A minor kerfuffle broke out last week at Reformed Forum thanks to remarks I made during an interview about the history of American Presbyterianism. This subject invariably leads to questions about the historical differences between the OPC and the PCA and how these factor into their current relationship. And discussion of current OPC-PCA relations inevitably brings up the potentially delicate subject of the comity agreement that determines how each denomination should consider the other when planting a congregation. The current policy that guides OPC and PCA church planting endeavors is as follows:
Comity has meant different things to different people. We representatives of the home missions agencies and committees or boards of our denominations resist territorial statements on comity in the light of the social and cultural complexity of North American society and the great spiritual need of our many countrymen who are apart from Jesus Christ. Out of a concern to build the church of Jesus Christ rather than our own denominations and to avoid the appearance of competition, we affirm the following courteous code of behavior to guide our church planting ministries in North America:
1. We will be sensitive to the presence of existing churches and mission ministries of other NAPARC churches and will refrain from enlisting members and take great care in receiving members of those existing ministries.
2. We will communicate with the equivalent or appropriate agency (denominational missions committee or board, presbytery missions or church extension committee, or session) before initiating church planting activities in a community where NAPARC churches or missions ministries exist.
3. We will provide information on at least an annual basis describing progress in our ministries and future plans.
4. We will encourage our regional home missions leadership to develop good working relationships.
I raised concerns about the failure of each side to abide by the terms of the comity agreement. I illustrated my worries by mentioning two cities where conservative Presbyterian churches already existed and the other denomination went ahead anyway with a plant of its own. I did not mention â€œsheep stealing,â€ but that was how some interpreted my remarks. Since the PCA is a lot bigger than the OPC, some may have also inferred that I was taking issue more with the PCA than the OPC. Taking members in good standing from another congregation is a legitimate reason to object to a church plant, but not really the one I had in mind when I more or less made an off hand remark about comity agreements and also illustrated the point with examples my fading memory scanned and found.
The difficulties surrounding comity agreements have less to do with the transfer of members between communions than with the state of church planting among conservative Presbyterians. One concern first has to do with the market mentality that seems to go with home missions in the United States, the second with the branding of churches that follows said mentality.
In the good old days, denominations planted churches when a group of families (usually from the home denomination) found themselves in a new setting without a congregation from their communion. If the families numbered as many as five, the home missions committee would designate funds and find a church planter to minister to the group in hopes of establishing a settled work. To be sure, and the OPC has some examples of this, home missions executives would think about â€œstrategicâ€ locations for new churches in order for the denomination to gain a reputation and presence among a larger section of the American public. But generally speaking, home missions leaders went where groups of people wanted their services. No core group, no church plant.
Today, the model appears to be different and more like a business. Certain locations are highly desirable, these places have no Presbyterian churches, and denominational leaders decide to start a work or two there. This mentality would appear (I know nothing about business and marketing) to follow the logic of companies who have a product and are looking for ways to increase patrons and profits. Granted, we live in a voluntary church setting, so every congregation needs to â€œmarketâ€ itself to gain members who will then pay for the church â€œservices.â€ At the same time, a strategic outlook has led conservative Reformed denominations to look more at the potential for growth and visibility as a reason for home missions than a duty to send pastors to those places where existing church members can find no church.
Another aspect of contemporary home missions logic is the idea that Presbyterians should be able to plant as many churches as there are Americans. I am not sure anyone actually has a manual of population density, roads, health of the local economy, zoning regulations, etc. before thinking about planting churches across the USA. But because home missions is in the business of evangelism, and because the logic of the Great Commission is to take the gospel everywhere, home missions types tend to equate church planting with evangelism and the mandate to leave no soul unturned.
The problem is that as much as every American (and resident of the earth, for that matter) needs to hear the gospel, not every place can sustain a Presbyterian church. Once the novelty of being missional, for instance, wears off, and once denominational funding runs out, a church plant finds itself in the surprising position of being a settled congregation in maintenance mode, no longer being cutting edge but adjusting to the routine if not the boredom of the same people, each Sunday, year after year. Maintenance is a good thing. After all, sheep in a flock need to be fed and prepared for slaughter (read: die a good death). Shepherds who run off to new flocks and abandon old ones are not what our Lord had in mind when he taught about the Good Shepherd.
So missional inevitably morphs into maintenance and then denominational leaders need to consider how many congregations a locale can sustain. Actually, they should have thought about this before thinking strategically about a city or region and planting missional churches. But it is a serious question. Can a city of 300,000 support seven Presbyterian congregations, all of them conservative? Does a city of 500,000 have enough unchurched who might come to four Presbyterian churches? I know this may sound like Finney, trying to calibrate the work of the Holy Spirit. At the same time, Calvinists have a pretty good sense that not everyone is elect, and know there are ordinarily limits to the sovereign working of the Spirit. They also have a sense of stewardship and recognize that pastors and their families need to eat, and that ordinarily the Holy Spirit does not do home delivery. In which case, church planters might do well to turn to sociologists at least to understand the dynamics of communities, churches, and their sustainability. Meanwhile, the agrarian in me says that if farmers should know what the carrying capacity of a certain kind of soil is, church planters need to consider a similar dynamic. If an area like New England, that has not had a history of supporting Presbyterian churches, becomes the strategic place for church planting, shouldnâ€™t the denominational executives consider why the soil in the North East is harder than the mid-Atlantic region when it comes to Reformed seeds?
So if part of my concern about comity agreements is about what seems to be the naivete of â€œstrategicâ€ church planting (I put it in quotes because it doesnâ€™t seem very strategic to be ignorant of a placeâ€™s capacity to sustain Presbyterian churches), the other goes to the techniques necessary to plant a â€œPresbyterianâ€ church in an over saturated church market (I put it in quotes because often the methods are not Presbyterian).
If part of the basis for a comity agreement is the notion that the communions entering the agreement are â€œof like faith and practice,â€ it does not make a lot of sense to establish a church in a community with an abundance of churches if it is going to offer the same goods and services as the existing congregation. Of course, this is not a problem for Starbucks or McDonaldâ€™s where consistency of product is precisely what makes a franchise work. Someone back at headquarters needs to calculate how many frappucinos can be sold in a day within a city of 350,000 potential drinkers, but once the math is complete, the companiesâ€™ engines are finely tuned up to deliver the same fructose, burnt coffee, and whipped cream to every single Starbucks store.
The demands of franchising and the consistency of brand, however, do not appear to apply to Presbyterian churches. One congregation may be traditional (read: 1950s United States), another neo-Puritan, another contemporary, and still another blended (read: incoherent). In which case, a town may support a new Presbyterian home missions work if it offers a liturgical recipe different from the existing church. This is even true for congregations within the same denomination. Within the metropolitan Philadelhpia area, the OPC has almost as many flavors (the high-church topping is somewhat beyond the finances of the average Orthodox Presbyteiran) as the PCA.
The variety of approaches to being and worshiping as a Presbyterian is likely the greatest challenge to comity agreements. Many a church plant can justify its existence by saying that its product and delivery will reach a demographic different from an established work. As true as this may be (although the cultural diversity of OPC and PCA churches would strike a modern-day Tocqueville as extraordinarily thin), this diversity seriously undermines claims to be â€œof like faith and practice.â€ John Frame and I swatted this one around almost fifteen years ago and I am still convinced that Reformed theology and ministry normally assumes an appropriate form that should prevail in all churches claiming to be Presbyterian. I am also convinced that congregations that vary greatly from the sobriety, decency, orderliness â€“ not to mention the reverence â€“ implied and explicitly stated in the Reformed creeds and catechisms are letting their practices alter their faith.
These reflections may explain the comments made during the interview at Reformed Forum. The latter were the tip of an iceberg that may be responsible for sinking the good ship Conservative Presbyterian, U.S.A. The worship wars and church growth theories â€“ from McGavren to McLaren are sucking the vitals from Reformed confessionalism in North America. But I need to live with it because the current flavors of Presbyterianism â€“ like the menus of Applebees and Cheese Cake Factory (why would anyone eat at a factory?) â€“ are what the Reformed market place will bear.