Following up on the 2-part podcast we did with 3 OPC pastors, we asked Jesse Pirschel to write an article about what he learned during his time in Calvary Chapel that still influences his ministry, especially to the lost, even if he’s had to nuance and tweak those helpful things once he came to a Reformed understanding of Christianity.
“You’re not making Christianity better; you’re just making rock and roll worse!” Those poignant words from Hank Hill sum up much of what I had to unlearn from my time as a minister and church planter in a large evangelical (non) denomination. The temptation for churches to try and stay relevant with the ever-changing fads of the culture is both exhausting and futile. We will never do it as well as the world does and by the time we get close, whatever “it” was will long be out of style. Case in point, we have a local evangelical church with a middle aged minister currently preaching in a chocker necklace and jeans with bedazzling on the back pockets. It is clear to everyone watching that while this pastor is trying to keep pace with the culture of cool, he missed the turnoff to relevance years ago. Of course, in our particular OPC sub-culture, trying to be “too cool” is not a charge we often have to defend ourselves against. And it can be easy for us to look around and see the obvious weaknesses of modern evangelicalism but, for the purposes of this article, I would like to look back at my own experience in big evangelicalism and consider what I learned that has aided me in the planting and growing of an OP congregation.
One of the aspects of the ministry that stands out to me, as I look back on my time in Calvary Chapel, is that the community and the ministry communicated humanly. From walking in the front door to the time you took your seat, you were greeted by people who welcomed you in a friendly and unassuming way. They had a wonderful ability to make someone feel seen and accepted without making them feel overwhelmed as a new visitor. This genuine welcome, without any undercurrent of pressure on the uninitiated, allowed me, and many others, the space needed to get to know more and further commit to the congregation as our comfort level grew.
Beyond just the general welcome, there was an affirmation and embrace of people as people, all with varying interests, vocations, senses of humor and spiritual maturity. While it was obvious that they took their faith seriously, it was also clear that they didn’t take themselves too seriously. Because of this, there was an ease of conversation, and eventually relationship, that comes when one is not worried whether one’s personal interests or theological knowledge measure up to an unspoken community norm. This made for an accepting and, thus, joyful atmosphere.
Beyond the people, the ministry itself communicated in a way that showed a seriousness about God’s word without requiring the hearer to know all the requisite theological jargon in order to engage with the message. If you know me, you know I am not suggesting that the service be dumbed down so that it loses all reverence or sense of tradition. What I am suggesting is that, especially in our preaching, we not make use of technical formulations and abstractions but rather we preach those formulations in their street clothes so the hearers can engage with them more profitably (one will find the benefits of this will go far beyond serving the new visitor). What I remember about my early days in Calvary Chapel is that, while they were not speaking in slang, they were speaking my language. While the doctrines of justification, sanctification, propitiation and grace are glorious, we need to strive to communicate them in ways that don’t get lost in translation or simply ignored due to the existential disconnect that comes with repeating unpacked theological terms. Part of our Reformation heritage is the gift of worshipping in a language the people can understand. While we need not translate our sermons using the Urban Dictionary, we should do our best to speak in terms that are vivid, concrete and communicate Christ in His law and His gospel in ways with which our hearers can easily engage. A quick read through any one of Luther’s sermons will show that this is something our Protestant tradition affirmed from the beginning.
How To Welcome People
A second thing that I took from my time in Calvary Chapel is, what I would call, their organizational hospitality. All the OPC congregation’s I have visited over the last 20 years have sought to be hospitable to new visitors in their person to person contact; a kind word, a handshake (when such things were allowed) and a warm welcome. In an impersonal world, these are not insignificant gestures and they are valuable in attracting people to our churches. Yet, I have also noticed, that this is not always the case in how some of our congregations approach the visitor from the standpoint of an organization. What I mean by that is simply this, because we have often worshiped with the same people in the same place for some time, we don’t always ask the questions of how a new visitor might encounter the church on their first several visits. Is the parking signage clear? Is the route to the church entrance obvious? Is there a person ready to greet them, direct them and make sure they don’t feel awkward before the service even begins? Are there helps in place to make a new visitor feel in the know without having to ask? For instance, while I don’t doubt that any new visitor who asked would be kindly directed to the bathroom, or the nursery or the Sunday School classrooms, is that really what a new visitor wants to do, much less should be asked to do? Are there things that we can do from the street to their being seated that would make them feel informed, welcomed and cared for? In the evangelical churches that I came from they were wonderful at anticipating what a new person might need in these respects and sought to be hospitable by meeting those needs.
Another issue that can unintentionally arise because we have grown comfortable in our church community is, we can fail to see our own particular congregation’s cultural weaknesses. I have two teenage boys, both of whom think their rooms smell fine. If you can handle the analogy, we are not always the best at judging our own weaknesses. We do well to not only seek to spot these weaknesses ourselves but to also ask others who have recently come, and remained, what were their first impressions and experiences? Many times, we hear the positive feedback of those who decide to join us. They speak of their deeper understanding of Scripture and the benefits and comfort of a more historically rooted faith. But it can serve us to ask about their initial experience and what first impressions that generated. Having had some of these conversations in the past, we learned some hard truths about how we could improve. Many things came down to items that we had some concern over in the past, but, due to the passage of time and getting too comfortable, we had ceased to implement or implemented poorly.
Examples that come to mind are making sure our greeters were in place and fully engaged in their assigned task rather than merely getting caught up in socializing with those they knew or passing the job off to be done by semi-interested children. Were our nursery workers arriving early so that they were ready to receive small children from visiting parents who would, rightly, be a bit apprehensive to drop off their little ones in a new environment? Were our policies and procedures for the nursery to a standard that parents would feel comforted as they left their precious children with people they barely knew? Was our set up of the worship space done in a uniform manner every week? Was the general impression that we were doing things well and beautifully with the goal of honoring God and loving our neighbor? Were our announcements clear to those who were not regulars, and did they give information about our worship and facility that might help a first-time visitor? We still have plenty of room to grow in these areas, and many more besides, but even recognizing there is a need is part of the process toward positive change. If people visit and decide not to stay, it should be for substantive reasons; our doctrine, our practice, our convictions about worship. It should not be because the environment and the welcome were off-putting, and the impression left by it was too much to overcome.
Optimistic About God’s Work
Depending on the size of your congregation or church plant, some of these things may seem unnecessary or the sort of things that can be done if the need arises in the future. This brings me to a third thing that my time in Calvary Chapel taught me, to plan in hope. While our theology gives a more substantive argument for why the church should be optimistic, in practice I saw the expectation of growth held more prominently during my time in Calvary Chapel. When I speak of optimism, I am simply referring to the belief that God wants to save sinners and grow his church through the means He has appointed. In Calvary, there was a confidence that if the Word was preached faithfully and the body was willing to reach out, that people would come. Because of that, things were pursued in accordance with that expectation. While we know that God is under no obligation to grow any particular church, it is reasonable to believe that the Lord who has all authority over heaven and earth, who is working all things together for the sake of His church and who has promised the gates of Hell won’t prevail against her, generally delights to save sinners and draw people into the fellowship of His body through the ordinary means? With this in mind, it is helpful to plan in such a way that God given growth is part of our expectation. This will include us establishing practices that anticipate this sort of growth.
Early on in my journey into the Reformed church, I visited a smaller OPC with my wife and, at that time, two young children. The congregation was genuinely kind to us, going out of their way to make us feel welcomed. When they saw that one of our children was just an infant and already starting to fuss upon entrance, they wanted to serve us by supplying a cry room or a nursery. But, not having any small children in the congregation, and not having an expectation of visitors, they had no such space. So, on the spot, they began to busily empty out a storage space to meet our need. I look back on this event in a few ways. One, I find it completely endearing that they were seeking to love us. Two, I find it discouraging that there was no expectation that they would have new visitors with small children. Finally, I am bit mortified that the storage closet was where they were going to send a visiting infant. That said, I look back on some of the things I have done in the past here, and they are not much better! While we still have plenty of room to improve, I want our leaders and our people to be of a mindset that expects God to bring visitors and believes that, by His grace, He will grow His church. This sort of confidence in God’s character and God’s means can give congregations the boldness to begin reaching out in ways they may not have previously and also preparing ahead of time for growth.
To say it simply, the most helpful things big Evangelicalism taught me for ministry purposes were to be human, be hospitable and be hopeful. What I have found over the years is that each of these areas feeds the other. If God blesses, and you begin to see new visitors, your weaknesses will begin to shine. Things I never noticed before became glaring to me when there were visitors from my gym or from my children’s school. All of a sudden, our lack of organization in certain areas became pronounced, our failing to do things beautifully and well in particular areas of worship became more obvious and some of the clumsiness with which we handled new people was evident. Once those things become more visible, it gives the church an opportunity to improve in them.
Which brings me to a final area that my time in Calvary Chapel taught me, be transparent with the congregation about these things and help the congregation see how they might improve them. In Calvary, there was a directness of communication about the needs of the church that empowered people to serve. I am always amazed at what our people are willing to do if they are simply given the opportunity coupled with clear instruction. If there are areas in our church life that are lacking find an appropriate avenue to address them to the people and give them concrete examples of a better way. If we can communicate our overall vision of outreach to the people and impress upon them how each of the particulars on a given Sunday contribute to that effort, then our people will be more meaningfully engaged in their service and the potential for burnout decreases. There are surely other things that I learned from my time in Calvary Chapel, but these are the areas that I have taken with me into my ministry in the OPC.