Judith M. Dinsmore
Last year, two new OP church plants were received—both in Pennsylvania, but in contrasting locales. One is in Downingtown, a suburb of Philadelphia that’s sprouting housing developments. The other is in Mifflintown, a rural town on the Juniata River with a backdrop of blue mountains.
The OP work in Mifflintown began with a phone call in the summer of 2016. A couple who had been hosting a Bible study at their home called the OPC administrative office to express interest in joining the denomination. The office, in turn, called up Chris Walmer.
Serving as regional home missions coordinator for the Presbytery of Central Pennsylvania, Walmer works in the early stages of church planting for the presbytery. “Some plant; some water; God gives the increase. But I’m more the guy who plows the ground,” he laughed.
After meeting with those in the Bible study, Walmer headed out to Providence OPC in Mifflinburg (a nearby town not to be confused with Mifflintown, nor their third neighbor, Mifflin) to consult with its pastor. Walmer had recently labored to bring Providence into the OPC. He knew that two families were making an hour-long trek on a narrow two-lane highway every Sunday from the Mifflintown area to worship at Providence.
The pastor was enthusiastic. The elders were, too. “Providence had actually been praying about the opportunity to do something in Mifflintown,” Walmer explained. So, in February 2017, a Bible study began in Mifflintown, led by Providence’s pastor.
Around the same time, Ronald Beabout relocated to the area with his wife, Carol. Although he describes himself as only “a man who loves Christ, the Word, the church, and loves to preach the Word,” Beabout is an experienced church planter who has labored both abroad and, most recently, with an OP work in Maryland.
Almost exactly a year after the Bible study began, in February 2018, Beabout began to lead evening worship services in Mifflintown. On July 1, 2018, the mission work Grace and Truth was recognized by the presbytery. “And now we’re going full speed ahead,” Walmer said.
“There’s a good, tight, Christ-like bond among these people, and they are just keen on being a Reformed witness here,” Beabout explained. “I’m obviously very anxious to see the same thing and feel so privileged to have an opportunity to help.”
Mifflintown was an attractive area for a plant because OP members who were traveling to State College to the northwest or Mifflinburg to the northeast could now attend a more local church. But, the church plant’s vision is bigger. “We’re glad to see Reformed transfers. But we’re also looking for new babes in Christ,” Beabout said.
One mother of young children in the church, Ashten Swartz, is new to the Reformed faith—and eager to share it. With the help of others in the church plant, she began a women’s Bible study in her home that is now thriving.
The Juniata County seat, Mifflintown was designated a “high growth” area by the county in 2014. But, as one member told Beabout, almost every door represents a family that does not go to church. In a tight-knit community like Mifflintown, building relationships is the best way to bring neighbors into church, Beabout explained. That, and stability. He and Walmer visited local leaders to let them know that a new church was moving into the area and that, Lord willing, they will be around for a while.
The idea for Downingtown OP began in a conversation over lunch.
“I was driving through the area with a ruling elder from the Wilmington congregation,” regional home missionary Dave Holmlund explained. “We stopped at Downingtown for lunch, and my friend said, ‘You know, this area could really use an OP congregation.’”
They went on with their day, but the idea stuck with Holmlund. Within a year, there was indication that some people in the Downingtown area agreed. Two families expressed an interest in an OP work—one was traveling long-distance to a different OP church, and another had family in the OPC—and in January 2017, Holmlund began a Bible study.
“By April 2017, we started services, and we’ve been going steadily ever since,” he said. In August 2017, they became an official mission work of the presbytery.
Nancy Hayes and her husband, Jay, have been attending since it was a Bible study—they heard about it from a friend who was also searching for a church. Hayes has been a Presbyterian her whole life, but was a member in the mainline denomination or other offshoots. She and Jay are thankful to now attend an OP work. “The OPC is more to our liking, more to what we believe,” she said.
For two years, Holmlund has been traveling a half-hour to Downingtown to preach and essentially function as the pastor for Nancy and Jay Hayes and other members of the group. He created a presence for the church in Downingtown, networking with new friends, and even planning a soccer outreach that, although canceled due to terrible weather, introduced him to people in the community. But in October 2018, he handed it all over to church planter Greg O’Brien. “Greg now fills my shoes,” he said. “I rejoice that there’s an organizing pastor to continue this work.”
Greg O’Brien, who was born and raised in Austin, Texas, came to faith on a mission trip to Mexico when he was a freshman in college. The trip leader’s desire to evangelize and share the gospel deeply affected O’Brien. “God used that trip for the gospel and to the glory of Christ. I asked, ‘why am I living for anything else?’” he remembered.
Back at school, O’Brien didn’t know enough to know that evangelizing was hard. A mentor told him that if he was walking with God, God would give him the words to say—if he was abiding in Christ, he would bear Christ’s fruit. “I thought, ok, this is the Bible, so it has to be true,” O’Brien said. He prayed silently before conversations with friends, and was given, he said, wisdom far beyond his understanding.
He never lost this eagerness for evangelism. He went to seminary at Gordon-Conwell, then to China for overseas missions work, and finally to Alabama for a few years, laboring in the PCA. Desiring to minister in a less-churched area than the Bible Belt, the O’Briens came north to suburban Philadelphia last fall. The week before they moved into their new home was Halloween, so the family—Greg and his wife, Ginger, have four children—took the opportunity to walk around the neighborhood and introduce themselves.
“This is my heart for Downingtown and the congregation,” O’Brien explained. “If we really see Christ and the radiance of the glory of God, if we are really gripped by that truth, then talking about Christ won’t just be what we have to do, it will be woven into our life, woven into our hearts, and worked out into our conversations.”
One tactic that O’Brien recommends is having literature on hand to give at the end of such a conversation. One booklet might be designed for non-Christians, another for Christians from a different tradition. Before Christmas, O’Brien gave out a full-length book—A Very Different Christmas by Rico Tice—to church members, with extras for friends and neighbors.
Obtaining more such resources is on O’Brien’s to-do list. He also hopes to begin a Sunday evening service and to start a study in his neighborhood. But most importantly, O’Brien’s desire is to establish “simple, ordinary patterns of ministry that focus on the keys of worshiping God together and being in awe together at what he has provided for us.”
The author is managing editor of >New Horizons. New Horizons, March 2019.