New Horizons

Home Missions

Ross W. Graham and Richard R. Gerber

For almost a decade, Orthodox Presbyterian church planting has been in a basic response mode. A group of Reformed people find each other, come to us for help, and we adopt them as a core group. But recently the regional home missionaries and presbytery home missions committee chairmen have begun talking about church planting "on purpose." It may now be the time to consider choosing places to plant churches because they are the right places, rather than because they are the easy places.

If we are to consider a second, more intentional approach to our church-planting task, a review of some pertinent biblical information is necessary. Philippi was identified in the Scriptures as "a Roman colony and the leading city of that district of Macedonia" (Acts 16:12). For some reason, God made a specific point of commenting on the stature of a city in which the planting of a new church was about to take place. It follows that leading population centers are appropriate places to look as we lay plans to plant new churches. But how do you address a leading city once you find one?

"As his custom was, Paul went into the synagogue" (Acts 17:2). The apostle Paul made it a standard practice to start his ministry in a new place with a visit to the local Jewish synagogue, where God was worshiped and his Word was honored. If you follow Paul through his first three missionary journeys (Acts 13-20) from Cyprus all the way around to Ephesus, you will observe a standard method of operation in all of his church-planting efforts.

It seems likely that this practice had to do with Paul's understanding of the nature of the church—that it is the body of Christ, even in a local community, and that it is the covenant people of God gathered for worship, instruction, and fellowship. So, according to his custom, Paul went first to those who would know about the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He went to those who honored God's Word and knew the character and joy of worship, and he formed core groups of believers who knew God and his Word in every town he visited. It is difficult to know the exact equivalent of "going first to the synagogue" as new churches are planted today. But it appears likely that it 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.

But if the OPC is to begin to plant churches more intentionally, what would that look like? It is doubtful that we will ever again see the Committee on Home Missions and Church Extension plant a church by its own will and initiative, as was done from the 1930s to the 1980s. The so-called "denominational project" is really not an option for us anymore. That work is now done by the presbyteries. But what strategies would make sense from a Reformed perspective?

Whether a congregation sends some of its families to another location to begin a church just like theirs, or a session takes on the challenge of being the actual overseeing body of a mission work, or a presbytery coordinates the mustering of resources and elders to help to plant a church in a location where none of them reside, starting churches on purpose will involve risks and challenges. There will be a greater degree of uncertainty about whether such a thing is the will of God, if there isn't a group of people there already. And the church planter will need to be much more experienced and competent in gathering a group of people and forming them into an Orthodox Presbyterian congregation.

And if the denominational Committee on Home Missions and Church Extension is to be more active in encouraging the presbyteries of the OPC to be more intentional in their church-planting efforts, it will be necessary for us to tell ourselves that we cannot neglect the poor and dangerous urban centers of our cities. We must go not only to the safe outer rings of the large metropolitan areas of North America, but also to the places where people are together in large numbers and where the need is obvious and great.

All of this was in the minds of the presbytery home missions representatives who met last November to discuss how best to accomplish our church-planting task and carry out our Great Commission responsibilities in North America. With the encouragement of the Committee on Home Missions and Church Extension, they identified two types of churches that need to be planted by our OP presbyteries, and then chose five key cities of each type where such churches could be planted. The first are metro-area churches—major metropolitan areas of North America where the OPC currently has no presence. With much prayer and reflection, they chose Memphis, Minneapolis, St. Louis, Tampa, and Toronto. The second are urban churches—areas of large cities that are poor and dangerous. With a clear resolve to undertake this difficult task, they chose Chicago, Detroit, Miami, New York, and Washington, D.C.

Where will all this lead us? Frankly, we don't know. We are certain that it will be expensive to plant such churches, and that our presbyteries and the denominational Committee on Home Missions will need far more financial resources than currently seem to be available. But we believe that we are following a path of wisdom as we step out in faith. How long will it take? Perhaps ten years or more will be needed to see these things come to pass. But as the presbyteries of the OPC begin to grapple with the matter of addressing these ten cities, we have determined also to lay the cities, the approach, and the need for funds before the whole church for prayer.

God has blessed our church-planting efforts beyond measure, and we have no reason to doubt that he will supply what we require to do this work in this way. The presbyteries of the OPC have seen firsthand how he has provided the people and groups to drive our responsive church-planting efforts. If they prayerfully begin to endorse intentionality as a parallel strategy for the establishment of new churches in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, who knows where the OPC may be by the year 2014!

—Ross W. Graham

A Light for Christ in "the City of Lights"

"At our recent what-can-we-do-that-we're-not-doing-to-attract-people-to-Covenant-OPC meeting, we good-humoredly concluded that through our weekly church listings and periodic advertisements in two area newspapers, our entry in the Natchitoches phone directory, and our weekly sponsoring of R. C. Sproul's Dust to Glory series on Sundays on the local TV station, we have probably made contact with all those in our area who have 'truly Reformed' inclinations, and we are all sitting around the Mertenses' dining table." (So reads an article on Covenant Church's history.)

On that evening in February 2000, the three families gathered in Natchitoches (pronounced knack-a-DISH), Louisiana, were pondering their future. About ten months earlier, two families had begun to meet for Sunday evening Bible study. They were members of Pineville Presbyterian Church in Pineville, Louisiana, but wanted to start a Reformed church in their hometown of Natchitoches, about an hour to the northwest. With the blessing of the session, they had launched their efforts.

Morning worship in a motel conference room was begun in the fall, led by elders from Pineville. Few visitors came, despite the efforts noted above. So where do you go from there?

The Lord had already set in motion pieces that would be integral to the continued development of Covenant Presbyterian Church.

Mark Winder had already visited Covenant OPC once before. Soon he, Michele (his wife), and their three children would be making the one-hour drive from Shreveport. Mark was a student at the Reformed Episcopal seminary there.

The Winders were searching for a church home. Mark was brought up as an independent, fundamentalist Baptist. Then God began to move him to Reformed convictions, including covenant theology. As part of that growth, God brought him into the Reformed Episcopal Church through their seminary in Philadelphia. But upon moving to Shreveport in 1999 to study at the RE seminary there, Mark began to be uncomfortable with their commitments and ethos. In his search, he called the Orthodox Presbyterian Church administrative offices and spoke with his first OPCer, Ross Graham.

In August 2000, Mark and his family moved to Pineville, where he began an internship. Among his responsibilities was leading the worship service in Natchitoches. Over the next three years, he would be elected a ruling elder, complete his seminary training at Reformed Theological Seminary, and be ordained and installed as an evangelist to serve Covenant Church.

The election of Bob Jones and Joel Mertens, two of the men in the mission work, to serve as ruling elders on the Pineville session, also fostered the continued development of the mission work.

Natchitoches was established in 1714, and is the oldest permanent settlement in the entire Louisiana Purchase. Today 18,000 call it home. The parish (county) has a population of 39,000. It is also home to over 10,000 students who attend Northwestern State University and the Louisiana School of Math, Science, and the Arts, a residential high school.

Each year hundreds of thousands of visitors come to Natchitoches because of its history and charm. The movie Steel Magnolias was filmed here, and Oprah Winfrey has featured Natchitoches on her TV show. Several hundred thousand people come to "the City of Lights" each December for the Festival of Lights. Right on the edge of the historic district is the building that the Lord has provided for Covenant Presbyterian Church. Mark says, "Practically everyone entering or leaving Natchitoches must pass this spot." Plans are under way to use this opportunity for the sake of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

For now, the congregation is busy reaching out with the gospel to the people of their town. Almost every week a new door hanger is produced. The people of the congregation pass them out to friends and acquaintances. On Fridays, they are used in door-to-door calling. CDs, each containing two of Mark's sermons, are distributed freely and widely throughout the community. The church website receives many hits. In this community with no other Reformed church, uncertainty and suspicion must be overcome. So Covenant Church labors to make known her message, of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone, and her ministry, founded on the authority of God's Word.

—Richard R. Gerber

A Long Road

"Men always ought to pray and not lose heart" (Luke 18:1 NKJV) is the Holy Spirit's introduction to Jesus' parable of the importunate widow. Persistent prayer on the part of a few people is often the first chapter in the history of a new church's development.

Such is the case with Reformation Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Oviedo, Florida.

Oviedo is on the northeastern side of Orlando. Lake Sherwood OPC is on the western side. Families living on the eastern side had a long drive to worship and would pay up to eighteen dollars in highway tolls to attend morning and evening worship. The hope for an OP church nearer to their home was nurtured in their hearts.

Pastor Larry Mininger and the people of Lake Sherwood came to share the desire to minister the gospel of Jesus Christ more effectively on the east side of Orlando. With the establishment of the Orlando campus of Reformed Theological Seminary (RTS) in Oviedo, that desire became stronger.

Over the last eight years, as prayers were offered up to the Lord, momentum was growing to establish a daughter congregation. Several false starts were discouraging, but the people of Lake Sherwood persisted.

With the arrival of Eric Watkins as associate pastor in 2001, it seemed that God was opening the way for the start of a daughter congregation—four or five years further down the road. However, God seemed to have another timetable. In short order, the families on the east side began to coalesce as a unit.

The Lake Sherwood session, seeing this providence of God, made plans for a new church plant. In September 2003, Reformation OPC began meeting in Oviedo to worship the Lord. With the start of the mission work, God's answer to those prayers for the establishment of an OP church on the east side of Orlando was becoming clearer.

The launching of the mission work was a great step of faith for Lake Sherwood. She was sending off men, women, and children integral to her ministry. Among them were her associate pastor and John Muether, the librarian at RTS, who was serving on the session. Planting a daughter church means sacrifice and pain.

Eric's path to becoming an Orthodox Presbyterian church planter is a testimony to God's grace. As the Grateful Dead gave concerts across the country, Eric followed them from North Carolina to California. Then deciding that he had had enough, he boarded a bus home. As he stepped on, a Bible was put in his hand. For two solid days, he played his guitar. When his fingers couldn't handle any more, he pulled the Bible out of his pack where he had stuck it. Since his brother's name is Mark, he decided to start reading there. By the time he got to Christ's resurrection in chapter sixteen, he was a new man. Christ had drawn him to himself.

Eventually the Lord led him into a Bible-teaching church. When asked to lead the youth group, it took him only a few weeks to realize that the youth knew more about Christ and the Bible than he did. In response to his hunger to know more, the church sent him off to Florida Bible College, where he not only learned more about the Scriptures, but also met and married Heather, the president's daughter.

Having attended some Ligonier conferences, he wanted to go to a seminary that was strong in covenant theology and the biblical languages. A place near some good surf wouldn't hurt either. So God directed his steps to Westminster Theological Seminary in California. There he moved from church to church until the dean of students steered him toward Harvest OPC. Eric says, "Coming to Harvest was like the plane landing. The congregation wrapped their arms around us and welcomed us in."

Through the encouragement of Dean Carson, Eric also attended his first Readiness for Ministry in the OPC Seminar.

By God's grace, Reformation OPC is seeking to become a faithful Orthodox Presbyterian congregation. She wants to be a church committed to the Word, the sacraments, prayer, and simple, Reformed worship. The people are committed to the Reformed faith and Presbyterian church government. Their mission is twofold. They desire to proclaim Christ to the lost and also to seek Christ's scattered sheep who need to be fed and nurtured.

Some faculty members and students from RTS are attending worship at Reformation, especially in the evenings. The two OP congregations are the only Reformed churches in the Orlando area with an evening worship service.

The transition from a large, well-developed congregation with a variety of ministries and a wonderful building in a scenic location to a mission work of thirty-five people meeting in a middle school in Oviedo has not been easy for the families of Reformation OPC. But God is sufficient, and they are relying on him to establish another well-developed Orthodox Presbyterian church in the Orlando area.

—Richard R. Gerber

Church Planter Training Conference

Those who take on the role of an organizing pastor in a mission work are involved in a unique kind of labor. To assist them in it, the Committee on Home Missions and Church Extension of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church provides a training opportunity each January for its new organizing pastors and other guests.

Eleven men gathered for three days of intense training and discussion with CHMCE's staff. Eight of them had begun their labors in 2003.

The Administrative Office Building in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, was the site for this Annual Church Planter Training Conference, which was held January 12-14.

General secretary Ross Graham, associate general secretary Richard Gerber, and David Haney, director of finance and planned giving, made the following presentations:

Ample time was built into the schedule for prayer, hearing God's Word read, and singing his praises. The men were also given time to discuss issues related to church planting and get acquainted with one another.

Larry Wilson introduced the work of the Committee on Christian Education. Mark Bube and Doug Clawson gave the men a tour of the foreign mission fields of the OPC.

—Richard R. Gerber

Mr. Graham is the general secretary of the Committee on Home Missions and Church Extension. He quotes the NIV. Mr. Gerber is the associate general secretary of the Committee on Home Missions. Reprinted from New Horizons, April 2004.

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