Patricia E. Clawson
At a time when many fledgling churches are cautious about spreading their funds far beyond their front doors, one Home Missions intern set a pattern of generous giving for his young congregation of twenty. Over the next forty years, that congregation would contribute nearly $4 million to Orthodox Presbyterian Church missions.
Mark R. Brown first heard about the OPC from fellow Geneva College students Robert Harting and Robert Eckardt, now OP ministers. At Westminster Theological Seminary, Brown was spurred by an OP pastor to consider planting a Reformed church back home in the mountains of central Pennsylvania. During the summer of 1976, when he was an intern under Pastor Thomas Tyson at Trinity OPC in Hatboro, Pennsylvania, Brown began a Bible study more than two hundred miles west in his parents’ home. Fifteen family members and friends attended.
After his graduation in 1977, Brown became a Home Missions intern to the group near his hometown under the Hatboro session’s supervision. Newly named Westminster Presbyterian Church, the group held its first worship service in Hollidaysburg on June 5, 1977. The Presbytery of Ohio assumed oversight and helped to fund the mission work for two years, alongside modest support from the OPC’s Committee on Home Missions and Church Extension.
Those financial gifts, which buoyed the congregation in the early months when they worshipped at the Sheraton Inn, were not forgotten. To show their appreciation, the five-month-old church stepped up when asked in November to help fund a denomination-wide Thank Offering. Their sacrificial gift of $221 assisted in supporting the work of the OPC’s committees on Home Missions, Foreign Missions, and Christian Education. The next year they budgeted a minimum of ten percent to OPC missions. “We promoted the Thank Offering from our very first year of existence,” said Brown. “Even as a small, new church we announced, promoted, and prayed for the Thank Offering to encourage our people to participate in the whole work of the whole church, as encouraged by one of my mentors, the Rev. George Haney.”
Brown calculates that since the church began forty years ago, members have given almost $4 million to presbytery and OPC missions. Annually more than thirty percent of Westminster’s budget reaches beyond their doors. One year they gave 49.9 percent of their offerings to missions. Last year, to celebrate their fortieth year, the session encouraged the church to give $40,000 to the Thank Offering. The congregation outdid that goal by lavishly raising $60,000 during their Thank Offering Month.
“We don’t give just to pay the local bills for the pastor and the building,” said Brown. “As an OP church, we have a connectional commitment to support the presbytery and denomination as our primary commitments. We use every occasion we can to explain to people ‘the OPC way’ that as a church family together we support the whole work of the whole church.”
Unlike many denominations, “the OPC way” means that home missionaries and foreign missionaries don’t raise their own support through “individual sales pitches and the frenzy of fund raising on their own,” said Brown. “Each congregation should support the work of foreign missions, home missions, and Christian education because together we support all the missionaries and staff.”
Brown credits OP pastor Larry Wilson with the key to their tremendous giving to the Thank Offering. At Wilson’s suggestion, Brown gained his session’s permission to promote the Thank Offering for an entire month, rather than on just one Sunday. November became Missions Month, featuring biannual visits from missionaries and denominational general secretaries who promote the work of home missions, foreign missions, and Christian education. Attendees of the nearly annual church banquet are challenged to give generously and sacrificially. Those on vacation or absent have more than one opportunity to contribute.
“People who would hesitate to give $500 one week can suddenly see that $100 a week over five weeks is possible in their budget,” Brown said. “It enables more people to give more to our missions.”
Brown also writes a personal letter to his congregation to encourage generous giving to the Thank Offering. Throughout November, colorful Thanksgiving envelopes are liberally placed in the bulletins, the pews, and on the book table to encourage contributions to the Thank Offering. Weekly from the pulpit, the 200-member congregation also hears the news and prayer needs of home and foreign missionaries and interns, who are pictured in the center pages of the November issue of New Horizons.
The congregation’s ability to give so generously to missions has been feasible, in part, because their building programs have been modest and quickly paid for, and their pastor has depended on volunteer support staff. The church’s budget committee has responded to Brown’s counsel annually to increase the percentage given to missions.
Westminster’s budget does not include support for parachurch ministries because they involve individual preferences. “I don’t like to bind members’ consciences to support what someone else prefers,” said Brown, who uses Geneva College and Covenant College as an example. “You pick one and you’re telling the whole membership that their money is going to that preference.”
Beyond missions, the members’ bounty funded its three building projects, assembled a 5,000-book lending library, annually distributed about 1,000 volumes through their book ministry, and oversaw the start of Resurrection OPC, their daughter church in State College.
Brown’s book ministry developed after reading such books as What Do Presbyterians Believe? by Gordon H. Clark. After a Billy Graham crusade in high school jump-started his faith, Brown’s Reformed convictions were cultivated through the written word. “I see books as ‘portable preachers’ that are great for outreach and witness to support the sermons,” Brown said. “Books supplement and amplify the teaching that you do in Sunday services.”
Brown’s dedication to the whole church is also reflected in his twenty-five years of service on the Committee on Home Missions and Church Extension (1989–2015).
When Brown retires next month, he hopes to write articles, which would add to his literary legacy of published works: Why Join a Church? coauthored with Larry Wilson in 2006, and Order in the Office, edited by Brown in 1993.
Having pastored one congregation for four decades, Brown is grateful for God’s grace that helped him to persevere through many difficulties. He is thankful for the support of Joan, his wife of forty-two years, who has served as the pianist for worship and welcomed newcomers with meals to help them assimilate into the church. In retirement, he and Joan look forward to more time with their special-needs daughter Amanda, who lives with them, and visits from their son Luke and his wife Julie, whose daughter Grace Arielle was born on August 30. He also will continue to care for his 90-year-old parents, who hosted that first Bible study forty years ago.
The author is an editorial assistant for New Horizons. Sources for this article include the Thank Offering video “How to Promote the Thank Offering” (view it at www.OPC.org and the article “Longtime Pastor Retiring,” by Linda T. Gracey, in the Altoona Mirror (May 26, 2017). New Horizons, November 2017.