briefly as follows. Dickinson is a booming oil town in North Dakota. God has raised up three families who are committed to the establishment of a Reformed Church there. Others have expressed some interest as well.

“Several decisions were taken by the Missions committee this past autumn. First, Rev. Dale Clark was chosen to be our missionary to this city. Second, the decision was taken to purchase a parsonage in the nearby town of Taylor…

“These developments have caused great excitement amongst the believers in Dickinson. Added to this, Rev. Clark plans to move to the field during March. It appears that this mission work is well and truly underway.”

Highlights from South Central Classis

“I first want to acknowledge the challenges some of the brothers (and their wives) have faced with respect to their physical health. Rev. Howard Hart reports having a difficult year in this regard, dealing with the effects of prostate cancer, diverticulosis, and arthritis, as well recovering from recent surgeries. Rev. C. W. Powell also reports having been “tested this year” with respect to his continued treatment of prostate cancer. Also, we were saddened by the physical infirmities of Rev. George Syms, leading to resignation from his charge in Mitchell and honorable retirement from the pastoral ministry. We continue to pray for the Lord’s sustaining grace in body and soul for our brothers and sisters, thankful for their many years of faithful service in the body of Christ.”

As the missions committee report indicates, positive activity continues on the home mission front. As to the work in Sherman, TX, the desire among the people there is to continue to grow and reach out to the area of nearly 40,000 people with the gospel. The work in Limon, CO, seems to be thriving to the point of needing less financial support from the Classis. Also, there may be some potential for a work in the Scottsbluff, NE, area, and great potential in the metro area of Omaha, NE,… Accordingly, this Classis will decide on the Missions Committee recommendation to send an assessment committee to Omaha, with a view to formally beginning a mission work there, Lord willing.”

Highlights from Covenant East Classis:

“Perhaps the most noteworthy events in the Classis were the planting of a new congregation in the greater Minneapolis area and the steps taken by two of our mission works toward particularizing (becoming self-governing congregations).

“Another growing aspect of our joint ministry is the relationships that are developing between our ministers and those preparing themselves for the Gospel ministry. Interestingly, we held a classical discussion a couple years ago on things we might do as pastors and congregations to encourage men to consider studying for the gospel ministry. Remarkably, I believe there are five of our ministers presently in mentoring relationships with those studying or beginning to study for the gospel ministry. Perhaps this is a wake-up call for all of us to begin considering how we might utilize these prospective pastors in the future.… perhaps as church planters, or maybe co-laborers in fields where much work remains.”

The Work and Struggles of the Classes

A number of summarizing points are in order as they relate to the state of the church. These are based upon reports from the classes as well as permanent committee reports. It is painfully clear that the churches of the Western Classis are hardest hit by the economic struggles our nation is facing. We need to be in prayer for these churches. At the same time, it is with much thanksgiving that we can note the general financial stability and even thriving of the churches among the other classes. In fact, our treasurer reports that giving to synod overall is also very encouraging. We praise God for His provision of the Church’s needs through the grace of cheerful giving.

The classes seem diligent in encouraging the congregations to do all things “decently and in order.” Each classis reports the faithfulness of the churches in upholding the marks of the church. Of particular interest to synod will be the concerns raised in the Western Classis report regarding worship matters among some of the congregations. We trust the classis will keep the synod informed as to how this issue is to be addressed on a scriptural basis. A number of new ministers have been raised up by our Lord for the pastoral ministry among us. In addition to that, we are seeing a significant increase in the number of men received as students under care of the classes preparing for the gospel ministry. This is a most heartening answer to the prayers of the church. Only a couple of years ago synod called for special days of fasting and prayer to God to raise up men for the ministry. Our ascended Lord is now in His rich mercy giving these gifts to the church. Hallelujah! As we see opportunities for new mission works opening up, as well as the prospect of some elderly ministers retiring, we must continue to pray for God’s provision in this area.

God’s Blessings on the RCUS

The blessing of God on the missionary efforts of the denomination is an occasion for rejoicing. The faith-filled and diligent efforts to cultivate the spread of the gospel abroad is bearing fruit in the French broadcast from South Africa by Rev. Eric Kayayan, and in the nations of Kenya, Congo, and the Philippines. The reports of the men engaged in the short-term trips to the Philippines this year were both edifying and challenging. It was wonderful to see how these trips energized the men in both gospel zeal and in challenging their own local congregations to help meet specific needs among the churches of UCRCP. May their example be contagious among our ministers and congregations to support future short-term assignments wherever there is a need among the foreign mission fields.

Our Lord has seen fit to open up a number of new home mission fields as well. After a few years of relative stagnation in this area, this is a most encouraging development. It seems the Lord is giving us both a missionary zeal and a missionary obedience. May God bless these missionary efforts to the glory of His Name and the advance of His Kingdom.

Another area that speaks to the state of the church concerns the report to this synod of the special committee to study God’s revelation regarding biblical sexual morality. Our nation and culture is increasingly undiscerning about God’s revelation in creation with respect to marriage between one man and one woman, in general, and the expression of sexual desire towards one’s own gender specifically. It is vital that the Church of Jesus Christ affirm and prophetically proclaim faithfully, boldly, and graciously the unchanging testimony of God’s infallible Word on the subject of sexual morality.

The Work of the Synod

While our attention is focused on the state of the church, I think it is appropriate to make a couple of observations about good order in the work of synod. Again this year, a number of reports were not out in a timely fashion. As leaders in the church, we are to be examples in self-discipline. There were exceptions and excuses sought and granted for weighty reasons. A number were simply late. Given that committees have an entire year to fulfill their tasks, and that the Executive Committee sent out a reminder last August to everyone to be diligent in committee work, late incoming reports are not acceptable. Gentlemen, we must do better.

There seems to be a lack of clarity among us regarding the confirmation by synod of new ministers from other denominations and the timing of the installation of those ministers in the congregations to which they have been called. Ironically, this problem was mentioned by then President Stuebbe in his report in 1987. That synod made a judicial ruling on this question (see 1987 Synod Abstract: p 68– 70). Twenty-five years later, it appears necessary not only to clarify the process again, but also better codify it for our collective memory and practice.

Historical Comparisons

Before concluding, I’d like to review what I found to be some interesting historical notes of comparison from twenty-five years ago to the synod of 2012. In 1987, the RCUS was struggling to develop our foreign missions efforts in Zaire. Today, we are blessed to be co-laborers with our sister Reformed Church in the Congo, the URCC, as well as a sister church in Kenya and the Philippines, and the French broadcast from South Africa. In 1987, the RCUS closed three of our home mission works. This year, we are starting at least three new mission works, with others on the horizon, the Lord willing (it bears mentioning that our host congregation did not even exist in in 1987). In 1987 there were thirty-six congregations comprising four classes. Today our directory lists forty-six congregations. However, a number of the congregations that existed in 1987 have been closed, due largely to changing populations in the rural areas. Fourteen of our thirty-six congregations in 1987 were in rural areas. Today there are only ten of our forty-six congregations in rural locations. In 1987, we maintained fraternal relations with three denominations in North America. Today we maintain fraternal relations with eight denominations on our continent and others, as well as affiliation with NAPARC and the ICRC. In 1987 we listed three seminaries as worthy of support; since then two of those have been de-listed, while others were added, for a total of five seminaries listed to whom we may send men for ministerial studies. Since 1987, the RCUS has built a growing Ministerial Aid Fund to assist retired ministers and widows of ministers with benevolent needs. We also officially adopted the Belgic Confession and Canons of Dort as subordinate standards of doctrine.

Twenty five years ago a high percentage of our ministers and elders had a long association with the RCUS, while today that number is much smaller. There were thirty-seven ministers among us in 1987, four of whom were retired. In 2012, there are over fifty ministers, nine of whom are retired. And we ought not to forget our recently departed brother Reverend Chester Ploeger, who was promoted to the church triumphant in 2011.

We are grateful for the ongoing faithful work of many of our retired ministers. We also gratefully acknowledge the faithful, active ministry of a number of pastors well past traditional retirement age. Brothers, you are appreciated! You are a wholesome example to us all. Your presence among us provides a certain “institutional memory” that is much desired and, we trust, respected.

And speaking of old companions, the 450th anniversary of the publication of the Heidelberg Catechism will be marked in January 2013. May it ever have an honored place among us in the catechization of God’s people, young and old. This brief review of our recent history made me wonder if synod should be more active in keeping up an ongoing summary of our history.

The State of the Church

The review of the last twenty-five years to our present synod leads me to some observations regarding the state of the church. We have reason to rejoice in a cornucopia of God’s blessings over the past quarter century. We see the addition of ministers, churches, missionary activity, financial stability, seminaries, students for the ministry, fraternal relationships, and confessional breadth. Synod has done a fairly good job of updating procedures and handling its business as that relates to operating in the synod/classis structure. We are better utilizing modern technology for the work of the church. The blessings and changes are truly remarkable. We wholeheartedly praise God for His guidance.

In many ways, the progress of the last twenty-five years is the fruit of a generation or two of leaders who have carefully labored to glorify God in submission to His Word. In 2012, our synod is made up of a less homogeneous group of leaders and churches who must be wise stewards of a growing number of ecclesiastical endeavors, while shepherding a generation obsessed with updating their status on Facebook every few minutes. Will the work of the church progress with the same unity of purpose, the same vigilance for faithfulness, the same commitment to biblical fidelity? Will our leaders stand firm on the unchanging foundation of God’s Word, or will we get disoriented by a Facebook-like mentality of dubious status changes? We can say with certainty that changes will come. Let us pray and labor that they will not be of a “deformed” variety, but that our ministry will be conformed to God’s Word.

I will close with the words of Rev. Stuebbe, still appropriate twenty-five years later: “We can rejoice in the knowledge that the Reformed Church is moment by moment in the hands of our Sovereign God. Commit thy way unto the Lord; trust also in Him; and He shall bring it to pass (Psalm 37:5).”

Respectfully submitted,
Rev. James Sawtelle, Minneapolis, MN
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