John S. Shaw
The Lord Jesus Christ has given great promises to his church. He told Peter: “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18). He calls his disciples to disciple the nations, and he sends them out with his authority and promises to be with them “always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:18–20).
Paul reminds us that the Lord is head over all things, and that he exercises his power on behalf of the church, “which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Eph. 1:19–22). Later in that same letter, we see another big promise: the gospel is preached “so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Eph. 3:10).
The Lord possesses a special love for his church, the apple of his eye. And he promises to do great things through the church, the special instrument by which he displays his saving power in the world. He sends his church to the ends of the earth with the message of the gospel, gathering every last sheep into the fold through her ministry. He promises to accomplish great things in and through his church. These many promises give us every confidence to pursue the work of planting new churches with expectation of the Lord’s blessing. For the Lord promises to build and gather the church, and he promises to display his glory through the church.
Therefore, we pursue the work of planting new churches with great expectation of the Lord’s blessing. He will build his church. Yet we also approach this task with the sober realization that this work will be difficult. Church planting is spiritual warfare—an assault on the gates of hell—and Satan does not surrender quietly. Paul reminds us of the difficult task before the church: “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12). The ministry of the church is always difficult, and this is no different for the work of church planting. In fact, church plants typically face unique challenges. New church plants, just like new flowers or trees, require special care and nurture.
Yet the Lord provides exactly the weapons necessary to fend off the attacks of the devil. He gives us the whole armor of God, so that we might “stand against the schemes of the devil,” so that we might stand “strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might” (Eph. 6:10–11). Elsewhere, Paul reminds us that the weapons of our warfare are different from the weapons of the world. In fact, the weapons the Lord gives to his church are greater than the weapons of the world, for these weapons “have divine power to destroy strongholds” (2 Cor. 10:4–6). The Lord equips us with his Word, with the sacraments, with prayer (may we never forget the power the Lord unleashes through the prayers of the church; see Eph. 6:18–20 and Acts 4:23–31), and with every weapon necessary to do battle. He promises: “I will build my church.”
Therefore, we enter into the fray with great expectation of how the Lord might build and establish new congregations through the ministry of our denomination. William Shakespeare wrote of one of his characters: “Though she be but little, she is fierce!” In the eyes of the world, the church appears little and insignificant (and how much more a small denomination like ours). Yet we enter the fray with ferocity because we stand strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might.
We have good reason to pursue the planting of new churches, because we go with the promise and power of the Almighty. But there are questions for us to answer concerning the work of church planting. In particular, we must answer the question: how do we go about the planting of new churches?
In 2002, the Committee on Home Missions and Church Extension published a manual (revised in 2008) with the title Planting an Orthodox Presbyterian Church. This book describes “the normal method employed by us in our church planting efforts” (p. 5).
It is important to acknowledge that there is more than one way to plant a new Presbyterian and Reformed church. In fact, two other articles in this issue describe other ways that churches are planted in the OPC. The Lord has blessed and continues to bless these other models in the establishing of biblical, confessional, Presbyterian churches within our denomination. And that should be our ultimate goal: by the grace of God to establish congregations committed to the doctrine, government, discipline, and worship laid out in the Bible.
Yet, for the past twenty-five years, a majority of our new works have developed in similar ways. These works have followed a six-step pattern.
First, we start with a group. Paul used this method in his ministry. The apostle and his fellow workers looked for gatherings of God-fearers, whether in the synagogue (Acts 17:2) or by the riverside “where [they] supposed there was a place of prayer” (Acts 16:13). As believers gather into a group, there is evidence of God at work that gives us reason to believe “there might be a special need for this church in this place at this time” (p. 22). A sincere and committed core group provides a helpful foundation at the beginning of a church plant.
Second, we provide elders to oversee the group. Once again, it seems that Paul followed this pattern. The apostle began the hard work of evangelism in Corinth right away (Acts 18:1–4), but it was only when Silas and Timothy arrived that Paul was “occupied with the word” (v. 5). He travelled with other elders who participated in the establishing and developing of new churches. From the beginning, we provide elders to oversee a work, because we are committed to planting Presbyterian congregations. These elders provide maturity and stability—necessary components to support and protect new, fragile works.
Third, the presbytery calls an organizing pastor to lead, mold, and shape the new work. Paul left Titus in Crete to “put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town” (Titus 1:5). The church planter takes on a difficult and challenging ministry. He must be a man of faith who sees in this small, young group the beginnings of the church they will become. He helps to establish patterns and practices that should characterize a faithful church. He does the work of an evangelist as the Lord adds new families to the work. He is the Lord’s instrument in molding a new church from infancy to maturity.
Fourth, we take time to let the group mature into a local body of Christ. Paul describes this slow and difficult process, telling his “little children” that he is “in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you” (Gal. 4:19). It takes time to develop ministries of spiritual growth, evangelism and outreach, mercy, and administration. This process requires patience, perseverance, and prayer. Yet, in the life of many new churches, the fondest memories come during this time, and the strength of congregations can be directly connected to the struggles of this process.
Fifth, the presbytery organizes the group into a new and separate church. This is the product of that patient process of growth and maturity. The group grows in unity (Eph. 4:1–6) and in maturity (4:11–16), and more and more displays the qualities of a faithful congregation. When the presbytery recognizes the qualities that should characterize a local church in this new body, they ordain and install officers to care for the church. And they celebrate with a wonderful service of organization that gives thanks to God for his work in this newly formed congregation.
Sixth and finally, we expect this new church to take her place among the other congregations that helped to establish her. We encourage our new works, from the beginning, to participate in the work of the whole church—to support the work of foreign missions, home missions, Christian education, and diaconal ministry by their prayers and their giving. The way a church is begun usually determines how she will function for a long time. So we challenge our new works from the beginning to participate with the rest of the denomination in the work of the gospel. When new works are organized as particular churches, we expect them to become fully involved in the work of their presbytery and the life of their denomination.
These six steps summarize the most common pattern for how new works develop in the OPC. There are many examples of the Lord blessing this model in the past, and there continue to be examples of the Lord blessing this model in the present:
Providence Presbyterian Church in West Lebanon, New Hampshire, began as a Bible study under the leadership of Tim Herndon. Now they meet in their own building every Sunday under his ministry.
Heritage Presbyterian Church in Royston, Georgia, began with several families meeting for Bible study and for worship with the guidance of Lacy Andrew, a regional home missionary. They continue to grow and develop under the ministry of Mike Myers, their church planter.
Anaheim Hills Presbyterian Church started with a Bible study led by Chris Hartshorn, a student at Westminster Seminary California. Chris was installed as an evangelist after graduation, and he serves as the church planter for this growing young work.
Providence OPC in Tulsa, Oklahoma, began with families who approached the local presbytery about starting a work. Under the ministry of Jim Stevenson, that work has developed and was recently organized as a particular congregation with local elders.
Yuma OPC in Yuma, Arizona, was received earlier this year as a new mission work of the Presbytery of Southern California. A group of families started meeting for weekly Bible study under the leadership of chaplain Tim Power and later approached the local presbytery about their desire for a new church. Now they are meeting for weekly worship with the guidance of Dave Crum, the presbytery’s regional home missionary.
There are many other examples of how the Lord continues to raise up groups, and how the presbyteries of the OPC serve and develop these groups. Church planting is a spiritual endeavor that depends on the gracious work of the Lord Jesus Christ. He promises to build and establish his church, and we look for opportunities to faithfully participate in that mission endeavor. Please pray that the Lord would continue to bless us with opportunities to establish biblical, Reformed, and Presbyterian churches—churches with a zeal for evangelism and a desire to participate in the great harvest, as the Lord gathers and builds his church to the glory of his great name.
The author is the general secretary for the Committee on Home Missions and Church Extension. New Horizons, July 2015.