Our Corner of the Harvest Field
Ross W. Graham
This is the age of the harvest. Jesus has told us that "the harvest truly is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest" (Matt. 9:37-38 NKJV). We should expect the harvest. We should plan for equipment and storage facilities to be there when they are needed.
But something unique is happening in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church right now. Our corner of the harvest field has suddenly been inundated with crops that are ready to be picked.
A sense of amazement has come over those of us who work in OP Home Missions. We did not advertise in one city that we hoped to raise up a group to form a church there. We did not send an evangelist to another city to start a Bible study that would lead to the forming of a new church in that place. But around the country, groups are springing up where we did not plant or water. God is raising up Bible studies and worshiping groups, and they are asking the OPC to receive them and to provide pastors and elders to care for them.
New Works in California
My recent visit to the West Coast is a good illustration. There, in the Presbytery of Northern California, which stretches from the Big Sur north to the Oregon border and east to encompass the whole state of Nevada, is our regional church with its twelve congregations and two mission works. They have no regional home missionary. Resources and manpower are stretched to the limit. They had no plans to plant a church in a small town in the San Joaquin Valley or in a growing suburb of Sacramento. There was no time. There was no money. But then God sent people to them with a burden.
In the farming community of Hughson, where orchards, vegetables, and vineyards grow side by side in the rich soil, God raised up a group of people who came and asked the men of the presbytery for help. They turned to former Sunnyvale, California, pastor Sal Solis, who had retired to Turlock in 1991, only seven miles away. Now, a year after that first contact, fifty believers are worshiping regularly in a high school auditorium. They have purchased a medical building on the main street in town and are refurbishing it as their ministry facility. And the plan is to call an organizing pastor by the middle of 1999.
A hundred miles north, in the growing high-tech suburbs of Sacramento, came a call from several families who had been meeting together for Bible study. By the time representatives from the presbytery were able to visit the group in Rocklin, they had grown from four to seven families. By the time the presbytery responded to their request to be received as an OP mission work, they had grown to eleven families. And on the Sunday following their reception, I counted thirteen families at their evening gathering. They, too, are looking for an organizing pastor to be with them by the end of the summer.
God is expanding the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. New congregations have started up at the rate of twelve per year over the past three years. All over the country he is raising up groups with a zeal for the Word and for consistently Reformed teaching. And these folks are calling us for help. Our presbyteries and our denominational Home Missions staff are running hard to try to keep up.
Perspectives from the Past
In preparation for this special New Horizons focus on Home Missions, I wanted to find out how all of this compared to earlier years in the OPC. So I asked three former Home Missions general secretaries to join me for a discussion of what the work of church planting was like in earlier times. Rev. John P. Galbraith served as general secretary of both the Committee on Home Missions and Church Extension (CHMCE) and the Committee on Foreign Missions from 1948 through 1961, when administrative duties were divided and Rev. LeRoy B. Oliver assumed the post of general secretary for CHMCE. Rev. George E. Haney served in this capacity twice, from 1974 through 1982 and again from 1987 through 1990. As we sat together and talked, a picture of a struggling but determined young denomination began to surface.
Home Missions, they testified, played a significant role in the new church right from the start in 1936. The fledgling denomination was very small and needed to grow. Not nearly as many churches had come out of the increasingly liberal Presbyterian Church in the USA as had been anticipated. But financial resources were sorely limited, especially since most congregations lost their property when they left the PCUSA.
Nevertheless, the Committee pressed on, mustering denominational aid for such new works as a mission to the Menominee Indians in Wisconsin and a church plant in Berkeley, California. Only a few of the larger churches were able to contribute to the financial support of these and other ministries of the OPC in the early years. Because funds were stretched so thin, the early home missionaries had to make considerable sacrifices. Some pastors and their families were eating potatoes and/or oatmeal three times a day until their support checks arrived.
What were some of the most pressing needs of Home Missions in those days? Money for buildings was greatly needed. That's why the annual Thank Offering was started fifty years ago. Buildings were desperately needed in those days because church planting was not an accepted or expected practice. Gethsemane OPC in Philadelphia started in a storefront with plastered cinder blocks that leaked like a sieve when it rained. John Davies in Gresham, Wisconsin, preached in a tent at the start of the church there. Churches were begun in bar rooms, funeral homes, and one even started in a kennel club! "In those days," Roy Oliver reminded us, "you needed a building to teach people that they don't need a building to have a church."
What was the main thing that interested the groups of people who wanted to form Orthodox Presbyterian churches in the early days? They wanted to take a stand for the gospel, all three former general secretaries said. The question was whether you believed the Bible or not. The issue back then was not the Reformed faith (narrowly conceived), but the more basic question of whether the gospel would be preached. People just didn't see that there was a Reformed faith that was distinct from other evangelical forms of Christianity.
But the core of the OPC was Reformed, right from the start. With the leadership of the Church in the hands of new pastors who were trained at Westminster Seminary, our congregations began to be instructed in the Reformed faith. The main thing that interested people in the early days was having a Presbyterian church that was faithful to the Bible. "By the mid-sixties, the struggle was over the adoption of the Confession of '67 by the PCUSA," reported George Haney, "and CHMCE began to respond to interest shown by conservative Presbyterians who were in the liberal denominations."
In the early days, the Committee had to take much of the initiative. They chose the places and called men to be church planters. Heavy presbytery involvement in the work of church planting came much later in OP history. But Rev. Samuel Allen, at the Fourth General Assembly (1938), was instrumental in introducing the idea that no church should be started within a presbytery without the approval of the presbytery. Still, the small, struggling churches and the presbyteries looked to CHMCE for help. They had to in those days.
On the lighter side, the three former general secretaries joked with me about my having it so easy to travel. In those early days, travel was by train, and if the trip was to California, they would be gone from their families and offices for a month or more at a time. "If you were traveling in the Dakotas," said John Galbraith, "going east or west was by train; going north or south was only by bus."
Office equipment has become much more efficient, too. "The biggest advance in office technology in my day was from manual typewriters to electric ones," said Roy Oliver. George Haney recounted the laborious task of making carbon copies of reports for fifteen Committee members. "We tried to do it in three typings," he said, as he remembered the joy of using the office copy machine for the first time.
As we sat together in that room, reflecting on five decades of church planting, I marveled at how good our God has been to the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. We all agreed that it is truly the Lord who builds his church. God alone is to be thanked and praised for all that he has doneand is doingto grow the OPC!
But we also agreed that it is different now. More is happening than in past years. Groups are coming to us in a different way than they did in past decades. Our presbyteries are closely involved with the work, and there is so much to be done!
Reaping where we did not sowthat's the way it seems to be happening today all over the country. Many of our presbyteries are hard-pressed to keep up with all the contacts that are being made. The Committee on Home Missions is not staffed to handle so many requests or to assist with such a volume of questions and visits that are resulting from the harvest.
Now, all of this may not continue at the same pace. God may not choose to continue using this method of growing the OPC. But if an analogy may be drawn between what is happening right now in the OPC and the scriptural information we have about harvest fields, then it seems appropriate to draw a few conclusions about our labors.
First, the corner of the harvest field in which we Orthodox Presbyterians have been sent to work is abundant beyond all we have ever asked or imaginedand somewhat overwhelming to us. We haven't compromised our methods or practices, and we haven't made plans that have led to this growth. It has just happened. The sovereign hand of God has willed that we be and do more than we have been and done in the past.
Second, this particular corner of the harvest field needs many more laborers. We need pastors to come and help us care for the sheep. And, above all, we need prayer laborers to keep these matters always before the Lord of the harvest.
Mr. Graham is the General Secretary of the Committee on Home Missions and Christian Education. Reprinted from New Horizons, June 1999.