During the summer of 2006 my family and I moved to central Indiana where I taught at a university. We were ARP’s, and I was a student under care at the time, but in God’s providence we found ourselves in a state with no ARP churches, so friends recommended that we visit a Reformed Presbyterian congregation (RPCNA) in Kokomo. Warmly welcomed, we soon found ourselves at home in this vibrant congregation (attendance around 100), begun as a church plant years earlier. A year later we found ourselves deeply engaged in the life of the church, as the session asked if I was interested in interning under their pastor, Barry York. This was arranged in conjunction with my ARP Presbytery and our home congregation; our initial visit turned into two years of valuable hands-on ministry internship.
My wife and I had grown up in old, Christian families; our churches were typical, well established congregations. This congregation challenged not only our preconceived ideas about church planting, but also placed us in many situations that challenged our faith. We read about Christ eating with prostitutes and thought little of it, but when one wanted to hold our baby at a fellowship lunch, it put a new perspective on loving the unlovely.
Unlike some of the long-existing Presbyterian and Reformed churches we were familiar with, this congregation was largely first-generation Christians, and almost everyone was new to the Reformed faith; even the pastor had been converted through campus ministry in his college years. This congregation was typical of the ten other RP congregations and church plants (begun with one in the 1960’s) across Indiana. While each reflected their own community to a degree, they all had an evangelical heart, confessional Reformed theology, and Psalm-singing worship.
This history and steady vision made us want to know how this happened: what made these churches evangelistically visionary? How could many of the teenagers in the church deal socially with drug addicts better than we could? We had a lot to learn.
One characteristic of this church planting culture was gracious hospitality. People welcomed opened their homes for meals, using their houses as a ministry base to neighbors, co-workers and friends. Sunday fellowship meals at the church were a weekly occasion where members ministered to each other as well as the men from a local rescue mission. In home and church, the congregation loved us where we were at. We weren’t scrutinized, or desperately welcomed; the members of the church genuinely wanted us to be part of their lives. They loved people because they knew Christ’s love.
This love was combined with humble, gracious discipling and mentorship modeled by elders/pastors and woven into congregants’ lives. Members were active in encouraging others to live by faith in Christ and grow in His grace. Everyone experienced shepherding and discipleship: older believers shepherded younger believers; stronger families mentored weaker ones. Pastors and elders maintained meaningful relationships with the flock. The church had a general culture of wanting to love and know each other and newcomers. At the same time, they didn’t ignore or excuse sin. Necessary exhortation, rebuke and warning took place: there was “iron sharpening iron”, but in the context of an evident, existing relationship of Christian love. The combination of evangelism and deliberate, active mentoring was central to the culture of church planting in the presbytery.
Another grace evident to us was patient trust. Though the work was often hard, the effort was steady, despite deep disappointments and hard situations. The congregation understood that God would bless His Word spoken and lived; it would not return to him void. They knew that if they could be saved, so could anyone else. They ministered and loved to glorify God, regardless of results. In some ways, God used the determined ministry of these frontline churches to make them beautiful before they saw fruit. While to us the physical landscape of a depressed central Indiana factory town was bleak, the spiritual landscape of the church here was beautiful. Not at all perfect, but with the beauty of Christ’s redeeming grace clearly evident.
Over the two-year internship, we learned one lesson over and over again from these Indiana churches: the one thing you most need to plant a congregation is a love for Christ. A true love for the Saviour will express itself in trust in Him, and a love for sinners like Jesus has. If you have this, you do not need multiple programs, gimmicks, your own building, or even music with your singing. Obeying the greatest commandment to love God above all and your neighbor as yourself is still a lesson we are learning—something that every congregation desperately needs its people to know.
This article was first printed in Outreach North America, the church planting newsletter of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, and subsequently published at the blog Gentle Reformation. It is reprinted here with permission.