Classis: The Right Tool for Three Important Needs

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Reformed polity locates authority in three different assemblies: the local council, the synod and the classis. It is my assertion that the classis is the least valued, the most neglected, the most poorly resourced and the least utilized level of the three. The classical level is the best place for us to tackle a number of the challenges we face in engaging our context with the vitality of the gospel. I will list a few here:

  1. The classical level is THE level through which we can seek to impact whole cities with the gospel. As a denomination we don't have megachurches that can take on city sized challenges. A classis if serious enough about the effort could impact our diverse cities of North America in ways no mega church could. A classis of multiple churches can incarnate the gospel in multiple cultures, multiple neighborhoods, through various ministry aspects. If we are serious about engaging whole cities with the gospel the classis probably the level through which to launch this effort.
  2. The CRC has a need to process theological and programmatic issues in a sustained, in-depth manner and is struggling to do so. How will a denomination adopt another confession? Should children be allowed at the Lord's table? We regularly attempt to address these kinds of issues at a synodical level, imagining that a group of our best minds can produce some written material which will settle matters in the church. Meetings are had, materials are distributed, and the vast majority of the church knows nothing about it. Most synodical delegates don't know each other, especially the lay persons. Can issues at these levels really be processed in a matter of hours in a room of 200 strangers? The classical level affords the opportunity for the church to do process work that the church needs to do. Classes, however, have tended not to not know where to begin. Is classis a business meeting or an expression of the community of congregations in a region?
  3. Classis is the best level of the church to pursue sustained church planting and renewal. If a classis manages to create within itself the kind of face to face, trusted, leadership community through which partnerships can be developed and maintained, then a classis will have the kind of infrastructure needed to launch new churches and new ministries with ongoing, reliable support. Most of our congregations are too small to launch too many things on their own but classis has the potential to broaden that support base to do things that one congregation can't do. What is required to pursue this, however, is a commitment at the local level to invest in the next assembly beyond itself and see the value and possibility of what that assembly can offer. Whole areas of ministry such as faith and work ministry and campus ministries make sense at a classical level where often they don't at the local level.

In order to bring the gospel to the world, our denomination is about to go through another post-mortem on its attempts at focusing ministry resources through agencies. Apart from a classical renewal effort pursued several years ago by Home Missions, I don't think that we’ve really looked at how classis is positioned to address denominational challenges. Look for some additional posts on this subject in the coming months on the Classis network. I'll be interested to hear your thoughts.  

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I think you have raised some very valuable points, and have focused the purpose of classis in an outward direction, rather than in a navel-gazing direction.  So this is good.   Only one caution:   many classies  do not exist in only one city, and have churches scattered throughout numerous towns, so this will change the way they can work together to some degree.   It should be permissable and encouraged for a group of city churches within a classis to work together, with classical support- maybe that is the way of looking at it. 

Community Builder

Thanks John. Those are helpful comments.

In my own classis territorially we have the Bay Area: SF, San Jose, Oakland, etc., Sacramento area, Fresno are, Stockton, Modesto, Bakersfield and others. Having multiple cities within a classis can also be a benefit because we can compare notes and try different models. 

Part of the challenge we face is finding the right size. GR has how many classes? The impact of the CRC on GR is unique. Part of what I plan to get into is also intra-classical work. Have the GR classes ever thought about creating a thing for dialogue about the shape of missional impact over the city? I don't know but I think it would be cool. 

We have the Holy Spirit and no end to ministry opportunities. Unfortunately what we also have is fear and complacency. pvk

I think Paul is on the right track.  If we do not get classis back in the work of ministry, it will continue to be little more than an administrative body that does the grunt work for the agencies of synod.  Little wonder that classis has lost its appeal.  Many ministers, elders and deacons find classis little more than an interruption in the real work of ministry.  In addition, many members of our congregations have little interest in what goes on at Synod or at the BOT.  Both of these are too far removed from the life of the church on the congregational level. 

Bob De Moor wrote an insightful editorial about revising the structure of the denomination.  We must follow through on what he advised.  Paul started the ball rolling. 

To ask that synod study the matter is similar to asking foxes to form a committee to study why foxes steal from chicken coops.  I have worked with the Classical Renewal Team since its inception.  That is nearly 20 years ago.  A lot of engergy was put into the effort but it got nowhere, largely because the work of classis has been taken over by the BOT and the synodical agencies.   Delegates to classis have lost interest in doing that.  Congregations also have little interest in what goes on at classis.  And many have even less interest in what goes on at the synodical level, except perhaps to bemoan some of its decisions.   

A few days ago I suggested that CRMT begin to discuss how classis can get back to doing its ministry (the same thing Paul is blogging about).  The response of the committee is that it has no interest in doing that.  I find that a sad commentary, but reflective of where we are at today.

We must get back to doing ministry on the local and classical level.  Should we fail to do that, we will continue to struggle and the denomination will continue to decline. 

Community Builder

Thanks Al, this is real encouragement to me. 

I've agreed to babysit this corner of the network for a few months but I've not wondering how important this investment of time would be. Your comment gives me the sense that we might be able to do some meaningful work here. 

There is a broad sense that we've lost our way in terms of leadership. Part of that is always with us by virtue of our brokenness and the fallen state of our context, but part of it I think is genuine as we saw in the recent resignations and conflicts. I thought it was healthy to have Synod recognize that our culture of leadership isn't what it should be. Confession is often a good place to begin. 

I believe that through the cultural shifts on many levels we have lost the ability to articulate the practical value of the gospel. A lot of the missiological work over the last 30 years has been an attempt to re-engage, whether that be through the seeker movement, the emergent movement, liberation theology, charismatic movement, some conservative movements to try to recapture past successes and clarities, etc. This impacts all three levels of the church but the level MOST impacted I think is the classical level. The local level has the motivation of broad-life-spectrum face to face relationships, the bi-national/synodical level has the attraction of power, size, attention, importance, etc. The classical level is again, in the middle. 

I'm also convinced that our individual motivations, whatever they may be, must also be met by face to face, life to life relationships with others, including church leaders in order to knit together healthy, productive, generous community where difficult and legitimate differences can be processed and productive next steps can be embraced even by differings sides of debate. Again, classis can do this and help us learn to do it at the local level and at the bi-national level. 

Keep chiming in. I have a real sense that we can do some good work with this new tool we've been given. pvk

Just ruminating a bit more:    I think classis has some great opportunities to do some great stuff.   But ownership of a cause or a project needs to be sustained on a regular, perhaps weekly basis.   Often that is best done at a local level.   That is why a church that sponsors a daughter church or a local mission often has the greatest success.  No one is wondering who is championing it or sponsoring it or guiding it, and the mechanism for instant response to needs and challenges is always available.   Monthly reports on the mission, special offerings, visits, and personal aid for the mission and weekly prayers for this mission would become the norm.  The mission would be a major priority for the sponsoring church.   This sponsoring church can always ask classis for assistance as well, but the connection to another local church is more real.  This applies if the mission is within a half hour or maybe an hour driving distance, and might not apply quite so much if the mission is 6 hours away, perhaps, but even then a church that really feels called to support the mission will have a vested interest in supporting it to succeed, more perhaps than a classis with a number of churches with varying degrees of interest and committment.  

However, classis support is valuable and significant.   And eventually the mission or daughter church will become more independant and tie into the classis the way the other churches do. 

Thanks Paul - this is very important!  (as an aside, I remember missiologist Allan Roxburgh saying that we'll most find God at work in the most God-forsaken places - and I immediately thought of classis).

I agree with John that geographic considerations are significant.  In the two classes I've been involved in, each were composed of three distinct geographic areas.  So why not organize accordingly?  And I also see the need for more than the 2-3 meetings/year.  In Calgary, we've been gathering our pastors/leaders together on a monthly basis, forming community, praying for one another, and now thinking about "how can we begin to function like a city church."  It takes frequent time to build relationships and geographic proximity to develop common ministry vision.  We're beginning to ask how we might coordinate church schedules, develop common events, submit ministry decisions to a wider group, and even to think how we might share resources for wider gospel and church renewal. 

And the pivotal moment for us was this Holy Spirit insight: we have all we need right here.  We didn't need to import experts or download models, but instead to listen for what God was doing among us, realizing God was affirming the gifts, skills and passion of all those within our community.  That, in itself , if a liberating notion!

Personally, I'm intrigued with the idea of reclaiming the tradition of an order - what if churches and leaders in Classis begin to function like a missional order,  bound by a common set of practices and a common vision for their "parish."  I think there's some fruitful ways to re-imagine classis.

So I'm with in you hoping this (God-forsaken?) assembly might become so much more.  Keep on thinking and writing on this.

Community Builder

Thanks Phil. A word from you is always a welcome thing! 

In Sacramento I'm happy we're part of our larger classis, but we do look forward to one day being Classis Sacramento. We too meet monthly in what we call our "cluster" and it has been a source of tremendous blessing. pvk

Participant

Thanks Paul for taking on this corner of the network for a while... I too believe, God will use this tool to connect those with an "interest" in these concerns...  Last year, I mentioned some of my denominational concerns with a local CRC leader, and the response was essentially no one cares, and you won't make any difference at the denominational level.  Well, I didn't receive that, and was a "little" put out, and frustrated, so I prayed, and educated myself more on what's going on at the higher levels of the CRC...  I had kind of given up for a while, then joined the network when they sent out the email in late Feb, then I was struggling with some issue again, and briefly thought with a defeatist attitude, I don't care if I'm in disagreement...and the Holy Spirit really impressed on me that it is very important to be in one accord...  If I'm a part of this denomination, then I need to be praying and working toward being in agreement, however that might look...  

a couple of concepts that we have used in our area (not through classis though)  are seek God for Lynden, based on seek God for the city...  we gather as "the church of Lynden", not as one particular church or denomination...  

Houston prays is another powerful ministry that connects churches in a regional area...  I have met the director for this ministry, and see amazing things going on in the Houston area...  here's one for example:

http://www.godtube.com/watch/?v=FB1B9CNU    a powerful celebration of diversity, as 2000 believers come together in Houston to celebrate the Risen LORD, with dance...  this is a beautiful picture of young and old, and various ethnicities all celebrating Christ.  I cry just about every time I watch it...

the 3rd example is the Light of the World Prayer center that is a county wide prayer center.  again, a beautiful blend of believers from various streams, reformed, pentecostal, baptist, catholic, etc.  praying together.   This is what we have found to be the most powerful way that unity in spirit is achieved, is when we pray together.   A couple of weeks ago, we had reformed, mennonite and baptist pastors and area leaders  praying together for 3 days.  I believe this is very significant for reconciliation, because of our role in the split with the anabaptists many years ago...    some might say ancient history, but as I've become more involved in digging into the roots of some issues, they can go back a long way. 

One of the rays of hope for me is that since we (the crc) reversed our position on cessationism, as we did in 1973, a significant change of doctrine, then it's possible that these other issues I struggle with can be worked out as well.

Like you said, confessing that there is something unhealthy is a good start...  Now LORD, purge, purify and cleanse us of what is not from You...  Raise up Spirit led leaders that are men and women of prayer...  those who know that prayer is life or death for our denomination...In Your precious Son's Name...JESUS!

 

 

 

Community Builder

Thanks Bev for your input. I guess I've got a couple of follow up comments:

1. Prayer. It is our chief work. I believe the #1 reason for fruitless ministry is insufficient prayer. We too often pray as a last resort or in a perfunctory way but that reveals our practical biases. We believe that #1, the work is about our capacity to move the world, #2. it's about our egos #3 it grossly overestimates our power. If we believe that in fact life is too complex, people are too resistant, the kingdom of darkness is too energetic, we will be driven to prayer and in the wake of our prayer our work must follow. 

This doesn't mean that we need to always be talking about prayer or making a big show of prayer. i see that often when groups in Classis and other places want to emphasize prayer, we expand the show. I think Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount is pretty clear that prayer ought not to be for show but should be quiet, often behind the scenes, not a big commotion made of it, but it should be happening in an unseen way throughout the life of our church and ministry. 

2. infiltrating resistant church structures. The key here is perservenence. People are sometimes put off because (in our tradition often) large, loud and imposing pastors see to be running the show ( I am probably one of them! :) ). Don't let this guys scare you. If you want to have influence in a congregation or classis the keys are involvement, patience and persistence. I tell people if they want to be considered a member of my church, don't worry about official membership too quickly, just start coming regularly, every week if possible. Once you've been here a month everyone will think you belong and start treating you like it. Get on a classical committee, show up at every meeting. Drink coffee with people. Ask questions. Show interest. Be inquisitive. A classis is not a difficult thing to break into if you are willing to put in the time and be persistant. 

It is actually not much different from prayer in a Luke 18 sort of way. 

Participant

Thanks Paul... in agreement on prayer being our chief work...  so then that is where we should be spending significant time and energy, but I'm not finding that to be the case yet. 

I have found people are very sensitive about their prayer life - they know they should be praying, and yet often are not and so feel guilty when it's mentioned which unfortunately seems to make them more resistant - I can sense almost immediately when I bring up prayer with someone, whether they "get it" or not.   They will say things like, "that's your gift, not mine." or "that's interesting" then change the subject or some other "avoidance" technique or intellectual argument.  If they "get it", we usually end up talking and praying  together for an extended time.  Do I push it?  All I have to do is mention it and usually within a few seconds, their response will clue me in on where they're at with their prayer life.   I don't do this to judge anyone - I love to talk about Jesus, and prayer will come up because it's a significant part of my life as part of my relationship with Him, and what I'm "busy" with when I'm asked if I'm busy.  Through these conversations,  I often gain insight to pray on their behalf.  Does it make me better than them?  No, I know what my prayer life was like before God graciously transformed it several years ago... it was a duty of 0-15 minutes a day, listing out my requests, maybe a little confession, praise, thanksgiving, but mostly requests... and a see You later God, maybe tomorrow, maybe not, depends if I remember and how busy/tired I am.   My prayer life was pretty weak for a long time and He transformed it over several years, with several key experiences that changed prayer from duty to delight.  It has made me a better believer  in comparison to where I was.

It's my heart cry that prayer will be a delight instead of a duty for every believer, that we all learn to hear the Shepherd's voice clearly... I don't know how many times I get "confessions" of prayerlessness with many reasons...  and it's really obvious when it comes to corporate prayer.  I would be interested in doing a survey of how many crc churches have a regular night of prayer every week... 

I keep asking God, "how long do I have to pray for prayer?"     Pastors have no problem preaching a sermon on tithing/giving when the church's bank account balance is getting low... there's an objective tangible sign of a giving issue and so it's addressed (and the fact that their salary is involved just might have something to do with it =)...  the sign of lack of prayer is not so obvious... but one you mentioned,  fruitlessness in ministry, which is more difficult to recognize and address, and people tend to get very defensive when their program fails and you suggest that maybe we should spend more time in prayer- as i already shared, we are sensitive about our prayer life and "don't you dare suggest in any way that I don't pray" type attitude.

I'm pretty sure I've never heard a sermon that our prayer bank account is getting low, and it's time to step it up with prayer time (I don't like the results of my speculation on the reason for that).    I just sense really hard ground as we are praying for break through with prayer, particularly in the conservative Christian culture, but hope i'm wrong.

 As one author/pastor, Daniel Henderson, humorously puts it, our traditional corporate prayers are more like an "organ" recital.  mostly praying for peoples organs; heart, lungs, health issues,  I'm sure as a pastor you know what i mean.

The following is from his book "fresh encounters; experiencing transformation through united worship based prayer" 

Our pastors minister in a prayerless, success - oriented culture.

"Man of prayer" no longer ranks high on the typical list of desirable traits for the local church pastor.  Usually, the driven, over-achieving, "can-do" person is most admired in our society - and our churches.  Recently, I was in Utah teaching a prayer seminar at a state-wide church leadership conference.  After my session, a man approached m explaining that he was the chairman of the pastoral search committee for a congregation in that area.  He pulled out a list of more than 85 desirable attributes for their next pastor.  the inventory had been compiled through a recent survey of the congregation.  many of the qualities centered on communication skills, management ability, pleasant personality, and strong pastoral care interests.  Nowhere on the list was there any mention of the priority of prayer as an essential characteristic for the new pastor.  American society tends to value strong, natural leadership, dynamic programming (and I would add dynamic personalities), entertaining services, and impressive technology.  The idea of a pastor locked away in extended prayer does not strike the average churchgoer as a mark of effective (and I would add efficient) leadership.  Some church members think it wastes time if the pastor spends energy attending prayer meetings.   Many pastors realize this and decide not to go against the grain.  Fresh Encounters; p 57-58, Nav Press, 2008.

so yes, prayer should be a quiet, unseen thing, but I'm not sure if it's happening at any substantial level, and the stress signs from the possible lack thereof are starting to become apparent  (one sign being the "unhealthy culture in leadership") .   Something is amiss.  Are we willing to admit that might be part of the problem? or at least look into the possibility that it's a concern,  or are we going to resist?   In Moses' welcome speech, he shared how the pastor at the church in Korea spent 3 hrs/day in prayer...  I think we would see significant change if we even have an hour/day (average) by every pastor/leader in the denom (survey results: 85% of pastors pray less than 15 min/day) http://www.worldwideprayer.com/pastorsstatistics.html  ;

survey results of 1050 presbyterian and reformed pastors:  26% describe their relationship with Jesus as healthy as in having regular devotions and felt they were adequately fed spiritually

-       .http://www.intothyword.org/apps/articles/default.asp?articleid=36562 

Are you familiar with Count Zinzendorf and the Moravians?  They are some of my prayer heroes.  I would love to see a study of them added to teaching our confessions =) 

 

and I will check into what it takes to be involved at the classis level... again, thx for sharing your thoughts and taking the time to read mine.

 

  

 

 

 

Participant

As i was walking the track for relay for life in the wee am hours, another possibility entered my mind, for helping bring unity...  Dr. Alvin Vander Griend of the CRC and Harvest Prayer ministries (author of Love to Pray, Joy of Prayer, Praying the Father's Heart), has a wonderful teaching on a culture of prayer.  I am on the Light of the World prayer board with him, and so can't believe I forgot about it.   He has expressed interest in going to regional areas and inviting particularly the CRC and RC from that area for a combined gathering focusing on prayer, helping to bring increased unity through prayer.  Hope that helps.

http://harvestprayer.com/ 

The difference between believing in prayer, and trusting in God, is maybe that trusting in God makes prayer real.   I'm reminded of the story of George Mueller who took care of so many orphan children, and trusted in God to enable him to provide for them.   That's how he prayed, desiring God's will, knowing God's will;  and that's how God answered his prayers too. 

Helpful hint:   for pastors and other leaders, when there is an opportunity to pray, especially in smaller group and family settings, always ask others if they would like to join in, to help pray, and not just to expect one person to do it all the time, even though fathers should provide leadership.  Trust that the Lord will use the imperfect prayers of his people and his children  to praise, worship and edify.  Remember why God asked us to pray, and why Jesus taught us;  it is not because God does not already know our heart's desire.   It is to bring our heart's desire into union with His desire.