Dear Brothers and Co-laborers in the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ,
In preparation for this 38th Annual Meeting of the Northern Plains Classis, it was a bit overwhelming to reflect upon your reports as pastors. In 1 Timothy 4:12–16 the Apostle Paul gives guidance to Pastor Timothy encouraging him to be an example to the believers in word, in conduct, in love, in spirit, in faith, in purity. . . . 13 give attention to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine. 14 Do not neglect the gift that is in you, which was given to you by prophecy with the laying on of the hands of the eldership. 15 Meditate on these things; give yourself entirely to them, that your progress may be evident to all. 16 Take heed to yourself and to the doctrine. Continue in them, for in doing this you will save both yourself and those who hear you. Brothers, our calling by our Lord Jesus, that Great Shepherd of the Sheep, is one to labor, to give ourselves entirely to growth in and promotion of the gospel of salvation through the Word of God in the promotion of that grace that alone comes through the precious blood of our Lord Jesus in the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit.
As I read your reports, it appeared to me that as a pastoral core, we are under attack in terms of the physical demands of our calling. Every single one of you reported some physical challenge this past year. Whether it was battling Covid or the flu, or it was hip surgeries or other maladies, there seem to be physical depletions that are weakening us physically.
But we might be reminded at this point of our brother Paul who prayed for the thorn to be removed in 2 Corinthians 12:7–10. This is a very interesting and surprising passage as Paul observed, 7 And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure. 8 Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me. 9 And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
However, I would also contend that the church seems to have reached a junction where there needs to be some thought put into pastoral care in the sense of care for the pastor. As ministers of the Word, we take seriously our calling, giving ourselves entirely to those things that promote the faith among our people, and sometimes to the detriment of our own families and ourselves physically. But at what cost to the church? The time may be upon us when the consistories of the churches need to expend energy on protecting the health of the pastor. He is the biggest investment that belongs to the church. He is far more the gift that is given by the Lord to the church than the buildings or anything else the church may possess. And yet there is no strategy for how to protect and promote the health of our pastoral core. Perhaps we should borrow a page from our OPC brethren who have a committee on just this endeavor.
Let us move on. In reviewing your reports, it seems quite clear that we have moved past the challenges of the Covid lockdown and have returned to somewhat normal activity. The word is being preached faithfully, the sacraments are being administered properly, our youth is being diligently catechized, people are getting married, babies are being baptized, and the Lord is adding officers to his church.
As the officers of the Lord’s church as an institution, we are quite busy. Committee work is being attended to as much as possible given our duties at home in our local churches. Many of you have effectively integrated the teaching and preaching of the gospel through the use of the internet. Our sermonaudio has become profitable and is being used by more and more of our people. We are settling into a comfortable routine.
But one pastor notes, to which I agree, that we are close to that ‘lukewarm’ border, if not already crossing over it. This must always be something that we must guard against, and the true remedy is to preach the word of the Lord to the heart. First to our hearts and then to the hearts of our hearers. As Paul told Timothy for in doing this you will save both yourself and those who hear you.
It is a concern that so many of our young people after confirmation go off to college and the world seems to have a strong pull on them. Many enter into marriages and go out of our RCUS churches into non-reformed churches that bear much more the mark of the world and apostasy than a biblical world and life view. This is not recent. This has been the case for years and yet we struggle to integrate a strong, heartfelt faith for biblical Christianity into our youth after confirmation. Our Youth Camp has been highly successful and is a bright light, but it seems that ground is lost after that stage of their Christian development following High School.
I applaud the efforts underway to establish the Young Adult Reformed Fellowship (YARF) project by some of our young adult RCUS members. It is an encouraging thing to see these efforts not initiated by the pastors, but by the members. We need more of that to happen. The Lord sends pastors and teachers to equip the church members to do the ministry of Christ (Eph. 4:11-13). As church leaders, we should seek to encourage this with every kind of support we can, even to the point of paying travel expenses for our youth to gather for these events.
One of the characteristics of a church that has become too comfortable is a lack of evangelistic zeal for the lost. As the church, we understand that there are only two kinds of people: those who are saved by the redemptive work of Jesus Christ through faith alone by grace alone, and those who need to be saved. That is how we as the church must see the world.
As the Northern Plains Classis we have become very conscious of our shrinking numbers of churches and membership to the point it threatens the future of our Classis. Only the Lord knows what lies ahead for us, even as only the Lord knows what lost sheep are in our presence that needs to be gathered in.
But while we are very conscious of the fact that we have to become engaged rigorously in the work of church planting in our boundary, that presents challenges for us in many areas. First, and foremost we don’t have the resources, and what I mean by that is primarily manpower. As pastors, we are already overextended in our work in our churches. Most of us are engaged in activities outside of our local church either in the community or in teaching globally.
Our Missions committee began the work of considering how we might begin new church plants but have only a small beginning. The Churches in our Classis have already made a clear commitment to this through generous financial support for the start of new works. But we need to build much more in this area in our approach as a Classis. The need is sensed by many within the Reformed Community to the point that Mid-America Reformed Seminary has appointed a faculty member and established a department dedicated to the development of men who will do the work of missions, church planting and evangelism.
There is a proposal for the Classis to support sending two men to an upcoming conference on missions. Would it not be beneficial for as many of our pastors and elders, and even church members to go as a group? Perhaps even investigate bringing a conference to our area focused on how to do church planting from scratch. Perhaps the next step is that the Classis needs to recruit and support a man who has the desire and ability to take on the work of a church planter. He could do so as an associate pastor with the calling of being an evangelist to develop opportunities for planting new churches. The initial focus could be on Brookings.
The expectation that we can do this work with our current core of pastors is wishful thinking, as we are already short-handed. We commend Elder Jim Snyder who has been bearing the load along with the consistory in Minot of pastoral duties for well over a year as they search for a pastor. We continue to pray that God will provide that right fit with a man who will have the vision to reach out to the Minot community.
The Executive Committee finished up work with the Synod action to consider Classis Boundary issues. The recommendation coming forward is that the current southern boundary remains as it is for the time being with the option for churches on the boundary to move into NPC if they so desire. Grace RCUS in Mitchell did choose to move into our Classis this year for which we are quite thankful. The solution to the lack of territory to grow as a Classis is a proposal to add all of Montana, Idaho, Washington, and Oregon into the
Northern Plains Classis. The Manhattan Mission work will continue under the care of Menno, but upon organizing they will become a member of the NPC.
However, one item of discussion that makes some sense is that the NPC and SCC work together in the area of missions to help SCC plant churches in their southern territory with the goal that as they grow the whole of South Dakota would eventually become part of the NPC. The idea is to perhaps hold a joint Classis in a church along our shared border in the Fall to focus on two areas of mutual labor: missions and church planting, and Heidelberg Camp.
There are two constitutional amendments that we will vote on for ratification. The first is to change the constitution to allow churches interested in the RCUS to become members provisionally for two years to acclimate to the RCUS.
Historically this was handled by allowing a minister to labor outside the bounds of a Classis to bring them in. This gives the interested congregation a bit more of a standing and sense of belonging. However, it seems to me that this is problematic and that changing our constitution for a church that is not ready to commit to the standards and practices of the RCUS is not a good direction.
The second constitutional amendment would change the requirement of four Classes to three Classis to form a
Synod. Again, I am not a supporter of the idea to change the Constitution without a reason. And while this comes out of the boundary committee recommendation and they assert that this is not saying there is an intention to go to three Classes, there was a proposal to do just that by some which we resisted.
The other area that the Executive Committee looked at was the idea of virtual attendance for Classis meetings. The Committee agreed that physical presence is vitally important to the work of the Classis. The interaction within committee work, the coming together to hear the word in preaching and devotions, and the fellowship of the brethren are vitally necessary to do the work and promote the
health of the Classis.
There will be several changes to the NPC roll this year. We welcome the Rev. Kevin Carroll to our core of ministers as well as the Rev. Jimmy John Hall who will arrive in Eureka in July. We also will see our student under care David Voytek graduate from Mid-America Reformed Seminary in May. He is currently pursuing a wife and a call. The Lord has provided the wife and plans are for nuptials to be exchanged in Sacramento in July. A call is still in the Lord’s hands. The final and most major change is the move of our Clerk for many years and our senior most tenured pastor in the Classis Rev. James Grossmann who has accepted a call to Salem-Ebenezer Reformed Church in Manitowoc, WI. He will be leaving shortly after this Classis adjourns to the Covenant East Classis. He will be dearly missed and we pray for God’s blessing upon him.
On a final note, there has been a request by one of our pastors to set aside a time of prayer and fasting in our congregations regarding the spiritual condition of the church around us. Such an action by the church has historical precedence both in the history of the church through the ages and in the RCUS at times of great calamity. Brothers, we are hard-pressed as a Classis and in our churches, which in some ways are very healthy, but we are also struggling. But the Christian life is a call to suffering and struggling looking to God for strength, wisdom, and guidance.
Moreover, in such seasons of calling upon the name of the Lord there is a remembrance that while some may plant and others water, it is God who gives the increase (1Cor. 3:6). If we desire fruitfulness in our labors we must seek it in doing all things through Christ who strengthens us (Phil. 4:13). The future of the NPC is in the hands of the Lord. As the church, there is no shortage of work to keep us busy. But our priority must always be to remember the words of Paul, take heed to yourself and to the doctrine. Continue in them, for in doing this you will save both yourself and those who hear you.
In Christ’s Service,
Rev. Hank Bowen