Ordinary Means Of Grace Church Planting

A church member once shared with me that in his circle of friends, it was shocking to learn there are churches where one can depend on hearing the gospel every week. Though there are a great many churches that do believe and preach the gospel, they were surprised that there were both particularized congregations and church plants that preached the gospel clearly every Sunday.

Church planting is of tremendous importance to the mission of the church in the world. The church’s mission is a spiritual one, summarized in the Great Commission of Matthew 28:18–20, in which we see the command to go, to disciple, to baptize and to teach. The church is the institution that is to carry out this commission; the church is the only institution on earth about which Christ says, “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt 16:18). Therefore, central to our missiology should be a high view of the church and a strong conviction regarding the church’s spiritual mission.

There are almost as many philosophies of church planting, however, as there are philosophies of ministry in general. There have been various approaches to church planting and many models proposed. For example, in the early 2000s, there was an emergent-church model, which tended to dial back on the distinctive tenets of the Christian faith and emphasize authenticity. There is the seeker-sensitive model, which tends to focus on providing entertainment or other methods to draw people in the doors. There have also been various church-planting models that have to varying degrees given into pragmatism.

Moreover, there have been biblically faithful ministries and churches who nonetheless have not distinctly and clearly prioritized the ordinary means of grace. This article is not intended to be unnecessarily critical, but I would set forth that we cannot improve upon a scriptural philosophy of ministry, and we see what the early church’s approach to ministry and church life was very clearly in Acts 2:42: “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” In other words, they committed themselves to the ordinary means of grace, and their fellowship was centered on these means.

Certainly, there were things happening in the book of Acts that are not repeated on this side of the apostolic age. But the approach laid out in Acts 2:42 is a simple one after which the church is to pattern itself. In essence, this pattern is a devotion to the Word, sacraments and prayer. Though the Apostles are now in glory, their teaching is recorded in the pages of Holy Scripture. The “breaking of bread” most likely refers to the Lord’s Supper, one of the two sacraments instituted by our Savior. And as the church prays, it is confidently taking advantage of the access we now have to the throne of grace through the blood of Christ.

If this was what the early church in the book of Acts was known for and to which it was devoted, we should be seeking to plant churches that follow the same pattern. The ordinary means of grace are not simply a feature of the Reformed church’s life and ministry; they are the fuel that drives us. Westminster Shorter Catechism 88 asks the question, “What are the outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption?” The answer is, “The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption are, his ordinances, especially the Word, sacraments, and prayer; all which are made effectual to the elect for salvation.” These again are the means we see set forth in Scripture, and because of that, we believe that God will bless them for the edification of the church and indeed in bringing the lost to himself.

If we are committing ourselves to planting Reformed churches, we ought to devote ourselves to the very same means. There are undoubtedly challenges in planting and establishing Reformed churches that minister according to these principles. For one thing, Reformed theology and Reformed ecclesiology are far from predominant in our country; but this is one of the reasons we ought to be seeking to plant and establish these kinds of churches. Certainly, we ought to because the lost need to be called by the Word to salvation—if we engage in the work of church planting, surely a love for lost sinners will be one of our driving motivations. But it is also the case that the people of God need these means emphasized and prioritized by their churches. There are plenty of regions in the United States that do not have a Reformed presence. Even where there is some Reformed presence, it is often the case that we have become distracted and drawn away from these means. In planting and establishing churches that prioritize the ordinary means of grace, it is likely we will see God’s people grow and benefit from them.

Since Reformed worship is not the norm in the evangelical landscape today, it will no doubt take some off guard and make them uncomfortable. Nonetheless, I have found it interesting how many people are encouraged and edified through simple, Reformed, ordinary means ministry. It is surprising to some what an emphasis Reformed churches place on the Word. The idea that the Word is central to and shapes our services is for many a pleasant surprise. Being called to worship from the Word, singing scriptural truths in the words of the Psalms and in biblically rich hymns, praying prayers consistent with the Word, hearing the Word both read and preached, taking the Lord’s Supper and witnessing baptism—all of these things can often be a needed and indeed welcomed shock to our systems when coming from a week in the world. Similarly, the fact that Reformed services so clearly teach us about the graciousness of our God—from being graciously drawn into the presence of God, to acknowledging and confessing sin, to hearing an assurance of pardon proclaimed, to being nourished by the Word of God and the sacraments—these are things often unique to Reformed churches, and we ought not to push them to the side for fear of being thought dull or irrelevant. These are far from dull, and if we present them in a manner that is dull, then we should certainly address that. These are the means God uses to grow his people and to call the lost to himself. The simplicity of Reformed worship is a blessing, not something from which we should shy away. We should have every confidence that God will bless it because he has prescribed it in Scripture. Committing ourselves to the ordinary means of grace is a reminder that the power lies not in the skill or charisma of the preacher, but in God and his Word.

So, we ought to be confident in planting churches that prioritize the ordinary means of grace because our confidence is not in ourselves but in God and in the Word. One of my favorite quotations comes from John Muether commenting on 1 Corinthians 15:58. Muether writes, “Reformed ministry abounds in the work of the Lord because it is grounded in the certainty, not the probability of faith; that is, in knowing that labor in the Lord is not in vain.”1 If we are laboring according to God’s appointed means of grace, we do not have to fear our work being in vain. It may be slow-going, and it may not appear successful in the eyes of the world or even in our own eyes. But the Lord is pleased to bless faithful ministry.

There is likely nothing in this article that is groundbreaking or particularly new. Perhaps most of the readers of this piece are already well committed to ordinary means of grace ministry. But there is often much pressure to place our primary attention on other things. This is certainly true of churches in general, but the pressure is heightened when it comes to church planting. Because it is a new endeavor, there can be pressure to quickly draw a crowd. As a result, we can tend to dull our distinctive Reformed tenets and our philosophy of ministry and worship. Perhaps our preaching takes a back seat to less formal ways of communicating. It is also easy for us to grow distracted and to misunderstand the church’s mission. In our church planting efforts, it is crucial to maintain clear focus on the gospel and the spiritual mission of the church. While desire for cultural transformation can be a good impulse, if we seek to make that the church’s primary mission and goal, we will fall short of setting forth what truly ought to be central. R. C. Sproul has written helpfully,

We will inevitably be tempted by decoy ducks on the pond to seduce us into thinking that we can improve upon the power that is in the gospel. It is, however, our task to diligently and faithfully preach the Word of God, which Word he has empowered and has promised will never return unto him void. We don’t need anything more. We can’t improve upon that in any manner.2

There is also the proclivity to be discouraged in ordinary means of grace ministry. In our flesh, when we do not always see the fruitfulness firsthand, we can start to think the work is for nothing. Outside voices may also be telling us that we need to do something more. This is one reason the Twin Lakes Fellowship has been an encouragement to so many of us.3 Hearing reports each year of church planters and missionaries throughout the world who are committed to the ordinary means of grace and Reformed worship is such a blessing. Likewise, there are resources available which keep us grounded in the Word—for instance, the recent Blessings of the Faith series that Jason Helopoulus has organized is helpful to pastors and church members alike.4 One other very valuable resource, particularly for Reformed church planters, is Planting, Watering Growing: Planting Confessionally Reformed Churches in the 21st Century, which consists of various essays from ministers in the United Reformed Churches of North America.5

I hope this has been an encouragement to church planters to press on in laboring according to God’s means of grace. I hope that if you are looking for a church home, you may consider joining a local NAPARC church plant and seek to help them in their ministry. May we, as did the early church, devote ourselves to the ministry of the Word, prayer and sacraments.

Notes

  1. John Muether, Cornelius Van Til: Reformed Apologist and Churchman (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 2008), 208.
  2. R. C. Sproul, “The Reformation, Luther, and the Modern Struggle for the gospel,” in Always Reformed: Essays in Honor of W. Robert Godfrey, ed. R. Scott Clark and Joel E. Kim, First Electronic Edition (Escondido: Westminster Seminary California, 2012), 505.
  3. The Twin Lakes Fellowship is a ministerial fraternal gathering hosted by First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Mississippi. It serves to equip and provide care and spiritual refreshment for ministers, church planters, and missionaries. The Twin Lakes Fellowship was begun by Rev. Dr. Ligon Duncan and is now being carried on by Rev. Dr. David Strain. What has come to be known as the “Twin Lakes Talking Points” is actually an essay written by Dr. Ligon Duncan entitled, “The Fifteen Talking Points for Church Planting and the Future of Ministry,” First Presbyterian Church, September 5, 2013.
  4. See Jason Helopoulos et al., Blessings of the Faith Set (P&R Publishing, 2021) for the five volumes. Rev. Sean Morris is reviewing the volumes in this series for the Heidelblog.
  5. Daniel R. Hyde and Shane Lems, Planting, Watering, Growing: Planting Confessional Reformed Churches in the 21st Century (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2011).

©James Ritchey. All Rights Reserved.


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  • James Ritchey
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    James Ritchey is originally from Birmingham, Alabama and studied at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, MS (2018). James serves as mission developer and pastor at River City Reformed Presbyterian Church (ARP) in Little Rock, AR.

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8 comments

  1. Yes…a welcome shock to the system!
    I’ve been saved since 2005 (I’m 64 years old) and for MOST of that time…I was not IN a reformed church though my views were very Calvinistic; finding a real solid reformed church took a while but once I found one…SHOCK is a good word for it….it’s so different that I was taken aback…but now having been IN a smaller reformed church for about 2 years…I can say that you hit the nail on the head…the ordinary means of grace are so effective and nourishing…I can’t ever go back to anything less. I wish all churches did exactly this. (and don’t get me started on how useful and amazing the WCF is… )

  2. Yes, I agree with a means of grace approach, but I want to express my gratitude for this encouragement when our culture’s pressures are the opposite.

    As a pastor, I was recently discouraged (but not surprised) after reading a WSJ piece on May 19th highlighting the latest church planting movements and how successful they are implementing the ‘Silicon Valley venture capitalist model of church growth,’ and a pastor of one of these types of churches exploding by the numbers quoted, “We need pastors that know how to lead in the church with marketplace principles.” They may contain preaching, prayers, and sacraments, but according to this article, their primary focus is “Pentecostal-style exuberance with high-energy bands and entertaining sermons.”

    Overall, it was just another reminder of being a pilgrim in a foreign land. A strange land where only one pastor can deliver entertaining enough sermons for eight locations, yet there are more than enough high-energy worship bands to go around, unique to each one of those locations.

    So, yes, thanks again for highlighting Acts 2:42 and the ordinary means of grace ministry in a wider church culture that claims to have better ideas.

    (if others are interested and if it is fitting with the commenting policy: here is the WSJ article I referenced https://www.wsj.com/business/media/church-startups-entrepreneurship-religion-49891861)

    • Thanks Rhodes! Always great to hear from you, and glad we could cross paths once again, this time on the Heidelblog! Thanks for your encouragement.

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