On a hot afternoon in the suburbs of Chicago, more than two hundred deacons, elders, and pastors from OP congregations across the country hunched over plates of barbecue and settled into visiting with each other on a lawn in front of a residence hall at Wheaton College.
It was a fitting way to begin Diaconal Summit III, which would narrow in on a key concept: the powerful potential of a simple visit.
While deacons in the OPC serve their congregations in a crucial number of nitty-gritty, practical ways (from unlocking doors to managing funds), the summit in Wheaton emphasized a core pillar of life and ministry for all Christians: to visit widows and orphans, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
Pastor Nathan Trice, vice president of the Committee on Diaconal Ministries (CDM), called those two marks of pure and undefiled religion the “twin passions of vibrant Christianity” in his opening sermon from the book of James.
The diaconal summit at Wheaton College on June 15–17 was the third national gathering of OPC deacons organized by the CDM since 2010. The committee hopes the gatherings will encourage deacons in their service, offer practical training and guidance, and allow the men to fellowship with other deacons in a common calling.
Before the first evening’s sermon, the men sang about the mandate God sets by his own example: “Well Jehovah loves the righteous, and the stranger he befriends, helps the fatherless and widow, judgment on the wicked sends.”
That beautiful line from a beloved hymn offered a template for the weekend’s emphasis on loving and helping both saints and strangers in our churches and communities across the country.
In his sermon from James 1:27, Pastor Trice noted the tension between serving in a broken world and keeping oneself unstained by the world.
He pointed to Jesus as the ultimate example of both mercy and holiness during his earthly life and ministry: he went to the broken, sinful, and needy, but he also maintained perfect purity.
Jesus also spoke about the kind of life he would commend on the Last Day: “I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.”
The sermon underscored the biblical calling to visit the vulnerable, shown in Jesus’ teaching and in James. Writing a check may often be easier than spending time with someone, but visiting people is the form of ministry that is “the most costly and the most effective.”
While all Christians are called to such service—spending time with those in need and offering gospel hope—the sermon emphasized that deacons are called to lead their congregations in this ministry: “The church needs you as deacons to lead them in what is indispensable to authentic Christianity.”
With such a high calling, the summit moved to a time of prayer, with the deacons asking the Lord to help them in their ministries and churches. The prayers of the men offered a glimpse of their zeal and humility:
“We pray that you would so inflame our hearts that we might return to our homes and see it take root and catch fire in our churches.”
“Be with our congregations that don’t have diaconates, and raise up men to serve you.”
“Let every day be a day when we look for people in need of a cup of cold water.”
“Give us humility and compassion.”
“Preserve our churches for the glory of your name and the spread of the gospel.”
The next day began with a hearty breakfast, as the deacons sat at tables by presbytery. These meals encouraged fellowship and networking among deacons serving in the same regional bodies. Some deacons used the opportunities to make plans or discuss how their local churches could work together.
The morning session began with singing, and the deacons proclaimed their hope to work hard back home: “No strength of our own and no goodness we claim; yet, since we have known of the Savior’s great name, in this our strong tower for safety we hide: the Lord is our power, ‘The Lord will provide.’ ”
The Lord’s provision was a central theme of the morning, as the summit’s keynote speaker, Dr. David Apple, addressed the gathering. He has directed the ministry of mercy at Tenth Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Philadelphia since 1988, and he oversees some two hundred volunteers reaching out to the neediest in the congregation and surrounding community.
He’s also the author of Not Just a Soup Kitchen, a book about the theology and practical outworking of mercy ministry in local churches. (Each deacon received a copy of the book during the summit.)
Dr. Apple didn’t emphasize his credentials as he addressed the men. Instead, he began with the remarkable story of his own brokenness and need, and the work of Christ’s redemption and restoration in his own life.
As a young boy, Dr. Apple was struck by a car and suffered severe injuries that doctors thought would leave him unable to walk. The Lord did restore his ability to walk, but his recovery was grueling and slow, with painful rehabilitation and surgeries for years to come.
He also suffered sexual abuse in childhood, and later became a single dad to three small children when his first wife left their home. He endured years of heavy trials and depression that at times left him desperate.
Dr. Apple said the Lord intervened through Christians who visited, listened, and offered the comfort of the gospel. It was a powerful affirmation of how the Lord can use visitation in the lives of the most needy.
That experience informs his work at Tenth Presbyterian, where members of the congregation reach out to the many homeless people, drug addicts, prostitutes, and others living near their downtown location.
Though many churches aren’t located in the heart of downtown areas, Dr. Apple says the ministry of deacons is the same: “bringing light to hard places” and “approaching people’s misery” in whatever form it takes.
He said remembering that every person is made in God’s image is crucial when ministering to those in the depths of sin and those deeply sinned against.
He compared such ministry to “unwrapping the grave clothes of the walking dead,” as Jesus commanded the crowd outside Lazarus’s tomb to do for him. He offered several examples of ministry to people in extreme need that showed how his church has reached out to people who seem unreachable.
Does it work? Not every person comes to know Christ or repents from sinful patterns. But as the church offers practical help and gospel teaching, Dr. Apple said, they have seen the Lord accomplish great things in people’s lives. It was a helpful reminder that deacons are called to visit and serve the needy, not to fix them: the Holy Spirit alone can bring new life and lasting change.
The Holy Spirit must also empower the work of visiting and serving. “We can minister in walking gravesites, if we know the power of the resurrection in our own lives,” Dr. Apple said.
In afternoon sessions, the men broke into groups by presbytery to discuss some of the realities of being in the diaconal ring.
David Nakhla, the CDM administrator, talked about the nuts and bolts of how local churches can work with their presbyteries and the CDM to meet needs beyond their local churches.
Chris Sudlow, a CDM member and a deacon at Bethel OPC in Wheaton, Illinois, walked through a handful of case studies that show the kinds of situations deacons may face, and how they can navigate difficult decisions and relationships.
The session sparked questions and discussions of practical matters for deacons in their home churches, and Sudlow ended by encouraging the men to be gentle and consider what it’s like to be a church member asking for help.
Lendall Smith, a retired minister and president of the CDM, brought pastoral wisdom on avoiding pitfalls of diaconal ministry. He encouraged the men to “cultivate a culture of mercy” in their churches that encourages the members to join them in the work of showing the love of Christ to others.
Matt Avery, a deacon at Providence OPC in Bradenton, Florida, has been working to cultivate that culture in his church for nearly a decade. He’s one of two deacons in his congregation of about one hundred members, and he serves on his presbytery’s diaconal committee.
Diaconal ministry in Florida can present its own unique challenges. Some areas are prone to hurricanes, making disaster response important. And many retirees move to Florida, making churches more likely to have widows and others who may need special care.
When it comes to disasters, Avery said his presbytery is in an ongoing process of being prepared to respond. When it comes to widows and other needs in the local congregation, he and his fellow deacon have a simple plan: visitation. The deacons set a schedule for meeting with church members in their homes, and have discovered needs they didn’t know existed.
Avery said he loves his calling, and he appreciates the summit’s emphasis on the ministry of visitation: “I’ve been encouraged to not grow weary in doing good.” He also appreciates the fellowship with many other deacons: “There are only two of us at the church, but here you’re around so many others who know how it feels and know what you’re going through.”
Richard Cocanour said that was helpful for him as well. The deacon from Covenant Presbyterian Church in Marina, California, has served in the office for over two decades, and he said it’s helpful to compare notes with other deacons from around the country and hear what works for them: “There’s a thousand years of experience in there—it’s crazy not to take advantage of it.”
Cocanour and his fellow deacon also visit members of their church. They pay close attention to those whom they know have particular needs, but they visit the other members of the congregation as well: “We want them to know that we are their deacons.”
He said that visiting all the families gives them a chance to be visible to church members who might not interact with their ministry on a regular basis, and helps them to know how to pray for their congregation. Visiting in homes has deepened their bonds in the church and has “profoundly changed our ministry.”
That crucial diaconal ministry goes forward in OP churches across the country. Before leaving, the deacons sang together about their work for Christ and his church: “My secret heart is taught the truth that makes thy children free: a life of self-renouncing love is one of liberty.”
The author, a journalist, is a member of Matthews OPC in Matthews, N.C. New Horizons, August-Sept. 2017.