A Conversation about the Church with Pastors Harry Reeder '74 and George Robertson '88
Two of Covenant's alumni who pastor PCA churches speak about the church today, their hopes for the future of the PCA, and memories from their college years.
Tell us about one of your most vivid memories from your time at Covenant.
Robertson: I lived in Second South, and so once I got some seniority, I moved away from the window that looked over the dumpster to windows that had better views of the valley. After breakfast I always had a little bit of a break before my next class. Those were times for my devotions, and the Lord met me at very crucial, critical times in those times of prayer looking out over His creation. And every time I come back to the College, I literally go and stand under one of those windows and thank the Lord for meeting me in those times.
Reeder: My most vivid memory of Covenant was my first encounter of being in chapel, standing with my newly found fellow students and singing All for Jesus. My thoughts were simple . . . any college who would mean this and sing this and have the sincere desire to promote this in my life . . . then I wanted to be there and harvest everything I could from all of my time there!
Describe one of the greatest challenges facing the church today.
Reeder: One of the greatest challenges facing church today is an increasing neopaganism and to respond with truth and love. It is the challenge of being in the world but not of the world. The church cannot be a subculture in the name of truth nor can it become simply part of culture in the name of love. We must not assimilate to the point of conformity nor separate in the name of purity into isolation. We must be in the world but making sure the world is not in us so that we might move throughout the world with a commitment to truth and love. As one divine said . . . truth without love is cruelty, love without truth is barbarity."
The greatest challenge today will be met if the motto of Covenant College is kept! "In all things Christ might have the preeminence."
Robertson: If I were to isolate one that would capture a whole lot of others, it would be that we are distracted. We are bombarded by so many different stimuli and there are so many opportunities to do so many different things. And technology, with the promise of making life simpler, has made it more complicated and distracted us away from the one thing needful, as the Lord said to Martha. The one thing needful is to live in fellowship with Jesus. And living in that vibrant, centering fellowship with Christ would answer so many other challenges of communication. . . .
If we weren't so distracted, we would know God's word better and hear God's word more clearly and be able to make so many better decisions and not take so much time and energy in untangling the messes we get into by making unbiblical decisions. So, I think the church needs constantly to hear more clearly the voice of Jesus in the midst of all the cacophony of voices that they're getting bombarded with. And that takes great effort to simplify a life, to create margin in life, to unplug, to tarry.
Do you think Christians today recognize the importance of being part of a local church body?
Reeder: I believe that there is a serious shortfall in disciple-making in general in the church today and the importance of understanding the doctrine of the church and one's relationship with it. Churchmanship in its highest noble biblical form seems to be a note seldom sounded in the process of developing young Christian men and women. Suffice it to say the church of Jesus Christ is the one institution in this world that is headed to the New Heavens and New Earth-the glorious bride and magnificent body of Christ purchased by His own blood.
Robertson: I think there is an encouraging renaissance of interest in being churchmen, seeing the need to be connected to a local church body. It seems to me, and greater experts than I have noted, that the trend in American evangelicalism is toward smaller churches rather than the mega-church syndrome. I pastor a large church now, but I interact with young people especially who really hunger to be part of a small fellowship they can get deeply involved with and be nurtured by, and given the breakdown of the family structure, I think the Xers and Millennials really hunger for the kind of covenant family nurture that can occur in the local church. I think those trends of people wanting smaller churches and people who talk a lot about the desire for community with other Christians, I think that all bespeaks a heightened view of the importance of being committed to a local church.
How would you encourage Covenant alumni to become more involved in the church?
Robertson: It's interesting, I just had this conversation with some alumni, and I said to them, "You need to go to your pastor and say ‘I'm here to help you,' not in a proud way, but just let him know you're there and you want to be a help. You've been given a great gift, the exceptional gift of a Covenant College education. You've lived in it, you've soaked in it for four years, so it's possible to take it for granted, but you can't underestimate the blessing it can be to your local church and the world. And so, go make yourself known to your pastor, and then just serve wherever the need is."
Reeder: I believe that every professing believer graduating from Covenant should, even now, make sure that they are engaged and embedded in the life and ministry of a local church. I would encourage them to find one that is engaged in God-centered worship, the exposition of the Word from the pulpit, the lectern, and the small group, embracing a fellowship of intimacy and integrity and manifesting the power of the Gospel through evangelism and disciple-making, church planting, church revitalization, developing Gospel leaders and engaged in Gospel deeds of love, mercy, and justice. In summary, find a Christ-centered, Gospel-driven, spiritually healthy and growing church then, do not play "drive-by church" on Sunday mornings. Actually do what the scriptures say you are-"members of the body of Christ."
What are your hopes for the future of the Presbyterian Church in America?
Reeder: I believe the PCA has been uniquely gifted and called of the Lord to make an impact for the kingdom of God in fulfilling the Great Commission and the Great Commandment in a manner perhaps out of proportion with its present size. I believe God would call us to provide leadership and, by God's grace, hopefully manifest evangelic breadth and theological depth that the PCA might promote the church of Jesus Christ that is not five miles wide and one inch deep nor one inch wide and five miles deep but five miles wide and five miles deep and growing in the love of Christ.
Robertson: The PCA was founded on this motto of true to the Scriptures, the Reformed faith, and the Great Commission. I can't think of anything more exciting than that. If we stay true to the Scriptures and all that that means-in declaring them, applying them, living them out-true to the Reformed faith as it is an interpretation of the Scriptures with all of the richness it has to offer in a transformational approach to culture, and if we remain a church that is intentional about giving away the good news and leading people to a personal relationship with Christ in word and deed, I can't think of anything greater to dream about.
I would say additionally that it is my dream that we would be a leader denomination in evangelicalism, and in so doing, a real influencer of our culture, so that people of North America would look to the PCA for resourcing or guidance. . . .
Finally, I'd say that I really dream of a denomination that exemplifies Christ-centered, Gospel-oriented community, so that we deal with each other in our denomination in a pastoral and gracious way.
Did Covenant prepare you for pastoral ministry?
Robertson: I draw on the education I got at Covenant almost daily because I'm regularly helping people to think through things biblically. Somewhat ironically I draw on my educational psychology class I took at Covenant as much or more than some of my theology classes at seminary. I only say that because it speaks of the kind of integrated worldview curriculum we have at Covenant, that lectures in educational psychology would be resourceful to me in the pastoral ministry.
It prepared me in that it gave me opportunity. I had this internship opportunity in a local church that was supported by the College. . . . I draw on that practical experience a lot.
And then the example of the professors and staff at the College who were themselves churchmen. That total experience inside the classroom and outside the classroom has been very formative and helpful to me as a pastor.
Reeder: I often say that deciding to go to Covenant College after I was converted to Christ and was called to the ministry was the third best decision I have ever made in my life. The best decision, by God's grace, was receiving Christ. The second decision was asking my wife Cindy to marry me, and I am very grateful for her moment of weakness! The third was my decision to attend Covenant College. At Covenant I found out that my head could serve another purpose besides wearing a baseball cap or a golf visor. To think Christianly, developing a Spirit-led, biblically-framed world and life view was initiated at Covenant and has remained a gracious challenge by our Lord for my life ever since. The joy of learning the Word of God and its implications for all of life was initiated at Covenant College and continues to be a joy that I anticipate will remain with me until Christ comes again or I go to be with Him.
What is needed in our churches today?
Reeder: Our churches today desperately need a revival which will position us for another Great Awakening. Great Awakenings flow from revived churches which usually come from a reformation that impacts the leadership of the church first. The first church was conceived at a prayer meeting and birthed in a sermon. The pillars of intercessory prayer and the Word of God are absolutely essential to the rebirth of the church, just as in the initiation of a believer and any new church.
Robertson: I sometimes tell my people that you can't get any more exciting than the vision that God has for His church, in the New Testament especially. So what's needed in the church today is the same thing that's always been needed in the church and the thing that God promises to provide through His Spirit as He's building the true church. I would go to Acts 2 for that.
What we need in the church and what's going to be most effective in bringing Christ to the world as the early church did is apostolic teaching-clear and relevant teaching from God's word, showing where it applies in practical, everyday life. . . .
We need the kind of fellowship that was true in the early church, where they were sharing their very lives with each other. That's what the culture is desperate for. . . .
We need the means of grace-the real life-giving seals that the sacraments provide for us. People are talking more and more about their addictions and their struggle to battle with besetting sin and so forth. God gives us in part the sacraments to strengthen our consciences which strengthens our resolve to live for Christ and experience His power in our lives.
And then deeds of mercy-the church members need to be dealt with mercifully and to experience mercy ministry of their brothers and sisters. . . .
And evangelism-we need the blessing of being used by Christ to draw others to Himself, and then we also desperately need to hear the Gospel from each other. Even if we already know it we need constantly to hear the good news from one another in the church.
That seems kind of boring to some people, but it's hard to think of any ministry being more exciting than that ministry of the early church and those were the simple distinctives of it.