Ross W. Graham
Sometimes you just have to make space for a new church. That is what happened in New Jersey last year when the session and congregation of Immanuel OPC in Bellmawr formed "Baby Immanuel." The city of Bellmawr is a suburb of Philadelphia and a crossroads of the Northeast Corridor, with major highways leading in all directions. It is a perfect location for an Orthodox Presbyterian church.Folks travel great distances to be a part of this growing church of two hundred. The congregation has spawned a home school co-op. A thriving weekly youth gathering, appropriately named Crossroads, attracts high school and post-high school young people from all over the greater Philadelphia area.
By early 2004, the congregation's 175-seat sanctuary could no longer accommodate its members and visitors. And on-street parking was beginning to test the church's good relations with its neighbors. With no place to sit and a parking situation that prevented a second service, the session began to explore its options. Most attractive on their list of options was enlarging the sanctuary. But that would necessitate acquiring and razing the residence adjacent to their building. That house wasn't even for sale, and even if they could buy it, such a building project would take years to complete. Still, they decided to lay the plan before the congregation for prayer.
Then Pastor Tom Church reminded the elders that their congregation in Bellmawr had been planted by their namesake, Immanuel OPC in West Collingswood, as an outreach into a growing area. Perhaps, Tom suggested, the Bellmawr congregation should be challenged to pick up the church-planting banner and start a new church, using some of their own families who were traveling a significant distance. But there were two distinct growing areas from which the church's people came-one to the north (in the Marlton, Medford, and Mount Holly areas) and one to the south (in the Deptford, Mullica Hill, and Swedesboro areas). So it was decided to start two exploratory Bible studies, to challenge those from the two areas to attend, and to see what would happen.
The church-planting Bible studies began in early September. Both groups studied the Home Missions booklet Planting an Orthodox Presbyterian Church and learned about the costs of "storming the gates of hell" and the importance of "being Presbyterian right from the start." There were rich times of prayer and good fellowship in the weekly gatherings as the two groups faced the possibility that their session might challenge one of them to be the nucleus of a daughter congregation.
Then something unexpected happened. The southern group concluded that they were not ready to undertake such an outreach effort. Only the seven families in the northern group chose to meet with the session. Their excitement, enthusiasm, and vision for the work made it obvious to the session that the Lord had prepared them for the next steps. So on the first Sunday in December, the session announced to the congregation that seven families had been challenged to make space for others in their overcrowded sanctuary by helping to start a daughter church a half hour away in the Marlton/Medford area, and that Associate Pastor David Harr had been asked to lead the group. On the next day, the house adjacent to the church property became available for purchase.
Undeterred by the complexity of events and circumstances that were rapidly unfolding, the session and congregation moved forward, believing that God was with them. They purchased the house, engaged the services of an architect, redefined the job description of their associate pastor, and prepared to say good-bye to some twenty-six people as soon as a meeting place for the new church could be found. They met with Home Missions general secretary Ross Graham and Presbytery of New Jersey home missions administrator Bruce Fenton to discuss how to proceed. They drafted a four-page list of jobs to do. They wanted the Bellmawr folks and the Marlton/Medford folks to maintain their close personal relationships and conduct many of their ministries together. The "mother" church had abundant resources in teachers, musicians, and youth ministries, which the "daughter" church could use as she developed.
So the session determined that the plan for the development of this new church would be "one congregation, meeting in two places, under one session." Until she grew up, Baby Immanuel would do things the way Mother Immanuel did them-using the same church bulletin announcements, worship service structures, and ministry formats. And she would enjoy the protection and direction of the elders of Immanuel Bellmawr, who (at least at first) would already know everyone. At the start, Baby Immanuel's evening services would be with the mother church. There would be one set of youth activities. She would even share a common budget with her mother. And the elders and pastors would come and go between the two locations for ministries and visits.
The new core group became identified as "the Immanuel Marlton Bible Study," and the first issue of News from Our Church Planting Nursery was inserted in the church bulletin. Then the session and the newly identified organizing pastor worked on how this new church would be planted and what it would look like. Bruce Fenton was asked to help find a meeting location for the new church and print signs and materials. The group began meeting officially with David Harr as their organizing pastor. He led them through deep studies of Scripture on the purpose of the church and the nature of biblical worship. And whenever the group gathered, there was regular and earnest prayer.
The organizing pastor also used those Wednesday-night gatherings to lay out the session's plan for how things would be done. The members of the group began to take on individual assignments for specific areas of the "start-up." They began to give a different meaning to the concept of making space for a new church as they learned that they needed to devote large blocks of their time to making contacts and finding things, and as they discovered that they needed to find room in their garages, sheds, and spare rooms for the new church's belongings (Bibles, hymnals, nursery equipment, potted plants, etc.).
Then more unexpected, but welcome, things began to happen. The group began to grow. Some of the new folks were Bellmawr families who asked to become a part of the church-planting venture. Others came as the direct result of prayer, witnessing, follow-up, and hospitality. The session stepped out in faith and authorized a salary increase, so that David and Maggie Harr, with their year-old daughter Abigail, could afford to move to the community. And finally, the main high school in the area gave approval for the regular use of their 150-seat auditorium for worship services.
On Sunday morning, April 10, 2005, these core families, along with many others, were part of Immanuel OPC in Marlton, New Jersey, as it opened its doors to the public. It was a grand beginning, with more than eighty in attendance, including the Immanuel Bellmawr choir. A reporter from the Philadelphia Inquirer was there to report the news, which he clearly comprehended and communicated under the headline "In Marlton, One Church Gives Birth to Another."
It looks like the daughter church is off to a good start. Her attendance is regularly in the forties, she has added some families, and she is regularly seeing visitors from the community. And those spaces she opened up at her mother's facility are already being filled with new visitors who are glad to have a seat in a place where they can worship God and hear his word proclaimed.
The author is the general secretary for the Committee on Home Missions and Church Extension and is himself part of Baby Immanuel. Reprinted from New Horizons, July 2005.