In God's wonderful providence, I am once again involved in a church plant. And my heart is filled with joy!
Before, during, and after graduating from Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary, my mentors emphasized discipleship and church planting to me in such a way that it was part of my spiritual DNA. So I began ministry over thirty years ago by being ordained to help start a church in the town of Kokomo, Indiana. During more than two decades of ministry in Indiana, I was involved in developing and supporting other new congregations in the state. When we moved to Western Pennsylvania nearly ten years ago, our prayer was that the Lord would guide us so that we could be involved in church planting.
In testimony to the Lord's grace, our home congregation here, College Hill Reformed Church, has seen the Lord bless in this regard. A few years ago, College Hill hived off a sister congregation, Hope Community, just a couple of blocks away. Both churches have prospered and grown as they minister to neighboring Geneva College and the surrounding communities. Recently, with its building filled again, College Hill has sponsored a church plant south of the congregation where the Beaver River meets the Ohio River in the Bridgewater/Beaver community.
As I help provide leadership, preaching, and training in this new work called River Valley Reformed, I have reflected on lessons the Lord has taught me through the years regarding church planting. I share ten of them briefly here in the hope they might be an encouragement to others.
1. Church planting should be done by seeking God’s face, for it is His eternal plan, work, and glory. Psalm 67 begins, "May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us, that your way may be known on earth, your saving power among all nations." First and foremost in church planting, we should seek the Lord’s blessing and presence so that, in turn, we become a blessing to others. A strong emphasis on prayer is a must in any church planting endeavor.
2. Church planting is not a work that you should do alone. Back in my first church planting experience, we were supported tremendously by our denomination through the support of our mother congregation in Lafayette, the giving and counsel of our Home Mission Board, and the prayer support of hundreds across the country. In our current situation, College Hill is overseeing and supporting us, Hope Community has sent a wonderful family to join us, and others are praying for us.
3. Every church planter needs a faithful mentor. For thirty years, the Lord blessed me with a lifelong mentor in Dave Long, and that friendship corrected and sustained me when I could easily have gone astray or given up. Almost every successful church plant I have witnessed has been one where there is strong mentoring taking place, where a Paul is encouraging a Timothy (2 Tim. 2:2). Reciprocally, the ones that have failed have often lacked this provision.
4. The need for godly elders cannot be overemphasized. From the elders in Lafayette who guided me through those early years of borrowed leadership to the local elders the Lord raised up in Kokomo, the church planter should plead in prayer and earnestly labor in training to see other men unite with him in leadership. Local shepherds for local flocks is a clear pattern we see in Paul's church planting ministry in Acts (see Acts 14:23; 20:28).
5. The Lord still builds churches through the Word and prayer. Many church plants rely on methods originating from Arminian-based theology and/or church marketing philosophies, resulting in attracting crowds but not in making disciples. A focus in church planting of sowing gospel seeds and feeding the ones responding, being careful to give basic Christian milk as well as that good Reformed meat, combined with earnest prayer will be blessed by the Lord to grow His church.
6. You should expect great difficulties and battles. Satan despises advances on his illicit kingdom and so will strike church planting mercilessly. Men will arise within who oppose your teaching and oversight of the church. Families will leave at crucial times (as we were moving into the church building in Indiana six families left; at another time four deacon families left in the midst of seeking to establish mercy ministry). Discipline will have to be enacted against people you never thought would leave the Lord.
7. Church planting allows you to pursue and care for individual sheep. Without a large congregation to care for, the church planter can leave the ninety-nine to pursue the one (see Luke 15:3-7; 19:10). Every sheep, made in the image of God, is worth the sacrifice of time and effort to reach. The core group can invest time in helping a person know Christ and grow in His grace.
8. Your family should be cared for with the same passion you have for the church plant. With the pressure to see fruit and growth, the church planter can throw himself into the work and sacrifice his family in the process. Though sacrifice is called for, the church planter should still insure that he is giving time and care to developing his own family and guarding against attacks on it.
9. We should be neither ashamed nor proud of our distinctive practices. Church planting should not have denominational pride in its distinctive teachings as its foundation. In my circles, trying to build a church as simply the only psalm-singing congregation in a community is an unsustainable model. Nor should the church planter try to hide his denomination's distinctive practices to be “relevant” to the community. Instead, Christ and His kingdom must always be the emphasis. The unique practices of a church should be humbly practiced, explained when needed, and trusted as God’s means of bringing spiritual growth to others.
10. The church planter should work toward a multiplying ministry. He should have as his goal, prayer, and practice that of seeing other church planters and congregations develop. He should view church planting as an outworking of a disciple-making ministry and a comprehensive ministry lifestyle.
11. Church planting should be done by seeking God’s face, for it is His eternal plan, work, and glory. I know this is simply number one repeated. Yet from beginning to end this lesson cannot be forgotten. And Psalm 67 quoted above also ends with this repeated lesson: "God shall bless us; let all the ends of the earth fear him!"