Ross W. Graham
Once in a while God arranges the pieces of a church-planting story in such a dramatic way that when you hear it you just know that something very special has happened. The Orthodox Presbyterian Church has a new congregation in St. Louis. But the story of how Christ Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Hazelwood, Missouri, came to be received by the Presbytery of the Midwest on April 6, 2008, is one that is truly unique.
St. Louis is the home of many congregations of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). Even the PCA's own Covenant Theological Seminary is there. And the OPC respects the "Comity Agreement" drafted by the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council (NAPARC), of which we are a member. That agreement states in part that "we will be sensitive to the presence of existing churches and missions ministries of other NAPARC churches and will refrain from enlisting members and take great care in receiving members of those existing ministries." So how did the OPC find itself in St. Louis? Answer: you prayed us there!
It all started back in the fall of 2003. At their annual gathering, the presbytery home missions committee chairmen and regional home missionaries of the OPC noticed that there were places in North America where we just couldn't respond to requests for help to get a church started because we were too far away. It was felt that we needed to have a closer presence in certain areas of the country, such as Memphis, Minneapolis, St. Louis, and Tampa, as well as Toronto, Ontario, in order to be able to respond to those who might ask for our help. To these we added the urban centers of Chicago, Detroit, Miami, New York, and Washington, D.C. We agreed that we would begin by asking the people of the OPC to pray that God would provide opportunities for us to start churches in these ten places. But first I was going to have to talk to the other NAPARC churches about the plan.
Several days later I was in Pittsburgh at the annual NAPARC church-planting consultation. I gulped hard and laid out the plan. I looked straight at my PCA counterpart and asked, "Could the OPC come to St. Louis?" "Sure," he said. "Consider yourself invited. We'd love to have an OP presence there." Then, in the spring of 2004, the Committee on Home Missions laid out an ambitious plan in New Horizons to ask the people of the OPC to pray and wait on the Lord and see if he would provide us with new churches in those ten cities. Among them was St. Louis.
The power of prayer in church planting is something that should not be underestimated. God really blesses as we pray. Within a few months of the beginning of this quiet prayer campaign in 2004, e-mail and phone calls brought inquiries and requests for help. By 2005, mission works had been started in the Minneapolis–St. Paul area and in Toronto. And by early 2006, presbytery plans were under way to find church planters for Chicago, New York, and Washington, D.C. God was really answering our prayers.
But things were not going well for one particular OP church planter. In Houghton, Michigan, Rev. Todd Wagenmaker was struggling with the establishment of Portage Reformed Church. He finally concluded that he could not move the work forward. And when his wife, Julie, was offered a teaching position at a classical Christian school in St. Louis, the Wagenmakers, with their six children, decided to relocate. So it was that in the summer of 2006 God set in motion a providential program of church extension that no one but he could have orchestrated.
When the Presbytery of the Midwest met earlier in the spring of 2006 to release Todd from his call and to approve his secular labors for a time in St. Louis, he asked a simple question: "Would you mind if I tried to get an OP church started there?" No one objected. So when the Wagenmakers arrived in St. Louis, Todd posted a website announcing that Geneva OPC in St. Louis would be opening soon. Within four weeks, four families were meeting in the Wagenmakers' living room for Bible study on Sunday evenings. As the months passed, several new families visited the group. But everyone had busy lives, and it was hard to see how anything could come of the new church-planting effort. Then Bruce Stahl moved to St. Louis and things started to change.
Bruce Stahl served as a ruling elder at Stratford OPC in Stratford, New Jersey, for more than twenty years before his move. He is a consummate churchman who regularly attends general assembly and presbytery meetings. He has served as a General Assembly trustee, a member of the Committee on Coordination, and a member of the Committee on Pensions and Hospitalization. Though still a relatively young man, Bruce is deeply committed to the OPC, knows how it works, and has had a hand in providing service and leadership to it. So when he faced a possible job transfer, one of the requirements for his relocation was that the community to which he would move had to have an Orthodox Presbyterian church for his family to attend. As the city of St. Louis rose to the top of the list of job offers, Bruce spoke to me about the possibility of starting an OP church there. I told him about Todd and introduced him to the website for Geneva OPC. On the strength of a conversation with Todd Wagenmaker and the presence of that website, the Bruce Stahl family moved to St. Louis.
Until the early months of 2007, the group that had been working to form Geneva OPC had been quite informal and relaxed about their timetable, meeting on Sunday evenings to study the Scriptures, to plan, and to get to know one another. But with the addition of Bruce Stahl and his family, the equation changed. There was now the possibility of on-site elder oversight, and many new gifted and competent hands were available to help with the work. But the Stahls had one other problem to address. As a newly relocated family, they had no church home where they could worship and attend Sunday school, and Geneva met only on Sunday evenings. So where could the Stahls worship for a time while Geneva OPC was still developing?
It was Ken Golden, the pastor of New Covenant Fellowship OPC in Independence, Iowa, who had already supplied the answer. Ken's wife, Cressid, had grown up in St. Louis, and the Goldens were familiar with St. Louis churches. So in a casual comment to Todd Wagenmaker at a presbytery meeting, Ken suggested that Christ PCA in the northwest St. Louis suburb of Hazelwood was very "OP-like" and that Todd might want to meet their pastor, Rev. Scott Churnock, and consider bringing the Geneva group there on Sunday mornings. And that's just what happened.
In late 2006, while the Stahls were still laying plans for a move to St. Louis, the Geneva OPC group showed up en masse for morning worship and Sunday school. There were not a lot of folks there at Christ PCA, so the influx of five new families all at once was a big thing. Everyone agreed that the preaching and worship were great. The elders of the Christ congregation were very pastoral in their approach to ministry. And all of them had seminary degrees, though they were in secular jobs. They welcomed the OP group, included them in their fellowship plans, invited Todd to preach, and made them feel at home.
In March 2007, Geneva OPC was formally received as a mission work by the Presbytery of the Midwest, and Bruce Stahl was appointed, along with two other ruling elders from the presbytery, to give oversight to the new work. So the work of planting a new OP church in St. Louis was moving along nicely by the spring of 2007.
But there was a nagging problem. The people of Christ PCA and Geneva OPC were forming close relationships and learning to work well together. So Todd Wagenmaker took Scott Churnock out to breakfast and made a bold proposal. "We will give up on our church plant if Christ Church will join the OPC." Wow! Such a thing was unheard of, and nothing came of it right away. By the late spring of 2007, another family had been added to the OP mission work, and everyone in the group realized that it was time to begin morning worship in the west county area according to plan.
So on the last Sunday of May, the seven families of Geneva OPC said their heartfelt good-byes to their friends in the congregation of Christ PCA. And on June 7, 2007, forty people gathered in a conference room at a local Days Inn for a well-publicized opening service of a new Orthodox Presbyterian church.
But the folks at Christ PCA were devastated. They knew that being Orthodox Presbyterian was important to their friends and that many people were praying that such an OP church could be started in the greater St. Louis area. But they missed their brothers and sisters. They rattled around in their building again. Their newly thriving Sunday school had lost most of its children. And worse, they were losing their vision and hope for the future. The session met to consider the situation. "We love these people," they said, "and from our study and interaction we know that we do fit with the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Let's do it."
So two weeks after Geneva OPC began meeting for morning worship, the session of Christ PCA approached them with a proposition: "If you'll come back and be with us, we'll become an Orthodox Presbyterian congregation." Both sessions discussed the proposal thoroughly. Then they discussed it with their separate congregations. And by the end of the summer of 2007 there was agreement all around to make it happen. In a step of faith, Todd Wagenmaker signed a contract to become headmaster at the classical Christian school where his wife taught, leaving him without sufficient time or energy to devote to planting a new church. And on September 23, 2007, the congregation of Christ PCA unanimously petitioned the OPC's Presbytery of the Midwest to receive them as an organized congregation.
The presbytery took the next six months to make sure that everybody knew what they were doing and that nobody was being coerced. They approved Scott Churnock as the pastor, as well as the congregation's three ruling elders. And on Sunday, April 6, 2008, I had the privilege of moderating a special reception service. First, the members of Christ Presbyterian Church vowed to "walk together as a church of Jesus Christ according to the Word of God and the constitution of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church." Then Pastor Churnock asked the members of the Geneva OP mission work to stand, and they were received into Christ OPC. The mission work was dissolved. The church officers were installed. One plus one equals one! (Several weeks later, the congregation elected and installed Bruce Stahl as a ruling elder.)
What a story of brotherly love and church unity! No one had planned for it to happen this way. But as we all prayed that God would raise up an OP church in St. Louis, this is how he did it. So the next time you pass through St. Louis, you can find Christ Presbyterian Church (OPC) near the airport at the junction of I-270 and Route 67. You'll find a warm welcome there.
The author is general secretary of the Committee on Home Missions and Church Extension. Reprinted from New Horizons, July-August 2008.