Judith M. Dinsmore
Evangelizing is a learned skill. That’s what John Shaw discovered back in 2006 when he moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, to plant a church. “My experience was similar to a lot of OP pastors and church planters,” he said. “I had a desire to reach the lost, and a zeal for that work, but a lack of experience.”
So, on the ground, he began researching. “I started looking for tools, conferences, audio and video presentations, and examples of pastors who evangelized well.”
At the same time, Brad Hertzog was serving as a church planter for the OPC in Queens, New York, and hunting for the same helps.
Hertzog and Shaw began exchanging resources and holding conversations about how to evangelize from a Reformed perspective. When Shaw became general secretary of Home Missions in 2013, those conversations continued and, in time, they merged with a daydream of Eric Watkins, yet another church planter, who was working in St. Augustine, Florida.
Watkins envisioned some type of online library with one bookshelf full of tracts, pamphlets, and materials that effectively and attractively communicated the gospel. Church planters could browse, imitate, or download as needed. Another bookshelf might have information on building and maintaining church websites. A third would be loaded with resources on how to evangelize and how to preach with an eye toward the lost.
Home Missions took these ideas and formed a special committee to consider the creation of an OP website to house resources for evangelism and outreach.
In August 2017, Outwardopc.com was launched.
As its name indicates, the website is about looking outward as a denomination. Shaw has two main goals for it: to encourage zeal in reaching the lost and to be a tool for making the OPC more effective in reaching the lost.
Built and maintained by Hertzog, now a digital communications professional, Outward OPC will contain articles, five-minute audio and video presentations on a variety of topics, in-depth presentations from pastors, and interviews with people who are successfully reaching out in a unique way.
This content falls under three main topics: tangible, practical, on-the-street outreach; church-planting vision and strategy; and, inevitably, technology—not only keeping up with it, but also using it wisely, whether through church websites, social media, or other forms.
Many OP church planters are somewhat isolated and incredibly busy, Hertzog pointed out. Church planters do meet for training once a year in person and quarterly over the phone, but the time in between is usually a solo flight. Outward OPC can be a touchstone during those weeks with pithy, focused, and engaging content.
Not everything on Outward OPC originates inside the OPC. In fact, the site will archive content from a variety of other Christian sources. However, everything on the site has been carefully curated by Brad Hertzog and vetted by John Shaw and the associate general secretary for Home Missions, Al Tricarico.
“We’re a gateway for the readers,” Hertzog explained. “We are trying to bring good material from outside sources through the OPC grid so readers can learn from the ‘good’ without having to dissect every piece to find and discard the ‘bad.’ It should save them time and save them stress.”
And the website isn’t just for church planters. Anyone in the OPC—officers, members, attendees—with a zeal for evangelism but a hesitancy on how to live it out, might gain insight from outwardopc.com.
The website was started because Home Missions wanted to make tools readily available to its church planters, but their hope, said Shaw, is that those tools are useful to the whole church as well.
“If you’re coming to Outward OPC, you’re coming to join a discussion about how the church can be better and more effective at reaching outsiders,” Hertzog said.
It’s a discussion that involves more cultural sensitivity than in previous decades of OP history. The learning curve of evangelism can feel like a steep slope up from worship on Sunday morning.
“The culture in which we live is becoming more and more disconnected from Christian faith and Christian living,” Shaw said. “We can’t assume a basic knowledge that, for the most part, we could assume even twenty years ago.”
In decades past, the church was seen as reputable and respectable. Not anymore, said Hertzog. “Now, we’re the outcasts. We’re a threat!”
The culture’s perception of the church shouldn’t change the gospel that we teach, Shaw said, but it should change how we teach it.
“That really is a significant piece of why we’ve created this website,” he explained. “Our goal is to be intentional about how we understand and love our neighbors, and how we communicate the gospel to them.”
Hertzog cautioned that even though it may be a truism that the culture has changed, church budgets and decisions often don’t reflect it. Take a church plant’s website, for example. “The website is your front porch for outsiders. They’re going to go there first,” Hertzog said. Churches should do their best to greet and welcome guests when they show up on that “front porch.” And yet creating and maintaining the website can appear to be a dispensable line item.
Pastor Eric Watkins agrees, although he’s no tech geek himself.
However, Watkins is careful to draw a distinction in the work of a church planter between promotion and evangelism. “Promotion is just making sure people in your community know you’re there,” he said. It can involve the church’s website and social media, or its signs, fliers, and cards. Evangelism, however, is “making the gospel particularly known to those who aren’t saved.”
The challenge of church planting in the twenty-first century is that promotion and evangelism must work in tandem. No one knows about the church if it only just started. And chances are they don’t know the gospel, either. “Both have to happen well, especially at the beginning. It’s kind of like being a farmer and asking whether the seed needs good dirt or water. It needs both,” Watkins said.
Outward OPC hopes to be a resource for both promotion and evangelism, and to widen the gaze of the denomination outward, to outsiders. Watkins explained that just such an emphasis on evangelism was a hallmark of the nascent OPC, as seen in J. Gresham Machen’s writings or Cornelius Van Til’s sermons.
The intervening decades saw an influx of groups coming from other denominations into the OPC. “We did a lot of church planting just by answering the phone, not necessarily by evangelizing the lost,” Watkins said. Responding to and incorporating these groups required the greater part of the OPC’s energy, even while a commitment to evangelism persisted.
Now, that commitment needs hands and feet. “I think we all intellectually want to reach the lost, but I don’t know that our passion always matches our intellectual commitment,” John Shaw explained. “And I also don’t think that our gifting and experience always match our desire.”
Outward OPC is just one way Shaw is working to equip the OPC with the know-how and experience to match its desire for evangelism. Another is the church-planting internship that was started last year. And a third is collaboration with Hertzog beyond the website.
With the aid of Home Missions, Hertzog has worked with churches to produce videos that tell their unique story. (See “Visually Engaging the Lost in Your Town,” OPC.org feature, February 1, 2016.) Hertzog has also been commissioned by some presbyteries to scout nearby urban areas and sketch a picture of what it would look like to plant a church there. Most recently, he traveled to Los Angeles.
To draw up the assessment, Hertzog dives into the city—living in its neighborhoods and walking its streets. He takes his work into coffee shops, pays attention to what people are reading, and engages in conversations. He also assesses church climate, taking the “temperature” by visiting local churches, lunching with pastors, and asking local residents if they’d be willing to share what they think about Christianity and about church.
Then, he asks, “If I were the church planter, where would I start?” The answer for the Los Angeles locale was contained in a forty-page report for the Presbytery of Southern California on everything from possible facilities for worship to a description of the local culture to a suggested pastor’s salary. Hertzog has done similar work in Houston and Washington, DC, with more possibilities in the pipeline for 2018.
In his work, Hertzog has identified several strengths of the OPC that, if communicated well, could be appealing to outsiders.
First, as a church, the OPC knows who it is. And, it isn’t prone to fads. “That is a huge asset to the outsider,” he said. “People really need stability. The OPC has that.”
Second, the OPC is well equipped to receive families and help them to adjust to a new world of church life. If six days out of the week are spent shuttling kids to separate activities and even separate schools, having one day where the whole family visits a church that welcomes each child is a relief to the parents.
The third strength connects to claims in the last few years that suggest that millennials are leaving megachurches in droves in search of heritage, substance, and meaning. (See, for example, “Designing Worship Spaces with Millennials in Mind,” November 5, 2014, Barna.com.) Many of them are drawn to liturgical churches. But they could also be drawn to churches that are seriously and faithfully living out the Scriptures, including the OPC. “The OPC is all about substance,” Hertzog said. “It has that in spades!”
When Watkins looks at the church planters in the OPC doing their work, he sees them as heirs to the evangelistic zeal of men like Machen and Van Til. And he is optimistic.
“I think our best chapters are still being written,” he said.
“My prayer,” said Shaw, “is that ten or fifteen years from now, when people think about the OPC, one of the first things they’ll think is: this is a church that’s really concerned about reaching the lost.”
Readers can visit the site at www.outwardopc.com and sign up for email notifications of new content.
The author is managing editor of New Horizons. New Horizons, March 2018.