Laura Jane Kilgore
In the bustling college town of Waco, Texas, there’s a new sprout of God’s kingdom. On any given Sunday morning, you can meander down into the foyer of Valor Academy in south Waco and there find the congregation of Trinity OPC.
It’s a small crowd, but once you experience the warm greeting of the faithful members and see the way God has already been working here, it’s easy to imagine how quickly it may grow.
In fall 2015, a group of families gathered in Waco. Many of them had been driving over an hour every Sunday to Pflugerville or the Fort Worth area for worship, in search of a church that faithfully preached from Scripture, encouraged spiritual growth, and reached out to the lost.
At this meeting, Mark Sumpter, regional home missionary for the Presbytery of the Southwest, presented to the families the basics of what it means to be a part of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. The group knew they were seriously interested.
By early 2016, they presented a petition with a collection of about fifteen signatures to the presbytery in hopes that Waco would be approved as a mission work of the OPC. That March, the petition was approved and work in Waco began in earnest. Trinity was soon established as a mission work under the oversight of Mid-Cities Presbyterian in Bedford, Texas, and its pastor, Joe Troutman.
Trinity found its first home in the lovely suburban community of Woodway, adjacent to the city of Waco. It started meeting weekly at Woodway Elementary School with preaching provided by Sumpter and other nearby pastors. By May 2017, Trinity was ready to receive an organizing pastor.
Jason Kirklin and his wife, Amanda, both grew up in the church. While Amanda professed her faith from an early age, Jason didn’t come to a full understanding of the gospel until he neared the end of high school. They met at the local PCA, while working on their undergraduate degrees at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, and were married the summer after Jason’s graduation.
One of the first connections Jason Kirklin had with the OPC was through Danny Olinger, then the regional home missionary for the Presbytery of Ohio. Kirklin heard a lecture online by Olinger on the writings of Geerhardus Vos and wrote to ask him a few further questions about it. By the time the Kirklins reached Westminster Theological Seminary in 2004, they were regularly attending an OP church.
After graduating from seminary in 2008, God led the Kirklins to Columbus, Ohio, where Jason got his law degree from Ohio State University in 2011. But even as he worked toward the degree, the Lord opened the door to ministry at Grace OPC in Columbus. He served as an intern there and was ordained as its associate pastor in November 2012.
While in Columbus, Kirklin preached for seven weeks at Grace Fellowship Church, an OP mission work in Huron, Ohio, while its pastor was in transition. He realized that he loved the outreach aspect of pastoring a small church and wanted to use his gifts in a more evangelistic capacity.
He started looking for similar permanent opportunities and learned about the church plant in Waco. In God’s providence, when Kirklin made the call to learn more about Trinity, the pastor on the other end of the line—Joe Troutman—just happened to be an old friend from seminary.
In June 2017, the Kirklins relocated to Texas. Although Kirklin says climate didn’t figure into his move to balmy Waco, he did admit that he would have been reluctant to relocate to a state any colder than Ohio.
The Kirklins may occasionally miss snow, and Waco is a long way from their roots in Indiana, but Texas living agrees with the whole family. Their four children, ages five to eleven, love their new school and playing with the congregation’s other children after church.
Since his installation in August 2017, Pastor Kirklin has gradually added the regular programs of Sunday school and weekly prayer meetings, while still making time for outreach and evangelism to the city of Waco.
Waco is active. On the first Friday of every month, the entire city celebrates a night out, with special events in and around downtown. Couples on date night, groups of students, tourists enjoying the local attractions, and native Wacoans roam downtown for open-air movies, live music, and delicious food trucks. On these “First Fridays,” Kirklin—borrowing the idea from Mark Sumpter and Miller Ansell in Houston—has started to do foam-board evangelism to engage people in conversation. (See “Houston: An Upward Call of God,” New Horizons, October 2017.) If Waco is going out to do something, Kirklin reasons, Trinity wants to be out there doing its thing, too.
Waco is also home to Baylor University, a Christian university with more than seventeen thousand students. Kirklin fits right in. He has spent almost his entire life living in college towns and loves the energy that comes with them. There’s an economic and cultural stability and a never-ending stream of intellectual and evangelistic opportunities, he says.
The congregation of Trinity has many points of contact with Baylor, including both students and professors in attendance.
The undergraduate students at Baylor have been harder for Trinity to reach than the graduate population because they often have fewer transportation resources and tend to get plugged into some of the larger, more accessible churches right away. To respond to this need, Trinity offers interested undergraduates rides to church and hopes to soon have other welcoming events for them.
Although Pastor Kirklin immediately connected with the town and the congregation, Texas did offer him a surprise. He knew about the Bible Belt, but he still didn’t expect to see so many churches and hear so many people identifying as churchgoers. Evangelism in a church-going culture must be relationship-based, Kirklin says. In this nominally Christian culture, you may freely discuss the gospel, but as soon as you pursue those relationships, you frequently encounter unexpected roadblocks. People are often comfortable with their own spiritual state, and it can be a challenge to raise the question of whether they have saving faith. Trinity’s goal remains simple: to seek conversations with Wacoans and to encourage true spiritual growth.
In the past year, another challenge has risen. A brand-new Planned Parenthood facility opened in Waco in the spring of 2017, sparking local controversy. For several years previously, there had been no operating abortion clinics in Waco because of a failure to meet the requirement that clinics be within the prescribed distance of an emergency room. However, that requirement was overturned in 2016, and by April 2017, abortions were being done on select weekdays in Waco.
Trinity takes seriously the positive element of the sixth commandment “to preserve the life of ourselves and others” (Larger Catechism, Q&A 135). Kirklin and other individuals from Trinity are getting involved with a regional pro-life organization and with sidewalk counseling outside the abortion facility.
Kirklin will also soon begin training with CareNet to do some scheduled counseling with men at their facility. He, with Trinity, hopes to not only make provisions for the saving of these children, but also to minister to the men and women who are affected by the pain of abortion.
Woodway Elementary provided Trinity a home for over a year, but in the fall of 2017 it became clear that the church needed a more stable situation, preferably within Waco itself. A team of members began a diligent search and soon discovered Valor Academy, a classical Christian school that had a sanctuary-like auditorium available for Sunday use.
In making the move, Trinity cut back on set-up and tear-down commitments and improved their financial situation. After the purchase of chairs and a second-hand pulpit, Trinity moved into Valor the first Sunday in November 2017.
The whole congregation feels more at home at Valor, where they have the freedom to host monthly potlucks, after-church meetings, and special services without feeling like they’re intruding. With Valor’s better acoustics, the congregational singing lifts joyfully together as one raised voice rather than the notes dispersing into grade school cafeteria rafters. Trinity is thankful for a space that aids worship.
Best of all, Trinity is now officially in Waco, instead of being in the suburbs. Even before the official move to Valor, members of Trinity were going door-to-door in the nearby neighborhoods with Pastor Kirklin. Lord willing, the continued presence at Valor will encourage people to stop in on Sunday mornings and stay.
To fulfill the call to evangelism, Trinity wants to engage with the surrounding community. Kirklin says that if doctrine is the strength of the OPC, witness is often its weakness. Now with room in its meeting place for new attendees, Trinity can confidently put down roots in the community surrounding Valor Academy. If the Lord chooses to keep them there for years, Valor can accommodate long-term growth.
For something to be living, it must be growing—and for a church, this means not just a growth in number, but also in spiritual maturity. To that end, Kirklin has not only added weekly Sunday schools and Wednesday night prayer meetings, but also a Sunday afternoon reading group that focuses on evangelism, a new members class, and, soon, an officer-training class.
Kirklin also encourages every member to serve. According to the OPC Form of Government, “All believers are endued with the Spirit and called of Christ to join in the worship, edification, and witness of the church which grows as the body of Christ fitly framed and knit together” (FG 3.1). By so serving, not only can each person experience the blessing of being able to serve in the church, but no one will be overworked.
The current membership is about thirty people and regular attendance is holding steady, during Baylor’s school year, at around fifty. While Trinity is on the road to particularization and the installation of elders and deacons, the exact timeframe is flexible.
When asked about his goals for Trinity Waco, Kirklin replied promptly: “Love and service to God, the church, and the world.” Trinity may be a small congregation in a small city, but God can use them as he can use anyone.
In everything Trinity does, Kirklin says, it hopes to glorify God as a church, to live in accordance with the gospel, and to rely on the strength God provides in Christ by his Spirit.
The author is a freelance writer and a member of Trinity OPC in Waco, Texas. New Horizons, March 2018.