Discipleship and Planting Churches

Reformed Presbyterians in Indiana

Recently I was privileged to take part in a discussion on church planting and discipleship with Barry York (senior pastor, Sycamore Reformed Presbyterian Church of Kokomo, Indiana) and Dale VanDyke and Francis VanDelden (Senior and Associate pastors, Harvest Church) who minister at a growing OPC here in Grand Rapids.  We talked about the Reformed Presbyterian Churches (RPCNA) in Indiana as a case study of church planting: beginning with one small congregation in Bloomington in the late 1960′s, there are now eleven across the state.
From its inception, each new congregation has had a strong vision to plant a church in the next small town, or another part of the same city. The churches are warmly evangelical-hearted and confessionally Reformed, with simple worship focused on expository, applied preaching and congregational, acapella Psalm singing.  Their membership is generally reflective of the demographic of their communities.  While the congregations have been blessed with internal growth due to the natural increase of covenant children responding in faith to gospel nurture, the substance of the expansion of these churches has been through evangelism and discipling--reaching communities with the gospel, and seeing the fruit of conversion and subsequent growth taking place.  To be sure, some numerical increase has also come from individuals converted elsewhere but hungry for substantive, passionately applied preaching of the Word.  But the story is not one of evangelical/Reformed sheep shifting, nor renaming disgruntled hyper-something-or-other mini-groups, nor a Presbyterian baby boom.  The congregations have a small minority of adult members who were raised in a Reformed setting, or in Christian homes at all. Most were converted as adults. These congregations have grassroots, New-Testament style growth in post-Christian America.
So how did/does it happen?  Here are some of the key aspects that surfaced in our discussion:

(1) Gracious hospitality. People use their homes, their meals, their evenings, as a ministry base to neighbors, co-workers, friends, and newcomers to the church. This is a characteristic of the congregation as a whole, and many of its individual members, especially the eldership.  Unlike many Reformed churches where visitors are warmly greeted, but then abandoned once post-worship fellowship ends, there is an active, sacrificial pursuit of personal hospitality to strangers.

(2) Loving people (neighbors, church visitors, fellow church members) where they are at, combined with a gracious spirit of discipling and mentorship. Pastors and elders model this love, and it is woven into congregants' lives. This love is characterized by encouraging each other to live by faith in Christ and grow in His grace.  The spirit of loving relationship and real friendship is trust-building.  Relationships are not begun by first of all trying to peg/categorize/scrutinize a newcomer.  The church body acts as a family, with a warm and winsome character.  They love and know each other, and they want to love and know newcomers.  At the same time, these churches do not ignore or excuse sin.  Necessary exhortation, rebuke, and warning take place, but in the context of this evident, existing relationship of Christian love.  Part of the vision is maintaining the life of community and fellowship by sending and planting before the congregation grows so large that members become practically unknown to each other and visitors become invisible.  

(3) Under the accountability of the presbytery, the local church usually initiates and directs planting efforts. Local and broader accountability, counsel, and wisdom is essential to planning and planting well.  Both the existing "mother" church and potential core planting families need to be assessed for willingness, appropriate spiritual condition, timing, and giftedness prior to launching a church plant.  An inter-church, presbytery shared vision and effort exists for planting churches across the state.

(4) Weekly prayer meetings. The sovereign grace of God is essential in every aspect of church life; He alone gives the beginning and the increase. These congregations realize this, and demonstrate it by meeting together weekly for corporate prayer.

(5) Strong pulpit ministries. These developed largely through extensive one-on-one mentoring/internship in preaching, either post-seminary, or alongside seminary training. Either way, it is above, beyond, and separate but not isolated from seminary training.  Preaching is expository, typically through books of the Bible.  It is passionate, applied, direct, relevant, contemporary, and above all Christ centered.  It is substantive, assisted by a confessional, Reformed understanding of the doctrines of Scripture.  Ordained pulpit ministry is accountable both to the elders of the local congregation and mutually to the elders and ministers of the regional presbytery.  These churches understand that meaningful discipleship and fellowship are lifelong.  

(6) Strong pastoral ministries. Again, these are developed through real life experience in a one-on-one mentored situation; interns spend several consecutive months or years serving in a local church--not just teaching the kids Sunday school class, or helping lead the youth group, but assisting in all of the real life detail of pastoral counseling, church discipline, and session meetings.  Ordained pastoral ministry is also accountable, both to the elders of the local congregation and mutually to the elders and ministers of the regional presbytery.  It is accountable not only by form of church government, but also by intentionally cultivated, lifelong, open-hearted friendships between ministers as fellow presbyters in the churches.

(7) Gospel passion; a consistent effort and challenge to reach the lost. This is especially done by building personal relationships in ordinary life in order to communicate the gospel to people outside of the visible church.  Church leadership that lives with passion for those apart from Christ and steadily works to maintain and renew the vision to plant further strong churches in Indiana reinforces this vision.

While intentional goals, these marks are not, of course, all perfectly manifested at all times, in all places.  There is sin and failure.  However, strong gospel proclamation, with loving, intentional discipleship, accountability and vision, creates a grace-saturated, growing, Christ centered community.  Ultimately, it is all a gracious work of God, by His Word and Spirit: in building His church He has used these churches in this state to bring many sinners to new life in Christ.

William VanDoodewaard is Associate Professor of Church History at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, and an ordained minister in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church.  For two years he served as a full-time pastoral intern with Barry York.