How to Plant a Presbyterian Church
Ross W. Graham
The Orthodox Presbyterian Church has a way of starting new churches that seems to be intuitive to the ministers and elders who have embraced and made use of it to start dozens of new congregations among her seventeen presbyteries over the past decade.
Simply put, it goes like this: start with a group, provide elder oversight, call an organizing pastor, take time to let the group mature into the body of Christ, organize it as a new congregation, and expect it to take its place among the working, serving and giving churches that helped to begin it. But this crisp, six-stage process needs unpacking to appreciate its biblical conformity, its Presbyterian consistency, its Reformed distinctiveness, and its working simplicity.
1. Start with a group.
The apostle Paul used this method in his church-planting ministry. “And Paul went in [to the synagogue] as was his custom...” (Acts 17:2). The Holy Spirit chose to reveal that Paul had a regular plan of approach—to go where God-fearing believers honored the Scriptures and looked for the Hope of Israel. There he gathered groups that would form the nuclei of the churches he established in Asia Minor and Europe.
Starting with a group of sincere believers makes a lot of sense. It ensures that God is at work in the gathering process and that there is reason to believe a new church should be established. Groups can be gathered for the purpose of starting new churches in a number of ways. Advertising and then leading a Bible study in a targeted community, holding an exploratory informational meeting about whether a new church could be started, and conducting sample evening worship services are all means that have been effectively used to collect the names of interested families and individuals. But by whatever means people are gathered, objective evidence such as regular attendance, willingness to spend time and energy on the work, inviting friends and relatives to become involved, and beginning the practice of regular financial support of the work, all help those initiating the establishment of the new church to determine whether the hand of God is on the work.
2. Provide elder oversight for the group.
When Paul began his church planting ministry in Corinth in Acts 18, he labored with Aquila and Priscilla in the trade of tent making, and he reasoned and persuaded in the local synagogue (verses 1–4). But when Silas and Timothy arrived, Paul was “occupied with the word,” testifying to the Jews that Jesus was the Christ (verse 5). It was when a plurality of elders was present that the work and witness of the church got under way. Paul’s traveling companions were more than assistants and trainees. He traveled with a plurality of elders who were given on loan to help direct and govern the new, developing churches that were planted until their own overseers could be put in place.
Providing elders to oversee the new work from its start, rather than relying on the leadership of a single individual, has the advantage of starting the church in the way it will operate for the rest of its life. And it allows the whole church to see an example of the kind of men they will want to choose in the future from their own midst.
Ruling elders and ministers (teaching elders) from other churches are routinely borrowed for this work in the OPC. Sometimes it is the whole session of another congregation that is appointed for this responsibility. Sometimes the presbytery appoints officers from various congregations as a committee to provide such help. These men selflessly take the time necessary to arrange and oversee worship and preaching, to receive members, to provide for the administration of the sacraments, and to begin the initial training and preparations for the group to become a new congregation of God’s people.
3. Call an organizing pastor to work with the elders to mold the group into a church.
“This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you” (Titus 1:5). This simple statement provides the job description for the organizing pastor of a mission work. He is a man who is specially called of God and is so intensely gripped with the significance of the doctrine of the church that, at the bidding of his presbytery, he is willing to move to a place where he is needed and to love and serve a group of people temporarily as God builds them into a mature body of Christ, and who is able to consider his work completed if they decide to call another man to be their pastor.
Note that the organizing pastor comes to a group that already has a history. So he does not necessarily function as the pacesetter or the visionary leader in this process. But this is difficult and demanding ministry. Only the rudiments of church life have been set in place by the time of his arrival. He must be a man of great faith to be able to see, in the core group of families with which he works, the church that they will become. He must also do the work of an evangelist to see to the addition of new families as God supplies. And throughout his specialized service as an organizing pastor, he must model a sincere faith in a God who will supply his and the church’s needs and will raise up men to join him in ministry as godly elders and deacons.
4. Take the time necessary to let the group mature into a local body of Christ.
In Paul’s message to the erring Galatians, who “are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel” (Gal. 1:6), he chides them for their folly, but he also teaches them some important lessons about the church. He speaks to them as “my little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you!” (Gal. 4:19). He employs the plural pronoun: you all. He intimates that there is a time in the life of a gathered group before it may be appropriately called the body of Christ. Just as the Holy Spirit takes up residence in the life of an individual at a point in time at which it may be said that he has been born again, so the Spirit forms a group of believers into that which may be called a local body of Christ at a point in time after they have been initially gathered together. It takes time for that group to develop its unity and maturity. And the process by which the Spirit does this cannot be rushed.
The process of building maturity into the corporate life of a group of people who have come together with their borrowed elders and their appointed organizing pastor may take two to three years to work through. It involves at least four areas of church life. First, it is vital to develop means to promote the spiritual growth of the people of the mission work, establishing sound worship practices, a solid education and discipling foundation, and ministries to strengthen and maintain healthy families. Second, it is necessary to develop and ensure ongoing ministries of outreach and evangelism in order to faithfully carry out the Great Commission. These involve, on the one hand, outreach ministries that make the work of the church known to the people of the community in which the congregation ministers. They involve, on the other hand, direct gospel activities that bring the righteous requirements of God and his plan for the salvation of his elect before the people of that same community. Third, it is important to develop ministries of mercy and concern to demonstrate the compassion of Christ for the household of faith and for all God’s image-bearers as well. Fourth, it is also important that sound administrative practices and procedures be put in place so that the ongoing life and ministry of the church may be protected and ensured.
5. Organize the group into a new and separate church.
In Ephesians 4:11–16, Paul describes what Christ has done to take the things believers have in common and build them into a mature body of Christ in a local place. The goal of church planting is not simply to gather a group of individuals with shared common interests, but to establish a mature body of Christ that is able to care for itself and minister through Christ to the world around it.
The work that has been done over a number of months or years is expected, as its end result, to produce a mature body of Christ. But that work must be carefully evaluated by the scrutiny of wise and objective presbyters. Determining the maturity of the group and the presence of the body of Christ in them is not an easy job. It is not as simple as counting noses and dollars and saying yes when there are enough of them. Those involved in the church-planting process in the OPC have learned that asking lots of questions and getting consistent, anticipated answers is the best way to determine a group’s readiness to stand on their own with their own pastor and elected officers and take their place among the working, serving, and giving churches that helped them get started.
So answers to questions such as the following are sought: Does the group demonstrate a commitment to godliness of conduct, to a covenant community, to God-centered worship, to constancy in prayer, to seeing lives changed by Christ through the gospel, and to a worldwide vision and outreach? Do the members of the group love, respect, and defer to one another? Does their worship of God as a congregation unify them and encourage their hearts? Do they share the interests and concerns of the OPC, and are they praying for, and financially supporting, her ministries?
6. Expect the new church to take its place among the working, serving, and giving churches that helped to begin it.
“And you Philippians yourselves know that in the beginning of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church entered into partnership with me in giving and receiving, except you only. Even in Thessalonica you sent me help for my needs once and again” (Phil. 4:15–16). Paul was pleased with the exemplary role that the church in Philippi had played in his church-planting efforts. He was subtly signaling, “If you want to see a church that is really shouldering its load, look at our brothers and sisters in Philippi.”
If this kind of mature participation with other churches of close association in the work of the gospel is expected, it must be instilled from the very beginning of the church-planting process. An axiom of Presbyterian church-planting practice is that the way a church is begun will determine much of the way it will function throughout its maturity. If it is to be a Presbyterian church, then the presence and oversight of godly and competent elders ought to be there from the start. If it is to be a connectional church, then its interaction with people from related churches should be fostered and modeled from the earliest days. If it is to be a congregation that holds to the rich doctrinal tradition of the Reformed faith, then confessional documents ought to be known and taught and referenced in sermons from the beginning of the church.
Newly organized congregations that follow this Philippian model find it easy to become involved in the work of their presbytery and the life of their denomination. They have been seeing it practiced and expect to take an active role in the affairs of their larger church.
Church planting is from first to last a spiritual undertaking. It is the implementation of all that the Bible teaches concerning the nature and purpose of the church. But it must be remembered that it is also a frontal assault on the forces of Satan. So those who are involved in this work must stand in awe of the power of God and the truth expressed by the Lord Jesus in Matthew 16:18: “I will build my church.”
The author is general secretary for the Committee on Home Missions and Church Extension. He quotes the ESV. New Horizons, July-August 2012.