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I'm wondering if we are really doing this church planitng in a way which glorifies God, is good stewardship of

church planters gifts and family health when we try t do it on a financial shoe string. Yours is the second writing I read  today about church planting in DC and Kansas City/  Both done on a shoestring budget.  The one in DC closing before two years had passed and the one in KC still ggoing after four years.

What troubles me who is defining this church planting model? Why so much demanded of the church planter?  This sounds like cruel and unusual punishment to me. 

Is this really the best model we can come up within the CRCNA?



Joe.. Thank you for your thoughts and comments. With a blog post there is but a limited amount of words that might be used in speaking of one particular opinion on a topic. Yes, I will admit, there are in ways I painted things in broad strokes and things aren't starkly one or the other (as Scott shows eloquently above). Tim Keller's The Prodigal God is the oft quoted source for the interpretation to which I mentioned above concerning the older brother. Because my understanding of Keller's argument and thesis is based solely on the interpretation and telling of those who have used him as their source, I can only take the logical conclusion of their reasoning and evidence concerning focusing on the elder brother in such as way as that they then are identifying with the pharisees. If Keller is correct in his assertion (again, I haven't read his book so I do not know the full thesis) and the target is the Pharisees and teachers of the law, then identifying oneself with the target audience and hence the elder brother gives a bit of legitimacy to being a Pharisee, which, I believe, leads to insular thinking. Again, I have not read Keller's book, I have only seen the fruit of this particular interpretation. 

That being said, Luke 15:1-2 does state that the Pharisees and teachers of the law were muttering against Jesus' choice of diner guests, but v1 also states that the tax collectors and sinners were gathering around to hear Jesus. As Scott states above (dude is from the Center for Excellence in Preaching and knows his stuff so I'm deferring to him her eon some things) there are multiple audiences here. We also have to take into account the third audience of this trifecta of parables--the intended audience of Luke. Luke wrote to a gentile, mostly Greek, audience. In understanding it from this different scope, I would say that the emphasis really isn't towards the elder brother as Keller would state but the fact that a gracious God comes running out to greet his lost son. I can't quote chapter and verse, but I remember Phil Yancey had a wonderful discussion about God' grace in the Parable of the Prodigal Son in his book What's so Amazing About Grace. 

I would say that in this understanding the fact that, yes, Jesus is speaking to the Pharisees that we are to have a reckless abandon of love for the lost. As well though, we see that here is the statement to us all that we all were once sinners and are welcomed home by a God who has gone forth searching for us, leaving all behind. In this same light though, we need to see this as the Good News preached to those outside of the faith hearing about the grace and forgiveness given by God as would the original intended Gentile/Greek audience. 

I lean a bit toward's Joel Green and some others that in the prior parable, the shepherd leaving the 99 behind wasn't so much as leaving the pharisees behind to find the one per se, but the great economical and labor intensive cost the shepherd was willing to pay in order to find that one lost sheep. This same reckless abandon is seen in the celebration by woman when she finds her lost coin. Yes, it was a chunk of money, yet she spends more money to celebrate finding it. And finally, not only did the father go out to meet the younger son as he returned (as did the shepherd go out looking for the lost sheep) he also threw a huge shindig that involved a fatted calf (good eats...and he celebrated like the woman and her lost coin). For Keller's interpretation to work, it then must ignore most of the rest of these parables and the others throughout Luke and the original intended audience. 

Again, thank you for your thoughts and comment. Hope this wasn't too long and convoluted of an answer.

(and I think I just wrote another blog post). 

Thanks for the corrective, Josh.  If people are using the older brother in the way that you describe, I wholeheartedly agree they should stop.  However, recent developments of which I am aware, based on the book The Prodigal God by Timothy Keller, cite the older brother as Jesus' target because of Luke 15:1-2, "Now the tax collectors and 'sinners' were all gathering around to hear him.  But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, 'This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.'"   Jesus' target is the Pharisees and teachers of the law, who have misunderstood God's love and desire to reach the lost.   In light of it, as elder brothers (those like me who were raised in the church, etc.) we are called to join God in His reckless, prodigal love for sinners and the lost.   This is how I have understood the use of the elder brother, have you heard that before?




Thanks for your comment and reflections, Scott. You are very correct in that this parable has a number of layers and there is much you can point out with this parable. Sadly, with blogs, there are only a limited amount of space. I think part of what inspired this post for me was recently hearing it preached and then a conversation I had with my wife and others afterwards about how this parable has been interpreted and how it's been used over the years in different ways. Thank you again for your insight.

Good piece, Josh!  Of course . . . there are lots of layers here and you yourself point out several of them in your post.   Let's not forget that the trio of Luke 15 parables had 2 distinct audiences when the chapter began: the "sinners" gathered around Jesus and the Pharisees who took issue with the company Jesus kept.   BOTH audiences had things to hear in the parables.  In the Lost Sheep one, the good news for the sinners at table with Jesus was that God seeks them and rejoices over them when they are found.   The bad news for the Pharisees is that they fail (a la Ezekiel 34) to do such seeking themselves.   The Pharisees may also be represented by the 99 sheep who did not wander, but Jesus' little line about the 99 "who have no need to repent" is surely a bit of sharp irony--EVERYONE needs to repent, as Jesus surely knew.  The problem with the 99--and the reason they don't bother to seek the lost--is they have forgotten that they, too, are saved by grace alone issuing in their repentance.   So also in the Prodigal Son--the Pharisees are surely the older brother.  They don't welcome the prodigal back and complain about the bad company he no doubt kept (prostitutes!) while in the far country.   Since the Pharisees are one of the 2 main audiences for this parable, it's not bad to focus on the older brother now and then, NOT because they have no before-and-after conversion story to share but because they forget that EVERYBODY has a before-and-after story in God's eyes and that is what should motivate our joy at the return of the prodigal and our desire to share that joy with others by going out and seeking the lost as in the first two Luke 15 parables.

Maybe . . .

Thanks for the provocative post!



Thanks for sharing this! I have not yet heard the Parable of the Prodigal Son be preached where the focus is more on the older brother. But, I think you hit the nail on the head with many of your points. Despite growing up in the church and Christian schools, I still relate more to the younger brother (as you said, "All of us were once dead in our sins. All of us were at one time lost. All of us were at one time made alive in Christ"). Thanks again!

Thank you for your thoughts and comment. Being in the CRC for just over 20 years, I've come across many people who feel bad that they don't have a Road-to-Damascus story. And in feeling bad, sometimes even look down on themselves as not being good enough Christians or something, like to be good enough they need some awesome story. And I think this is partially why many have been gravitating towards focusing on the older brother more so than anything else. I like the idea of changing the title to the Parable of the Gracious Father. That really shifts the focus. Both sons are offered grace and invited to the party. Both are to be part of the celebration. And we are to join in on this celebration and join in the mission of God.

Thanks again for your comments.

Joshua, thanks for sharing your story! I agree with you that this story is not meant to be a comfort and reassurance to "older brothers" that they are indeed invited to the party too. But, I'll admit, as one of those who don't have a "come to Jesus" story to tell, I've never felt particular resonance with the younger brother either. When our church last studied this passage, one of our pastors helpfully re-framed this parable by calling it the Parable of the Gracious Father. Indeed it is profoundly compelling to see the desire God has to meet all of us where we are at and see even those sheep who have run furthest from the fold He desires to see restored. In light of the Gracious Father, the older brother then becomes a cautionary tale of a hard heart. We know the older brother is invited to the party, but we don't know if he repents of his self-righteousness (just like the younger brother) or if he remains in the field, angry and self-righteous, unwilling to accept the grace of the Father (like the rich young ruler).

In the end, I agree with you--this parable should motivate us to join in God's redeeming and restoring mission!

Thanks for your comment, Ron. I'm one of those in the parenthetical category (preparing for parish ministry). I'm actually seeking ordination in another denomination (The Episcopal Church), and I, along with the majority of my classmates, was required to take one unit of CPE as part of my seminary studies. One of the staff chaplains at the hospital noted that there's a difference in the tenor and attitude of those who are electing to take the unit vs. those who are required, which seems obvious, but still struck me as an interesting observation. We talked a fair amount about introversion/extraversion in my group, and noted how each of us had different areas of comfort/discomfort (for instance, while I had a great deal of discomfort and anxiety around cold-calling, I felt virtually none of that in responding to arrest pages, which in turn caused discomfort and anxiety for others). While there are times I think it would be handy to be a tad more extraverted, I think it's pretty great that the Church is filled with so many people who have so many unique gifts.

posted in: Beyond Words

Hi, John,

Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment, and sorry it took so long for me to reply—it turns out the last couple of weeks of CPE are even more all-consuming than the earlier portion!

In writing about one slice of my CPE experience and my personality, I highlighted and maybe even exaggerated the moments of silence. I like to think that when the time comes to say something, I can (and do). In fact, I actually like engaging people in "crucial conversations" (though I'm new to the book/concept, and look forward to checking it out), and a good conversation can override my exhaustion. What I think is different for me is that I prefer having such a conversation when I've already begun cultivating a relationship. The most difficult—and exhausting—part of CPE for me was that many, even most, of my visits were "cold calls," uninvited visits to patients/families who may or may not want to talk to someone about their spiritual well-being, support networks, etc. The newness and unfamiliarity of the relationship would make me feel anxious, and all those introductions would deplete my energy stores.

I don't have good a solution for how to keep going in that situation—and if you do, I'd love to hear it, because I could sure use something during the introduction phase in a new church. In CPE, I usually responded by doing some work that didn't involve human interaction (e.g. charting, planning a service). If that wasn't an option, I might try to eat something, as I've found that "hangry" is a real emotion for me, and sometimes even a quick snack can move me from grouchy and overwhelmed to at least something approaching stable.

All to say, I think there is a place for conversation and words—I enjoy writing and reading immensely; I'm not about to give up verbal communication. I've also seen the pain that can come when one is not able to communicate verbally and wants to—that is a huge loss. However, I also think there is a place for silence, and I think that silence can be as meaningful as words.

Thanks again for writing!


posted in: Beyond Words

Amen! Well articulated and a necessary reminder.

Good thoughts, John.

These exercises are helpful not only in an individual context but would stimulate some good reflection in a Peer Learning Group or mentoring relationship.

Thanks for sharing.

I hope "Pray Like a Pastor" can be taken positively. My son is a pastor in another state and certainly not the staid, pompous type. 

But his sisters and I agree that when we phone him on an important or sensitive issue or talk in person, we get a pastoral response - wise, thoughtful, and just what we need. I'm sure this is what your son meant also! 

posted in: Pray Like a Pastor

What a great topic to think about, Norm. And I'm really curious to hear what other pastors (and non-pastors) have to say about this, and whether they can identify. I'm sure we can can all think of ways in which pastors do/don't fit a stereotype, and how that can be a blessing or not, depending on the situation.

I suppose it could have been meant as a compliment (e.g. you're articulate). But either way, the fact that it bugged you says something good about you I think - you're aware and thinking about whether any pastor stereotypes might get in the way of how you connect.

I'm not a pastor, but I'm married to one. One of the advantages of female pastors, perhaps, is that people are less quick to fit you into a stereotype (to achieve a similar stereotype-busting effect, you might consider tattoos, piercings, or growing dreadlocks :-)

Seriously, thanks for raising the topic and inviting feedback. Other thoughts, from pastors and non-pastors alike? What does it mean to pray (or act) like a pastor, and is it a good thing, a bad thing, or can it be both?

posted in: Pray Like a Pastor

Staci (and Alissa),

Thanks for posting this thoughtful reflection on the value of CPE, especially for those who are thinking of preparing for chaplaincy (or the parish ministry, but want to be better prepared to do quality pastoral care). The combination of intense pastoral care exposure and repeated reflection with a supervisor and small group has a remarkable ability to grow one's self-awareness and effectiveness as a pastoral caregiver (aka: agent of God's love in difficult situations). And thanks to John for broadening the perspective from a different personality type. I hope some of our current and/or prospective CRC chaplains see this and comment on their CPE experiences.

posted in: Beyond Words

Hi John: 

Thanks for the thoughtful comment! This post was written by Alissa. I will alert her to your comment and question! 

Thanks again!

posted in: Beyond Words

First a question: who is the introverted CPE student, Staci or Alissa? Since that was unclear, my personal response to a very personal post will need to be addressed:

To whom it may concern :)

I really appreciated your candid sharing of the challenge you felt when forced to be outside your comfort zone. My own CPE experience, now almost 40 years ago, was similar in that I, an extrovert, had been placed (deliberately, it turned out) in a wing of the psychiatric hospital occupied with mostly elderly, non-verbal, senile patients, where my excellent verbal skills were of little or no use. My best pastoral presence required quietly holding someone's hand, supporting someone walking down a hospital hallway, or helping to spoon feed someone no longer able to feed himself. You might have felt right at home there, but a full day of this left me "exhausted, anxious, and grouchy".

And therein lies the professional pastor's conundrum. Because it is a rare pastoral position where we always get to decide which type of pastoral interaction we need to be engaged in. In fact, it is a rare personal relationship where we are permitted to always operate within our comfort zone. For me, it will always be a challenge to "shut up and just listen". For you, it appears to be a challenge to verbally interact, face to face, with the people around you.

I appreciate that in your post you underscored that even in our conversations with God our personality style is revealed. Over time God has proven Himself quite patient, listening to my verbal meandering, but at times He has found it necessary to use drastic measures to get me to shut up and listen. I won't go into the details, but it wasn't pretty.

I also appreciate that God can get through to you in ways other than verbal. God is pretty cool that way! And I am sure that there are many people who would greatly appreciate your soothing, quiet presence at a time when in every other way they are surrounded by chaos and turmoil.

But what of the people who need you to say something, or even to have a Crucial Conversation with you, at the end of what for you already was a long day of people, people, and more people? You are already exhausted. You are already beginning to feel anxious. How do you keep from sounding grouchy?

My wife wants to know.

posted in: Beyond Words

Mavis, I just started to looking at Salesforce in our church and appreciate your posts.  I did not install the NonProfit Package when I first signed up.  I don't know what version of the NonProfit you were talking about in this blog post, but Salesforce has come out with Version 3.  After looking at the it's household model, (your SPAM filters didn't let me put in a link)  I felt like it was the best option for us.   I tried to install the extra pack afterwards and ran into some big access issues.  I wasn't too far along in our process, so we just started over with fresh install of Salesfoce NonProfit Pack (one of the first options when you sign up).  I would really suggest that people do their homework on accounts before they sign up.  They can spare themselves some problems.  As you said, the non profit may not work best for everyone.  If you think it is best, it is smart to start with it rather than trying to convert to it later.

To Scott and others commenting on this post....Thanks! You started a great discussion that has continued into this followup post by Norm Visser, and some comments posted there. Just wanted to make you saw that followup conversation as well.

posted in: The System


The numbers are interesting. I've done a similar calculation while wondering whether this is why a growing number of ordained individuals (Ministers of the Word and Commissioned Pastors) are applying for endorsement as a chaplain. A further key factor in the numbers is to recognize that if 10% of our current pastors take a call each year (after staying an average of 10 years), this creates over 100 vacancies that would occur every year and require no new pastors; just allowing for shifting of current pastors. To move every five years, the system would require (or produce) twice this many vacancies. In this scenario those twelve net new pastors each year would accumulate from year to year, explaining the current growing backlog of seminary graduates who do not get calls.

Ron Klimp, Director of Chaplains

posted in: Clogged System

For me the sermon title is the handle by which the congregation can "carry" home the basic thrust of the message.  When I study a text I seek to find the context first, and then I seek to divide the text by its internal structure.  After that, I look for "The Big Idea."  The Big Idea is a term I borrow from Professor Haddon Robinson's book, Biblical Preaching.  The Big Idea is the one single main thought that ties together all the smaller thoughts in the text.  From this Big Idea I come up with the title for the sermon.  The title may simply be the Big Idea of the text, or a shorter more concise version of the Big Idea.  So, I really can't come up with the title until I've done most of the textual study of the passage.  For that reason I recommend that pastors stay at least a week ahead of their bulletin deadlines.

Incidentally, when you come up with the Big Idea/Title of the passage well ahead of time, it gives the Praise Team, Worship Coordinator a very good idea where this sermon is heading, so that the worship service is well-coordinated.  

Praise God for the surplus!

When I was in seminary (1999-2003), the word on the street was that the years ahead were going to be great years to enter the ministry in the CRC due to a foreseen shortage of pastors. Supposedly 50% of current pastors at that time were Baby Boomers who were going to be retiring in the next 10-15 years. That probably has been happening, but the influx of so many new candidates has more than filled the ranks. 

Rather than look at the lack of demand for so many pastors now in the system, we need to open our eyes and see the excess demand in the world. In other words, it is time to start even more churches and new ministries in North America and send out even more missionaries to other parts of the world. The decision to join CRHM and CRWM opens up all kinds of new possibilities for service in missions for pastors and other servant leaders.

Speaking from experience, I would invite those looking for work to talk to folks at CRWM or other agencies. Or talk to their home councils and classes about starting daughter churches. We have worked with CRWM in Mexico since 2004 starting new churches and developing leaders, and it has been a wonderful experience matching our gifts and calling with the vast need that is around us.

Rev. Ben Meyer

Seymour CRC, Classis GR East

CRWM Guadalajara, Mexico


posted in: Clogged System

Interesting question; one I've enjoyed discussing with colleagues in a different setting. I dislike naming sermons. Many times I've been tempted to take a trick from painters and label a sermon "Untitled #4." A colleague refined that by suggesting, "Untitled #7 - from the author's 'blue period'."

However, I know that others appreciate having sermon titles. And I don't just mean the bulletin editor at noon on Fridays! Those who help select songs and those who give the children's message, REALLY like a good sermon title. It gives them some sense of where I'm planning to go with the sermon. Sometimes, as Randy wrote, the Word or Spirit leads the sermon in a different direction than I originally thought. I'm not going to sweat that.

Every once in a while, I hit on a great sermon title. Like any time you find an apt word or phrase, that's a delight.

That's a good question and an interesting topic. I find that most of the time, a sermon title is something I have to "come up with so that the church secretary has something to type in the bulletin." I have to plan my sermons some months in advance, and it's more than a bit backwards to give a sermon a title before one has studied the text and meditated on its meaning for one's congregation. I often find that the title I came up with doesn't really fit the sermon that I later write and deliver. But I don't have a problem with changing it at the last minute, even if it doesn't match the bulletin. That's just the nature of preaching Sunday to Sunday. There are a few sermons where the title was right on and intriguing, but the majority have just been serviceable. I'm not sure any were alluring enough to bring in someone from the neighborhood on the strength of the title alone.


I think you are correct that the system is not working so well right now.

I hope some new ideas come forth in response to your thoughts.

Here's my two cents worth: Don't dismiss the "bishop" option so quickly. I had never considered it until I spent time in Nigeria and saw how well it can work. Now I am back home serving as chairman of CIC, often thinking that I have most of the responsibilities of the bishop with none of the authority. Maybe we should just "go for broke" and return to the historic polity of the church.


posted in: The System


  Thank you for the thought provoking article.  I too have thought a lot about the call process in the CRC and wondered what the best length of time it is for a pastor to stay.  It's very hard to know what is best.  I have always wanted to stay one year too less instead of one year too many.  That's also hard to determine.

  Thank you also for sharing the call letter from your Grand Grandfather to Alto CRC in Alto, Wisconsin.  I was baptized in that church and spent the first 10 years there.  Thanks for bringing me back to my childhood.

Thanks again.

Mark Vande Zande

Pastor at 1st CRC, Orange City, Iowa

posted in: The System



Thanks Norm and Leon! I agree that the imagery of "pasturing" goes along well with this post (as does "pastoring", which is how it now reads). 

posted in: By Any Other Name

Thanks for catching that.  It is a typo, but the terms are not unrelated and it does bring a nice picture to mind.

posted in: By Any Other Name

I am not sure I have heard the term "pasturing" in this context before.....but I can identify with the picture that it brings to my mind

posted in: By Any Other Name

This is an intriguing post, as is the first response to it. It raises, again, some questions for me that I have wrestled with ever since I first took preaching classes at CTS in 1977.


The following verse serves as a background for my comments: “When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.” (Matt.7:28,29 NIV)

Were the crowds amazed because of the words themselves, or because the words were accompanied by signs and wonders?

Were the crowds amazed because Jesus spoke words that had immediate application to their lives, whereas the teachers of the law spoke in academic generalities?

Were the crowds amazed because Jesus addressed the urgent questions of their hearts and minds, whereas the teachers of the law had their own agendas?

Were the crowds amazed because Jesus structured his remarks in a manner consistent with the CTS syllabus on reformed preaching, whereas the teachers of the law seemed disrespectful of the rich traditions surrounding the preaching of the Word?

Were the crowds amazed because Jesus spoke the truth as he saw it, whereas the teachers of the law were careful to be politically correct?

Were the crowds amazed because Jesus spoke from the heart, whereas the teachers of the law had a paycheck to protect, or at least their reputation?

Were the crowds amazed because it was clear that Jesus loved them, whereas that wasn’t always self-evident with the teachers of the law?

Were the crowds amazed only at Jesus, or did they appreciate anyone who was somehow able to share the hope that was within him/her?

Were the crowds amazed because Jesus had a compelling message, whereas the teachers of the law seemed indifferent to the impact of their words?

Were the crowds amazed because Jesus was just more entertaining than everyone else, and the teachers of the law were more like “regular programming”?

Were the crowds amazed because Jesus was able to work them into a Hitleresque frenzy, whereas the teachers of the law turned boring after a few minutes?

Were the crowds amazed because somehow they sensed that the words Jesus spoke came from God, whereas the teachers of the law merely revealed which school they had attended?

And, finally, would Jesus be able to draw a crowd today?


A few more questions…

What, exactly, do we think we are doing when we teach students how to preach?

What are we inserting into them that wasn’t there before?

What enables a person to “be ready to share the hope that is within you?”

At what point does a person become a suitable conduit to be used by God to communicate with earthlings?

Who decides when a person is ready to be used by God in such a manner, and based on what criteria?

Who or what are we protecting when we limit access to our pulpits to those who have demonstrated that they conform to a certain standard?

Are earthlings better off when they are protected from people who humbly share the hope that is within them, all the while revealing deep love for the listeners.

Should we require those who stand up at AA meetings to talk about learning to live life with their higher power to have classical approval?

Is God somehow more pleased when men stand up in front of a crowd and “speak knowingly about God and God’s ways with earthlings”? (see Job 42)

Is preaching overrated?


Perhaps the time has come for the Church to hand the keys of the Kingdom back to God. Do we really know enough about the mystery of God and His unfathomable ways with earthlings in order to handle those keys with integrity?


Just askin’...


John Vandonk CTS ex 78 M.Div FTS 1980


Speaking as one of the (former) students you are referring to, I would be VERY careful confusing which of your students arrive at CTS thinking they 'already know how to preach,' with men and women who are just longing to bring their unique voice to the proclamation of God's Word. We didn't just chafe at a man-made-form being imposed on the preaching of God's Holy Word, we also didn't think we should be forced to preach the text like you would. If we as a Denomination can agree that World Missions/Home Missions should be combined because North American has become a mission field much like that of Africa or Asia, then the way in which we proclaim God's Word should be contextual to the environment we are called to. Keep in mind that the diversity in the 'styles' of preaching you hear from your students may be the exact thing God plans to use in order to grow His Church. Perhaps we seemed impatient with your methods because our heart's desire was only to use our diverse voices to introduce God to the people surrounding a small church in Iowa, or a campus ministry in Seattle, or even a thriving church plant in Paw Paw Michigan.

Thanks Henry.  The scenario does seem to present a problem.  It would have been less of a problem, perhaps 75 years ago when pastors carried more weight in the church and in the community.  There was a time when Christian values (in regard to marriage) impacted the community.  But increasingly, the church nor the pastor carry much weight or influence today.  So I think, in today's culture, marriage is more about the couple than about the minister performing the marriage service.  A young couple will do pretty much what they want to do.  Maybe the minister might say, these are the parameters that I'm willing to work with and explain why.  But then if they still want to marry their own way, offer some suggestions as to how to do this to the satisfaction of everyone involved.  It certainly does no good to try and push a couple into a perspective that they're not comfortable with.  Maybe make the suggestion to use (rent) the church facility for the wedding day and have someone else perform the wedding service to their satisfaction.  Or have the service at some neutral location with a civil servant performing the service.  Or get married at the court house with a justice of the peace.  Trying to be helpful from the beginning and giving them a feeling of encouragement early in your dialog will likely contribute to a better witness than simply saying no, I don't do that.  But it is a tough situation for a pastor.

In this described circumstance, maybe the "yoke" is the marriage contract. "A deal's a deal."

A response to Jeff and Bonnie.  I can fall prey to the practices (or mistakes) that I often see others make, namely going to an extreme to make a point, when there should have been some balance in my statement.  I do think that in counseling situations (whether with a couple, an individual, or with a church) counselors can over emphasize the past in trying to reach a present solution.  I didn’t mean that we should totally ignore the past.  To say that in a decision almost fifty years ago or even five years ago, that we grieved or were putting controls on the Holy Spirit may not be so helpful.  We may say, with hindsight, that our decision was not the smartest or maybe we could have done something differently.  But to say a well thought out past decision (probably after prayer and contemplation) grieved the Holy Spirit may well be reading too much into the distant past.  But sure a look to the past is often helpful, especially if there were obviously bad decision making patterns in past history.  But the emphasis, in my mind, should be on the present and what we are doing now.  A church that is constantly looking back for bad history (control of the Holy Spirit) is not likely to be a forward looking church with a positive outlook. So perhaps a balanced approach with the emphasis on the present and what we can do now to curb decline would be my suggestion.

Before I send this off, once again, I realize that both Bonnie and Jeff have posted comments.  I didn’t realize this until I was ready to send my comment.  Thanks for your thoughts and comments, but will wait to respond.  I think I have already said too much.

Thanks Sam.  I think your advice is probably as good as it gets.  But the problem with declining churches is not so simple as trying to control the Holy Spirit or grieving or resisting him.  I could imagine the church that in 1969 had a group of young people who spoke in tongues, or the church which in the opinion of one member didn’t open the Holy Spirit’s door wide enough, those churches could well have sought the advice of others, searched the Scriptures, prayed fervently, looked for denominational guidance, and did the best that they could at the time.  Sam, I’m not sure if your work is within our denomination or beyond, but as you probably know we can make Scripture say whatever we want.  Hence the variety of denominations, and the different positions, even in our own denomination, over the use of so-called  miracle gifts, the use of women in the church, the acceptance of homosexuals in the church, how to approach prayer, and the list of differences can go on.  On these issues and others most churches are interested in following the Holy Spirit’s leading.  They don’t intentionally do what is wrong and in most situations make an intentional effort to honor the Lord in their decisions.  So I would suggest that it may not be as simple as saying we controlled or limited the Holy Spirit by this or that decision in the past.  As individuals and as churches we do the best that we can at the time and trust God’s guidance.

In the past, Christians, even those in the CRC, had a religious jargon that was offensive to those on the outside of the church. We used religious terminology as though everyone understood what we were talking about.  Some even spoke a Christianese that reflected a King James English.  Most Christians came to realize that such talk was more offensive than helpful to an evangelistic effort and simply drew attention to Christians in an unhelpful and unwanted way.  Today, Christians of the more charismatic and Pentecostal leaning (becoming popular in our denomination) are coming out with a new kind of Christianeze, with talk of prophecies, or the Holy Spirit told me such and such, or talk of spiritual healing, or talk of demons, and the list could go on.  And people of this leaning talk with a sense of authority or even superiority that  is offensive to people not only outside the church, but inside as well.  They know what they should do in a given situation because the Holy Spirit was their guide, and who are you to question the Holy Spirit, or doubt the prophecy given to me by God? Or there is talk of controlling the Holy Spirit, as though they have a corner on knowing the mind of the Spirit.  And should another Christian talk about making decisions based on common sense or logic or what is reasonable, it is as though such a person must not be a Christian.  But isn’t a Christian’s logic and understanding influenced by his/her relationship to the Lord?

So Sam, I think I was picking some of this thinking up in your article, and maybe some of your responding comments.  I may be wrong, as I often am.  And my offense at some of this new Christian jargon and thought may also be wrong, at least in the opinion of many.  I also realize there is a growing openness to this third wave thinking in our denomination and that the church worldwide is growing especially where there are Pentecostal leanings.  Maybe our denomination feels this is the direction we should be pursuing, as this growth worldwide may be a sign from the Holy Spirit.  But for me, I want to throw up flags, and will miss the strengths we have had in the past.  I guess I should be content that being a Christian is a personal matter and can feel the leading of the Holy Spirit to stay on solid ground, as I understand Christianity.

I really didn’t intend to have a lengthy comment.  I’m sorry.  I have enjoyed the conversation with you and feeling free to be open in my comments.  Wishing you the best in your work and life.    Roger

I would venture to guess that the apostles and disciples in Acts spent much more time together in prayer and in fellowship than most of our congregations do today. I wonder how much time is spent in quiet, submissive, listening prayer together as one way of discernment. I've seen consensus come to a group through quiet listening prayer after posing a potentially divisive question to the Lord. It was amazing to see how the Lord spoke both individually, yet with a collective voice, to this group of people who were quietly waiting, expecting to hear from him. I think in those kinds of moments is when I've come closest to sharing that sentiment, "It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us". And then I've been more confident going forward with the action that was decided. We serve a God who reveals himself to us - But are we willing to listen? 

I agree that it would be great to have the apostles' discernment process filled out a little more. Ruth Haley Barton spoke eloquently about discernment at the recent World Renew Partners gathering in Muskegon.

I also agree that there are times when it's important to go back first, to build the capacity to move forward - discernment with the guidance of the Holy Spirit is critical in this process as well.



I guess I'd have to lean towards Sam's point here regarding remembering and repenting of past errors.  You say that we should not "sulk over past mistakes" and should focus on the present and the future.  I think we would all agree that the final outcome is to dedicate ourselves to faithfulness in the present and the years to come.  But I think there's more to it then telling the church to "just move forward".  I am sure that you have been a part of, or known churches, where a pattern seems to have emerged over the years that has hindered the flourishing of that church--churches where every pastorate ends badly or prematurely, or where power plays seem to be fought over the most innocuous things, leading the people to say "why did this happen *again*?"  Something more is going on under the waterline.

In family systems terms, the anxiety has become chronic within the system, and it is recycling itself.  It affects the churches way of being in the world and carrying out ministry.  In those cases you have to go back before you can go forward.  And that may involve repenting of the behavior --individual or corporate--that led to the anxiety in the first place.

In terms of discernment, that can be a tricky thing, can't it?  I think one of the passages of scripture I'd like to understand better someday is that line in Acts when the apostles said "It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us."--boy, I wish Luke would have filled that out a little more.

Well, you raise a good hypothetical (while my example was not a hypothetical; it actually took place).  I guess I would expect the leadership of the church to seek direction from her bride from his Word and Spirit - and then, once received, act accordingly.  I envision that the search for God's direction would begin with confession of sin, an acknowledgment of our limitations, and a petition for illumination, accompanied by a willingness to seek wisdom from others in the congregation and broader Christian community.  I have been privileged to watch elders work in such a fashion - and have been blessed.   And thanks to you for a stimulating conversation. I hope our paths cross some day.




Thanks again, Sam, for your insights.  It’s interesting to listen to the perspectives of others.  You obviously have some wisdom and insight from working with a variety of churches, and probably many of them in decline.  But I also realize that giving advice to churches can be like a crap shoot, and not all advice is equally valuable.  Sometimes (not always) looking to the past is not very helpful, especially when all we have is the present.  There may have been a variety of things that caused a church or an individual or a marriage to get off track, but you only have the present to set a new direction. And for a married couple, as you suggested (or was that Jesus’ suggestion), they may need to get back to some of the things they did well early on in their marriage or life as a church.  But sulking over past mistakes doesn’t change the present or future.

In answer to what resisting the Holy Spirit looks like, you gave a hypothetical example of 20 people of another race not being embraced by the congregation, and the congregation eventually fell into decline.  Of course that may or may not be the reason for decline.  And that same congregation will probably not face that same situation again in order to correct that past mistake.  But what can they do now?    But let’s add to your hypothetical example.  Maybe that same CRC congregation today is faced with the prospect of twenty practicing homosexuals (ten legally married gay couples) wanting to be professing members of that church.  They all love the Lord and only want to participate in the life of the church like all other professing members.  What should the leadership of the church do?  They know that eventually the CRC will likely admit gays into full membership.  Are they going to turn away twenty people who love and want to serve the Lord and in so doing resist or control the Holy Spirit, or are they going to embrace them as full members of God’s family and put a smile on the face of the Holy Spirit?  Personally, I’d love to see that church embrace their homosexual brothers and sisters in Christ.  But I imagine that the church, at present will turn them away (like the rest of our denomination).  And then fifty years from now that same church can look back on a past serious mistake by which they probably disappointed the Holy Spirit and contributed to the decline of the church.

So, Sam, how do you advise this church today?  Looking back on a past error of judgment, what will you tell them today?

Thanks for the opportunity to respond to your article.  I’ve enjoyed the correspondence.

Roger, now you got me thinking!

What was the original intent of my blog?  Well, while I am a self-described Reformed Charismatic and while the aforementioned conversations about two churches wrestling with the so-called extraordinary gifts prompted the blog, I did not right the blog to spark a conversation about the place of the so-called extraordinary gifts within Reformed congregations.

Instead, I wrote the article as an experienced pastor and as a church consultant who has had the privilege of working with churches in decline. The purpose of the article was to prompt declining congregations to consider that one reason for decline may be that at a particular time in their histories, they resisted the movement of the Spirit. In my experience, most declining congregations fail to even go there. Instead, they tend to think that health and vitality will return when they get a new pastor or a new program or a new building or a new something.    

What does resisting the Holy Spirit look like? Perhaps the Lord led 20 people into the church through profession of faith but because the twenty were of a different race than everyone else, the congregation did not embrace the members or even rejoice in their professions. Now, years later, they wonder why the church is in decline.  I am suggesting that the church first remember that event, repent, then resume. 

Thanks, Sam, for your challenging response.  But I’m not quite sure how to respond to your comments.  I guess, on the one hand, I could say I agree with your final comment that “there is no end of ways by which a local congregation can resist or attempt to control the Holy Spirit.” And then we could just leave it at that and try to remedy our ways, whatever they may be.  But I don’t really think that was the point of your article.  Somehow I think you were digging deeper.  And maybe what you were digging at is rather controversial in our denomination.

First, let me apologize.  I thought the one example you gave about speaking in tongues was your own experience.  This, I now realize, was an experience of someone other than you.  It helps to understand this.

As you may know there is a movement in the CRC toward being more open to the operation of the Holy Spirit, as if the CRC was not previously open to the Holy Spirit.  Those on both sides of this movement have some skepticism toward the other side.  Your examples and the general advice you give seem to fall in support of this new “third wave” movement of the Spirit.  But you don’t quite come out and say it.  In contrast, your last paragraph (of your last comment) is so generic that it doesn’t really have much meat.  Sure we should all be looking for ways that our own churches can be growing in the faith and for ways we may be hindering that growth (another way of saying controlling the Holy Spirit).  So is your article addressing this more generic concern or is it addressing churches that don’t seem open to this third wave movement that is moving among a lot of evangelical churches today?

As to the two examples that you gave in your article concerning spiritual gifts, are you sure that the leadership of these two churches were really trying to control the Holy Spirit, if even inadvertently?  When someone in the congregation gives the opinion that his church only opened the door partially but not fully to the presence and work of the Holy Spirit, was that the feeling of most others in the congregation, or was it this person’s own opinion, and what is the basis of his opinion? What would it mean, for him, to open the door fully?  And when a small group of teenagers from the youth group of a church started speaking in tongues (almost fifty years ago) and were told that they were playing with fire by the leadership, don’t you think it’s possible that these leaders had it right?  Should have the leaders simply said, from now on we are going to have tongue speaking and interpreting of tongues as part of our regular worship services?  And we are also going to make these teenagers the leaders of the church because they obviously have the Spirit of God present in their lives.  Just because someone in church speaks in tongues does that mean the church should all of a sudden be open to the so-called miraculous gifts?  Was there anyone in that church that could have validated the authenticity of the tongue speaking young people?  Is it enough to say, I can speak in tongues, or interpret tongues, or prophecy, or heal the sick or have a better understanding of prayer?  And are these the true signs of a church empowered by the Holy Spirit and a sure sign that our church is now ready to go places?

Again, I just am not sure what you originally meant by your article. Was it a more generic warning about being sensitive to the Holy Spirit as churches, or sensitive to what makes for a healthy church?  Or was your article meant to encourage churches to be sensitive to this newer third wave movement in churches which in the minds of third wavers is being sensitive to the Holy Spirit?  Originally I thought you were addressing this second perspective, now I think you may be softening that a bit.  Thanks again for the dialog.

I just noticed your comment, Bonnie, before getting ready to post this.  I’m a little baffled though.  Does being open to the Spirit mean that there is no room for others in the church to validate a member’s giftedness?  That might be fine if your being gifted affects only your own life.  That’s like saying, “let your conscience be your guide.”  That, too, is fine if your conscience is guiding your own life, but when it affects others, then there should be a system of checks and balances.  If your having the so-called miraculous gifts affects others in the church or the church as a whole then there should be a way to validate the genuine character of those gifts.  I get a little bit suspicious when I hear people telling me, the Holy Spirit told me thus and so, and then I am not allowed to doubt their opinion.  I find everyone has an opinion (whether you say it’s from the Holy Spirit or not), but that doesn’t mean everyone’s opinion is right.  And I don’t think such a perspective has anything to do with controlling the Holy Spirit, but has everything to do with common sense and logic.

The Spirit blows where it will; our relationship with the Lord must allow for enough trust to be open to being controlled by the Spirit, rather than the other way around. I agree that our need for control can hinder the Spirit and his work. May the Lord open our hearts and minds to cooperate fully with the work of his Spirit in and among us.

Roger, thanks for the thoughtful response.  What prompted my blog was the comments by two separate individuals about two different congregations. These two individuals believed that their congregations began to decline after attempts by congregational leadership to control the Holy Spirit. I believe it accurate to conclude that the leadership for both congregations was wrestling with the place in the life of the church of the so-called "extraordinary gifts" of the Holy Spirit.

You ask what I mean by controlling the Holy Spirit. Good question. Perhaps we could agree that attempts to control the Holy Spirit (resist the Holy Spirit) involves attempts to reduce the influence of the Holy Spirit in the life of the local congregation. Add to that definition this presupposition: Jesus Christ seeks to exercise lordship over the church by his Word and Spirit.

If that be the case, one of the most effective ways to control the Spirit is to disobey (or simply neglect) portions of the Holy Spirit inspired Word of God. Another method would be to suppress or ignore the manifestation of the Spirit given to the church for common good (I Corinthians 12:7-11).  Also, since the work of the Spirit is to glorify Christ, we hinder the work of the Spirit when we fail to glorify Christ.

While the two aforementioned individuals connected congregational decline to specific responses to the extraordinary gifts of the Holy Spirit, surely there is no end of ways by which local congregation resist or attempt to the control the Holy Spirit. I think it best for congregational leaders to assume that they have done so in one form or another - and then move on to remember, repent, and resume.

Not sure I answered all your questions. Come back at me if I have fallen short.  I appreciate the conversation. 

Thank you for this article; may we more and more rejoice in the presence and healing power of our Lord through his Spirit. And many thanks to Dunamis and their excellent and practical workshops.

Thanks, Sam, for your thought provoking article on your experience of a dying church from your past.  I take it that you think that many other churches that are declining are experiencing the same conundrum as your church, which is when the church leadership attempts to control the Holy Spirit.  

But I’m not sure what you are getting at when you talk about controlling the Holy Spirit.  Are you talking about losing a Christ centered priority?  That seems to be what you are suggesting when you explain the Revelation passage, “Remember our first love - Jesus Christ.”  Practically that could entail a lot of things.  But when you speak of your personal experience, it seems to be a matter of speaking in tongues which may or may not be a matter of giving Christ the priority he deserves, or for other churches your concern may be a matter of not using or recognizing the extraordinary gifts of the Holy Spirit.  I’m not sure what you are getting at in your article?  Are you suggesting that churches that are not pushing in the direction of third wave theology or Pentecostal thinking are trying to control the Holy Spirit?  

You realize that most churches from the time of their inception were growing and robust churches, and if they were mainline churches or CRC churches that growth took place without an emphasis on third wave or Pentecostal thinking.  So to put the blame of trying to control the Holy Spirit, or the blame for declining membership, in the realm of resisting the third wave movement or wanting to remain traditional may be faulty thinking.  Maybe along the lines of advice given to the church at Ephesus, churches need to get back to what they were doing earlier when they were experiencing growth.  They need to, “Turn back to me and do the works you did at first.”  Maybe Christ’s advice had nothing to do with the miraculous gifts.  Depending on what you are saying, there may or may not be some fuzzy logic in your article.  I guess it depends on what you mean by trying to control the Holy Spirit.

I have read your article, Sam, and Andrew Beunk’s corresponding article, and I’m left wondering what you conceive of as the power of the Holy Spirit or trying to control the Holy Spirit.  What specifically is a Spirit filled church?  Is a traditional and conservative CRC church any less Spirit filled than a charismatic Pentecostal leaning CRC church?  And if Jesus advice to the church was a matter of getting back to their starting emphasis, then that likely had nothing to do with getting on the third wave train that a lot of our churches are getting on as of recent.  So a little clarity would be helpful.

Thanks so much for your explanation as how the "tools" criteria has been expanded within the Canadian context.

One thing that should be noted when considering the employee versus independent contractor for Canadian tax purposes is an expansion on the use of "tools". In many situations, where the individual has a particular set of skills that is not otherwise easily obtainable (doctors, lawyers and other such professionals being some of the prominent examples) this can lend a lot of weight toward the individual being considered and independent contractor. You might surmise that the same could be possible for musicians - I have yet to meet someone who picks up an instrument and is able to play it skillfully without having played any other instrument before.

While I would highly recommend you seek out a professional opinion before making any determination on your own (and I would note that in my post I am NOT providing an opinion on your situation) this is something to consider as being self-employed has many tax advantages even if there are some shortcomings.



 I've been helped by writers like Edwin Friedman and Peter Steinke to properly appreciate just how much the congregation is an emotional system. One factor that they mention is that a highly anxious system breeds secrecy-- secret unofficial meetings about an issue may initially have good intentions behind them but  almost always lead to  negative reactions. If it needs to be discussed it needs to be discussed above board and this transparency has to be pushed as a congregational value.

posted in: Found in the Ashes