On Churches and Church Plants and Being Presbyterian (PCA)
How long should it take before a Presbyterian Church in America church or church plant actually ends up looking Presbyterian? That’s an open-ended question that is not easily answered, but there is an answer out there somewhere. I raise the question for a number of reasons. One of the truly marvelous aspects of being a pastor is that you get to meet so many interesting people and have them in your home. While I served a Dutch-speaking congregation in Holland, a Canadian congregation in Toronto, and now being out here on the Left Coast, Sally and I have had the distinct privilege of being in the presence of some very wonderful people of God.
Sitting around the living room, outside by the pool, or just hanging in the kitchen I have had some of the most fascinating conversations imaginable with ordinary people who have the privilege of serving an extraordinary God. Lately, some of those conversations have given me cause, I think, for concern. My home church is in the midst of planting or helping plant three churches. Our church planters are very gifted men who share our desire to read the Word, preach the Word, sing the Word, and pray the Word. They also are thankful to be “Presbos” and yet realize that church planting is not the easiest thing on the planet—maybe not even the second easiest thing on the planet.
When you’re planting a church, you might begin by doing certain things that, down the road, you will jettison. Planting involves a large number of “baby steps,” set backs, and most especially prayer. Even though we keep telling ourselves that we are not numbers driven, somewhere in the backs of our minds we hear a voice saying, “How many did you have out on Sunday?” When new faces appear we’re elated; when those who have attended for a month or so disappear and won’t return phone calls, we tend to be crestfallen. But as the old adage puts it: It goes with the turf. As I have listened to our church planters, advised them, and prayed with them it has become increasingly evident that church planting is definitely not for the faint of heart.
Moreover, living on the Left Coast complicates matters—exponentially. If PCA church planting is a “go” or “no go” within three years in the East, it takes longer—sometimes substantially longer—in the “Wild West.” We are still in the fledgling stage as far as our established churches are concerned, let alone our church plants. Out here we have some different “special” and unique circumstances. For example, the Crystal Cathedral ends up often being part of the Disneyland tour, even though it’s not advertised as such. Besides, we have Rick Warren just down the road and who wouldn’t want to see what Saddleback is all about, especially when you can attend a hula service? (That’s true; I’m not making it up.) Personally, I have several of Rick’s autographed aloha shirts. (I am making that up.) They’re a little on the large size but they make nice tents. Not all that long ago, you could also attend the Melodyland Church near Disneyland or one of John Wimber’s Vineyard churches, where you could engage in holy laughter and witness slayings in the Holy Spirit.
How can a “youngish” church planter even begin to compete with the state of the art technology that exists in these well-known, established mega-churches? What specifically will be the “drawing card” in such a church planting setting? What, specifically, would cause a Californian to forego the luxuries of Saddleback for a “church in a box” in a local high school cafeteria?
Of course, we are all aware of how much we want to reach out to the lost and this must play a role. Our problem seems to be that the “lost” is an abstraction, so we must tailor our church plants to our community. For the recent seminary graduate this constitutes not merely a challenge, but also an opportunity to put “cultural contextualization” into practice. The dilemma, however, is that it is never as easy as seminary has told you that it’s going to be or as easy as you thought it might be. How far should our accommodation be to the ways and comforts of “the culture”—whatever that is—and the appetites/dictates of the unchurched? It can legitimately be asked if those who are not of the faith should have any say in the way our worship services are conducted. In the previously-cited unpublished article Wells asks, “What does it matter that some have attracted two, five, then, or twenty thousand to their ‘worship’? It is no more significant, culturally speaking, than that there are twenty, thirty, or fifty thousand present at a ballgame.” That’s a good question! What does it ultimately matter—unless, of course, you’re trying to build a little kingdom?
Clearly, Wells is prepared to give real, substantial content to the term “worship.” It is not anything and everything, but has a particular form and content. There is a decided difference between worship and entertainment; between worship of the Lord God Almighty and satisfying a consumer-driven (although purposely so) desire to have one’s needs—real or perceived—met. And this has been the precise spiritual malady of many modern “community” churches. Either in the mega-church or Emergent formats, the problem has been pretty much the same. The only real difference is that the so-called “worship” pile has been re-stacked. For example, where Bill Hybels, Robert Schuller, Rick Warren, and others marketed the church to the “Boomers,” who, culturally, were part of modernity, the Emergent “conversation” is marketing to Gen Xers who are, culturally, more attuned to postmodernism. The bottom line with both is that they are spiritually bankrupt and give people stones for bread. So why would any PCA church plant—or PCA church for that matter—want to look anything remotely like these types of “community” churches? While it can be argued that there are gradations—which is true—it still seems as if the Presbyterian and Reformed churches have substantially more to offer in terms of biblical life and worldview than either the mega-church or Emergent aberration could ever offer.
Yet, for some reason, there remains a “remnant” in the PCA that is convinced that hippy-dippy, happy-clappy is still needed if we are to reach the lost and edify the saved. The perennial problem for those who are constantly focusing on the lost, however, is that the saved rarely progress beyond square one. If the sermons have to be geared to the lowest category of knowledge and spiritual maturity then eventually the product will be spiritual midgets, who lack the requisite spiritual maturity. Again, stats can assist us here. Isn’t it clearly evident that during the days of the mega-church movement and the consumer-driven “worship” that the major casualty was biblical truth? For anyone who has “engaged” the culture, they know this to be true. The stat reads this way: Only 7% of those who call themselves “born again” manifest even a modest, elementary, and fundamental knowledge of the core essentials of biblical faith.
A recent example sticks in my mind. I don’t live all that far from a renowned coastal town between where I live and San Diego. About two years ago I received an email from a brother in Lord from a different denomination informing me that he was starting a church plant in San Clemente. The man told me was that he was Reformed. Although we never actually met, we did email back and forth quite a few times. The concern that I expressed to him as he told me about how he intended to “do church” (modern “ecclesial” language that involves being “missional” as well) was that he would be “catering” rather than “worshipping.” We agreed to disagree although he was intrigued how a traditional church like mine could exist, let alone thrive, in Southern California. Via the miracle of Al Gore’s Internet, we conversed about a number of things churchly as well as the Inconvenient Truth of worship according to Scripture. According to the cultural contextualization textbooks he had done everything in a, well, textbook fashion, but there was a gap between the theory and the practice. Just before Christmas of last year I received an email from him that the plant was closing its doors after only a year-and-a-half.
Another example that came close to home came close to my home in the form of a visitor from a PCA church plant outside of California. We had a delightful visit and in the course of our conversation our guest explained that in over ten years in a PCA church plant she had heard nary a word about the Westminster Shorter Catechism. Her comment was precipitated by the fact that I am teaching through the shorter catechism in our Adult Sunday School (for those who would like to get a couple of the lessons email me and I’ll send them along) at Grace. She said, “I’ve never heard things like that before.” Here’s my point: If she had told me what she told me about a new church plant that was recently up and running her statement would have been fully acceptable; but after ten years such a confession on her part is a travesty. I’m not looking for someone to hang the blame on, but it does seem plausible that somewhere along the line, the “leadership” or “leadership team” would have found it prudent to start talking about things Presbyterian. In keeping with a number of PCA church plants, the word Presbyterian never appears in name of the church—as it did not in this woman’s home congregation. It was just a generic, garden-variety community church like so many others.
Are we never to acknowledge differences among, say, Presbyterian, PCUSA, Methodist, Baptist, and Pentecostal? All we all just the same? Do differences actually matter? To my mind being Presbyterian means something. It was a conscious choice for me to change from being a member of a Reformed church to being a specific Presbo. I chose against going into a liberal denomination and for being a conservative Presbyterian. It meant something then and it still means a great deal to me now. In his very worthwhile little book D.G. Hart makes a convincing case for abandoning the name “evangelical” since it has come to be such an elastic, all-inclusive term that it currently means everything and nothing. Hart cites David Wells blockbuster critique of modern evangelicalism, No Place for Truth, that caused quite a stir when, in Hart’s words, “Wells blew the whistle on the hollowness of American evangelicalism.” In addition to this book by Wells, I would highly recommend his other works: God in the Wasteland, Losing Our Virtue, and Above All Earthly P’wers. In a yet to be published Preface Wells wrote, “This is a remarkable moment in which we are living. Here in the West, in the very moment in which our affluence is growing, Christian organizations are multiplying, and Christian presses are in high production, Christian faith itself is departing. At least, that is the story the statistics tell us.” To the same point Mark Noll’s comment in his well documented work, The Scandal of the American Mind, which is located on the first page, states: “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.”
Central to Hart’s critique of modern evangelicalism is that it has become too all-inclusive, too non-discerning about important and essential matters. In his own words, the point of his book is this: “Instead of trying to fix evangelicalism, born-again Protestants would be better off if they abandoned the category altogether.” This might sound a little on the harsh side, but we should reflect for a moment on the truth contained therein. When Presbyterian and Reformed Protestants went along with evangelicalism they seemingly forgot their own tradition. To make matters worse, evangelicalism—both in its mega-church and Emergent forms—manifest almost utter disdain for tradition, doctrine, and the solid church fathers. For example, when was the last time you heard an evangelical pastor/teacher mention St. Augustine, Calvin, Bullinger, Luther, Owen, Turretin, Bavinck or Kuyper?
When was the last time you heard an evangelical speak favorably about a Protestant confessional statement or catechism? How many “evangelicals” encourage learning biblical doctrine, with the possible exception of the Rapture or the tenets of Dispensationalism? Even though there is an almost constant cry in evangelicalism about practical Christian living, it seems to be all but completely lost on modern evangelicals that—to parody Jochem Douma—doctrine without ethics is empty; ethics without doctrine is blind.
Even though evangelicalism “borrowed fragments from historic Protestantism, its design was to affirm a lowest common denominator set of convictions and practices.” Some things don’t change. It’s one thing to analyze the intentions of what has come down to us in the evangelical movement, it’s quite another thing to incorporate the spiritual “lowest common denominator” approach in our church plants. When it comes down to being a “shaper” of tradition or an aid in the development of a Christian life and worldview, evangelicalism is an utter failure. “Its breadth has come with the price of shallowness, while its mass appeal has generated slogans more than careful reflection.” Hart summarizes his position vis-à-vis evangelicalism as follows: “At its best, it is a sentiment. At its worst, it is a solvent of tradition because religious traditions are too narrow for evangelical purposes; they are too dogmatic and therefore too confining. In other words, Christian traditions, unlike evangelicalism, rely on structures of succession and accountability that run counter to popular sovereignty.”
For Hart, “Evangelicalism, then, has provided a valuable service for believers, academics, and retailers. It has supplied a collective sense of identity to religious adherents and yielded a scholarly perspective on American religion with more nuance than previous interpretations. But as useful as evangelicalism may have been, its usefulness is no longer obvious. In fact, its harmfulness may be what has become most apparent.”
Armed with these facts, the question is begged: Why then are some PCA church plants intentionally dropping “Presbyterian” from the name and promoting themselves are “community” churches? If it is true that both the mega-church and Emergent conversations are bankrupt, why are some church plants and church planters still chasing after what has long since proven to be ineffective and unproductive in terms of imparting a real spiritual legacy? The short answer is: I don’t know. Perhaps church planters are overwhelmed by the conventional wisdom of our time or are taking a pragmatic approach that goes something like this: if it works, do it! The caveat, of course, depends on the meaning of “works”—to be a bit Clintonesque.
If the intention is to begin by being “Presbyterian under the radar”—a phrase that sadly is employed in some PCA church plants, then when do you get around—if ever—to telling your congregation the truth, namely that this is a Presbyterian church plant and as such it holds to certain biblical truths, the Westminster Standards, and a Book of Church Order? When do you spring it on the unsuspecting congregation—if ever—that you’ve been surreptitiously training them for something else? Wouldn’t it be better—not to mention more honest—to lay your cards on the table from the outset and trust God’s sovereignty, which, the last time I looked, was still on the PCA agenda/radar?
Are we really connected or is each church planter “doing his own thing?” I have observed church plants in my neck of the woods where the church planter ended up being “the show,” with no real accountability or help. That is to say, he was “turned loose” without a wise, biblical Elder to help him and in some cases he was discouraged to even training Elder candidates for five years and then only if those candidates shared his “vision” for the plant. His vision for the plant? I rather thought that we were aiming at God’s “vision” for the plant.Is it time that the PCA rethought its church planting policy? Is it time that our MNA committee in Atlanta communicated better, more often, and more effectively with churches where church plants are being considered rather than parachuting them into the back yards of existing PCA churches? I think so.
 D.G. Hart, Deconstructing Evangelicalism, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004).
 David Wells, No Place for Truth, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993).
 Hart, DE, 14.
 Mark Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), p. 1.
 Jochem Douma, Responsible Conduct, (Nelson Kloosterman [trans.]), (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 2003). The actual quote on p. 41 is: “Dogmatics without ethics is empty; ethics without dogmatics is blind.”
 Hart, DE, 183.
 Ibid., 187.
 Ibid., 178.