Having served as a church planter in the OPC for the first four years of my ministry, it is my opinion that the worldly axiom “be careful what you ask for because you might just get it” can easily be applied to the corporate prayer life of your average mission work.
In the beginning, and like every other small church, we spent much of our time together praying that God would cause our church to grow.
God graciously heard our prayers, answered our prayers, and to be perfectly honest… it was somewhat painful.
While we did not fully realize it at the time, every prayer for growth was, simultaneously, a prayer for sanctification (both personal and corporate) which, as you well know, can be a very painful process.
My intention in sharing our experience is not to scare you away from prayer but rather to equip you for the kind of growth God might send in answer to your prayers.
Growth in Numbers
Numerical growth is what most people have in mind when they pray for church growth and that is completely natural and proper. However, when God actually sends new visitors and members we need to remember that it is GOD who sent them. We must acknowledge, submit to, and rejoice in God’s providence.
While I doubt any Orthodox Presbyterian would disagree with that statement; I am not fully convinced that every Orthodox Presbyterian has thought through the potential implications of God’s providence in numerical growth.
What if God sends people into the church who make us feel uncomfortable? What if God sends people who not only have nothing significant to contribute, but who are also quite needy? What if God sends people who, by their very presence, force us to face sins related to social stratification or ethnic snobbery?
If we cannot respond to such possibilities with a hearty, “Then praise be to God!” then we might not be ready to receive and rejoice in the numerical growth for which we have been praying.
Growth in Government
As Presbyterians, we believe that the ideal (i.e., biblical) form of church government is that of Elder rule.
Some church plants begin as a few dedicated families who make all the decisions by group consensus. Others are led by one or two ‘strong personalities’ who are simply recognized as the natural leaders. Things cannot stay this way forever.
As a church plant grows, God will begin to furnish it with officers. This means that both the implicit congregationalism of ‘group consensus’ and the hierarchicalism of ‘strong personalities’ will need to be forsaken and forgotten.
Those who have grown used to the feel of ‘group consensus’ may react strongly as decision making authority is taken away from the group and given to the session. Likewise, the ‘strong personalities’ will undoubtedly react strongly as they watch other men ascend to the position which they used to hold (though in an unofficial sense).
Church plants are simply not churches until they have elected, ordained, and installed Elders. If we are not ready to step back and let these men lead, then we are not ready to receive and rejoice in governmental growth.
Growth in Identity
When a church plant begins, it typically takes on the ‘personality’ of the core families (who usually have much in common). However, and as the Lord causes the church to grow in the two areas previously mentioned, the ‘personality’ of the congregation will begin to change.
When new families join the church, they will bring with them all their gifts and all their baggage. When Elders begin to rule, the collective personality of the Session will inevitably be reflected in the church’s worship and ministries. Likewise, when a Pastor is finally called, his individual personality will be inexorably and irreversibly wed to that of the congregation.
All of this is good. The discovery and maturation of a congregation’s identity is part of what we are praying for when we ask God to send growth. The only question which yet remains unanswered is this: Are we ready to growth with it?
Growth involves change. The prospect of change can be frightening and the process of change can be quite disruptive; but rather than fearing it or resisting it, let us learn to thank God in advance for it so that our hearts will be ready to receive it and rejoice in it when it comes.
Written by Christian McShaffrey