Anthony A. Monaghan
Eleven years ago, in August 2002, my wife and I, along with our two small children, arrived in Charlottesville, Virginia. The purpose of our arrival was simple. I had been called by the Orthodox Presbyterian church in Staunton, Virginia, just across the Blue Ridge Mountains, to take up the labor of shepherding a church plant, Providence Orthodox Presbyterian Church, through its earliest years.
Although Providence OPC had been meeting for worship for a year, our family was at that time family number six in a small group of believers. It’s hard to believe, looking back at it, but the addition of my wife and two children swelled the church rolls to a total of twenty-two communicant and noncommunicant members.
On January 5, 2007, we were recognized by the Presbytery of the Mid-Atlantic as a particular congregation, with a total membership of forty-nine. Now, eleven years after our arrival, we have a total of eighty-eight members. Certainly this is no megachurch, even by OPC standards, but it is a healthy and warm congregation, slowly continuing to grow, not only in numbers, but perhaps more importantly in a maturing sense of our mission in Charlottesville. This is not to say that we have not had difficult times—indeed we have, some of them very difficult indeed. But God has been faithful, and while every area is different and every situation is different, I thought it might be helpful to look back at God’s work at Providence OPC in Charlottesville and consider some of the lessons we learned along the way.
The first lesson is simple, yet difficult to put into practice. We really had to learn that this is God’s work. This is a congregation of the church of Jesus Christ; he will build his church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. The labors of a pastor can bear great fruit, and the sins of a pastor can bring great bitterness, but above all the church is Christ’s. It belongs to him, and he is the one who builds it. In difficult times and in good times, it is good to remind the church to cling to this simple truth.
The second lesson is a practical one: know from the very beginning who you are. We were blessed at Providence, even from the very earliest days, with a strong sense of what we believed as a confessional church, and what we understood worship in spirit and truth would look like. This helped us withstand the pressures that every church plant goes through. I don’t know why it is, but whenever a new church comes along, it attracts people who have an agenda to make a church in their own image. This is not necessarily a description of sin—although it can be—but rather the recognition that people come to a new congregation seeking to mold it to fit their image of what a church should be.
For example, very soon after we started, two new families showed up, and both soon began pressing the church to change its pattern of worship. One desired that we drop Trinity Hymnal and begin singing the modern worship music they liked and were familiar with. The other family desired that we drop Trinity Hymnal and sing only psalms, unaccompanied by the piano. For a young pastor seeking to build a church, there can be great pressure to seek to please men. Having a strong sense of what we believed about worship, even from the very beginning, helped us to ward off those pressures. Neither family stayed when they didn’t get what they desired.
That leads to a third lesson, which is perhaps the most difficult to put into practice, because of the very nature of church-planting groups. And that lesson is that the church has to grow through those who really want to be there. A church plant can be a refuge for those who perhaps don’t really want to be there, but who don’t want to be anywhere else. It is tempting to think that those who come to your small, struggling church plant, disgruntled with the church across town, are going to bring only the joy of the Lord into your midst—and, by God’s grace, some really do—but many bring a spirit that is quick to judge, and they may quickly become disgruntled with you as well.
A fourth lesson is to take Presbyterianism seriously. A robust view of the role of the session will not only protect a church, but also protect a pastor. Because of the nature of things, church plants often find themselves with young and inexperienced men. Even after a career and a yearlong internship, I was unprepared for the difficult and thorny minefield of church relationships. I hardly think I was alone in that. The OPC is right to insist that sessions oversee church plants. Although this can be very difficult, since the ruling elders are often volunteers who live far away, the overseeing elders need to be as committed to the church plant as they are to their own congregations.
Presbyterianism is not practiced only in local congregations. It is also practiced in the connections we have with other congregations. Both the church plant and the other congregations in the area need to practice Presbyterian connectionalism. We were planted by Staunton OPC—itself a small congregation—but we were greatly strengthened and encouraged by the involvement of that congregation in our early years. For church plants, the simple encouragement of having a group from a nearby congregation show up to join in worship is a great boost. The sound of the singing of a congregation of forty, when you are used to twenty-five, gives a wonderful taste of where you are heading, both in your own growing congregation and as a foretaste of heaven.
Fifth—and this really does go hand in glove with the reminder that this is Christ’s church—be about the work of the church. It can be very tempting, in the longing for growth and stability, for everyone to think of a stable church as an end in and of itself. But the church has a task: to worship, to pray, and to love. Sometimes churches can find themselves with families or individuals who are difficult and needy. If we view such people as an impediment to the growth of the church—and they can sometimes make other people feel uncomfortable—then we miss the whole point of a church loving one another. Seek out those who are hurting. Care for them, not with an eye toward the growth of the church, but with an eye toward laying down your life for those who need it most.
Finally, be a gospel-centered church: not simply in the sense that the gospel is clearly presented in the worship and life of the church, but also in the sense that the church needs to focus on the core gospel issues that bind us together as Reformed believers. Church plants, and probably especially OP church plants, are likely to draw people with strong theological opinions about subjects as broad as the range from two-kingdoms to theonomy. Be wary of those who have come to think that a certain thread of the Reformed mosaic is itself orthodoxy. The love of Christ constrains us, not only in our own consciences, but to receive and value the entire church—perhaps especially those with whom we disagree. Don’t just tolerate the breadth of Reformed opinion in the congregation, but value it, because you value those who hold those opinions. A really gospel-centered church will disagree well, loving unity rather than uniformity.
The author is pastor of Providence OPC in Charlottesville, Va. New Horizons, October 2013.