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How to Plant a Presbyterian Church

Ross W. Graham

You can learn a lot about a denomination's "corporate culture" by how it does certain things. The OPC has a way of starting new churches that discloses much about itself. It is not just the way the Committee on Home Missions and Church Extension of the OPC fosters the development of new churches. Nor is it simply the way presbyteries on the east coast or the west coast or in the north or the south start new churches. Nor is it only the way men who have graduated from certain seminaries start new churches. It is something that seems to make sense to everybody in the OPC. And it is starting to make sense to folks in other Reformed fellowships as well.

The purpose of this article is to explain as clearly as possible a six-stage process that seems to be intuitive to ministers and elders in the OPC who have embraced and made use of it to start dozens of new Presbyterian and Reformed congregations among the sixteen presbyteries of the OPC 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.

Since Planting an Orthodox Presbyterian Church[1] was introduced in 2002, this manual for starting new churches published by the Committee on Home Missions and Church Extension has been widely used to make the establishment of new congregations understandable and achievable. It describes a chronological process and set of procedures for starting new churches. But the crisp, six-stage process mentioned above and unfolded below is an assumption made by the book that 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 employed 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 who 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. Rather than relying on the vision or urging of a single leader who gathers people around his plan, the gathered group itself is strong evidence of the plan of God.

A group can be gathered for the purpose of starting a new church in a number of ways. Advertising and then leading a Bible study in a targeted community is the most often used method. Conducting an exploratory informational meeting about whether a new church could be started, holding a seminar on a subject of Christian interest, 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 such names are garnered, following up with a plan for next steps is crucial.

Since this gathering stage is used to determine whether God is at work in the effort, care must be taken not to manipulate people or simply to gather their names. They must be given opportunity to commit themselves to the project and show themselves faithful to that commitment in order to take next steps. Such objective evidence 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 hopeful establishment of the new church to determine whether the hand of God is on the work. But once that determination is made and a decision is reached to move forward, some very specific things need to happen.

2. Provide elder oversight for the group.

The story of the founding of the church in Corinth in Acts 18 contains an interesting account of its chronology. When Paul moved venue for his church planting ministry to Corinth, he labored with Aquila and Priscilla in the trade of tent making, and he reasoned and pursuaded in the local synagogue (verses 1-4). But when Silas and Timothy arrived, Paul was occupied or "compelled by the word," testifying to the Jews that the Christ was Jesus (verse 5). It was when a plurality of elders was present that the work and witness of the church got underway. 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 or creating an internal steering committee, has great advantages. First, it follows a biblical rather than a corporate pattern. Second, it starts the church in the way that it will operate for the rest of its ministry life. And third, it allows the whole church to see an example of the kind of men they will want to choose in the future as their own indigenous elders.

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 congreation that is appointed for this responsibility. Sometimes the presbytery appoints officers from various congregations as a committee to provide such help. It is these men who 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 in order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you" (Titus1:5). 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 in the church planting process this is stage 3. The organizing pastor is not usually the first minister with whom the group has had initial contact. The group has heard the Word and taken godly counsel from others. And a plurality of elders is already in place to govern and set the tone for the new church. The organizing pastor comes to a group which already has a history. So he does not necessarily function as the pace-setter or the visionary leader in this process. Note also that at this point on the timeline of the process, the newly developing church probably has twenty-five to fifty people in its group and is governed by an overseeing session of two to four elders. Because the developing church has so much of the "look and feel" of an organized congregation, it has been the experience of the OPC that many seasoned pastors from its ranks have been willing to take on this work.

But this is difficult and demanding ministry. Only the rudiments of church life have been set in place by the time of the arrival of the organizing pastor. 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 as others are added to their number. So 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 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, saying to them, "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 largest section of Planting an Orthodox Presbyterian Church[2] deals with the subject 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. This is a process that 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 are parts of this work. 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 which 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 which 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 of significant importance 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 Paul sets the standard for what makes a mature body of Christ. In verses 1-6 he speaks of the unity of the Spirit, urges that it be maintained, and spells out how much oneness believers have in common—one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all. Then in verses 11-16 he 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 aim and goal of church planting is not to celebrate the gathering of a bunch of individuals with shared common interests. The aim and goal of church planting is to celebrate the acknowledgement that a mature body of Christ has been established which 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 who have not been involved in the preparation process. That is why the OPC Form of Government says that "a group of believers may be organized as a separate congregation of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church only under the supervision of presbytery" (FG 29.A.2).

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, ready to 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 among them, to a covenant community emphasis, 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? Do they submit to their temporary presbytery-appointed leaders? Does their worship of God as a congregation unify them and encourage their hearts? Do they understand what the OPC is, do they share her interests and concerns, and are they praying for and financially supporting her ministries? And are they appreciative of the work of their presbytery on their behalf?

Deciding to move forward to organize the group as a new church also involves more objective and task-oriented work. The training and preparation of men to be freely elected by the congregation as their elders and deacons must be completed. And the documents spelling out the procedures and policies that the church will follow once it is self-governing must be developed.

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 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 trained for 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 other like-same churches should be fostered and modeled from 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. Their officers make happy volunteers in the life of their regional church, serving on committees and attending general assemblies. And their members are enthusiastic about their broader church's gospel outreach and expect that they might some day be asked to help start yet another new church.

Conclusion

It must be stressed that the work of 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. It is the application of the power and work of the Holy Spirit, who draws men to the Savior, unites them together in the church, and gifts and equips them for the work and witness of the body of Christ. And it must be remembered that it is also a frontal assault on the forces of Satan. Those who set their minds and hearts to establish a new church of the Lord Jesus Christ invite and must expect the opposition of the Evil One. But they also have the great privilege of being used as tools in God's hand as he gathers his people and builds a habitation for himself among them. No methodology conceived by man adequately reflects the depth of the spiritual nature of church planting. Those who involve themselves in this work regularly 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."

Endnotes

[1] Planting an Orthodox Presbyterian Church [second edition] (Willow Grove, Pennsylvania: The Committee on Home Missions and Church Extension, 2008).

[2] Ibid., pp. 77-105.

Ross W. Graham, a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, is general secretary for the OPC's Committee on Home Missions and Church Extension in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania. Ordained Servant Aug.-Sept. 2009

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