Today one of my dearest friends passed from this life, Dr. Harry L. Reeder III, senior pastor of Briarwood Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Dr. Reeder was killed in a tragic car accident this morning. He was a wonderful friend and supporter of Welch College and of Free Will Baptists who was always a favorite speaker in conferences, commencement ceremonies, and chapels at Welch.
It was about fifteen years ago, fairly early in my tenure as president of Welch College, that I stumbled onto Dr. Reeder. I received an announcement about a new book from P&R Publishers, From Embers to a Flame: How God Can Revitalize Your Church. Here at last was a book by a veteran church revitalizer that put into words the things I had striven to commit myself to as a pastor and teacher of pastors but could never articulate as artfully as he had done.
The book was about biblical, organic church revitalization and growth. It was about church growth, but unlike much of the “church growth movement,” it was about natural, organic growth by means of church health. Dr. Reeder, who had several times led churches to grow from in the thirties and fifties in attendance on Sunday morning into hundreds and thousands, was waxing eloquent about practical ways to bring biblical, organic, growth to struggling, indeed, dying, congregations.
He used catchy phrases like “cultural steroids”—that’s the term he used when he referred to all the extrabiblical secular gimmicks and marketing and entertainment techniques he thought the evangelical church had come to rely on to “get the numbers up.” But he insisted that, not only was this reliance on—this obsession with—secular consumer marketing to increase the numbers of people in the pew unbiblical. Not only was it despising the ordinary means of grace—replacing those Spirit-ordained methods found in the New Testament with the “inventions of people.” It was also pragmatically counterproductive in the long-run.
He would often point to what steroids do to a physical body. They’re artificial stimulants that bring quick, artificial growth but leave the body weaker and sicker than it ever was in the first place. Similarly, he’d say, cultural steroids leave the body of Christ spiritually anemic—weaker and sicker than it ever was before.
Cultural steroids, he’d say, also make churches less effective evangelistically. That’s because believers’ evangelistic and missionary effectiveness correlates directly to their practical engagement with the meat of the Word. And the evangelical church, he’d insist, was starving for the meat of the Word, quoting Amos 8:11, “‘Behold, the days are coming,’ says the Lord God, ‘That I will send a famine on the land, Not a famine of bread, Nor a thirst for water, But of hearing the words of the Lord.’” “The famine is here!” he’d say, describing too many churches as “an inch deep and a mile wide.”
But perhaps the most remarkable thing about Harry was his cool-headed confidence in the ordinary means of grace. He was so positive and hopeful. He had a smooth level-headedness about him that allowed him to make incisive, prophetic critiques of both church and culture while keeping the focus on the soul-nourishing means of grace in Holy Scripture that always bring about human flourishing, for individuals, families, churches, and cultures.
His refreshing emphasis was that we naturally structure our congregations according to the means God has given, affirming the sufficiency of Scripture. Scripture really is enough for the life, health, and growth of Christ’s church, he stressed. And when we do this, the spiritual blessings of our Lord will follow as we wait patiently on Him.
That was the message of From Embers to a Flame. I was so encouraged, and I began to give away copy after copy of that book. I said to Melinda, “We’ve got to go meet this man.” And on one trip back from my parents’ home in Pensacola, Florida, our eight- and six-year-old in tow, we stopped in Birmingham and attended a service at the church Reeder served, Briarwood Presbyterian.
I introduced myself to him after the service was over, and he said, “I answered the call to the Presbyterian ministry in a Free Will Baptist deacon’s tobacco field!” Then he told me this long story about his first ministry job being the youth pastor at Trinity Free Will Baptist Church in Greenville, North Carolina. He told me about preaching his first sermons in a Free Will Baptist church (even though he was a five-point Calvinist). With that characteristic twinkle in his eye, he reminisced about singing in a quartet and traveling to dozens of Free Will Baptist churches with Jack Paramore and Al Davis. Even though some of his convictions differed from some of those of Free Will Baptists, Dr. Reeder deeply valued those years and how his experiences in Free Will Baptist churches, with Free Will Baptist people, helped shape him spiritually.
It wasn’t too long before I asked him to come and speak at Welch College. He has done so a half-dozen times since then, and he gave me opportunities to speak at Briarwood as well. Melinda and I also grew to love his dear wife Cindy, who has also spoken at Welch. She has been such an integral part of his ministry, and her graciousness and gift of hospitality were so obvious when I visited in their home. We at Welch surround Mrs. Reeder with prayer in this difficult moment.
Dr. Reeder also spoke at the National Free Will Baptist Leadership Conference and became involved with several Free Will Baptist state associations, local associations, and local congregations through his church revitalization ministry, Embers to a Flame. That organization, now known as Lampstand, has helped struggling churches in several Christian denominations to experience revitalization in biblically faithful ways.
To some people, it seems ironic that Dr. Reeder, a die-hard Calvinist Presbyterian, and I, a die-hard Free Will Baptist, became such fast friends. But it’s really not. When it came to the gospel, orthodox Protestant theology, ordinary-means-of-grace church renewal, and Christian cultural renewal, we were of one mind. He knew where I stood, and I knew where he stood, on the issues on which we differed, but our friendship was one of iron sharpening iron, and we agreed on far more than the things on which we differed. I learned so much from this man, and in amazing ways he helped me develop as a young Christian leader.
Most will remember him as a gentle, consensus-building, but stalwart confessional Presbyterian churchman. I will remember him as a giant that the cross-denominational evangelical community has lost. Evangelical Protestantism does not know what it has lost in Harry Reeder and his influence. But my prayer is that God will raise up scores of young Christian leaders across denominations like Dr. Reeder, leaders who like him will bear kind and unwavering witness to the faith once delivered to the saints, which alone, through Christ, brings human flourishing now and forever.