The Kind of Church Old School Congregations Need to Be

I’m sure most of you already aware of this, but some Old School Presbyterian church planting efforts fail. The church fails to grow, and eventually the effort comes to an end.

Obviously we need to acknowledge that even this was the will of God and will ultimately be used for the good of His people, but at the same time we need to be zealous to ask whether there were factors that contributed to the failure of the plant.

More often than not, one of the simplest reasons the church plant failed was that it started from the wrong premise, namely that we are going to plant an Old School Presbyterian church that will meet the needs of the conservative Reformed people in the area. This premise is fatally flawed on two counts:

1) because it fails to acknowledge the fact that in most areas there simply aren’t enough Reformed people to support a new church. Most of the conservative Reformed people in any given area will already be attending another church, so we are actually unwittingly adopting the mega-church growth strategy – poach worshipers from existing churches with the message that this church will be better at meeting your needs than the congregation you presently attend.

2) because it fails to acknowledge the first part of the actual mission of the church, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations” (Matt. 28:19) Instead it says we will find already existing disciples and take over the process of teaching them. So instead of reaping the harvest, the plan is to follow behind the reapers and bundle together some of the stalks they have cut.

In His “The Church in Earnest” John Angell James correctly identified and critiqued this kind of congregation (you’ll find it to be his first example below) and after identifying it as not being the kind of church we need to be, he examined two other kinds of church before identifying the kind of church we desperately need.

James wrote:

“CHURCHES may be divided into four descriptions, in regard of their prevailing character:

The first consists of those in which an apparent high degree of spirituality exists; the preacher is devout, and his sermons partake of his own habitude of thought and feeling; the people, like the pastor, are thought to be, and perhaps are, professors of a higher tone of piety than many others; and there is much of the divine life. But although numerous and wealthy, they do nothing, or nothing in proportion to their ability, for the cause of Christ. Their collections are few and small—they are not at all known as engaged in any of the great societies of the day. They seem to suppose their calling to be to luxuriate on gospel privileges, to enjoy a perpetual feast of fat things; but they appear to think they have no vocation to proclaim the word of the Lord; or at any rate they consider themselves as something like the Jewish church, a stationary witness for God.

The second description of our churches is that of the communities of Christians where there is perhaps less of spirituality, less of the desire for doctrinal theology, either in the pastor or the flock, though their spiritual life is by no means low in comparison with many others; but with them all is activity and energy, the pastor is devoted not merely to his people but to the cause of God at large. The collections are numerous and great. The church can be depended upon, and is looked to for assistance by the directors of our evangelistic institutions. All hands are busy in Sunday and daily schools, tract distribution, Bible classes, and organizations for home and foreign societies; all that know them think and speak of them as a thoroughly working church.

The third description applies to those who are neither the one nor the other of the foregoing; they have lost their spirituality and have not gained a character for activity; they neither enjoy the life of godliness nor diffuse it, they have not even a name to live—but are dead.

The fourth description includes those, (alas! how few they are,) who unite earnest spirituality with activity and liberality no less eminent; whose spiritual life is all healthfulness and vigor, and in whom its developments are seen in all the operations of holy zeal.

This then is what we want—churches in which the vital principle of piety shall be so strong that they may be said to be like the mystic wheels of Ezekiel, instinct with the Spirit of God and ever in motion; churches whose activity, like that of the strong and healthy man, is the working of a life too vivacious to remain in a state of indolence and repose; churches so filled with the Spirit, that his gracious influence is perpetually welling up and flowing over in streams of benevolent activity for the salvation of the world; churches partaking of so much of the mind of Christ that from their own internal constraint, they must, like him, be ever going about doing good. Oh that God would pour out his Spirit, and raise every separate fellowship of believers to this blessed state of spiritual prosperity!”

I don’t often agree with the solutions Tim Keller proposes for the problems of the evangelical church, but I think he was correct when he stated, “A looming crisis for all American evangelical churches is that they cannot thrive outside of the shrinking enclaves of conservative and traditional people and culture.” He’s right in that church type one cannot thrive and church type three is, by the grace of God, rapidly disappearing as their congregations die of old age. However, I firmly believe that the fourth church type can and does thrive, even in modern America, and will continue to do so because it is God who blesses these churches with growth in grace, knowledge, and numbers.

So brethren, if you think of your church as “a stationary witness for God” and expect Reformed people to continue to come to you, no matter how precise and biblical your doctrine and worship are, you are still not the kind of church you need to be. Wake up! The fields are ripe for the harvest, but if you never exert yourself to actually go into them and reap, your congregation will not enjoy the fruits of that harvest. At best you will find yourself gleaning a few stalks here and there that other people have cut.

About Andrew Webb

I was converted out of paganism and the occult in 1993 and while I was initially Charismatic/Arminian in my theology, I became Reformed and Presbyterian through bible study and the influence of ministries like RC Sproul's. After teaching in local bible studies, and taking seminary courses part time, I began to feel called to the ministry in 1997. I was Ordained as an RE at Christ Covenant PCA in Hatboro, PA in 2000 and as a TE by Central Carolina Presbytery in 2001 when I was called to be the Organizing Pastor/Church Planter for Providence PCA Mission, Cross Creek PCA's church plant in Fayetteville, NC (home to Ft. Bragg and Pope Airforce Base). In 2005 when the Providence PCA Particularized I was blessed to be called by the congregation to be their Pastor
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12 Responses to The Kind of Church Old School Congregations Need to Be

  1. Pingback: Why Old School Churches Sometimes Fail « Heidelblog

  2. These are much needed words. May the Lord cause us to seek the extension of his kingdom in this world.

  3. Dear Andy:

    I live in St. Petersburg, Florida with the desire that the denomination Protestant Reformed Churches plant a church/mission here in St. Petersburg, Florida.

    I do not think it is a bad idea to plant a Reformed church to primarily meet the needs of the conservative Reformed people in the area. I recognize that you have not made this point exactly.

    I do not think such a premise is fatally flawed on two counts as you cite:

    “1) because it fails to acknowledge the fact that in most areas there simply aren’t enough Reformed people to support a new church.”

    Although, yes, most of the conservative Reformed people in any given area will already be attending another church, you imply that it is satisfactory or acceptable that such conservative Reformed people continue to attend such other church. I disagree. They desperately need such a truly Reformed church, and it is not wrong for them to leave the church that they are attending if a truly Reformed church becomes available. This is not poaching as if these conservative Reformed people have no rights to move. Many times, a Reformed church plant will allow them to stay in their communities (and be salt and light in their communities) rather than move out of their community or travel great distances to find such a true church. I also think that we need to be careful to not imply that a Reformed church just does a little better at meeting the needs of conservative Reformed people. The ultimate issue is how important is Reformed doctrine and practice.

    “2) because it fails to acknowledge the first part of the actual mission of the church, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations” (Matt. 28:19)”

    Article 29 of The Belgic Confession state that the marks of the true church are the preaching of “pure doctrine”, “the pure administration of the sacraments”, and “church discipline”. It is only those churches that get that right that can fulfill that Great Commission. These marks are the first part of the actual mission of the church.

    A Reformed church plant is much more than “we will find already existing disciples and take over the process of teaching them.” It is not just “follow behind the reapers and bundle together some of the stalks they have cut.” That is an incredibly low view of a Reformed church plant.

    Again, the ultimate issue is how important is Reformed doctrine and practice. You may certainly disagree, but I will take the high view of a Reformed church plant that such a plant may in some cases be providing the only true church in the area or one of the very few true churches in the area.

    Regarding the four categories of churches, were you thinking of Protestant Reformed churches in that first category?

    In any event, all four categories have little of Christ’s “I will build My church” mentality. Even the fourth category seems to be a “We will build our church” mentality by combining “earnest spirituality with activity and liberality” as if they are separate qualities. True and earnest spirituality will always bring about activity and liberality just like true faith will always bring about works. Rather than thinking “God … blesses these churches (the fourth category) with growth in grace, knowledge, and numbers”, it is better to think that God forms those true churches on pure doctrine. Numbers are not necessarily a sign of God’s blessing. Is Joel Osteen’s church the most blessed?

    Although I grew up in the Christian Reformed Church in Muskegon, Michigan, I moved to Florida in 1977 to go to law school, and I stayed here in Florida. I attended and was a member, even a lay leader, in a large range of churches from Assembly of God to Baptist to Calvary Chapel to United Methodist to nondenominational churches and small fellowships. At first, I did not realize that Reformed doctrine would not necessarily be preached in all Christian Protestant churches. I thought that the problem was just with a particular minister. Eventually, a childhood friend, who now lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, asked me if I remembered “TULIP”. I began to study TULIP, which is the Five Points of Calvinism and the most important part of Reformed doctrine. I studied the differences between Calvinism and Arminianism. That study made me aware that often what bothered me was not just bad preaching but rather it was bad doctrine (Arminianism).

    Like me, conservative Reformed people are not content to remain in these churches just because they call themselves a Christian Protestant church. Our generation may survive on our memory of the Reformed teaching that we learned many years ago, but what about our children who have only experienced and only know these “non-Reformed Christian Protestant Churches? As a final reminder, the ultimate issue is how important is Reformed doctrine and practice.

    Thank you for your thought-provoking article!

    Yours truly,

    Bill Hornbeck

  4. Zrim says:


    There can probably be little doubt THAT much of this is true and should be done. The real question, as is the question in many cases, is HOW.


    I wonder if some of your resistence can be found in the hyper-Calvinism of the PRC.

  5. Jim Vellenga says:

    Very interesting post. One question though. If a church is more like #1, what is it that moves them from that to something better? I ask that because if the preaching (and I assume teaching) is so good in #1, would not that be the primary means by which God would move them to something more? Is there something defective in the preaching, or is it something else.

  6. Tim Keller says:

    Andy – I appreciate this post (and its not just because you quote me favorably, honest!) Your insistence that we be both a) doctrinally deep and sound and b) extremely resourceful in evangelism c) without compromising or jettisoning one in favor of the other is so crucial. Zrim is right that there is great controversy (to say the least) over how we do that, but I still think it is important to say repeatedly and loudly what you are saying. One of the signs you may be in either category 1 or category 2 is that you don’t even have a concept of category 4. There’s no struggle to marry vigorous evangelism and rigorous doctrine in practice or discourse. So many spend all their time laughing at/criticizing category 1 churches (as ‘TR’) or else laughing at/criticizing category 2 churches (as ‘consumer-oriented’)–rather than humbly seeking to be a category 4 church.

    Footnote: James’ analysis sounds a lot like Edwards’ ‘Thoughts on Revival’, doesn’t it?

    Anyway–thanks again.

  7. Stephen says:

    What a fascinating post! I am challenged by it. In our church plant here in Solihull, outside Birmingham (UK, that is) part of our strategy was to gather up sympathetic reformed people to form a core. I now believe this to have been a flawed element and we are having to readjust with difficulty. Your post is made all the more interesting by the fact that J A James ministered in B’ham in the 19th cent.


  8. Mark Koller says:

    I was hoping for some more discussion of this very thoughtful post.

    Since Old School Churches seem to be so radically different from most other Reformed churches, would we not expect to draw church members to our plant who are sympathetic to our cause.

    I fail to see how this is following the mega church mentality as in point number 1. If we are doing the things that Reformed churches are supposed to do, what is wrong with the idea that our church will be better at “meeting their needs”? Just curious to hear more about this because we have several church plants in our area that I have been involved with.

    Again, great post that I have been reading and re-reading for a while…


    Mark Koller

  9. Andrew Webb says:

    Hi Mark,

    This may seem odd, but in the past, we’ve been visited by members of solid churches in our area (admittedly there aren’t many of these – which is one of the reasons we got started in the first place) and I’ve actually encouraged them to go back to their church rather than becoming members of our – especially when their original church was closer to their home. There is far too much church hopping and church shopping going on as people search for the perfect Reformed pastor and congregation (a phenom I dealt with briefly here: On Church Hopping

    Now if the reason they are leaving and coming to your church is expressly doctrinal, that is understandable, but if all they are looking for is a better facility, better preacher, etc. then often you are dealing with an unhealthy consumerism that makes for church members who are only tenuously attached and more likely to bolt from your congregation if there is a problem, a conflict, a preaching slump or some other Reformed church starts in your area. We want to train-up families and individuals who are passionately committed to using the gifts that God has given them to strengthen their congregation and serve their brothers and sisters in Christ and who will stand together in the midst of heavy weather rather than attempting to escape in the skiff (per Acts 27:30).

    Brothers, I have to admit to also being rather disappointed that we have such little interest in evangelism and the harvest rather than simply “rebundling cut sheaves” and are rather blase about the idea of what is essentially poaching or sheep stealing (oh no its not stealing, the sheep *wants* to come over to our congregation…) I imagine our attitude might be rather different if another Reformed church started just up the road headed by a pastor who was a better preacher and teacher than we were and our church began to drain into his.

    Are we really so uninterested in making new disciples, or have we actually bought into the popular notion that no one could be converted in a Reformed congregation?

    Admittedly if our heart, and that of the congregation is not in evangelism then yes, all we can hope for is that the already converted will find something about our congregation more appealing than others but once again we will have become church #1 from the James quote above and frankly those churches are headed for nothing but slow extinction…

  10. markkoller says:


    Thank you for your response. I found the “On Church Hopping” article to be most helpful. I have now given some thought to how I will counsel visitors with this concern in mind.

    With many of our churches struggling to have enough families to survive, it is certainly difficult to be objective and wise when visitors come through the door. May God help us to see that He is the one who builds the church.


    Mark Koller

  11. Reformatus says:

    Andy, I particularly like the mission philosophy expressed here…

    It’s very externally focused. The quote by Baxter the use to discuss the concept of “Parish” is especially helpful to me.

  12. David Baldwin says:

    4 years behind time here, very pleased to be reading all your responses to Andy’s intriguing post. The 4 categories are indeed a real view of what’s happening out there. Obviously the 4th category is where we want to be, and I think it appropriate to aim for that *and* serve the small remnants of Reformed believers in scattered locations, when possible. I currently live in Hong Kong, where there is but one Reformed (Baptist) church.

    Nondenominational and Pentecostal churches are prevalent here, targeted at English-speaking foreigners and “global” locals, a type not uncommon in HK. Local churches – Cantonese speaking, often Baptist – are comparatively more reverent on the whole, “traditional,” hymn-singing, skit-less, well-rounded preaching, etc. However, it’s rather difficult for foreigners to join with these local churches simply because of the language barrier. Only scattered few offer simultaneous translation into English. Also in the local church realm are some Presbyterian-founded churches that very loosely hold to their Presbyterian roots, combining with Lutheran, Anglican, and so forth, for various reasons (such as man-power, 1800’s missionary come-and-go).
    So in a place like Hong Kong, where there are Reformed believers in different circles (among locals and foreigners), few though they may be, sending a church plant there would be highly effective and appropriate.
    That’s all about reaching to a small remnant, offering a home for true Reformed worship where it’s basically unavailable – perfectly valid.
    That stands contently beside the obvious calling we have to extend our efforts to the unreached in the world, which conservative Reformed churches often do a poor job of, yes.
    The Protestant Reformed Churches in America (PRCA) were mentioned – indeed we don’t have a good name for evangelism, and that’s a weakness that is not being overlooked by the denomination itself. At its foundation, the PRCA was a booted-out group, and took on a defensive approach, aiming to uphold authentically biblical, Reformed teaching, true to its roots. 60+ years of transition later things have smoothed out a bit, God has provided a different kind of generation, still deeply appreciative of its past, yet more inclined to extend a warm welcome to visitors and outsiders, and far more inclined to exit the comfort zone, from what I’ve seen anyway. Frankly, I don’t resist a rebuke from others re: an inactive history of evangelism and weak desire to extend. It’s accurate, and it’s time to move on. I’m truly thankful to observe that God is strengthening this small denomination, and it is becoming much more healthily interested in getting out there and seeking to be one of many tools for gathering God’s people, less frightened by dialogue with those outside the “circle.” The teeter-totter is becoming more balanced in the PRCA; and by God’s grace, it will continue to grow in that direction – lots of progress to make of course.

    God’s blessing is surely evident in the missions, churches and contacts that are currently taking place with regard to the PRCA; and for that we are extremely grateful: Philippines, N. Ireland, Germany, Ukraine, Russia, Namibia, India, and one or two more. There is also more activity within the US.

    I would love to see a church plant happen in FL. Not actually such a small group down there, from what I know. I’d also love to see the PRCA do a church plant in a place far out of the comfort zone, virtually untouched by Reformed churches, like here in Hong Kong. I’d be on board, and I’m convinced there may be some in our generation that would prayerfully consider whether God is calling them to join. It’d be a first for us.

    Thanks for sparking this conversation everyone – SDG


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