Rev. Higgs is a minister in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Australia.
In the first article that I wrote for the SB I gave some information concerning the early settlement of Australia, and how I perceive this to have affected us as a nation. In my last article I wrote, briefly, about the history of our denomination. Taking these things into consideration, what wonder of wonders that God should raise up the EPC as a denomination of churches! He has gathered His people from the midst of a wicked world: already this is a wonder that should cause us never to cease praising our great God. But then from the milieu of our national heritage, and from the midst of apostatizing churches, Jehovah established the EPC.
Too often, I fear, we in the PRC and EPC take for granted the fact that God has established us as churches. We both know something of our history. We both acknowledge the truths which set us apart (almost alone in the world) as denominations. But there is the tendency, I think, to take these things in stride. Or, on the other hand, we are inclined to arrogance: we have the truth, but few others do; aren’t we special! Neither of these attitudes should be in our midst. Rather, we should see the wonder of grace in our existence as denominations. Not only so, but as a consequence we should praise God, continually, for His work among us.
In this article I am going to speak, generally, of the EPC today, and more specifically of the Brisbane congregation in which I am the pastor.
It may be hard for many of you in the PRC to appreciate the smallness of us as churches. Our whole denomination, in terms of numbers, is less than one of your larger congregations. Let me give you some statistics to illustrate this. The statistics of congregational numbers are approximate, as the latest official publication to which I have access is two years old. I have adjusted some of these numbers if I have personal knowledge of changes.
We have five congregations, each with a minister and session (consistory). The first figure mentioned in each church will be the number of communicant members, the second the number of baptized members, and the third the number of adherents. Launceston: 32; 20; 2. Winnaleah: 16; 25; 8. Sydney: 10; 6; 5. Rockhampton: 34; 20; 10. And Brisbane: 35; 25; 30. In addition, we have three preaching stations, which come under the jurisdiction of session of the closest church. Under Launceston is the Burnie preaching station: 7; 8; 0. Under Rockhampton, Carins: 2; 3; 0. And under Brisbane, Chinchilla which has 3 communicant members. Finally, we have a mission work at Cohuna, which is operating like a preaching station under the Presbytery. We have a minister laboring in that work, which has 11 communicant members, 16 baptized members, and 5 adherents.
We have, then, six ministers serving a total number of approximately 350 members and adherents. Also, at the moment, our student minister, Mr. Mark Shand, is studying in your seminary. As you can appreciate, it is not always an easy thing to support our ministers, financially, as fully as they ought to be. Having said that, however, I must acknowledge that God has by His grace enabled us, through a variety of means (not least of which has been the generous giving of the PRC toward all the students who have studied in the seminary), never to go hungry or to suffer want.
There is something else that you need to know about our churches: they are separated by large distances. The churches in Tasmania—Launceston and Winnaleah—are approximately the same distance from Brisbane as Houston, Texas, is from Grand Rapids. Approximately half way between Brisbane and Tasmania is Sydney: about a 14-hour drive south from Brisbane. An eight-hour drive north from Brisbane is Rockhampton. And then, about seven or eight hours north of Rockhampton is the Carins preaching station.
Our Presbytery, therefore, is vital. This is the broadest court of our denomination. Unlike your broadest court, all of our ministers attend—as well as a representative elder from each congregation. Not only is this court necessary, scripturally, but it provides the means for our ministers to fellowship with each other. As you can appreciate, to remain united in doctrine and purpose we ministers need to know each other, to talk about matters of doctrine, and to strengthen each others’ hands in our most holy faith. Presbytery meets twice a year, usually in January and July. Following the last January meeting of Presbytery the Presbyters had a week-long conference. One of the main benefits of the conference was the opportunity it provided to get to know each other better in an informal setting. Given our scattered nature as churches such things are of great importance.
Not only are our churches scattered in distance from each other but, in Brisbane, our congregation is scattered. About two and a half years ago I wrote for the SB and gave several examples that illustrated this: I won’t repeat those examples. We are scattered as a congregation, and this provides some difficulties for us. Pastoral work is difficult. The communion of the saints in regular fellowship is extremely difficult. There are several things that we do as a church, therefore, to try to overcome these difficulties.
In the first place, every June in Queensland there is a long week-end. It has become a tradition with us to have a family-fellowship camp over this weekend. Most people from the Brisbane congregation, and often several from Rockhampton, meet together from Friday evening till Monday afternoon at a camp site on top of Mt. Tamborine. The scenery is magnificent. Bush walking tracks abound. Native flora and fauna are profuse. All of this sets the scene for a relaxing time of fun and fellowship. Often all that happens is that the saints just sit and talk. This is good. This helps us to get to know each other more, and appreciate each other better.
The theme of our most recent camp was personal witnessing. Both the texts on which I preached were appropriate to this theme. Also, on the Lord’s Day evening I gave a lecture on the topic, and then there was a question time afterwards. After every meal one of the men communicant members leads in family worship. The passage of Scripture he reads is relevant to the theme of the camp. Apart from these instances of instruction the whole camp is devoted to fun, relaxation, and fellowship.
Secondly most of our meetings take place in people’s homes, on a rotational basis. Now, partly this is due to the fact that we do not have our own church building, but partly also it helps to foster fellowship in our scattered congregation. In Australia it is fairly common for friends just to “pop in” on each other (stop by, unexpectedly, to visit for coffee). In Brisbane this does not happen among some of us very often because our fellow saints may live an hour or more, away from us. To have meetings in our homes, though, encourages us to visit each other fairly regularly.
Let me tell you something about these meetings, and about our public worship on the Lord’s Day.
Every Wednesday evening throughout the year, except for about six weeks during school holidays, we have a mid-week meeting. This is open to the whole congregation, although, due to children needing to be in bed, and for a variety of other reasons, generally only one member of each family attends. I normally lead these meetings. The occasional exception to this is when one of the elders leads if I am away. Just recently I have introduced another exception. Very occasionally I will ask one of the men communicant members to give an introduction to a text that we are studying. The normal format of these meetings is to work through a book of the Scriptures. We have just begun looking at Ruth. This meeting is fairly informal, with time for questions and comments from others.
Friday evenings are set aside for young people’s meetings. Every alternate week is a social night for them. On these nights the young people do a variety of things ranging from trips to games to ice-skating. On the alternate Friday we have a night of instruction. The format varies. We have just finished working through Prof. Engelsma’s Hyper-Calvinism and the Call of the Gospel. Next meeting I will take the position of one who holds to the well-meant gospel offer, and see how well the young people can refute me—to see, in other words, just how well they have taken in the truths expounded by Prof. Engelsma in his book. Occasionally I get one or more of the young people to present papers on various topics. We then discuss these papers. Generally I give a follow-up paper on the same subject.
In recent times the ladies have been meeting together for fellowship and encouraging each other in their faith. Generally one of the ladies will present a topic for discussion that is relevant to them as women.
Also, throughout most of the year there is a pre-confessional class which I run. This occurs, generally, every fortnight, depending upon who is involved, how far away they live, and their circumstances as far as transport is concerned. We use Rev. Hoeksema’s “Essentials of Reformed Doctrine” for this class.
Catechism classes take place after the morning service on the Lord’s Day. To have these classes at any other time is too difficult, given the scattered nature of the congregation.
Every Lord’s Day we have two worship services. During my whole time in Brisbane the morning service has been held in a central location, and the evening service has been held in the suburb where most of our people live. As of the first Lord’s Day in July, however, we will be holding both services in the same central location. Our worship services are similar to yours. We open the service with a call to worship. We have congregational prayers; sing only the Psalms; read from the Scriptures (generally we have two readings though—one from the Old Testament, and one from the New); proclaim the gospel in preaching; and close with the benediction. In the morning service I preach through books of the Bible: at the moment we are in the Psalms. In the evening service I am preaching through the Westminster Larger Catechism.
The Lord’s Supper is celebrated four times every year. It is our practice to have a fellowship supper after the evening service on the day we have the Lord’s Supper. Again, the primary purpose of this custom is to foster fellowship among us. Due to the smallness of our congregation we are able to hold baptisms whenever they are needed. We do not have to limit baptisms to a certain Lord’s Day in the month, as some of your larger churches have to do.
There are many, many difficulties that we face as a small, scattered denomination in the midst of a wicked world. But there are also blessings innumerable. I have seen evidence of this in our own congregation. Since I became the minister here, there have been seven or eight baptisms and a similar number of new communicant members. This may seem to be a small number, but in a church our size this is cause for great joy and praise. I have seen the work of God in so many ways: in us as denomination; in our history; in my own congregation; in individuals; in our growth in the knowledge of the truth. And it is all of God. Let us as the EPC and PRC remember that all blessings come to us of God. Let us, therefore, bless the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ.