Macon, GA (October 13, 1998)-Representatives of the
denominational Mission to North America (MNA) Committee appeared
before the stated meeting of Central Georgia Presbytery, in order
to answer questions and respond to concerns raised regarding church
planting, particularly in the Western United States. Dr. Cortez
Cooper, present MNA Coordinator; Dr. James Bland, MNA Associate
Coordinator and Coordinator-designate; and Dr. Phil Douglas, Chairman
of MNA, made the trip to Macon.
Earlier this year, Central Georgia Presbytery had attempted, under its auspices, to send a church planter, the Rev. Mr. Jason Wallace, to Provo, Utah. The state of Utah is presently outside the bounds of a presbytery, meaning that any presbytery or congregation may lawfully plant churches there. However, the one organized congregation and two mission works in the Beehive State are members of Northern California Presbytery; and that court had overtured the 1998 General Assembly to extend its bounds to encompass most of Nevada and all of Utah.
Correspondence in January between the MNA Western Coordinator, Mr. Lewis Ruff, and the stated clerk of an Eastern presbytery seemed to indicate that there would be opposition to Mr. Wallace's reception into Northern California Presbytery, unless he were able to affirm the legitimacy of the type of worship found in many of the churches of that presbytery. In early spring, Mr. Phil Stogner, who had agreed to mentor Mr. Wallace, suddenly reneged on his agreement with him and Central Georgia Presbytery.
All of this activity brought to the forefront the PCA's mission work in downtown Salt Lake City: New Song-Salt Lake. Among its distinctives were the use of alternative rock music and video clips (including from secular movies) in public worship, the conducting of public worship (including the administration of communion) by an unordained man, and an internet website which attempted to appeal to a "hip" generation through the use of Beavis and Butthead torsos to portray the organizing pastor and his assistant.
At its April stated meeting, Central Georgia Presbytery overtured the Assembly to deny the proposed extension of Northern California's borders; and also overtured the Assembly to look into the apparent irregularities manifest at New Song-Salt Lake and to what extent MNA personnel were involved. The General Assembly denied the extension of Northern California. It also denied the Central Georgia overture with regard to investigating MNA, but did so on the basis of certain assurances from the MNA Committee regarding oversight of mission efforts and worship practices.
At its July meeting, Central Georgia had posed a
series of questions for Northern California Presbytery, for Mr.
Stogner, and for the MNA Committee. The MNA Committee, meeting
behind closed doors in Atlanta on October 2nd, had adopted a reply
to the questions asked of it.
In his opening remarks today, MNA Committee Chairman Phil Douglas noted that MNA was "not completely happy with all that happened there in Salt Lake. Some of that was because Salt Lake was a good distance away from our other churches. And we regret that our MNA Committee and staff was not able to supervise as fully that work. On the other hand, one of the things that we recognize is that our church planters, and our coordinators as well, are men that are driven by a heart for the lost. And they are very wanting to see men and women and young people come to Christ. And sometimes that passion for the lost drives them to not do things as orderly as we would like to have them do. . . . We need to supervise, clearly. . . . At the same time, we want to understand that these church planters are driven with a passion for the lost. And sometimes that pushes them over the line, or they let themselves be pushed over the line. . . . So, our accountability system is in place. . . . On the other hand, the thing that I hear from our church planters is that they are very concerned that last year the PCA only grew 1.7 per cent. And among the statistics that these men cite quite a bit is that it takes about 55 members of the PCA to bring in one new member. . . . To summarize that point: I don't want to excuse the church planters, and certainly not the church planter for the church at Salt Lake or our regional coordinator in the West. But I do want to present to you what I consider God's passion."
Dr. Douglas stated that MNA had pledged to re-double its efforts of oversight of church planters and regional coordinators.
Responding to the concerns over contemporary worship
being utilized rather than traditional Reformed worship, Dr. Douglas
said that MNA had adopted several years ago a document on "Church
Essentials." He also stated that Mr. Fred Marsh of the MNA
staff had recently estimated that 20 per cent of MNA's church
plants utilized "liturgical" worship forms, 30 per cent
used "contemporary" worship forms, and the remaining
50 per cent offering some sort of blended worship-i.e., both contemporary
and traditional. "I dare say that this Presbytery would
have some similar breakdown."
While not citing any evidence for his assertion, Dr. Douglas stated: "On the Assembly level, these issues have been debated quite a bit over the last number of years. And, as you know, the Assembly simply has not been able to be definitive. . . [regarding] what specifically is Reformed worship. . . . And so one of our points here is that MNA Committee, as an agency of the church, and not a judicatory-not a governing board-. . . we do not believe that we can mandate what General Assembly has not yet been able to define, precisely."
With regard to concerns over favoritism being shown
to those who favor contemporary worship, Dr. Douglas answered:
"We discussed this quite a bit at our Mission to North America
Committee on October 1 and 2. And the conclusion we came to was
that the Assessment Center does not show favoritism or preference
to one form of worship or another in its points or in its giving
approval to church planters. However, every summer for the last
seven years, eight years, Mission to North America has sponsored
a church planters' conference which used to be held in Atlanta
every July, and now it's held regionally. . . . We concluded that
men who . . . lead those seminars on worship have emphasized contemporary
worship, three, four, five, six years ago when we were together
nationally for that training conference. However, our contention
is that that was simply the way that they conducted their . .
. worship training and this does not come as an official statement
from Mission to North America."
Pastor Rich Edwards of Westminster Presbyterian Church, Martinez, GA, led off the time of questioning. He asked if as a teaching elder he could have access to budgets and figures. Dr. Cooper responded: ". . . My philosophy is that of the sunshine law-anyone can come anytime and look at anything." Making particular reference to the Western Regional Coordinator, Dr. Cooper stated "I really believe" that solicitation of information from him should result in obtaining that information.
Mr. Edwards replied: "I appreciate that. Could
you ask him to do that? I emailed him in June, and haven't received
that. . . ."
He next asked about the observance of the sacraments and the regulative principle of worship. He brought guffaws by alluding to the current national scene: "And I don't want to get into, Does 'is' mean 'is' and Does 'alone' mean 'alone'?" His question was whether an MNA staff person has to believe in the regulative principle of worship. Further, "What does it mean to say you hold to the regulative principle? Is there a difference between holding to the regulative principle and believing in the regulative principle. And are MNA staff members required to adhere to the regulative principle . . .?"
Dr. Cooper responded: "The answer to that is, Yes. . . . The issue you have raised is significant. And that is what the individual staff member would present as his understanding of the regulative principle. What we have done in a particular way on that point, Rich, is that we have said we know that we have vowed as teaching elders to the Lord and to our presbyteries-the court of jurisdiction over teaching elders. . . . And we have exhorted one another-and remember that we are accountable to the Lord and to the presbyteries. Now, we have not gone further than that, except in our discussions, as Phil [Douglas] indicated, of our guidelines of a healthy PCA church. We talk a good deal about the regulative principle. I am firmly committed to it. I believe that my staff are. There may be some divergencies and interpretation . . . as to what they really mean in forms."
He then stated that his impression, in his many visits around the PCA to church plants, that those mission works "do represent the PCA." Further, "I think that there is a reflection in MNA, in the broad sense, of what we find in the General Assembly."
Dr. Cooper opined: "We must not attempt to do
for presbyteries what presbyteries by our Book of Church Order
are supposed to do. . . . When you begin to talk to people
across the PCA about worship, you do have a hermeneutical difference
in interpretation of the regulative principle. That sounds very
evasive, but it really isn't. . . . The staff is committed to
Mr. Richards followed up by asking if MNA thought that liturgical dance, liturgical drama, video clips and rock music would be acceptable for public worship. He wanted to know if there were some things that MNA would regard as unacceptable.
Dr. Cooper responded that he thinks that the official guidelines do not prohibit any of those. He added: "I think in my own judgment there are some things that are not acceptable in public worship."
He went on to say that the perception from several years ago, that MNA was interested only in contemporary churches, is no longer valid. He noted that MNA's emphasis from several years ago had likewise been changed from being interested only in "flagship" churches, to an interest in planting churches of a variety of sizes. "Some of the perception of what's being used in the worship of church plants, now are fixated on one very unusual, at the time, church plant in Salt Lake City." He stated that of the 14 or 15 church plants he had visited this past year, drama was not used in a single one of them. His impression is that we are seeing the pendulum swing back away from contemporary worship forms.
Dr. Jim Bland, the MNA Coordinator-designate and presently the Associate Coordinator, addressed the question of accountability between the Atlanta staff and the regional coordinators. He believes that the lines of accountability are very strong.
Dr. Bland, a member of South Texas Presbytery, has
been the Regional Coordinator for Texas. Speaking of worship,
he stated that a number of the seven church plants in his Presbytery
have featured what he called "liturgical" forms of worship.
Terry Johnson, Pastor of Independent Presbyterian Church in Savannah, next spoke. His church, though not a part of the PCA, has been instrumental in funding many PCA church plants, including the potential church plant in Utah which, because of the controversy, never came about. Mr. Johnson reminded the court of the events leading up to the present discussion.
The Savannah pastor spoke of the reneging of the
agreement between Mr. Jason Wallace and the Rev. Mr. Phil Stogner,
for the latter to mentor the former. He noted: "At the same
time, the MNA Coordinator for the West was making noises about
the necessity of affirming the legitimacy of other forms of worship.
And then the basis for the call itself and the possible negotiations
[regarding the mentoring] fell apart. . . . Jason considered [it]
a negative environment to serve in the PCA . . . and not one he
could be involved in any longer." Mr. Wallace felt he had
to go to the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in order to serve there.
"So," continued Mr. Johnson, "we asked the question,
What happened? And who's responsible? And the answer of MNA
has been, That this change of mind that took place on the part
of the Park City pastor [Phil Stogner] was a change in him alone.
. . . He just unilaterally changed his views, changed his mind,
with respect to Jason. . . . And this document [i.e., the answers
from MNA to Central Georgia] continues, to me, to not adequately
affirm responsibility. For example, you say . . . that the [regional]
coordinators 'are adequately supervised'. When the Salt Lake
church seems to have had some role in setting a standard for what
alternative forms of worship must be legitimized." Mr. Johnson
stated that there had been a "militant defense" of the
type of worship seen at New Song-Salt Lake. In his eyes, there
had been no addressing of the fact that "such things [i.e.,
alternative worship practices as at New Song-Salt Lake] are being
done, advocated, and defended."
Dr. Cooper responded that it is not possible for the MNA staff in Atlanta to know every move made by the regional coordinators. Referring to the New Song-Salt Lake situation, he admitted: "I do have culpability-because that was not adequate supervision. . . . It was a failure. . . . There was not adequate supervision. But I think you need to understand, and understand very clearly, that other men are involved in the presbyteries in our regions. . . . You know the old expression, You're doggone if you do and you're doggone if you don't. We're not a presbytery. So when we become aggressive . . . some presbyteries get upset with us. They really do!" He again affirmed that he "had not adequately supervised the Western Regional Coordinator in this situation."
Dr. Douglas stated that the MNA Committee had encouraged Central Georgia Presbytery "to be in direct contact" with Northern California Presbytery, and expressed gratitude that Central Georgia had now done so. "But I would simply remind us that this was an issue between your two presbyteries that we became involved in, and should have-but primarily, it was between the two of your presbyteries, obviously."
Mr. Johnson noted the confusion engendered by virtue of Mr. Ruff wearing "so many hats." Was he, in writing his controversial email, operating as MNA Western Coordinator, or on behalf of Northern California MNA Committee, or as an Assessor [either for the Assessment Center or General Assembly MNA]?
Mr. Johnson again noted the contradiction between
the oral statements made today about Mr. Ruff not being adequately
supervised, and the written response by the MNA Committee that
it was "well pleased" with the work of the regional
coordinators and that it believes that "their ministries
are adequately supervised."
Underlying the controversy, according to Terry Johnson, is whether MNA believes it has a responsibility "to apply the Westminster Standards" and the Directory for Worship. "General Assembly has spoken in the Westminster Confession. We have a Directory for Worship." In his eyes, these documents, which do not mention practices such as liturgical dance and liturgical drama and video clips, should be adequate to prevent the introduction of such "novelties" into the worship of the church.
Dr. Douglas replied: "I would encourage this Presbytery to bring an overture to the Assembly to clarify the details of where the Assembly stands on worship. . . . Our permanent committee does not believe that it can take a stand that we don't hear Assembly make." He continued by saying that he supports the "broad framework" of the regulative principle. "But I think when we get into hermeneutical issues . . . the Assembly needs to have an overture of this Presbytery in order to get into the particulars."
Dr. Cooper said that the basic problem was broader than worship. "We're looking at an issue of disconnect in our denomination. We're looking at an issue of highly-individualized agendas of ruling and teaching elders in our General Assembly. That's why what Phil [Douglas] said was so wise, not only about Central Georgia Presbytery, but my own in Southeast Alabama. If there is that deep concern about the too-broad interpretations of the regulative principle-for example, should there be prohibition of different forms in worship? And that would be a very pertinent, and I think important, thing for a presbytery to do. Let me venture again . . . that it is highly wrong to expect a Committee of the Assembly to do something that we don't have very clearly stated in the policies of the General Assembly. Maybe I'm dense about it, and I apologize if I am, but I do feel, Mr. Moderator, very strongly about this. Something needs to be done to draw us together." Dr. Cooper mentioned that he had been recently in a very liturgical church plant where the hymns were "unsingable." There are "a lot of issues here, a lot of issues beyond drama."
The Moderator of the Presbytery noted that time had
expired on the discussion period. TE Roland Barnes, Chairman
of the Presbytery MNA Committee and a member of the General Assembly
MNA Committee, closed this portion of the meeting with prayer.