Dr. Robert Stout Rayburn Retires after 41+ years at Faith Presbyterian Church: A Reflection

Robert Stout Rayburn is retiring from the RPC,ES/PCA ministry after 41 plus years of pulpit ministry at Faith Presbyterian Church in Tacoma, Washington.

During his tenure at Faith Presbyterian, Dr. Rayburn preached three times each Lord’s Day with two different sermons. Then there was the Wednesday night sermonette before Prayer Meeting. In addition to the preparation of multiple sermons each week, he mentored the numerous church officers, taught Latin at the church’s high school, Covenant High School, wrote a column for the congregational newsletter, sang tenor in the choir, taught Sunday School, and made time for personal counseling with members of the congregation.

 

Robert Stout Rayburn is retiring from the RPC,ES/PCA ministry after 41 plus years of pulpit ministry at Faith Presbyterian Church in Tacoma, Washington. Rev. Rayburn, better known as “Rob,” began his long tenure at Faith in 1978 and soon became the source of ecclesiastical leadership and theological comfort to his pastoral colleagues in the Northwest. Tacoma, then and even more so now, was in the highly unchurched Puget Sound area, but that secular environment never persuaded Rayburn to soften his ministry to accommodate the culture surrounding his congregation. Rather, he enthusiastically determined to prepare his people for cultural engagement.

But that is what one would expect of a Rayburn whose American Presbyterian roots extend back eight generations to three Rayburn brothers from Scotland who emigrated to the colonies in the 1760s, just in time to participate in the American Revolutionary War. From those three trepid brothers would eventually come the appropriately named, Chalmers Rayburn (1848-1937), a Kansas farmer, who would be the father of the famous Presbyterian evangelist James Chalmers Rayburn (1876-1952), who some have estimated is responsible for over 60,000 conversions in his fruitful ministry. Evangelist Rayburn would, in turn, be the father of Presbyterian statesman, theologian and evangelist, Robert Gibson Rayburn (1915-1990), founding president of Covenant College, Covenant Theological Seminary, a host of Presbyterian church agencies, and the father of our Rayburn, Robert Stout Rayburn.

The Scotsman Ian Hamilton recently wrote, “In an age of theological reductionism and Reformed pietism, it would serve the Reformed church well to be re-acquainted with its history and heritage. I have been both struck by and impressed with Rob’s godly catholicity. He is a pastor-scholar whom the Lord has given stellar gifts.” With the name of “Chalmers” so much a part of his heritage, what would you expect!

It therefore should surprise no one that Rob Rayburn had an influential and productive ministry in an unbelieving environment. A corporate attorney, who is an elder at Grace PCA Church in Seattle, refers to Dr. Rayburn simply as “Rayburn, pastor pastorum” – “the pastor’s pastor.” The last name suffices, as one would refer to Charles Spurgeon as simply “Spurgeon” or Francis Schaeffer as “Schaeffer.” The Rayburn ministry has been compared favorably to the work of the great Princetonian, Charles Hodge. If there is a minister of the Gospel in the PCA that rightly wears the mantel of reformata, semper reformanda – “reformed always to be reformed,” it is the Rev. Dr. Robert Stout Rayburn, as Dr. Jack Collins of Covenant Seminary reminds us.

Rob graduated from Covenant College (cum) in 1972, Covenant Theological Seminary (summa cum) in 1975 and the University of Aberdeen in Scotland with his doctorate in 1978. At Aberdeen, Rob studied with the New Testament scholar Howard Marshall and had the prominent British New Testament scholar F. F. Bruce as an outside reader of his dissertation, “The Contrast Between the Old and New Covenants in the New Testament.”

After Aberdeen, Rob took a restarted Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod (RPC,ES) congregation of approximately 60 members in May, 1978, and built it into an intellectual and spiritual Northwest powerhouse with godly tentacles nationwide. As Rev. Eric Irwin, himself a product of Faith Presbyterian, has noted, Rob structured “the architecture of our minds” through his preaching and teaching. Through personal tragedy and disappointments, the Rayburn pulpit was always the source of “deeply reflective theological thinking,” as Dr. Max Rogland has stated.  Over the years, the Rayburn ministry at Faith has sustained numerous PhD-holding theological academics as well as pastors, national para-church leaders, political leaders, business leaders, physicians, lawyers, military officers and assorted PhDs galore. And then there are the entrepreneurs, the small business owners, the stay-at-home mothers raising their children, the day labors and the retired folk. All who loved the Lord and gathered each week to be ministered to by Dr. Rayburn. Rob attracted and nourished serious and thoughtful Christians in the Puget Sound region. When they came to the church they found a man who exemplifies the finest in expository preaching and biblical worship as taught by his father.

During his tenure at Faith Presbyterian, Dr. Rayburn preached three times each Lord’s Day with two different sermons. Then there was the Wednesday night sermonette before Prayer Meeting. In addition to the preparation of multiple sermons each week, he mentored the numerous church officers, taught Latin at the church’s high school, Covenant High School, wrote a column for the congregational newsletter, sang tenor in the choir, taught Sunday School, and made time for personal counseling with members of the congregation. Lest he had too much time on his hands, he took time to follow in his father’s footsteps by immersing himself in denominational agencies and bodies, serving on the Board of Covenant College for approximately 28 years (and still counting!) and being the Clerk of Northwest Presbytery of the RPC,ES and the PCA for 22 years, actively engaged in denominational issues, and has not shied away from controversy. Furthermore, during these four decades of Tacoma ministry, Dr. Rayburn squeezed in speaking engagements in America and overseas. In sum, he was the hardest working man in the congregation.

And on the home front, Rob was helping raise his and Florence’s five children (Bryonie, Evangeline, Courtney, Robert II and James.) and in the later years, caring for his widowed mother, LaVerne who moved to Tacoma to be near his family. Along the way to shepherding his flock, Rob was accompanied, hand-in hand, by his faithful and excellent wife, choir master Florence. For those of us blessed to be in Faith’s choir, we received a college music education in vocal music as Mrs. Rayburn each week took us through our paces to perform beautiful music with as much quality as we were able. Florence graduated with a music degree from Drake University in 1974 and then did graduate study at Covenant Theological Seminary where she met Rob, and then ministered to Faith Presbyterian Church for 41 plus years.

On a personal note, I met Rob Rayburn Labor Day, 1972, at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis as he was an entering First Year and I was a Third Year welcoming the new students for a day of labor on the campus. I don’t remember much of him from that event, my recollections would come later from two remarkable occasions.

In October 1972, as the senior class president at Covenant Seminary, I was asked to travel to Covenant College to recruit seminary students. I was to accompany three friends who were recent graduates of the college, all first-year seminary students. Among the three newbies was the president’s kid, Rob Rayburn. Mercy! Seven hours in a car with three Bible college grads including the Dr. Rayburn’s boy. However, to my utter delight, once I got into the car on our way south, I didn’t stop laughing as the three Scotsmen lied to each other, made fun of each other and bantered back and forth. I was thoroughly entertained. I don’t remember if we recruited anybody, but I had a great time with young Mr. Rayburn and his pals.

Several weeks after the college visit, December 1972, there was a Christmas banquet for the seminary community. As part of the entertainment for the evening Rob Rayburn formed a quartet to sing some hymns. He asked me to be a member of the bass section. Unlike Rayburn, I need lots of practice if I am going to accomplish any goal. But the quartet didn’t have much time for such silliness, with finals and all, so we basically winged it; right in front of President and Mrs. Rayburn sitting at the head table. Meanwhile, his kid was just chirping through the music like a tenor songbird, obviously delighting his father. I, on the other hand, was screwing up my notes, couldn’t read the words and completely mortified by trying to sing before my professors and their wives. I sounded, as Florence Rayburn would later tell me, like a croaking truck driver. 50 years later, the scars haven’t healed from being dragooned into singing with the Stout Rayburn.

I still don’t know why I attend Rayburn’s church.