Eric B. Watkins
Church planters, through one humbling means or another, come to the realization that though God is pleased to use his servants, it is God who ultimately is the church planter, and any success is due to his grace. God alone gets all the credit and the glory. Only by God’s grace are churches planted and eventually become established congregations.
The story of Covenant Presbyterian Church in St. Augustine, Florida, is an unusual one. It does not fit the description of a mother-daughter church plant, nor did it begin with a well-established core group. It is what might be described as something close to a “parachute drop” or a “strategic church plant.” These terms are not frequently used in the OPC, and I certainly do not want to suggest that this paradigm is any better than the others. But I would point out that it is not as unfamiliar as it may seem.
If you were to peruse one of our history books, The Orthodox Presbyterian Church 1936–1986, you would find the stories of many of our older churches and their formation. It is encouraging to learn that many of our churches not only had fairly modest beginnings, but also began through the work of evangelism, Bible studies, etc. In other words, it could be suggested that in the past, churches were planted as small core groups, which grew through evangelism and outreach into what they are today. Prior to writing this article, I contacted some of our regional home missionaries, who confirm that such efforts in “strategic church planting” or “parachuting” certainly are a part of the story of church planting in the OPC.
When Heather and I moved to St. Augustine (just south of Jacksonville) in December 2007, we had a fifteen-month-old daughter and a two-month-old son in our arms. We unpacked boxes in between changing diapers and vice versa. A month after we moved into our rental home, we began a Bible study in our living room on a Friday night with the few contacts that we had. That Bible study grew quickly to about thirty people in a month and fifty or more within a few months. We held our first worship service in May 2008, and by God’s grace the church continued to grow to the point of becoming an organized congregation. As I write this, Covenant Presbyterian Church just celebrated her seventh birthday, and did so with a “picnic on the grounds” of the property we just bought: a beautiful six acres on a major highway with two buildings, one for a sanctuary and the other for Christian education and fellowship. We praise God for our new home!
There have been abundant joys and sobering challenges along the way. When the presbytery called us to this area and its Home Missions Committee began to discuss my job description, it was very clear that there was no church for me to pastor yet. I was being called as an evangelist and not as a pastor. I’d like to underscore this: when church planters are called, they are not pastors until there is an organized church; rather, they are evangelists. This became the focus of my work. Workdays were filled with trying to find different ways, not only to make new contacts in the community, but also to look for evangelistic opportunities with people. To be honest, I was terrified at first. There were many times when I wondered if I had lost my mind (others wondered the same), and yet God did remarkable things. He began opening doors to not only share the gospel with unbelievers, but also to discuss the beauties of the Reformed faith and the distinctives of the OPC.
Over the years, evangelism has continued to be an important part of CPC’s identity. We have held evangelism classes for the congregation, and are about to start another. Seeing people come to Christ has not only been a tremendous encouragement to me, but has also greatly encouraged the body to engage the idea of being salt and light. To this day, we continue to have a fruitful ministry to a nearby secular college, from which we have seen not only new converts but also a few marriages. We run a Bible program one afternoon a week at the public school where we currently meet for worship. I am involved in both ministries, and so are people from our church. Doing evangelism with the body is not only a great privilege for me as pastor, but also edifying to the members of Covenant. There is a man in our church with a jail ministry to imprisoned adolescents. There is a sweet, retired couple that loves going to Walmart and handing out tracts together. Others have simply been warm and enthusiastic about the church and sought opportunities to invite people to come and worship with us. The point is that the church as a whole has been involved in the work of planting this church, not just the church planter. Church planters need to reflect on this more and consider how to cultivate this as part of the identity of fledgling works.
Another joy has been the development of relationships with area pastors. When we moved here, we were eager for Christian fellowship. It also meant a lot to me that we not “sneak into town,” but rather get to know area pastors to talk about our church plant, ask for advice, and ask if we could pray for one another. To this day, I continue to meet with pastors from other denominations and am very thankful for these friendships, as they have meant a lot to my family and me.
One particular story is worth telling. Some time after we moved here, we got to know the local Evangelical Free Church pastor and his family. They are dear, godly folks with kids a little older than ours. The pastor invited me to preach at his church. After I preached and before I sat down, he came up and put his arm around me and prayed for my family and our church plant. He then went on to ask people in his church to pray about whether or not God might be calling them to be a part of our church plant—and if so, they should not feel bad about joining with us. It brings tears to my eyes to write this, as I was simply overwhelmed by this expression of love, faith, and generosity. How many of us (would I?) would even consider doing such a thing for another pastor?
Covenant has also had her challenges. For many of our members, CPC is their first confessionally Reformed church, and for a good handful it is their first church—period. Very few of our members were in the OPC before becoming part of CPC, and this is true of all our ruling elders and deacons. While it has been wonderful to see many people come from different directions, it is also quite clear that we are still in the process of growing into our confessional theology and Presbyterian polity. We are in a wonderful presbytery and learning what it means to be functionally Presbyterian through various means, including giving 100 percent of the askings and leaning on the presbytery for help in working through difficult matters. It has been humbling to see that some of the best teaching moments for what it really means to be Presbyterian have come through times of difficulty. God has shown us that we really need our presbytery, and being a part of both it and our denomination is a privilege that we are appreciating more and more.
One of the biggest challenges lying before us now is learning to function as an established church and not a church plant. A church plant is like a tree that comes up as a frail sapling and eventually (by God’s grace) matures into a tree. It grows its rings slowly, through various seasons. Along these lines, there is a lot of information out there about church planting; there is not nearly as much on how to round the corner of this next phase with sufficient infrastructure, administrative plans, developing discipleship ministries, etc. My own job description seems to be changing, whether I want it to or not. After all, I am foremost a pastor now, and secondarily an evangelist.
It seems only fitting to conclude by saying that it has been simply exhilarating to see God’s grace at work in the planting of this unlikely church. God has not only planted us, but has watered, sheltered, and cared for us. We are deeply grateful for his grace. As CPC moves into this new stage of her life, we hope to be a congregation that continues to grow in our relationship to the presbytery and denomination. We particularly look forward to sharing in the work of planting other new churches in our presbytery, whichever model is used. We are here, humanly speaking, because of the generosity and support of others. Many who were here from the beginning continue to be amazed at the amount of time and energy that was put into our church plant by other members of our presbytery in helping us get established. As we have freely received, we hope now to be able to freely give. Lastly, we hope to offer some encouragement that while this model of church planting may seem challenging, it is not entirely new, and by God’s grace it can even thrive.
The author is the pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church in St. Augustine, Fla. New Horizons, July 2015.