The fire began late at night in the boiler room. By early morning, despite valiant efforts to save the historic structure, the old wooden church building was gone. All that remained in the smoldering ashes were the steeple bell and a bronze plaque commemorating Deacon Jeremiah Mahoney’s 50 years of faithful service. The fire was out, and the church building was destroyed but the fire of the Spirit had been quenched long before and the church was facing an even greater loss than their building.
For decades creeping liberalism had slowly drowned the fire and fervor of biblical Christianity in the First Congregational Church of Millers Falls, MA. When the old building burned in December 1949 its 200+ seating capacity was no longer needed. The remaining members rebuilt with poured concrete and red brick trying to insure permanence, but solid walls do not a church make. The new sanctuary seated 100, plenty of room, even hopeful. Membership rolls listed 175, but worship attendance hovered in the dozens. The old mill town was small, the only other church, Roman Catholic, dominated the religious landscape, and gospel-less preaching provided no encouragement to draw anyone to First Congregational.
Founded in 1868 as a second preaching point of the mother church 5 miles away, First Congregational grew rapidly in its early years. A succession of preachers followed; called and installed by the church in the Congregational Way – advised by a temporary council of local ministers, but independent in their life and practice. Various men preached varied theologies and as New England Congregationalism drifted from its biblical moorings, First Congregational drifted as well.
But God was moving to renew his church. By his grace, in the late 1970’s a minister was actually converted while serving the church, but his rapid transformation led to his rapid departure. Then, in 1982 a new man, fresh out of seminary, was called and settled as the pastor. A few young members, converted to Christ while away at college, had come back to their home church, and volunteered to serve on the pulpit committee. They advertised they were looking for a born-again minister. Older members were not quite sure what that meant, but this young fellow seemed nice, had a clear, strong voice and a lovely wife. He just might do.
The new preacher had grown up in liberal New England Congregationalism, yet he had been given a new heart for Christ and new desire to see old churches renewed. His first year was relatively quiet as everyone adjusted to each other. But soon various areas of church life were confronted by the scriptures, and conflict ensued.
The governing board, “The Deacons” was asked why anybody and everybody could do anything and everything in the worship service. Pointing to the historic forms used since the Protestant Reformation the young minister advocated a revamping of the order of service and a submission to the regulative principle. Fundraising community suppers were questioned as a means to pay the church bills. The preacher begin to preach through whole books of the Bible. A Wednesday night Bible study began, attracting young couples from outside the church. An evening worship service and adult Sunday School class added further opportunities for the preaching and teaching of the Word. As the Bible was expounded the issue of church government was raised and “The Deacons” were dissolved and biblical Elders and Deacons were nominated, trained and elected.
This process, while short on paper, took many, many years to occur. During this time some church members left, but not always peacefully; “I was a member long before you were born, and I’ll be here long after you leave” said one man to the young preacher. At a meeting called to present the biblical standard of elders, another man, confronted with the pastoral epistles, slammed his hand on the table and shouted “I don’t care what the Bible says”- verbal evidence of his inner convictions long suspected by many.
Nevertheless, new people came, joined the church and became part of the renewing work of God. Current members were converted who thought they had been long ago, vitality and life was evidenced in many ways as week after week the Word of God was preached and taught, the sacraments celebrated, the people met to pray, and the Holy Spirit did his faithful work. A godly woman from another church once told the pastor that she and her mother had been praying for renewal at First Congregational for over 50 years, and now rejoiced to see God moving.
Being a biblically faithful church in rural Massachusetts was challenging. Yet over two decades, the church grew in numbers, a Sunday School building was added, and the sanctuary was expanded as the 1950 red brick church proved insufficient to hold its people
Challenges to Biblical faithfulness from within slowly decreased even as opposition from without steadily increased. Believing there was no hope for a renewal of its denomination and wanting to stand for Biblical principles, even if that meant standing alone, First Congregational Church became independent, adopted the Westminster Standards and changed its name to Covenant Church, Millers Falls.
God continued to reform daily church life and yet some who loved the Lord left for other less doctrinally grounded churches. The remaining faithful grew closer to one another and to the Lord. Wanting to join with other like-minded churches Covenant Church began a long quest to affiliate with a Presbyterian church. And, after 26 years as their pastor, the young man, no longer young, was called away to another church. In 2010, after calling a new minster, the elders proposed, and the church voted to join the PCA and now continues to test itself against the Word of God – semper reformata.
“Wherever we see the Word of God purely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution, there, it is not to be doubted, a church of God exists”. But where these are lacking “surely the death of the church follows” (Calvin, Institutes IV.1.9, IV.2.1).
Not every particular church, having fallen into apostacy, has a faithful remnant that the Lord can use to restore the church as a body. But he has promised that he will use the ordinary means of grace to call his sheep, build them up in the faith and enable them to worship; here for now, and there forever.