Authentic, Strategic, and Confessional Church Planting
Several years ago I spent an evening with an enthusiastic group of young people at a pastor’s house. Over dinner we discussed the challenges of planting Reformed churches. We agreed that whatever we do—we need to be authentic, strategic, and confessional.
In my childhood I received two types of Christmas gifts. Once, much to the dismay of my parents, my grandparents gave me a wonderfully noisy replica machine gun. I was king of the hill for a week—until the toy mysteriously disappeared. Another Christmas I received not the genuine slot-cars that the other boys got but an off-brand version. It was not authentic. It was disappointing. I did not hide my disappointment well.
Being authentic is not just a buzzword. It is truly essential. When we receive a telephone call from someone we do not know, the first thing we want to know is “What do they want?” Where once we opened our doors readily to strangers, today most of us screen our calls, install secure locks on our doors, and hope that no one will hack our computers or mobile devices. We all live in a culture of suspicion. This really means that people are on the lookout for phonies and imitation goods. So when visitors join us on Sunday, they are expecting the real thing.
Our churches, therefore, must be or become places where, when people visit, they find people who are not trying to get something from them or trying to manipulate them. They must be places evidently devoted to glorifying God and loving their neighbors.
To be authentic is to be genuine, the real thing, to be honest about who we are and what we are about. Genuine Reformed and Presbyterian congregations are about preaching the law and the gospel; the bad news and the good news. We are forming gracious, loving communities of believers and seekers, but where love is understood in a sense that may be unfamiliar to some. Part of our identity is a strong affirmation that Christ is Lord of all and that those who profess his name seek, moved by the superabundance of his grace (Rom 5:20), in union with Christ, in light of the gospel of justification and salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone (Eph 2:8–10), seek to die daily to sin and self and to live to Christ. By his grace, we seek to be conformed to God’s holy law—not in order to be accepted by God but because we have been accepted for Christ’s sake alone. We are a gathering of sinners professing and believing redemption and renewal by God’s favor merited for us by Christ. We are confessedly Reformed and Presbyterian and we are not ashamed of that theology, piety, and practice. This is what I mean by authentic.
The second adjective that occurred in our kitchen-table discussions was strategic. I realize this is a buzzword, and by it I do not intend to invoke everything that everyone means by it. It means that we must consider carefully how to fulfill well the mission Christ gave to his church, i.e., how to reach the lost and to make disciples of covenant children and of those reached, how to administer the keys of the kingdom (the preaching of the gospel and the use of church discipline) in the visible, institutional church, which Christ himself instituted. Being strategic means we must have a godly and wise plan for advancing the kingdom in our area through the planting of churches, and that plan should involve the education of pastors, elders, and laity.
Sometimes Presbyterian and Reformed churches have been passive, waiting for people to come to us. One reason why this has sometimes been is that some of our congregations were once part of larger, older denominations with agencies and budgets and professionals who took care of things.
There is a second, more deeply rooted problem though. Ministers, elders, deacons and laity alike must become convinced that the visible church is the principal divine institution for advancing the kingdom of God on the earth. Another reason why churches may sometimes be lackadaisical about church planting is that the visible church is regarded as but one instrument among many for advancing the kingdom. The problem with this paradigm is that, as valuable as other entities may be, Jesus did not institute any other agency on which we rely to exercise the keys of the kingdom. We ought to be diligent to see to it that our children receive a Christian education. If we do not, we will reap the whirlwind. Nevertheless, our Lord gave the keys of the kingdom to the visible, institutional church. Our Lord said,
"And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." (Matt 16:18–20; ESV)
Our Lord spoke to Peter as the representative of the church, and it was to the disciples, again as representatives of the visible church, that he gave the Great Commission, to make disciples, to preach the gospel, and to administer the sacraments (Matt 28:18–20). Family, government, schools, and other spheres are important and represent areas of service under Christ’s lordship, but no other institution is commissioned to preach the gospel in an official way. No other agency may administer the sacraments or church discipline.
Certainly churches may support private agencies. WSC is one of those. We prepare pastors (and other leaders in the Christian community) on behalf of the church, and we do so in the closest possible cooperation with churches. The faculty does this as ministers and elders in the church. Nevertheless, support for private agencies ought not to eclipse the primary goal of advancing the kingdom of God through the planting of churches.
The second aspect embedded in the adjective strategic is that we must become convinced that congregations do not exist chiefly for the comfort of those who presently attend. Yes, growth through having covenant children and nurture of the same is a beautiful thing and a great blessing from the Lord, but what about those who are born outside of covenant families? Not having been raised in the church I am perhaps more sensitive to the plight of those who are utterly outside the visible church. Who will reach them? Jesus gave to the visible church the mission of reaching the lost, baptizing the adult converts (and their children), and teaching the faith to and exercising discipline over those who are converted.
In other words, one of the chief missions of the institutional church is to reach out to those who are not presently in our services, who do not yet confess Christ. How do we go about it? First we must plan for the long term. When we’re reaching out to folks with little or no Christian background, it will take years to reach them and to teach them. We need ten- and twenty-year plans.
For one thing, it is going to take time for the minister and members of the core group to meet new people. To do all this, we need leaven. This is where the laity in our existing congregations comes into play.
A church plant also needs families, singles, and couples. Newcomers (visitors, guests) must find a group that is expecting them, that is praying for them, that is ready to love them. Most Americans do not want to walk into an empty room, and they do not want to walk into a room that is already full of people who know each other and who have already formed cliques. Both settings are uninviting.
The new converts are not going to be a stable core group. It is going to take years to train them. They are going to bring with them all the baggage they have and they will have to learn to think and live like Christians. That takes time. We have, in many of our congregations a resource that is more precious than money and even more valuable for church planting: mature, experienced, godly, and gracious singles, couples, and families whom we could train and send on a mission, even if only across town, to help plant churches.
This is asking a lot of the older, established churches. Some might be reluctant to undertake such a project. I understand that reluctance — who wants to say good-bye to friends we see every Lord’s Day? — but I cannot agree with it. Yes, not everyone in the congregation is up to being part of such a mission, but some of our people are up to it. They are ready for it and they may not even realize it. Our elders and pastors need to identify those in our congregations as part of the church planting strategy and we need to be prepared to ask them to make the sacrifice to leaving behind their family and friends on Sundays, at least for a time, for the sake of getting the gospel out!
To be strategic means to fulfill the mission intentionally and not haphazardly. In so doing, however, we must follow some charter, some understanding of the Word. That understanding is the confession of the churches. Another way to think about what it means to be confessional in fulfilling the mission is to ask (after we’ve determined to be authentic and strategic): to what sort of theology, piety, and practice are we inviting people?
We have come full circle. For Reformed and Presbyterian congregations to be authentic is for them to be confessional. If we pretend to be other than what we confess, then we are, by definition, being inauthentic, dishonest. We confess a robust understanding of God, man, sin, salvation, and the Christian life. We also confess a highly developed view of the visible church, sacraments, and ministry. Sometimes we are tempted to plant churches on the assumption that our confession, our agreed understanding of Scripture, the Christian faith, and Christian practice is theoretical, but there are not as many visions for the church as there are pastors. At bottom, wherever we minister, there is really only one vision for a Reformed congregation: that which Christ gave us, to reach the lost and to disciple those reached according to Scripture as we confess it. This means that we are committed to nurturing covenant families, to preaching the gospel, to showing the love of Christ to the congregation by meeting practical needs.
Our ministers are just that, ministers—servants of the Word. They are not apostles. They aren’t Paul’s, but Timothy’s. They do not have apostolic gifts and power but they do preach, visit the sick, administer the sacraments, and officiate at weddings and funerals. A dear old friend described ordinary, Reformed pastoral ministry with the verbs: “hatch, match, and dispatch.” There is more to it than that but that is true enough.
Reformed ministry is not flashy. When we are at our best, we are doing the same things in roughly the same way as we have always done them. In a radically democratic culture that constantly chases after the Next Big Thing and which defines worship as the experience of ecstasy, Presbyterian and Reformed congregations are at a disadvantage.
The good news, however, is that Christ is risen (Matt 28:6) and he is Lord (Acts 10:36). He rules the nations with a rod of iron (Ps 2:9). Under our Lord’s sovereign providence whole empires have risen and fallen, but the church of Christ remains. Our glorious Lord has given us a mission and a powerful message to which he has attached great promises, namely the promise to use the proclamation of that message to raise the dead to life and to put the living to death. That is our mission: to announce, to minister, to pray, to catechize, to prepare God’s people to live well in his world, according to his Word. Christ has a kingdom, and he has established his church as his embassy and his ministers and elders as his servants to advance that kingdom. The Spirit works powerfully through the Word to accomplish his purposes and we can expect him to be faithful to his promise, “behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the earth.” Amen.
Dr. R. Scott Clark is Professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Westminster Seminary California (WSC). He is an ordained minister in the United Reformed Churches of North America (URCNA), and has served congregations in both Missouri and California. Dr. Clark and his wife, Barbara, have two children.
This article was originally published in the Spring 2015 issue of Update Magazine
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