Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Church Planting by Psalm Singers

Last night at our meeting of presbytery, a good friend asked a question to this effect: ‘Can effective church planting involving praise marked by exclusive psalmody without musical accompaniment take place outside Free Church areas of influence?’ It was a reasonable question, and one which I decided to take some time to consider rather than open my mouth without thinking (I am not implying that those who did speak were guilty of such a response). So I have thought about it and here is my response. Probably there is nothing new here for others, but it did help me clarify an aspect of my thinking.

Given that I believe the New Testament teaches that worship in first-century churches used unaccompanied singing of metrical psalms (music, as is acknowledged by historians, was not introduced until centuries later), it would be easy for me to say that the answer to the question is ‘yes’. That answer is sufficient for me, but I suspect those asking the question might want additional reasons. So here are three, and they can be classified as history, motive and understanding of success.

First, from a historical point-of-view, the answer is that such churches did plant similar churches – hundreds of Reformed churches in Scotland (and elsewhere) were planted, each of which was marked by inspired praise and no music. This was the case in virtually every denomination that existed in Scotland between the Reformation and the second half of the nineteenth century – it was not until then that hymns and musical instruments became common. The Free Church itself engaged in an extensive church planting activity after 1843 all over the country, and these plants did not use hymns and instrumental music. I suppose the question can be phrased another way: ‘Have more churches been planted in Scotland since hymns and instrumental music were introduced than were planted before then?’ Obviously I am not denying that church plants have taken place in groups that used hymns and music, but I would say that the evidence we have historically is that they are not essential for successful church planting. But I wonder what is the answer to my rephrased question mentioned a couple of sentences ago.

Second, the original question raises another question for me: why do we plant in non-Free Church areas? If the only answer to the question is, ‘Because we want to tell people about Jesus,’ then are we not duplicating the activities of other evangelical churches already in that area? While there are large sections of Scotland that do not have a Free Church, there are very few areas which do not have an evangelical witness, be it by Baptists, Brethren, Charismatics, Pentecostals, Church of Scotland (at times), and various independent churches. It seems to me that if all we want to do is ‘tell people about Jesus’, then we should join groups in these communities that are already doing so and help them.

Personally, my reasons for praying for, and supporting practically if possible, Free Church plants are based on more than initial communication of the basic gospel message. I would like to see Free Church plants because I have concluded that New Testament churches should practice covenant baptism (unlike Baptists), have recognised, ordained teachers (unlike some Brethren), regard spiritual gifts such as tongues and prophecy as limited to the apostolic period (unlike Charismatics and Pentecostals), have exclusive male eldership (unlike some evangelical Church of Scotland congregations), and have a commitment to specific doctrines, summarised/stated in the Westminster Confession of Faith (unlike most churches). In addition to these features, since I have concluded that New Testament worship involves unaccompanied inspired praise, and since this is the current practice of the Free Church, it is inevitable that one reason for planting Free Churches in non-Free Church areas is to have churches with this feature. If we move away from the items I have listed, then our contribution ceases to be Free Church in particular and becomes an undefined church plant. At present, the distinctives that stand out from most other evangelicals are our view of baptism (not just its mode, but also its meaning) and our current practice of praise. I see no valid biblical reason for modifying either of them in a church plant situation. This does not mean I don't want other groups of Christians to prosper in winning souls for Jesus.

Third, of course, we all want to have church plants that develop into self-sufficient congregations that go on to church plant (at least, I hope we do). But is that the only kind of successful church plant? Is ‘success’ based on a large number of individuals coming along or is it based on the number who become committed to what we believe? Sometimes the number who come along consists of a small group of committed people, at other times it becomes larger and larger. Does God denigrate the plant composed of committed people that remains small? Does he disapprove of their desire to remain loyal to his Word? Unfortunately, despite having made an attempt at answering the question raised by my friend, I cannot give a definite answer to the question in the previous sentence because the public answer will not be given until the Day of Judgement. But, without being presumptuous, I think I know what God’s Word says about it.

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