by Jason Dorsey | September 8, 2022
For 25 years, I have had the great privilege of being involved in church-planting with the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) in regions outside of the Southeast. Though I have struggled over these last six years to keep my current church alive and thriving, there is yet a fire in my heart for church-planting. That is why I grieve over what I perceive to be a dearth of church planting in the PCA.
Every year at the PCA’s General Assembly, our denominational church-planting committee, Mission to North America (MNA), reports that about fifty to sixty churches have been planted the year before. With the inevitable annual closing of the doors of some PCA churches and the transfer of others to different church families – which typically runs from seven to thirteen churches – and the fact that many church plants never particularize, the PCA is at best in a holding pattern. With the aging of our ministers (myself included), one might argue that the PCA is in demographic decline. Every year I hope for a better report. Every year I grieve that the church-planting nut has not yet been cracked.
I write this as a supporter of MNA and its godly leaders over the years. But despite the gifted leadership which MNA has enjoyed, and despite the vast and diverse mission field that is North America, the PCA as a whole is not driving a church-planting movement of any kind. We have not catalyzed church-planting in such a way that the name of Christ is glorified in all our cities and towns and suburbs and rural locales as it should. It seems quite reasonable to me that each of our eighty-eight presbyteries could plant at least one church a year. But they do not. And so every year I hope for more and am left grieving the dearth of church planting.
My view is that there are ten identifiable reasons for the dearth of church planting in the PCA. In the remainder of this article, I share these ten reasons in short form and then – for those who are interested – give more detail below each one.
1. A lack of persistent, prevailing kingdom prayer in our churches.
Rev. John Smed, who was MNA’s Director of Church Planting when I came under care in the Pacific Northwest Presbytery in 1995, has long pushed for earnest and prevailing kingdom prayer for God’s work among us. The PCA is known as a doctrinal denomination, not perhaps not as much as a praying people. If prayer for Jesus to be glorified through conversions and church plants of worshippers prevailed in our sessions, churches, and presbyteries, I believe the PCA would foster – much more than it is today – a church-planting movement.
2. A lack of the common cause of church-planting in our presbyteries.
Men’s hearts are stirred by a common cause. We are made to work together on something bigger than us. The geographically vast and culturally and demographically diverse mission field that is North America is white for the harvest. And it is strategic to reach the world for Christ. For example, Redmond, the city where I live and minister, is home to people from all over the world. Over 50% of Redmond residents speak English as a second language.
Every square inch of North America is strategic to reach for Christ, to push back the darkness of the prince of this world. There are many reasons that PCA presbyters do not share in the common cause of church planting. Some of those reasons are philosophical, others more rooted in sinful indifference, pride, or fear. But if every pastor and elder would be removed from their office if the presbytery in which he served did not plant a church, I venture to say that every presbytery would find a way to plant at least one church a year. We have the talent, resources, and will if we would so choose. We lack the motivation.
3. A neglect in inspiring, training, and empowering the next generation of leaders.
Every church and every network and every presbytery should be what Rev. Harry Reeder calls a Leadership Factory or Pipeline. But we are not. The September 2022 Church Planting Assessment Center was canceled because there were not enough candidates to make it worthwhile to run. Brothers, this ought not to be the case. The Pacific Northwest, like all of our other regions, needs a fresh wave of energetic, young, zealous church planters. Where are they?
When my wife Jenny and I attended the MNA church-planting assessment center in Atlanta in 2000, our assessment had a record number of church planters in attendance. There were eighteen couples. We all had caught a vision for church-planting in many different ways, and we were ready to throw our shoulder to the plow. We need to do a much better job at inspiring (like the Acts 29 Network used to do so well), training (we have lots of great resources like the Assessment center), and empowering (providing resources and coaching, for example) the next generation of Reformed and Presbyterian church planters.
4. A paucity of evangelism among our pastors and church planters.
Not a lot needs to be said here. I am not at all pointing the finger. I grieve and mourn the lack of fruit in my own ministry. And I pray that Christ would make me bolder in my witness.
5. A failure to focus our resources on church-planting.
Mission to North America used to do just one thing, at least that is my recollection: church-planting. Now Mission to North America is the umbrella of a whole host of ministries, all of which are good and necessary and which I support in theory. However, good things can get in the way of great things. It is my view that the One, Big Focus of MNA should be church planting, and that church plants should engage, when appropriate, the host of good ministries now under MNA, such as ESL, Ministry to State, prison ministry (Metanoia), justice and reconciliation, etc. The single-eyed-focus of MNA has been lost. Having said that, I need also to point out that even when we had the single-eyed-focus on church-planting, we were planting only about fifty churches a year.
6. Not caring for and equipping the church planter’s wife.
My wife has been my great ally in pastoring and church-planting. I have in the past referred to her as my Co-Pastor, even though that has probably irritated my more conservative brethren. Over our many years of being in ministry, she has been my counselor, my strong helper in leading ministry, my encourager, my challenger, and much more. In spite of all the training and some of the care we provide our pastors in the PCA, we have done a poor job in seeing the strategic importance of the church planter’s wife. In more ways that any of us realize, she is the key to his longevity in the ministry. She is the key, humanly speaking, to the church plant making it through the years of the planter’s greatest burden.
I am a big fan of Parakaleo because it is the one ministry that I saw coming alongside the church planter’s wife to provide connection, care, and coaching. When I was in Central Indiana Presbytery we had money in the budget to pay Jenny, who was with Parakaleo at the time, to host gatherings of ruling and teaching elder wives at each presbytery meeting. These gatherings grew in popularity for the wives of elders who found it was a safe place to share their struggles, to receive comfort, care, and encouragement from other women who are on the front lines of ministry, and to get tools that they could then use in their own ministry contexts. We fail to support wives of elders – and especially, of church planters – at our peril.
7. Insufficient “church in a box” resources for our church planters.
I find it difficult to believe that we have not developed what one friend of mine called “church-in-a-box” resources. What I mean by “church-in-a-box” is a well-researched set of best-practice resources for every PCA church planter. These resources would include basic things like: (1) a standard timeline for church-planting; (2) expectations for a church planter including (a) prayer, (b) study, (c) networking, (d) fund-raising, (e) forming small groups, (f) establishing worship; (3) template files for (a) budget, (b) newsletter, (c) congregational letters, (d) spreadsheets for tracking attendance and giving, etc.; (4) An annual timeline for officer training and officer training content; and (5) a standard organizational chart and role descriptions/expectations for lay leaders and staff. By no means is this list of possible resources intended to be exhaustive or complete. Surely we could add a considerable collection of helps for church-planting efforts.
Of course, everyone wants to do their own thing by developing their own systems. So we end up reinventing the wheel every time we plant a church. But if we encouraged our church planters to follow certain best practices, I think that there would be a lot less spinning of the wheels and a lot more effective work achieved.
8. A lack of organizational consistency, control, and accountability across our denomination.
We are a grassroots organization. Each church, presbytery, and network sees itself as functionally independent and doing its own thing, even though we pride ourselves in and value our “connectionalism.” The result is almost no organizational consistency or accountability across our church plants. Each plant operates as an island unto itself. Imagine if each Trader Joes Grocery Store or Waffle House restaurant operated that way. It would be a disaster.
I am a big believer in the fact that each church is different and each pastor has to lead out of his own unique God-crafted gifts, passions, and strengths. But I do not think that this means we should not expect a certain degree of consistency in our church plants. We can achieve such consistency if and only if we establish some degree of true accountability. Having none, many of our church plants flounder. At the very least, every presbytery should exercise more oversight, accountability, and ongoing assessment of their churches and church plants than they do now. I know that there will be tremendous pushback on this suggestion from those who remember the overreach of perpetrated by denominational authorities in the old PCUS out of which the PCA was formed. But there has to be some way that we can empower local leaders to lead by giving them the resources without controlling those things that Roland Allen says should be left to God’s Spirit in pastoral feedback in his masterful St. Paul’s Missionary Methods.
9. A lack of courageous leadership in our presbyteries and churches.
We need courageous leaders to be “blocking backs” to make a way for young church planters to get to the field. Like the Methodist expansion in the early days of our nation, we need to find ways to raise up non-traditional church planters to preach the gospel and plant churches. Brian Kelso has found a way to do this with LAMP. He is a true blocking back. But we need additional courageous leaders who can help our presbyteries operate as bands of brothers who are fighting together to advance the claims of Christ across every square inch of the land, and who are finding ways to bring in new recruits left and right.
The only people who can do this are established presbyters who have the courage to make a way for the gifted and called church planters among us who may sometimes have non-traditional backgrounds.
10. Weak zeal for the Name of Jesus to be exalted in conversions and church-planting.
Where is our zeal for the glory of Christ in the conversion of sinners? Where are presbyters rallying to push forward the worship of Jesus in every town, city, suburb, and rural area of North America? Let me, and let you and let all of us be cannon fodder that the Name of Jesus Christ be proclaimed, loved, served, and adored. I want to be about this in the last chapter of my ministry life in the PCA. How about you?
 Churches lost from the denomination according to the PCA Yearbook:
2003 – 9 churches, five dissolved; two withdrawn, one transferred, one to the KAPC.
2008 – 7 churches
2010 – 11 churches
2011 – 13 (9 dissolved; 3 to independency; 1 merged with another PCA church
2012 – 9 churches
2015 – 11 churches
2016 – 9 churches
2017 – 13 churches
2019 – 17 churches
2021 – 9 churches