A considerable percentage of church planting in the USA is done under the influence of a model that is likely to lead to congregations that are not Reformed in their practice and perhaps not in their theology and piety.
That model says, in effect, “We will give you elaborate funding (or we will send you out to raise funds) for two years and if you do not become established in that time frame you are on your own.” If the goal is to plant confessional Reformed congregations, any such model will not work. Such a model presupposes a high degree of pragmatism that is incompatible with Reformed theology, piety, and practice.
Sister’s America Revisited
In “‘Magic and Noise:’ Reformed Christianity in Sister’s America” (2010), I argued that, from 1800, American evangelical Christianity took a couple of turns that radically changed the relation between the Reformed confession and American evangelical Christianity. One of them is that American evangelical Christianity was profoundly influenced by Jacksonian democratic impulses. The second is that it became what the sixteenth-century Reformed called “Anabaptist.” One shorthand way of saying this is that, religiously speaking, this is Sister’s country and Reformed Christians are living in it. Though we did move geographically, there was an earthquake that shook the ground under our feet.
One consequence of the revolution in American evangelical Christianity is that confessional Reformed theology, piety, and practice was now not only on foreign territory but even hostile territory. At some level every Reformed church planter knows this to be true. On the two-year model, to succeed (e.g., to hit the desired attendance numbers), the church planter must typically make his congregation look as much like the prevailing American evangelical church landscape as possible. In two years, there is not sufficient time to catechize those evangelicals who might find the work and join the core group. The church planter is not smoking a brisket for 24 hours. He is microwaving a congregation. What does the evangelical “market” want?
Every church planter knows that the first thing the evangelical prospect wants to know is this: if we leave our evangelical mega-church to join your church plant, will you have the programs we want for our kids? From the get-go, on the two-year model, the church planter is forced into the broad evangelical mold in order to get and keep his share of the evangelical market and evangelicals want age-graduated programs for their kids. Programs mean staff. Some of that staff can be volunteer but some of that staff will be paid. Look at a typical PCA church website and behold the staff positions and ministries that must be filled. It is truly impressive:
- Assistant Pastor
- Associate Pastor
- Worship leader and Praise Team
- Children’s Ministry
- Youth Leader(s)
- College Ministry
- Young People’s Ministry
- Senior Ministry
- Men’s Ministry
- Women’s Ministry
It is not unusual to have two or three full or part-time staff positions in an ordinary PCA congregation devoted solely to the youth.
Each of those paid staff positions requires additional fund raising and puts even greater pressure on the church planter not to buck the system. We have not even mentioned the marketing budget and the cost of renting the appropriate facility.
Under the influence of the Second Great Awakening (c. 1800–40), the prevailing pattern for worship was the bi-partite service. The first half of the service was dominated by emotionally affecting music. The second half of the service was dominated by the sermon. In our time, that music is known as “praise music.” One wag described the contemporary worship service as a concert followed by a TED talk. There is a lot of truth in this characterization. Most evangelical visitors will expect the Reformed church plant to conform to this pattern.
The visiting evangelical expects to be emotionally moved by the service. There is a reason for this expectation. Part of the genius of the nineteenth-century “revival” movement was that they unashamedly plucked the heart strings of the worshipper. In the modern period, the professional praise teams have this down to a science. As they meet to plan the Sunday service, the skilled band (praise team) leader knows which chord progressions and modulations will release the right amount of dopamine to effect the desired sense of euphoria. This is what American evangelicals mean when they say, “we really worshiped today.” This is what the evangelical visitor, at least the one who has not become throughly disenchanted with Big Eva, expects to find in the new Reformed church plant in the community. She also expects to find a therapeutic message that relieves some anxiety and leaves her feeling refreshed and invigorated for the week ahead and it all has to be done skillfully and professionally. In the radio business, we talked about bits and gags that were “light, tight, and bright.” That is what she wants in her worship service. The evangelicals want the rest of Sunday for themselves. Thus, the Reformed piety and practice of the Sabbath is a necessary casualty of the two-year plan.
Low And Slow
The alternative to the high-intensity, two-year model of church planting is to go low and slow. By low I mean low profile. We might even say “lowly and slowly.” This is not to license shabbiness or what we used to call (in the radio business) “schlock” (Yiddish for cheap, shoddy, inferior, or tasteless), but the low and slow approach is intended to relieve the pressure created by the two-year model. The L&S model assumes going in that the church planter may well have some evangelicals in core group but that helping them transition from the megachurch to the Reformed church will take time. It is a paradigm shift. It assumes that a confessionally Reformed congregation, which is seeking to be faithful to Reformed theology, piety, and practice, will not be everyone’s cup of tea.
A confessional church plant will take time. Apart from an extraordinary work of the Spirit, it cannot be done in 24 months. It is more likely to take 24 years. It expects to take time to educate and disciple the leadership of the new work and to lay a solid foundation for the future of the work. All that takes years, not months. Those evangelicals joining will have to learn a new way to worship (and perhaps a new view of the God whom we worship). They will have to learn a profoundly different view of the Christian life and the nature of the church. For those evangelicals leaving churches where the PPP model prevailed, they may well have to detox. It might take six months to wean folk from the the expected dopamine shot during the service of the Word. They must learn the Reformed dialogical approach to and the rule of worship. It is a lot to absorb and process.
Because a Reformed church plant necessarily needs to be planted and supported over time, it has the opportunity (one is almost tempted to use the word luxury) of seeking out the lost, building genuine relationships with them, and giving witness to them about the law and the gospel. It is remarkable how little attention this aspect of church planting receives. In this regard we may be encouraged by the work being done in Ventura, California by Ventura Reformed, which is intentionally focusing primarily upon reaching and teaching the lost or the unchurched.
When the early church catechized new converts, they did so for as long as three years before admitting them to holy communion. Of course they were following our Lord’s pattern with the disciples. As we move further into the post-Christian world, we might see the wisdom in their decision. The mystery of being regenerated and taught to think like a Christian does not happen in one shattering moment. It typically happens over time.
As people embrace the Christian faith as we confess it, whether from a pagan background or from an evangelical background, we hope and pray that those new converts will put the church into contact with others who might be open to hearing the law and the gospel. Again, that process takes time. Certainly, developing congregational leadership and officers (i.e., ruling elders and deacons) will take time.
It will take time to help people learn to read the Bible well, to see the unity of the history of redemption, how Scripture points to Christ. It will take time for converts and the newly Reformed to see the beauty of the Reformed doctrine of the Christian life. Do you see a theme developing? Planting a Reformed church is a time-expensive endeavor.
Two years is not enough time in which to plant a congregation that will grow up to be faithful to the Word of God as we confess it. The two-year model requires the church planter to cut theological and practical corners in the planting process. Despite the best of intentions, these corners are usually never recovered and the plant grows up to be what it is: a slightly modified version of the typical contemporary American evangelical (PPP) church. It might have, as one writer put it, “a Reformed accent” but that is all and that is not enough.
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
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