Ross W. Graham
Planting a church is not easy. There are no blueprints for doing it. Because each local church is planted in its own location and consists of a unique group of people, the variables involved in establishing a new body of believers are endless. Church planting is not a science. It is a spiritual undertaking. It is God who establishes new churches. Those who work, lead, and help are only the tools he uses.
But there are principles of church planting that God has set down in his Word. We discuss them with our church planters in the OPC. The church-planting practices of Christ's apostles in the New Testament are important to follow unless there is clear reason to think that those things pertained only to the apostolic age. Among those practices are the following:
Begin with a core group. "Then Paul, as his custom was, went in to [the synagogue], and for three Sabbaths reasoned with them from the Scriptures" (Acts 17:2). The apostle Paul ordinarily began his ministry in a new place with a visit to the Jewish synagogue, where God was worshiped and his Word was honored. He probably did this because he understood the church to be the covenant people of God gathered for worship, instruction, and fellowship. It is difficult to know the exact equivalent of "going first to the synagogue" when new churches are planted today. But it probably has to do with beginning them with groups of people who are grounded in God's Word and who are ready to form new worshiping covenant communities.
Use a body of elders to provide care for the group. When it came time to structure the churches that had been planted in Asia Minor, the apostles understood that God had already given them direction about caring for the spiritual needs of his people in the Old Testament. So they appointed elders for them in each church (Acts 14:23), whose duty it was to "take care of the church of God" (1 Tim. 3:5). This concept of elder rule forms the basis of Presbyterian church government. Paul took many traveling companions with him on his missionary journeys (Acts 18:1–5); they appear to have provided the initial elder structure while new churches were being formed. Similarly, we lend our new OP mission works experienced elders or even a whole session from another congregation to provide wise counsel and oversight as God's care structure.
Call a pastor who is gifted to be a church planter. "For this reason I left you in Crete, that you should set in order the things that are lacking, and appoint elders in every city as I commanded you" (Titus 1:5). This was the job description that Paul gave to Titus. It has, in effect, become the job description of every church planter: to do whatever is necessary to overcome the weaknesses and deficiencies of the group and help it to become a mature body of Christ that can stand on its own. This requires a caring pastor—a man of faith, a leader of people—who has a mature grasp of doctrine and is committed to biblical preaching. He is so called of God that at the bidding of his presbytery he is willing to move to a place where he is needed, and to love and serve a group of people temporarily as God builds them into a mature body of Christ and provides them with their own session and pastor.
Devise a plan for how the core group will develop into the body of Christ. "The disciples were first called Christians in Antioch" (Acts 11:26). Why did it take several years and a place far removed from Jerusalem for Jesus' followers to be identified as "Christ's ones"? Probably, it was recognized first in Antioch that being a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ gives one a new set of values and puts one at odds with his culture. Christians were seeing the life-changing power of the gospel in their lives. And they were anxious to share this life-changing message with others, so that the pagan culture around them would be transformed, one new Christian at a time. So they made a commitment to godliness of conduct (1 Cor. 1:2; 1 Thess. 1:7), to a covenant community (Eph. 2:12; Phil. 3:3), to God-centered worship (1 Cor. 14:23–25; Col. 3:16), to constancy in prayer (Rom. 15:5–6; Eph. 6:12; Phil. 4:6–7), to seeing changed lives as a result of their ministry (Heb. 10:24–25; 1 Pet. 2:9), and to a world vision (Matt. 28:19; Rom. 1:16).
Begin the lifelong process of contributing to the work of the whole church. A mission work is ready to be organized when "Christ is formed in you" (Gal. 4:19). Do the members of the mission work love, respect, and defer to one another? Are they growing in spiritual maturity as a result of the ministry of the church? Are they reaching out to their neighbors, relatives, and friends, and is God using their efforts to gather more of his elect into the church? Do they understand what the Orthodox Presbyterian Church is? Do they share the OPC's interests and concerns? Do they pray for, and financially support, her ministries of home and foreign missions and Christian education? Do they appreciate the work of their presbytery on their behalf?
Every OP mission work must wrestle with these principles as it takes up its own responsibilities as a church. Let's consider one example—Reformation OPC in Oviedo, Florida—to see how these principles work in practice.
Until the mid-1990s, Oviedo was a small town northeast of Orlando. But ruling elder John Muether of Lake Sherwood OPC in Orlando knew the area was about to explode with growth. John is the librarian at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando (and the OPC historian), and he was involved in the planning of the new seminary campus on the outskirts of the once-sleepy town. At John's urging, Pastor Larry Mininger and the Lake Sherwood session began in 1998 to discuss the possibility of starting a new church in that area. But nothing much came of the idea.
Then in 2001 Eric Watkins arrived from California to become Lake Sherwood's new associate pastor. With two pastors available at Lake Sherwood, the idea of trying something in Oviedo began to be discussed again. In September 2003, Lake Sherwood OPC sent four of her families with Eric and Heather Watkins to the other side of Orlando to begin worship at the Jackson Heights Middle School in Oviedo.
Six months before the beginning of Sunday worship in Oviedo, the Lake Sherwood session appointed a special delegation to give oversight to the new Reformation OPC. Joining Eric Watkins and John Muether on this provisional session was minister David Chilton, who was working for a time with Campus Crusade for Christ, which was headquartered in Orlando. The three men met almost weekly to pray, to give direction to the work, and to think through every aspect of the church's future ministry.
Eric Watkins graduated from Westminster Seminary California in 2000 (see the sidebar on page 5). After serving as a yearlong intern with Pastor Mark Schroeder at Harvest OPC in Vista, California, he was called to the Lake Sherwood congregation in Florida. The one thing these two churches have in common is that they are both near an ocean. You see, Eric was then a "surfer dude." But when you combine a wave-chasing, volleyball-playing, laid-back young athlete with an intelligent, theologically committed OP minister who has a passion for people, a zeal for expository, Christ-centered preaching, and a deep sense of calling to plant a church, you have an attractive church planter.
Eric and Heather Watkins moved to Oviedo in the summer of 2003 and quickly made their home a beacon of hospitality. Eric joined a volleyball league and began to meet and minister to young men. He was also asked to teach a homiletics course at nearby RTS Orlando.
Soon the core group families found others joining them for worship. Some were well trained theologically, and some came right off the streets. Reformation OPC was being planted in Oviedo.
If you ask Eric or the session about their plan for developing Reformation OPC's ministry, they will tell you more of what it isn't. "We wanted to be a 'plain vanilla,' nonhyphenated Presbyterian church," says Eric. "And we decided from the start that we would structure our worship and the rest of our ministry on clear Reformed principles, and were willing to fail as a church, but would die a principled death. We began and have continued with both morning and evening worship, and we celebrate the Lord's Supper at every evening service. And people are important to us, so we spend a lot of time with them, encouraging, counseling, and praying."
What contribution has this young body of believers made to the whole church? They have enjoyed the presence of many students and several faculty members from RTS Orlando. Young men are now seeking summer and yearlong internships at OP churches as a result of their positive experience with the OPC there. The church's first yearlong intern, Brett McNeill, is now the organizing pastor of Reformation OPC in Olympia, Washington. The Oviedo session is helping to get a new OP mission work started two hours away in Jacksonville. And Eric Watkins is always on the lookout for other "surfer dudes" who will join him in pastoral ministry in the OPC.
The author has been general secretary for the Committee on Home Missions and Church Extension since 1990. He quotes the NKJV. Reprinted from New Horizons, July 2007.