Lessons from local church history, part one
July 22, 2011
As I've mentioned before, I'm working on the history of First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Mississippi. It has been a rich honor to do this work, to tell the story of one of the leading churches of southern Presbyterianism. As I've been plugging away, several lessons have been emerging for me (which is why I've listed this as part one). I will share a couple now and then revisit this theme in the weeks to come.
1. The lesson of "the road not taken."
While FPC Jackson's elders have been key for holding the church on the pathway of faithfulness (that's another lesson that I'll mention sometime), I think the real lesson has been the road not taken in terms of pastoral choices. For example, before the church called J. B. Hutton in 1896--a little-known, young pastor of a yoked parish in Central Mississippi--they had tried to call A. J. McKelway, pastor of the Presbyterian Church in Fayetteville, NC. McKelway had come and preached, investigated the call, but in the end decided not to come. That was a blessing for the church: for McKelway would become one of the early proponents of the Social Gospel in the southern Presbyterian church. Imagine how different the history of FPC Jackson would have been--instead of a staunch conservative defender of the faith like Hutton to have had a Social Gospel proponent like McKelway!
At several key points in the church's history, similar "roads not taken" occurred. It has impressed upon me the importance of the process of pastoral searches and calls. Churches that stand faithful through the generations are those that seek men who are faithful to the Scripture, true to the Reformed faith, and obedient to the Great Commission, men who are winsome pastors and faithful leaders, and men who stay in a place for a little while at least (that's another lesson for a future post). FPC Jackson was blessed in the men they have called through the years--and protected from the roads not taken.
2. The lesson of "it only takes one generation."
Another lesson that has pressed itself upon me is that it only takes one generation for a church to die. As part of the research work that I've been doing, I've tracked down various churches that are mentioned in biographical sketches or represented in various events. Just today, for example, I tried to find information about Point Breeze Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh (where Harold Ockenga ministered); Central Presbyterian Church in Chattanooga (where Wilbur Cousar pastored); United Presbyterian Church in Wheeling, WV (where John Reed Miller served for a time) and Central Presbyterian Church in Jackson (where R. E. Hough pastored). What do these congregations have in common? They were all thriving, large, significant churches, pastored by conservative, talented men: and they no longer exist today.
Now, the reasons why these churches no longer exist are as various as the congregations themselves. Still, as late as the 1950s, they all were thriving congregations; and if congregational death can happen to these congregations, it can happen to my congregation and to yours. God's mercy has been evident in the fact that FPC Jackson, a downtown church, has continued to thrive and prosper even as the city of Jackson, Mississippi, has changed several times through the decades.
But it would only take a generation for a church to show signs of decay: perhaps a poor pastoral choice; a failure to continue to preach God's Word faithfully; a transition in the church's understanding of mission; an inability to see and adapt to the neighborhood around it. It is enough to cause us as pastors to get our knees and to beg God to continue to grant mercy to our congregations and to grant them mercy in the generations after us.