“Do You Know Of A Good P&R Church Nearby?”

It happens often—a friend or listener sends a message with the question: “Do you know of a good confessional Presbyterian or Reformed church near X?” All too often, after searching online, consulting denominational websites, even asking other friends, the answer is no. When I signed up for the life of a confessional Presbyterian churchman, I was under no illusion about the size and reach of Reformed churches in North America, but that does not make the situation any happier. Now, for a variety of reasons, people are moving from the coast to the interior, from the city to the country. Too often, however, they are destined for locales with no local churches confessing the Reformed faith and worshiping according to the scriptures.

Rural and small-town America is likely to become even more of a confessional Presbyterian and Reformed (hereafter P&R) wasteland unless pastors and planters are willing to become bi-vocational or to serve multiple churches. There are churches on the Plains, up the hollers, and around the corner in No-Starbucks Land, but they are not Reformed. Many of those Baptist, Pentecostal, and even United Methodist churches exist without full-time pastors. This may be because the people are poor or lower-to-middle income. It may be because thinly-populated areas simply cannot generate the numbers required to support the type of church city or suburban folk have come to expect or it may be because the people do not give as they ought, making the support of full-time pastors impossible.

Whatever the reasons, P&R circuit riders and tentmakers may be required but are P&R folk too good for part-time ministers? Are ministers themselves willing to make these very real sacrifices? Are “upscale” Reformed denominations satisfied with being a sort of Gifted and Talented program for theologically-minded Evangelicals or a landing place for upwardly-mobile Baptists who might like to have a drink now and again? Are the P&R denominations suited only for affluent suburbs and the more desirable cities?

The struggle is real and it is not new. More than 200 years ago a bunch of frontier pastors and church members came together for a momentous protracted, interdenominational meeting on the then-wild frontier vicinity of Cane Ridge, Kentucky. The rest, as they say, is church history. In the aftermath of this meeting, Presbyterians split over frustrations with their lack of success, agility, and flexibility on the frontier. Presbyterian requirements for educated ministers and for decent and orderly church government could not keep up with Baptists, Methodists, and assorted enthusiasts. The result was the less-than-Calvinistic Cumberland Presbyterian Church which saw only limited regional success. Most of its churches rejoined the soon-to-liberalize Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA) after that massive northern denomination moderated the Calvinism of its confessional standards.

So, again, the struggle for the rural Reformed is real and familiar. Admitting the confessional churches’ continuing challenges outside of the cities is not to argue for doctrinal or ecclesial concessions or for Cumberland Presbyterian-style abandonment of requirements for educated ministry, but it might argue for more distributed, local theological education at a much lower price than modern residential seminaries can offer.1 Certainly, there is a need for more resources to support men destined for small towns and rural areas. Local churches and presbyteries can provide much of the education needed for ministerial candidates at little to no cost to the man, which means no debt for educational expenses. There are already some shining examples of local theological training, but more must be done.

What of the expense of planting churches themselves? Here there is good news: there is a model for ministry that is inexpensive, portable, and cross-cultural. It is often called ordinary means of grace ministry. Its focus is Biblical Word-and-sacrament worship and communion of the saints as the primary means of evangelism and discipleship, all overseen and directed by ordained elders in submission to the standards and agreed order of a connected, confessional church. You might notice that this is the way nearly all P&R churches operated for almost 400 years. No new inventions are required. The “hidden” treasure of simple Reformed ministry lies out in the open, waiting to be picked up and wielded.

This simple approach to church has practical benefits. A large staff is not required to launch a church. Little equipment, technology, or talent is needed for worship. Bibles, psalters, and songbooks will suffice. Qualified officers and ministers are required, but the ascended Lord has promised to give such gifts in due time, and those officers can have confidence in the effectiveness and durability of Biblical church government in any context.

Contrary to the prevailing wisdom of some, the P&R principles of church order and worship are not a hindrance to church planting in rural or non-city contexts. In fact, given the rampant abuses of authority in contemporary churches and the shallowness of what passes for worship, the P&R way ought to be a huge selling point, so to speak. Selling accountable church government and reverent, Biblical worship to the wandering and starved sheep of the 21st century ought to be an easy task for pastors and officers convinced of these principles.

Presbyterians of the last 100 years may have basically conceded the rural areas and small towns to the Baptists, Charismatics, Evangelicals, and even the mainline, but there were lots of good Presbyterian churches in small towns and rural areas. The buildings are still there. What the shifts in population did not destroy, the liberalizing mainline did. Too many small PCUS (and the other churches that would eventually form the PCUSA) could not or would not leave the mainline, to the great spiritual harm of the churches. This is why liberalizing tendencies and top-down concentration of church power ought to be vehemently opposed, even to the point of unpleasantness. The many dead or dying PCUSA churches that litter the countryside and small towns ought to be a daily reminder to us.

Tim Keller loves to talk about idolatry. Did the P&R abandon the countryside and small towns to serve the idols of cultural influence and power (whose temples happen to be located in big, wealthy cities)? Will the type of progressive, third-way, city church model (which presently dominates PCA church planting) ever work on country roads or small-town streets?

Planting rural and small town P&R churches cannot be impossible. There must be a way to do it. Capital (human and monetary) is surely required. Making the most of that capital is essential. One way to do that might be Sunday night planting. Spurgeon considered his Sunday night service to be for evangelism and told his regulars to stay home or participate in other forms of ministry. Sunday nights have always been more flexible for many churches. Of course, most churches have abandoned second or evening services. Why could not churches without evening services (probably 85% of the PCA, for instance) but with multiple pastors (35% of the PCA?) send pastors and members out on Sunday nights to provide support for plants in adjacent small towns or rural areas? Bonus: you have a plant that starts with Sunday night services and a morning service can be added later. The Sunday night model allows members of existing non-P&R churches to worship in the morning in their current church and in the evening at the plant until a church is established. Not every church has to have an 11 am service to compete with every other 11 am morning service.

If we Reformed folk are as smart as we think we are, why not apply more of those smarts to the small-town and rural church problem. Christians who believe that the Reformed faith shows the best way to glorify God and enjoy him forever and that Presbyterianism is the best and most Biblical way to govern and care for the church ought to be about the business of building and planting Presbyterian churches everywhere.

What may be lacking is confidence more than competency, but if P&R ways are the best ways it would be strange to think that they do not apply to all people everywhere. The abandonment by the Reformed of whole populations and areas to doctrinally-deficient and ecclesially-defective traditions is a scandal. Some denominations (because of the conceit that the Reformed are the thought leaders of Evangelicalism or that they can best bring in the kingdom by influencing the influencers in business, culture, and government—city folk of a particular type) have, in effect, written off great parts of their countries and world.

“You don’t matter” or “You will never get this” is the message we have communicated (and received). Perhaps we do not believe that there is a best, most Biblical way. If the P&R way is one among many options, there are many places to go. Those who lack faith in this Biblical tradition ought to depart for the broad, open plains of Independency and Evangelicalism or even the relative freedom and malleability of the Anglican tradition with all its aesthetic delights. But convictional Presbyterians ought to double down and dig in, even as they repent of their lack of faith that God will use his appointed means to build his church. Sinclair Ferguson recently said, “All New Testament churches were Presbyterian churches, but that also means all the errors in the New Testament came from Presbyterian churches.”

Without denying previous errors and failures or the certainty of more trouble and failures to come, Presbyterians ought to move forward without respect of persons and with confidence in Biblical order and doctrine—confident that robust doctrine and Biblical church order will work everywhere.


1. Publisher’s note: Cards on the table: I love this essay. This topic is near and dear to my heart and I agree with 99% of what Brad writes here, but on this point I respectfully dissent. In the 18th and 19th centuries the American P&R churches (Dutch, German, and American) tried the very thing that Brad recommends, substituting pastors and presbyteries for residential pastoral education. It did not work. The various P&R churches recognized that it did not work and thus they returned to the residential educational model. That was the Reformed practice in the wake of the Reformation. One of Calvin’s strongest desires was to build a seminary. That is what the Genevan Academy was. In the Netherlands our students were educated by theology faculty in the University of Leiden and in seminaries elsewhere. In Heidelberg the pastors studied with the theology faculty and in the seminary with pastor-scholars.

We once had decentralized medical education, where physicians learned medicine from other physicians, and lawyers once learned the law from other lawyers, but no one would go back to the 18th- and 19th-century American frontier model for those disciplines today and pastoral ministry is more important than medicine and the law.

We do need to find a way to educate men for ministry on the Plains and in the hollers (amen!) but as someone who has been preparing men for pastoral ministry for 25 years I can say with confidence that most of those who have only a seminary education are not prepared to teach seminary, and most know it. Pastors typically only get one shot at preparation for a life of ministry and we need to do it as well as we can. Students need face-to-face access to pastor-scholars, to a real, physical library, and to life in a community of students.


R. Scott Clark.


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  1. Thanks, Scott. I have been spoiled by always having pastors who are themselves scholars. It is cetainly not a simple issue. Your historical perspective is welcome and appreciated.

    • My own thoughts: Elders are elders. “Apt to teach” is a biblical requirement.

      Use them.

      Most Reformed churches are commuter churches, at least outside the centers of the Dutch Reformed world (Iowa, West Michigan, etc.) and certain places where Presbyterianism is strong for historical reasons. That means many and often most members live long distances from the church they attend.

      The Baptists and broad evangelicals are not wrong about everything. There are many things that can be done by way of community outreach through home Bible studies and small groups of various sorts.

      Many Reformed elders are going to say, “I can’t do that; I’m not qualified.” My response? I know many of the tentmaking pastors in our community. I do not think it is unfair to say that most ruling elders in sound confessional Reformed churches have more doctrinal and historical knowledge, and quite possibly more biblical knowledge, than the majority of pastors I know in the rural Ozarks. That’s not intended as an attack on our local pastors, but rather a compliment to the way Reformed churches typically train their elders to a standard quite a bit higher than many evangelical pastors.

      My wife is Korean. I’m not unaware of the problems of Korean Presbyterianism. But a major part of why Korean churches succeed is their cell group structure. This is not an argument for “every member evangelism” or similarly dangerous and un-Reformed ideas, some of which have become plagues in Korean Presbyterianism. Office counts. Training officebearers counts.

      However, encouraging elders to teach not only people in their own churches, but to begin outreach among neighbors and co-workers, might be a good start.

  2. Thank you, Rev. Isbell.

    I live in one of those places that, to quote a man from the Ozarks who later became a denominational official in a NAPARC denomination, is about as far from a confessionally Reformed church as anyone can get. (That comment was made about a decade and a half ago on a Reformed message board to someone trying to find a Reformed church near Fort Leonard Wood.) I drive more than an hour to church and I have no viable alternative unless I want to be rebaptized, which I’m not going to do, or if I want to join a church that is not in any meaningful way Reformed.

    We need to recognize that while the Reformed world today has largely abandoned rural America, that’s not a new development.

    The high standards that Reformed churches historically required are largely responsible for the wholesale destruction of the Reformed faith on the American frontier. As settlers pushed beyond the Appalachian and Allegheny mountains in the late 1700s and early 1800s, Reformed churches were completely unable to keep up with the need for ministers, with the result that the Methodists largely took over the North with their minimally-trained circuit riders and the Baptists largely took over the South with their largely untrained tentmaking preachers.

    Right here in my own county, a Presbyterian elder moved to Pulaski County in the early days of settlement, organized a church that included many of the local government officials, and started holding services, apparently either preaching himself or reading printed sermons of other ministers. The church met in the county courthouse since it was the only public building large enough for a church to meet, and as it grew larger, the Presbyterian elder rode hundreds of miles all over Missouri trying to get a Presbyterian pastor to fill the pulpit of the church he had started. He was completely unsuccessful — there were no Presbyterian ministers to be found who were willing to take a call — so he finally and reluctantly agreed to let the church become Methodist since it was the only way for the church to get a regular pastor.

    That story was repeated not just hundreds but thousands of times all over the frontier.

    Reformed churches in the 1600s and 1700s had a model of ministerial training that worked in Scotland and Ulster and England with settled villages and churches that had been in existence for hundreds of years. It failed in America because the ministerial training model required far higher standards than Scripture required, and didn’t take into account the problems of pastoring widely scattered villages and isolated farms rather than closely settled towns and villages with lots of people living within walking distance, or at least a horseback ride, of a long-established parish church.

    Getting enough ministers was a problem even back in Britain: imagine a situation in which admission to college — not seminary but college — required fluency in Latin, which had the practical effect of saying almost nobody except very wealthy families could send their children to college, unless a particularly promising young man had been personally tutored in Latin by the local pastor so he could apply to Oxford or Cambridge in England, or one of three universities in Scotland, or in America, could go to Harvard or Yale or what is now Princeton.

    The Methodists and Baptists, who didn’t require a college education, let alone what was then called “divinity school” or what we would now call “seminary,” built their churches in places like Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi, and later west of the Mississippi River, largely on a foundation of members of other churches who had moved west but couldn’t get a pastor from their own denomination because the standards were too high.

    I hope it’s clear that I want to affirm biblical and confessional standards, but I don’t want to go beyond them.

    Ordaining men who don’t meet the standards of Scripture is a recipe for disaster. Baptists and broad evangelicals have plenty of problems, but their ministers in our community — who include numerous local school teachers, one school superintendent, postmen, the head of a city sewer department, tradesmen and owners of small construction companies, and lot of other blue collar workers who have little formal education — are usually vetted **VERY** carefully as to whether they meet the standards for their marriage and home life and business ethics.

    Ordaining men who don’t subscribe to the confessions isn’t a solution either. A charismatic pastor isn’t going to stay very long in his pulpit if he denies tonguespeaking. A Baptist pastor isn’t going to stay very long in his pulpit if he baptizes babies. Churches have doctrines for a reason, and there’s no reason Reformed churches should try to appeal to people who don’t want what our churches teach. There are plenty of Baptist and charismatic and other broadly evangelical churches in rural America, and there’s nothing wrong with having a church for those who disagree with that and want something different.

  3. On the Note: Why it did not work (in the 18th and 19th centuries)? It would be interesting to know if any of the difficulties at that time can now be overcome. It is great that Calvin and others followed the “traditional model” yet, as far as I understand, the Reformed do not confess any particular training model.

  4. Our church may be on the verge of having to search for a new pastor. The last time the pulpit committee conducted a search for a senior pastor, they spent almost a year reviewing sermon tapes and resumés. They were looking for someone who could deliver a powerful sermon. In the meantime we hired a seminary student as an assistant pastor. He has since graduated and has been elevated to an assistant pastor. His preaching skills are adequate but he he has the true heart of a pastor which so many “preachers” I have sat under did not remotely have. For my money, give me a true pastor who loves his sheep as opposed to a “preacher” who is a cold academic who can’t relate to his sheep.

  5. We are seeing success because of the work of the Holy Spirit and our dependence on prayer here in Clarksville, Tn to plant a reformed Presbyterian church. Our denomination, Vanguard Presbyterian Church, is new, but sees the great need for evangelism. Yes, invocational pastors are needed at least until a plant grows to fully support a pastor. We are seeing families come who see the value of a simple worship as a covenant family. It is a beautiful thing!

  6. “Tim Keller loves to talk about idolatry. Did the P&R abandon the countryside and small towns to serve the idols of cultural influence and power (whose temples happen to be located in big, wealthy cities)? Will the type of progressive, third-way, city church model (which presently dominates PCA church planting) ever work on country roads or small-town streets?

    ……“You don’t matter” or “You will never get this” is the message we have communicated (and received).”


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