Friday, August 20, 2010

The State of Reformed Theology in the State of West Virginia

How many Reformed churches does West Virginia have?  

I know there are 10 churches affiliated with the Presbyterian Church in America (my denomination).  There are two Orthodox Presbyterian churches.  One Evangelical Presbyterian church.  One Reformed Baptist Church.  Perhaps three or four independent Baptist churches that have Reformed leanings, but do not claim to be creedally Reformed.   There are dozens of churches affiliated with the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, but who knows how many of these are actually Reformed or even embrace the most basic Christian doctrines.   So the State of West Virginia has a very meager Reformed presence.  Why? 

I hope to be able to explore this question in detail in a doctoral dissertation at Pittsburgh Theological  Seminary within the next couple of years.  I have a feeling that at least some of the reasons are related to reasons West Virginia is consistently at the bottom of good lists and at the top of bad lists.  But here’s a few observations for the moment.
  1. It is difficult to find pastors for Reformed Churches in our State.
    •  It is hard to bring them in from the outside because there is a dearth of Calls within the State.  Even when Calls are available, West Virginia doesn’t tend to attract people easily.  There are not a lot of churches and not a lot of ministers for those churches. Five of our ten PCA churches are without pastors at the moment, so they are being filled by “stated supply,” which is a sort of interim. The vast majority of the dozens of PCUSA churches in the State are filled by lay-pastors, interims, and stated supply.  This is probably because they are too small to support full-time, ordained teaching elders.
    • It is hard to bring them in from the outside because most of those churches are not able to support full-time pastors.  Low salaries do not attract pastors who need to support families.
    • It is hard to bring them up from the inside because educational standards are poor within the State.  West Virginia trails the nation in the percentage of college graduates.  People who do not go to college cannot go to seminary.  Someone who “desires the office of a bishop” has a long row to hoe before he can even begin to consider pastoring a church—at least 7 to 10 years of undergraduate and graduate education.   Who wants to bother with this?  It is a tough and rare achievement even in States with higher rates of college completion.  How much more in a State where college degrees are few and far between.
    • It is also hard to bring them up from the inside simply because Reformed theology is not widely understood even in Reformed churches.  That leads to the second observation.
  2. West Virginians have a hard time accepting Reformed Theology and Presbyterianism.  Why?  I am not dogmatic, but I wonder if the following has any merit:
    • Our Appalachian culture has been dominated by easier theology.  Frankly, we are flooded with free-will theology, churches, and culture.  Baptistic churches have spread throughout our State in part because there are no universal ordination standards, such as seminary education, and because baptistic theology is easier to both preach and digest.  "Low ordination standards" means that literally anyone can be a preacher and a pastor.  Baptistic churches can and have spread quickly and easily.  It also means that their preachers and pastors tend to be unschooled in theology and exegesis.  In many cases, West Virginia preaching is simplistic, containing very little theological instruction or exegesis.   People have been digesting this type of preaching for decades.  It is all they know.  Bring in something different and people immediately recognize it.  And that is not a good thing in their eyes.   They may be getting the Word of God more richly and deeply than they ever have before, but they will still yearn for "hard preaching" and a some good ol' fire and brimstone.   Can I get an "Amen?"
    • The result is that Reformed theology is an affront to widely accepted and deeply pervasive free-will theology.   Election is a bad word, as is the word "doctrine."  The local Christian bookstore owner assured me that her Sunday School Quarterlies don't contain "doctrine." She said that as if it were a good thing, revealing at the same time that she was unaware of what the word "doctrine" even means. Even in Presbyterian churches, many congregants are suspicious  of Reformed doctrines that have been taught elsewhere for centuries.   
    • There might also exist a blue-collar distrust for white-collar Presbyterian ministers.  This is compounded by the simple fact that any serious attempt to teach theology must include terminology and complexities that many see no practical need for or have a difficult time understanding.   The education and experience of those who labor in the Word varies so widely from those who labor with their hands that it is qualitatively different in comparison.   This difference is not always viewed favorably.
    • I also do not want to underestimate the dark and difficult history of West Virginia. Our history flavors who we are as West Virginians. I would even speculate that the deeply ingrained historical animosity between Company men and miners might play some sort of a role in the entire culture.   Sometimes I wonder if the Presbyterian distinctions between ordained ministers and laymen might mirror the Company/miner distinction in disadvantageous ways.  Is overarching presbytery action inherently perceived as analogous to Company dictates and abuses of power?   This is union country.  The Presbytery, by analogy, might be the Company.  Union members are raised to distrust the company from their earliest years.

In short, our more complex theology and higher ordination requirements, among other cultural distinctives, might be responsible for reformed theology's lack of success in this State. But it does not seem that a simpler theology and lower education requirements would fix this problem. A simpler theology would be less likely to be a Reformed theology. Similarly, lower education requirements would eventually result in a simpler theology and less Reformed theology. One of the reasons we have such high education requirements is because it enables the preservation of the Reformed faith.

So are we in a straight betwixt two?

I think we are, but I think that if the state of Reformed theology in the State of West Virginia is going to improve, we will likely need to explore, expand upon, correct, and address some of these ideas. 

As I say all these things, I want any reader to understand that the people in our State are just as intelligent as the people in any other State. They are hard working and wise in ways that the rest of the country cannot even identify with. My church members have been drinking in the Reformed faith and I have enjoyed every minute of my preaching and teaching ministry to them. I find them very capable of understanding and embracing Reformed doctrines that are taught well. 

But the people of our State have simply not had the same opportunities that other parts of the country have enjoyed. Poverty has played a role in this. The abuse of our people and resources by the rest of the country has played a role in this. Closed geographical communities have played a role in this as well. Just as Robert Byrd couldn't change these things over course of fifty years in spite of his best intentions, I do not expect that we will be able to change these things either. The job is more difficult here than it might be elsewhere.

What that means is that the burden is upon the Presbyterian church to meet our people where they are. We must find some way to do this or the Reformed faith will continue to struggle in this State.


    1. I disagree with both of these assessments. First, remember it was the particular Baptists in the south who spread Calvinistic thought through their evangelistic fervor in places like South Carolina, Virginia, and Georgia. The lack of ordination standards actually allowed for Baptistic Calvinism to spread rapidly. Spurgeon, another famous non-ordained Baptist preacher, influenced an entire generation towards Calvinism as was not done in over a generation. He was both uneducated and not ordained.

      If you also look at some of the early reformers, there were a myriad of followers who were taught and embraced solid theology but who were also illiterate. One of the Catholic Bishops noted to his own surprise how well versed in theology many of these men were despite their lack of education--many of these illiterate farmers convinced many of his much more educated priests.

      No, higher ordination credentials is not the answer, and the complex theology is not the problem. History has proven both uneducated men and non-ordained men can sometimes be the greatest catalyst to spreading reformed theology. We, as well, have often spread the best and fastest in the midst of contrary doctrinal stands.

      Rather, the problem with the lack of reformation is:

      1. A lack of true evangelism by reformed churches. We have failed West Virginia by being lax in Biblical Evangelism. As much as I do not like the Free Will and the Fundamentalistic Baptists, they are serious about evangelism. If only we had their fervor with our better theology.

      2. A lack of true Biblical Preaching in the pulpits. Even in reformed circles we spread theology without Spiritual Application.

      3. A lack of true Biblical Spiritual Disciplines. We have not prayed as we should.

      4. A lack of true Pastoral shepherding. We have spread theology often without spreading Pastoral Care.

      Yes, some Pastors are afraid of coming here. While it seems the Presbyterian ranks have a more difficult time than other groups, I do not think it is an easy place to receive Pastors. Rather, we should endeavor to have a theological seminary here where people can learn and grow in WV while ministering in WV.

    2. Wow, Anonymous. Great and quick response. I think I agree with your four conclusions. Your point about the Particular Baptists is granted. The history is clear. But that does not change the present state of pervasive non-calvinistic baptist theology in the State.

      I would be eager to talk more with you about the seminary idea. I have wondered if, when there are so many other high quality options, another seminary would be really help. But I have recently been considering that having our own seminary could meet needs right here, considering the obstacles that many aspirants face here in WV. Cost. Location. Culture. Work.

      Not to argue, because you have made some really good points, but I still think the defacto state of the State supports my two conclusions. 1) That it is difficult to get or train pastors (a seminary would help with this). You seem to have granted this in spite of disagreeing with it. 2) And that the prevalence of poor baptistic theology inhibits the acceptance of our theology. This seems to me to be true regardless of whatever Calvinistic Baptists have done in the past.

      Regardless, what i take from your response is that it is possible to overcome the education problem both in the laity and in the clergy, not by lowering ordination standards, and not by increasing the laity's education levels (we have little control over that).

      So were to have continued my post with other recently circulating thoughts, I would have brought up the idea of our own seminary, geared specifically to meet the training needs of pastors within WV. I am glad you brought it up. Maybe a five or ten year plan? Let's at least discuss the idea.

      In your opinion, does the company/miner analogy hold any merit whatsoever?


    3. Dennis,

      Interesting thoughts brother. I'm not qualified to comment on many things WV, since I've only lived here for 8 months. But I don't think it wise to throw out sociological reasons for why Reformed theology hasn't spread here. That does make it hard.

      But the gospel can penetrate and reverse any sociology and societal trends.

      In seminary I was taught we needed to exegete our culture as well as the text. So preaching, seminary, conversations need to be applied to sociological settings which may be in need of redemption.

      It would be cool to have a seminary here. That Reformed Baptist church in Charleston would probably be a great ally. He really wants to see the Reformed faith spread.

      Keep the thoughts coming Dennis.

    4. Dennis,

      I came across your blog via Geoff Henderson's blog. Great stuff. I tend to agree with your assesments, especially the last two (blue vs white collar / union vs company). Many of my family, for instance, immediately become suspicious of pastors who have attended seminary, especially if they have a doctorate. To help clarify, my family is steeped in the coal fields and all attended independent baptist churhes growing up. Also, as you mention, unless the preacher stomps, yells, cries, and preaches "hell-fire", he's not really preaching; which I see as a desire to be entertained rather than taught, not much different than seekers at a "mega-church" going for the music. Anyway, good conversation and I look forward to seeing others offer their insights.

      Jeremy Bias

    5. I was the original anonymous author.

      Let me address the seminary issue. The seminary system as currently setup is probably more harmful to places like WV. There are two types of seminary systems I have seen work for a place like West Virginia. Seminaries in America have tended to be nationalized or regionalized to become big. Yet, in a cross cultural environment, I worked with a seminary that was placed in the poorest state in a certain country for the express purpose to encourage people of that state to stay in that state and plant churches. The Seminary was a catalyst for church planting and allowed more people to stay in the area while providing solid theological education. In WV, this is how fundamentalist Baptists have operated with several smaller local Bible Colleges. I have also seen this work in the United States where liberal Christianity was predominant but a conservative school was purposely placed to influences a rise in church planting. Most who attend the school understand they will be taught to church plant.

      The heightened requirements of ordination is not the solution. Why? Merely because seminary education is not required to be qualified as a Pastor according to the Bible. My opinion, utilizing people without seminary degrees but who are theologically astute could do more to expand reformed theology and the church planting efforts. My citation of the South Carolina Baptists pre-revolutionary war and much of what occurred after the Reformation. I know, for instance, several men who have a strong foundation in theological and historical theology that would make great church planters but because of the denomination they will never be ordained. I personally think we should keep ordination based upon the qualifications rather than adding to them. However, I am not against seminary education or Bible College education. Such educational ventures could be very positive but could prevent some older and wiser men from pursuing this direction.

      While West Virginia has a unique culture that I believe is neither Appalachian like Virginia, not Southern like other Southern States, and not Mid-western like Ohio and parts of Kentucky, it has her own unique and glorious culture. The problem with them not embracing reformed theology probably has more to do with the reformed churches than their culture. I do not see that they are any more adverse to reformed theology than any other culture.

    6. Anonymous #1, would you do me the favor of looking over this website and telling me what you think?

      This is a non-traditional seminary program started by PCA ministers, endorsed and partnered with MNA, and designed to meet the educational ordination requirements of the PCA. It involves establishing a local learning center that facilitates and mentors students through an MDiv curriculum. Very flexible in delivery and inexpensive.