In the Land of Edwards
In this week’s edition of Five for Friday, our blog interview feature, we welcome Rev. Stephen LaValley, a PCA pastor in Enfield, CT, the same town in which Jonathan Edwards preached his famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”
If you know of a Reformation pacesetter that we should interview, please email us and we’ll feature their story as someone leading the way for Reformation.
What is the religious historical significance of the area in which you minister?
On the right hand side of Route 5, in the south-central portion of Enfield, in front of a day-care facility for children, under the overgrown bushes there is a medium-sized stone. Long-forgotten, it memorializes July 8, 1741, the date upon which Jonathan Edwards preached his magisterial sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Enfield was one of the first sites in New England where revival began, brought about by that great sermon. Soon, some 300 souls were accounted as being added to the Kingdom of God. This wasn’t only due to Edwards’ preaching, but also numerous other colonial ‘Clergymen’ who were preaching throughout the countryside to the common folk with simple exposition of the Scriptures. Many more souls would be added to the Kingdom of God through itinerant preaching ministries and the outbreak of The Great Awakening all over New England.
Today, however, no Reformational presence remains in Enfield or the surrounding community.
What is the most difficult aspect of ministry there?
The most difficult aspect of ministry today in Enfield is very much the same as it was in Edwards’ day. He would complain of declining ‘moral principles’, declining church membership, and a general lack of the knowledge of God and concern for one’s standing before Him. That same spiritual lethargy, or outright rebellion, remains in place today. Among professing Christians, rampant Arminianism steals from the glory of God in the salvation of sinners while leaving men and women without the foundation of an assurance founded upon the gracious promises of a loving, justifying God.
There is a prevailing pagan/unbelieving mindset amongst non-Christians that sees little need of God or simply knows nothing, by choice, of Him. Many are simply agnostic. Others are turned off to ‘religion’ because of the rampant sexual abuse of the Roman Catholic clergy throughout New England. Some 21 Roman Catholic churches in our immediate area will be closing soon due, in large part, to people leaving Roman Catholicism in droves. Sadly, they are not seeking an alternative. They are merely ceasing their practice. There is also a significant and growing presence of Islam in our area with 3 mosques and a number of Sufi communities.
In addition, those professing to be ‘Christian’ or ‘evangelical’ tend to gravitate to the more charismatic or Pentecostal-influenced churches where modern ‘tastes’ for spontaneity and excitement can be assuaged. In fact, when folks come to visit and participate in our worship, the typical comment is that we are ‘a lot like the Catholic church.’ As I’ve spoken to and visited with these folks, they are essentially responding to what they perceive as the ‘regimented’ order of our worship. Our worship is traditional (not for tradition’s sake) because of our Reformed and biblical convictions that worship must be offered unto God and set forth in as simple and unadorned a way as Scripture permits and commands. Additionally, either myself or one of our two Ruling Elders participates in the leadership of our worship. This, too, is different from what they usually see.
Christians seem to have little or no understanding or knowledge of what pleases God in worship (Romans 12:1) and little burden to concern themselves with the effort of finding out!
These prevailing perspectives, I have found, seem to come from, not only what is coming out of churches in our area, but also the ‘self-esteem’ messages of modern television ‘preacher personalities’ such as Joel Osteen and Joyce Meyers. At a recent Saturday morning Men’s Breakfast in our home, we spent a large part of our discussion responding to the questions and observations of a number of the men regarding how they find either of the two aforementioned personalities to be ‘uplifting’ and/or ‘inspirational’. In large part, due to this phenomenon, the gospel seems to be fundamentally misunderstood and misapprehended—and this was glaringly apparent as our discussion over our pancakes and sausage continued.
What part of the Reformation message is most effective at penetrating the hearts and minds of people in your community?
One of the great benefits of the Reformation was the propagation of the Word of God. The Bible remains the best tool of the church today. Discipleship over opened Bibles with young believers, or men and women who have missed the gospel for self-esteem and individual ‘purpose’, is essential. Simply proclaiming the cross of Christ and the resultant justification of sinners through imputed, alien righteousness is more often than not something that has never been heard. Justification by faith continues to be the unfailing cry that must be relied upon by any church that desires to bear fruit for God’s glory.
The message of the unadorned gospel, through faithful preaching and disciple-making, has unending application and power for both believers and unbelievers alike; both in initial conversion and ongoing sanctification. God’s Word is our only rule in faith and life.
What has been the most effective in your ministry?
Discipleship–that one-on-one, costly, and time-consuming effort to help professing believers and new Christians alike to live grateful lives pleasing to God–is always an ongoing effort. We connect men and women to mature believers and help them to form sustained relationships. We also intentionally build relationships with people as a means of gospel-witness and/or simply displaying the love of Christ.
Ultimately, the continued presence and progress of a gospel-proclaiming, witnessing, fellowshipping, worshipping, local church is what we believe the Lord will bless—even if the progress is often slow and indiscernible. We have ministered to the community and advertised the presence of our church in a number of ways because we believe that the community’s awareness of our presence is an essential part of the Lord’s leading them to salvation.
One gentleman recently walked in to our church for worship on a typical Sunday morning and pronounced when greeted that, he “…might come back if [the greeter at the door] leave[s] me alone and if the Word, and none of that other [stuff], is preached.” He is still attending…
What gives you hope and confidence when faced with a difficult ministry experience?
The cross of Jesus Christ is what gives me hope and confidence when I am faced with difficult ministry. The Apostle Paul proclaimed, “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18). There are many discouragements: slow progress, half-hearted repentance, few conversions, apathy, immorality, the overwhelming costs of maintaining a ministry with physical property in costly Connecticut, a sometimes-lack of awareness on the part of the established church to recognize the mission field that is New England, the difficulty of recognizing and training leaders, etc…
But the greatest danger to our church (any church) is a loss of confidence and hope in the power of God in the gospel of His Son. The cross of Christ is the only event of faith that gives us any confidence in ministry—it is our only ‘boast’. In 1734 it was Edwards’ desire to “bring the sinful to a knowledge of God and to the experience of spiritual rebirth.” This is our driving concern and the constant repetition of our prayer. We are praying for badly-needed revival to come again to Enfield and to New England.
Stephen LaValley is the pastor of Grace Chapel in Enfield, Connecticut. For more information, feel free to email the Rev. LaValley.