Two Years Is Not Enough

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?

    1. Programs
    2. Praise
    3. Power


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:

        1. Assistant Pastor
        2. Associate Pastor
        3. Worship leader and Praise Team
        4. Administrator
        5. Children’s Ministry
        6. Youth Leader(s)
        7. College Ministry
        8. Young People’s Ministry
        9. Senior Ministry
        10. Men’s Ministry
        11. 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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  1. I can attest to the truth of Dr Clark’s observations. I’ve rubbed elbows with guys who are leading or beginning such church plants, and their conversations are all about the “metrics” described above. Interestingly, it’s always been a little difficult to coax conversation out of some of these guys unless you’re speaking that language.

    I’m much more impressed by the model you find, for example, in the O.P. handbook on church planting. They focus on “the church” rather than the “planting.”

    While I’m on a roll, I’ll add one more thing. The Big Eva model belongs only to the young. I’ve wondered why it is that someone, say 50+ is looked at with suspicion, kind of like the guy who shows up on America’s Got Talent and announces he’s going to sing opera – eyes roll everywhere. I’m now at an age and with health conditions that would pretty much put me beyond the church planting pale, but I wonder if this is a demographic which is overlooked.

    • It is. My wife and I have marveled and shaken our heads at the over-emphasis on programs and emphasis for the younger members of the congregation. The older and mostly wiser are pretty much shoved to the side, expected to give “generously,” pressed to “pitch in” to do some of the hard work those in the last two generations don’t seem to be interested in doing, and otherwise keep quiet and let the PPP roll. In addition to what RSC says here, a well established congregation needs to incorporate ALL generations in worship and Bible study – and that’s a very difficult thing to get across to people nowadays.

    • George: You hit the nail on the head. A few years ago we called a new pastor (35+).
      Under his leadership the older members of the congregation (60+) have been marginalized. I think he saw them as a threat to his authority. The areas where they have not been marginalized is as you say, when financial support is needed and when volunteers are needed. The emphasis is on young families who don’t have surplus income or time. We need young families but we also need older members but they are steadily withdrawing from the life of the church because they are no longer are needed.

  2. I attend a relatively small PCA church of about 160 members with an average of about 100 in Sunday worship service. Our pastor, and by extension our session, is convinced that we are being “led” to plant a church in a nearby community. There has been nothing providential to support this feeling. I suspect that there is pressure from the denominational level for church-wide church planting to occur. We barely meet our annual expenses and we are told that this church planting effort will cost 100k-200k which I assume is an annual figure. Our pastor has admitted that we don’t have that kind of money. So now we are frequently hearing in our sermons the need to “step out on faith”. What this means in the modern church parlance is to borrow the necessary money and go into debt to get where God is “leading”. Providence is supposed to come on the back end when God is supposed to supply debt service to finance our dreams. With all the other headwinds that have been enumerated in the article, this kind of presumption and irresponsibility can’t bode well for the foundational success of a church plant.

  3. My husband and I are part of a new church plant in Clarksville, TN called Pathway Presbyterian that has started literally from zero. Thankfully we are supported by a denomination (Vanguard) that is grassroots and thinks in terms of church planting as you have described. We are slow cookers in an instapot world. This is a very encouraging article and timely as well. One more observation from our experience is that Satan hates the regulative principle of worship with its focus on God and not ourselves. Not only is the process a long one to maintain and grow a truly reformed church, but it is fraught with trial and persecution. Expect wolves but expect the Lord as well. Gratitude and hope in Christ will make these small congregations the apple of God’s eye.

    • Are you seeing a significant, transient military population in Clarksville? I imagine that’s tough for a church plant.

    • Dr. Clark, your comment about two years not being enough struck home. I’m assuming, based on your experience with the URC in Oceanside, that you know the time American military personnel spend stationed at a military installation is rarely more than two to three years. Imagine the disruption caused to church life when a pastor knows he has, at most, two to three years to teach a new member what it means to be Reformed before he and his family move, and the place they move probably won’t have any Reformed church to which he can send them.

      I live outside Fort Leonard Wood, the home of the Army’s engineer, chemical, and MP schools, and drive well over an hour to the closest confessionally Reformed church that will accept infant baptism. I know from direct firsthand experience that Brandon is spot on about the problems of trying to have a Reformed church in a highly transient military community. This community is very conservative, which is great in many ways, but it’s nothing like West Michigan or Northwest Iowa. Far from having a Reformed church on every corner, the Reformed faith is all but unknown here. Obviously the Army does bring many people here every year from a Reformed background, but without a confessionally Reformed church that practices infant baptism, most end up attending a local Baptist church of some type, keeping quiet and avoiding controversy (which is what a visitor SHOULD do if attending a church where he disagrees with the church’s doctrine), and looking forward to the next PCS in two to three years where there MIGHT be a Reformed church of some type, but often won’t be.

      Things are somewhat better than they were when I first moved here since a neighboring town now has a church in the SBC Founders Conference, and another church has been started whose pastor is a five-pointer though he avoids using Reformed terminology. Prior to 9/11, the first church was still Arminian and the pastor at that time was slowly winning a struggle to get the church to tolerate his predestinarian preaching. The second church was only started a few years ago by an enlisted soldier who had retired from the Army and was ordained by his charismatic denomination, and it was only after starting the church that its pastor learned about Calvinism.

      Our community is far more dominated by the military than most military towns — our main local school district has more than 70 percent of its students “military impacted,” which means the parents are active duty, DOD civilians, or certain types of military contractors — and that means we can expect a very high percentage of our population to move every two to three years, if not more quickly.

      Trying to be Reformed in a military community has special complications. Some of them are similar to a college town with a highly transient student population of young people. However, there are additional issues that make it at least as hard, if not harder, to have a confessionally Reformed church in a community where most of the potential church members will be military personnel and their families. Gwendolyn Rodriguez likely knows many of them quite well — military life is tough on families, particularly when the father gets deployed for long periods of time and the mother tries to fill his shoes as well as her own. Things are far better for military families than they were when my father wore the uniform back in the 1950s and 1960s, but they’re still tough.

      What hasn’t changed, and really can’t change, is the disruptions to church and family life that are inherent to serving in the US military. Trying to have a Reformed church in a community where the pastor knows he will have a constant revolving door of people coming and going into and out of his church, and most new people will be gone within two to three years, is a pretty daunting prospect.

      • Your post was very accurate about having a plant in a military town. We happen to be both a military and college town. There is a revolving door of comings and goings. Many of the military and retired military have severe PTSD. One advantage for us as reformed Presbyterian is that it is not hard to convince this group of the total depravity of man and God’s sovereignty.
        For months I have expressed to leadership and our provisional session that I have a strong sense of continuity with the early church. The culture is much like the pagan one from The New Testament. Persecution from progressive Christianity is on the other side. I realized the other day that our situation feels so similar because EVERY church in the NT was a church plant. There was one that had three attendees at first – a jailer, a saleswoman, and a young former fortune teller. We church planters have a cloud of witnesses who know what it is like. We are in good company.

    • We’re on the same page, Gwendolyn, about the issues in a military community. I avoided the issue of PTSD — a lot of Vietnam vets get extremely upset, and often for good reason, when comments are made that could imply many or even most veterans are somehow damaged by their military service. That’s not true and it’s unfair to the majority of veterans.

      But that doesn’t mean the problem doesn’t exist.

      Years ago I interviewed a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who came to Fort Leonard Wood and part of his speech was discussing PTSD. He basically said, “I had it, I wasn’t diagnosed, I reached four-star rank despite it, but I made tons of people around me miserable because I was miserable, didn’t understand why, and didn’t get the help I needed.” That’s a simplification but it’s a fair summary.

      As you know, no matter what the regs say, there’s still a huge disincentive to seeking help in the military. My wife, who is a clinical psychologist in private practice (and also the daughter of a South Korean Army SFC who was a combat medic during the Korean War, and much more recently, her brother was in the South Korean special forces), has quite a few clients who want to see someone off-post because they didn’t want anyone on-post to know they were seeking counseling. Years after their problems were addressed, they were very open in saying they probably would have been too afraid to seek help if they weren’t absolutely certain nobody would ever find out they were seeking help. But they never would have said a word until their problems were over.

      You’re entirely correct, Gwendolyn, about total depravity being obvious and in-your-face in an Army town. From a Reformed perspective, that’s not all bad. I rarely see a combat veteran who thinks people are inherently good, and the Reformed faith has an answer to the horrors of human depravity that many forms of evangelical Christianity don’t provide. In some ways, it’s easier to present the gospel to someone whose life is in chaos because of the bad consequences of his (or her) choices, particularly if those choices are due to addictive behavior begun by self-medicating for personal problems, than it is to convince upper-middle-class suburban professionals whose life is basically going great and who think their own hard work brought their success in life, that their “good works” are making them happy on their way to hell.

      I’ve said for decades that there are reasons why, historically speaking, Reformed Christians have been overrepresented in military service. The Reformed faith teaches personal self-discipline, combined with a clear understanding that our works don’t save us no matter how disciplined we are.

      That’s no longer true, and a big part of the problem is lack of Reformed churches around military installations.

      In most cases, new churches near military installations are going to have to be started by a pastor who doesn’t need a salary because there is too much transiency to have a sizeable number of stable church members. Even in large churches in military communities, a small core of people who live in the community will be doing nearly all of the work, and from a Reformed perspective, that makes it extremely difficult to train and retain men who can serve as biblically qualified elders.

      I don’t know how things are around Fort Campbell where you’re located, but here at Fort Leonard Wood, not just many but nearly all of the pastors in our community, regardless of denomination, are tentmakers. Few pastors outside the mainline denominations have much theological training. I can only think of a few local evangelical pastors who went to seminary, though a fair number of the younger pastors retired from the Army at 38 after twenty years in uniform, went to Bible college on the GI Bill, and have a lot more formal education than our local civilian pastors who typically were ordained with no theological or secular education beyond high school.

      Starting churches outside military installations is not easy. It’s not easy for our local Baptists or charismatics or nondenominational evangelicals, even though they have plenty of people who believe the way they do and will visit a church with the right name on the sign. It’s tremendously more difficult for Reformed people who are presenting something that is largely foreign to the demographics that make up the modern American military — younger people, largely male, and often either white people from the rural South and rural West, or blacks or Hispanics from the inner city.

      Certainly there are exceptions, but those aren’t groups of people where there are a lot of Reformed churches today.

  4. Grateful for this article Dr. Clark. My wife and I find it helps explain much of the experience we’ve seen in re-planting a historic southern “First” church.

    Follow up question: might you enumerate the characteristics of the Anabaptist influence in American evangelicalism? Yes, a list of the characteristics present in the contemporary evangelical church ministry model; but also a review of the historical sources for these precedents? Realizing (as I tried to answer those for my wife) I’ve got a bit of study to do.

    Of course, a list of resources where I need to “do my own digging” would be the best answer 🤓. (After all, respect for the professor here 😎😉.)

  5. Thank you, Scott – this is exactly the boat I am in! There is no other Reformed church in my city (Limassol, Cyprus), and only one other in the nation (save a small house group I have heard of). In God’s kind providence we are supported by our sister church in another city, and the pastor there is of your mind and approach.

    At 80 years of age, I am looking and praying for a sound replacement, who will be needed sooner rather than later, I think. Your article is a tonic! Thanks again!

  6. RSC,

    Great article. We in the NAPARC world would do well to take your comments to heart.

    I cannot go into detail here, but when we started the church I pastor, I spent months laying theological groundwork about the sort of church we hoped to see God raise up. Some of it was run of the mill basic reformed theology. Some involved important articles on worship that ran counter to the evangelical model you mention above.

    One article in particular that I dwelled on concerned the intergenerational church. It was written by Mike Glodo and published in the January/February 2000 issue of Modern Reformation. It is entitled, We wish for…An end to Generational Segregation in the Congregation.

  7. It’s somewhat unrealistic to have 20- and 30-somethings immediately overcome what takes often an extra 20 or 30 years to overcome, especially growing up in a same-age-as-me learning environment of the school systems. Even the family environments of home-school systems, while going a great way toward implanting respect and therefore comfortableness with older people, can’t prevent the young from wanting to get more done by being around those who supposedly make them want to get more done. There is a spiritual cure to this that does depend on inculcating increasing habits, and it addresses our heart: do we really believe the saved are really, all of them, at whatever earthly age, mere babes during our earthly sojourns, the entirety of them, learning as children must, all of us?

    • Sure Dr. Clark. In simpler terms, it would help our age-differences problems to remember we are all, of whatever age, His “little children.”

    • Doctor Clark isn’t this related to the article, under “Programs,” e. through i., that is, Children’s Ministry, Youth Leader(s), College Ministry, Young People’s Ministry, Senior Ministry are ministries largely targeted to various age groups, and the article says that youth ministry may be 2X or 3X the staff resource needs of the others, in the Big Eva model. Even if this is because larger numbers are seen when people are separated so much by age-group, aren’t we creating down-the-line problems when people who have not gotten to be much with other age groups due to separation of ministries by age under this model, find themselves still not being able to work with others not their own age?

  8. Korea needs a Reformed church, but due to the characteristics of Koreans, too many evangelical elements have entered the church. Thank you for sharing your valuable article.

    Thank you, Professor!:)

  9. First, let me say this is a great post you have authored. In terms of a solution to the very real problem you have described, I suggest to look first at the characteristics of the sponsoring congregation and then, and only then, start considering the issues that will make or break the newly-planted church. In many ways, church planting is much like biological reproduction: the resulting offspring will not be that different from its parents. If your pastor, or the majority of your church’s members, considers the “worship” part of a Sunday morning to be a lengthy, loud, rock-based, musical performance, with correspondingly appropriate glitzy attire and hairstyles, then don’t expect something different from the church you plant. Given the fact that the sponsoring church probably has a number of older, established, seasoned Christian who can remember the world before social media and praise bands, just know that your church plant will have a much lower percentage of these people and many of the new people you attract will bring their entertainment-based expectations with them. I strongly suggest watching a 3.5 minute YouTube video from R.C. Sproul for some additional insight:

    Also consider the second law of thermodynamics (the basis for chaos theory), which, in general states that “as one goes forward in time, the net entropy (degree of disorder) of any isolated or closed system will always increase (or at least stay the same)”

    Before evaluating the potential for success for a new church plant from your congregation, therefore, I suggest reading Luke 4:23, “Physician, heal yourself.” I would only add the word “first” to the end of the quote.

  10. Right on thoughts. I helped plant a break-away church from the PCUSA in 1991. Great enthusiasm; we knew what we did not want, but not what we wanted. We wandered in the desert over 20jyears of praise music, traditional music, “blended” music, mostly in the EPC, now in PCA. It took us 31 years, but we now have truly reformed, confessional church. Two old hymns, two sung Psalms, interspersed with proper liturgy. Budget growth of just under 10% per year, this year $2.5MM. What it took was a young Reformed and Confessional senior pastor dedicated to the historic faith.

  11. I love this quote so much from the post. “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.” This “not everyone’s cup of tea” concept plagues Eva and American Christianity. Equating being loving and welcoming with: bending over backward including compromising to accommodate the visitor or lost person. Our Lord’s ministry wasn’t even everyone’s cup of tea, why would we expect or assume it would be otherwise now?

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