Some Rudimentary Thoughts on Church Planting
By Pastor Andy Webb
There are probably many words one might use to describe the majority of conservative Reformed mission churches in the PCA, for instance “hopeful” or “persevering” immediately come to mind. But if one were to be truly honest the word that probably describes them best is “struggling.” Successfully planting an Old-School PCA congregation is no easy task, one is going against the grain of the culture, and even against the prevailing evangelical sub-culture. But I have come to suspect that there are some ways that old school church plants unintentionally make what is already a difficult task even harder, and so it was with a view towards perhaps helping other church planters to identify and avoid some of the more common pitfalls that I set about writing this article.
I will admit that most of the following is simply material learned the hard way during the 3 year process of planting Providence PCA church of Fayetteville, NC which was started in May of 2002 and became a particular congregation in the PCA on January 30th of 2005. I should stress that I don’t even really think of myself as a “church planter.” If I am anything, I am simply a pastor who started from scratch. What follows therefore are simply my own fallible opinions culled from working with two church plants, first as a ruling elder, and then as an organizing pastor. My only hope is that they might prove to be of use to someone in their own struggle to obey the great commission, or in promoting further thought on this subject.
Before I begin though, let me emphasize that if I have learned anything at all about planting Old-School churches, it is that there are no shortcuts. I cannot emphasize this point enough. After our own congregation particularized, there were several people who contacted me to inquire about the methods we had used, but when it became clear that we hadn’t done anything particularly novel, interest immediately seemed to wane. I must confess to being a little surprised that people were disappointed that we hadn’t come up with some sort of new approach that would work for them. Surely we should know by now that there is no chemical formula that will avail in planting new congregations other than a potent mixture of blood, sweat, tears, prayer, and lots and lots of coffee.
For the purposes of this article, I am going to assume that the church plant in question already has a small committed core group which is devoted to the spread of the biblical Gospel, and which earnestly desires to see their congregation grow and flourish, and that they or their overseeing body have called either an evangelist or Pastor to that work. I am also going to assume that this overseer and his congregation are all deeply committed to the Reformed faith and that they are “Old School” in their beliefs regarding the Westminster Standards.
How Old School Church Plants Grow
For most conservative Reformed churches, transfer growth, which is how most new churches get members, is probably going to account for only about a quarter of your new member growth. This is obviously low compared to the tremendous percentage of new members who will come from transfer growth in a new broadly evangelical church in a Reformed denomination. That is because they offer a familiar and comfortable environment for evangelicals who have moved to the area and for evangelicals already in the community looking for a new church.
Conservative, Old-School churches on the other hand are – to the extent that they don’t resemble the culture or more importantly, the evangelical sub-culture – “alien” and tend to make visiting evangelicals uncomfortable. For instance, I’ve privately estimated that perhaps almost half of the people from a PCA background moving into Fayetteville end up attending one of the larger non-PCA charismatic mega-churches in town because they most closely resemble the kinds of PCA church many young PCA members are familiar with. These mega-churches have a culture and an approach to worship that is already familiar to these PCA members, and therefore they tend to be very comfortable attending them. My suspicions in this area tend to be confirmed by the fact that the most common question I get from a new PCA resident of Fayetteville enquiring about our church is, “tell me about your music ministry” or simply “do you have contemporary worship?” Ironically, I have never had this question from a non-Christian inquiring about our congregation, their most common question is “What do you believe about…?”
So an old-school plant will probably see some transfer growth, but they had better not be depending on it. If they are, they will end up failing.
So where will real growth come from? I am increasingly convinced that conservatives who wish to see church growth need to abandon the policy of merely doing what they can to collect or assimilate the conservative Reformed Christians already in their city. They should also probably abandon hopes of attracting the broad consumer-oriented evangelical to their congregation. I am not saying that these evangelicals will never come to their churches, far from it, they will no doubt see a small amount of growth in that area simply from Christians who have grown hungry for real spiritual meat, and have not found it in their churches. But in most communities, solely relying on these two groups to populate a new congregation is a sure recipe for disaster.
So who should old-school churches be primarily trying to reach, who should be our main focus in the harvest? The unchurched or simply unconverted.
How can we reach these people? Well you should be in the phone book at the very least, and that with an actual box ad stating time, location, contact number, and a brief, substantive, and intelligible description of your church. Try to write something that even a non-Reformed individual can understand. For instance: “Christ Centered” is a better choice than “Christocentric” and to give you a local example – although I sincerely love the people of this plant – “A Distinctively Reformed Ministry” is generally meaningless, even to evangelicals, and indicates that your aim is to gather-in the already Reformed (which as we have mentioned is a common conservative church planting mistake) when in many cities there aren’t enough of them to make up a solid new church. Use common scriptural language in your advertising. And please don’t lie about who you are in an effort to attract people. For instance, one of our local non-Reformed churches describes itself as, “exciting” in its advertising. Now perhaps you really are excited about your church, but does a subjective term like “exciting” really provide an accurate description of your congregation or its aims and ideals?
Additionally don’t require that readers have a theological glossary to hand. For instance, “We Believe the Bible is the Word of God” isn’t a bad thing to admit and people will generally know what you mean. Include a website location – most of our visits have come from our website. Include pictures of people on the website, including the Pastor and his family. People want to see that your church is composed of real human beings, and finding that it is will go a long way towards making people feel comfortable going there. Include directions, statements of faith, etc. and be sure to vary the content between meat and milk.
But what is going to be your primary means of growth? It has been my experience that the primary agency for your growth is going to be word of mouth. Your church will grow when you members actively invite friends, relatives, co-workers, and acquaintances to your church. And then when they visit, make sure they are warmly greeted and sincerely welcomed. HOSPITALITY will make a much greater impression on visitors than even the preaching (and point out the stark difference between the world and the church.) Invite visitors over for lunch after the service. Ask questions about them and their lives. Few things will be as counter-productive to the growth of your church as making your visitors feel ignored and unwelcome. I also need to stress the fact that the pastor cannot be the only person attempting to welcome visitors. Visitors know full well that the majority of their interaction will not be with the pastor but with the members of the congregation, and if they get the impression that they are not going to enjoy that experience very much, then you can be sure they won’t come back. You don’t need to change your service, or dumb anything down or “create a coffee hour for people who hate coffee” to be welcoming. Just be warm experimental Calvinists, preach the Gospel, convict of sin and call men and women to faith in Christ. Let unbelievers see a genuine love for one another within the church and a willingness to be poured out for the sake of others. Strive to become people who are making a positive proclamation of the gospel in word and deed.
Dedicate yourself to maintaining all three marks of the true church, including mark number three. Church discipline, biblically exercised, is actually an asset to church growth. Discipline problems, passed over or coddled kill new churches. To that end, make discipling a primary objective and really make sure new members know what they are doing when they take their vows. Scripture warns us that “a little leaven, leavens the whole lump” and I’ve actually witnessed the process of ungodly leavening going on in small groups. Remember that church plants are fragile and often will not survive the kind of scandals an established church might be able to weather.
Things Old-School PCA Churches Should Strive to AVOID
1) Don’t become a siege mentality church plant. In many conservative Reformed churches everyone is aware of what they are “agin” and those coming in will quickly figure it out as well, but few are really aware of what you are “fer.” Also, keep in mind that if you have a rigid “us” vs. “them” mindset, visitors are going to have to conclude that they are “them” if you get my meaning and are going to have to fight their way in. For instance, don’t waste all the precious time you have been given by erecting a church entirely dedicated to trashing various and sundry errorists in the visible church. There are many fine apologetics ministries that already fulfill that task admirably. Ask yourself, did Christ die in order to establish churches dedicated to exposing, denying, and rebuking Arminianism? When error rears its ugly head in your midst, or when in preaching it is natural to address it, let scripture have its head and crush error. But a congregation dedicated almost entirely to seeking out and castigating error rather than proclaiming the truth? If that is your aim, I would almost bet you end up with a small, bitter, hard-core group. Not a group that most people even want to visit with, especially when they can’t understand what you are all so riled up about. Also, make sure that the proclamation of the whole counsel of God is the heart of your church, not your favorite doctrine or error. I know of churches entirely devoted to one tiny part of the gospel or one serious error. They aren’t healthy, and they only get worse.
2. Avoid allowing anyone’s “preferences” to predominate or rule the roost. Make it your dictum that in all controverted matters, the Bible will be the final arbiter. Keep things as simple and biblical as possible.
3. If you are conservative, don’t necessarily involve your church plant in your own struggles with your denomination, as this bears little fruit. Make sure the elders are aware of what is going on and encourage mature Christians to pray for you, but recall that your average church member has his or her own daily struggle with the world, the flesh, and the devil to contend with. Concentrate on preparing them for that.
4. Direct the majority of your convicting fire at the sins you and the church are suffering from, rather than taking the easy path of addressing only the sins of those outside. Those outside the covenant community who are busy storing up wrath for themselves for the day of judgment will have enough to worry about in due time. You on the other hand, work on becoming a church of redeemed publicans, not zealous Pharisees.