In the past two decades the PCA has grown into a vital force for planting new churches in North America.
The denomination’s outlook likely stems from a policy shift made in the 1990s, when Mission to North America (MNA) — which at the PCA’s founding was to take the lead in church planting — pushed that work to the local level. MNA would then supplement local initiatives with assessment, training, and support for both planters and their wives.
This new strategy fit with the “grassroots” spirit of the PCA and has, for more than two decades, stimulated entrepreneurial leaders who have made plans and devised programs tailor-made for their places and circumstances, including the creation of church-planting networks. Though not a formal part of the PCA’s structure, these networks are thoroughly “presbyterian,” meaning they are connectional associations of churches and leaders who band together for collaborative ministry.
Texas Sets Valuable Precedents
The first such network had its roots in Texas in the 1990s. Leaders from Park Cities Presbyterian Church in Dallas began meeting with the pastors of their daughter churches, dreaming and praying about planting more churches. From these meetings, the Southwest Church Planting Network emerged in 1998.
At its inception, the network’s founders made the key decision to forge close ties with the presbyteries within its target areas. Thus, Southwest was organized as a joint subcommittee of those presbyteries. Member churches support it with a percentage of their regular giving; these funds are used to start new churches and RUF ministries throughout the region. And to identify and train leaders.
Though not a formal part of the PCA’s structure, these networks are thoroughly “presbyterian,” meaning they are connectional associations of churches and leaders who band together for collaborative ministry.
Before any new work begins, the network consults with the presbytery’s MNA committee, which is charged with church planting within the presbytery, and the sessions of churches in the target area. The presbytery then approves the site.
The network now consists of 75 member churches in Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, and Oklahoma and has exceeded its original goal of planting 50 churches and 10 RUF ministries. Today, there are 14 active plants.
More Networks Take Root in the South
In the 23 years since the inception of the Southwest Network, others have sprung up throughout the PCA. While these networks have a number of things in common, no two are exactly alike. Local circumstances, along with leaders’ vision, give each a unique philosophy and character.
The Metro Atlanta Collective, for example, does not directly fund church plants. The group, which serves the Metro Atlanta, Georgia Foothills, and Northwest Georgia presbyteries, aims to foster a church-planting “ecosystem.” Therefore, it sees itself as a “greenhouse” — coaching, training, and praying for church planters, while also fostering a church-planting ethos throughout the region.
The network’s main event is its 2nd Tuesday gathering, convened on the second Tuesday of every month, except in July and December. Church planters, church-planting residents/apprentices, pastors, denominational leaders, and others gather to pray, brainstorm, coach, train, and encourage one another. Many 2nd Tuesday attendees are outside the PCA, but they provide services for church plants.
The Mid-South Church Planting Network had its genesis in 2010 with a group of pastors in Covenant Presbytery. Three other presbyteries — Mississippi Valley, Grace, and Southern Louisiana — soon joined Covenant to form Mid-South as a 501(c)3 corporation.
The ministry is managed by a full-time coordinator and supervised by an executive committee. Funding comes from the 30+ member churches who donate according to the size of their churches and budgets. Additional money is raised by the coordinator. Funds go toward recruiting, training, and supporting church planters. The network has also established mentored cohorts to better equip local candidates and is writing a manual for how to recruit and prepare them.
The network has particularized three churches and has seven plants underway.
The Florida Church Planting Network (FCPN), started in 2012, is a collaboration of four presbyteries: North Florida, Central Florida, Southwest Florida, and Suncoast. The 44 member churches contribute roughly $400,000 per year. Ten to 15% of the budget covers three part-time staff; the rest goes to planters, planting apprentices, and to support church planter’s wives through Parakaleo, a ministry that equips women in church planting and ministry.
FCPN typically seeks churches that are willing to invest a substantial amount of money — and people — to plant daughter congregations. Where possible, it prefers to plant through teams rather than “solo” planters. The network’s executive director recruits planters and then, normally, passes candidates on to one of the presbyteries or planting churches to confirm that he’s a good fit.
The Network typically finances one-third of the cost for a church-planting apprenticeship ($40,000 over two years) and $120,000 during the first three years of a church plant. It expects the planter to use part of his budget to secure a coach and to get his wife involved with Parakaleo. The FCPN also connects each planter with a supervisor, coach, and mentor.
The Tennessee Valley Presbytery Church Planting Movement (TVP) was founded in 2016 when the presbytery called a “pastor for church planting and renewal” to invigorate its church-planting ministry. In the 20 years prior, the presbytery experienced a net growth of just one church. The new church planting and renewal pastor was charged not only with planting new churches, but reviving stale congregations. He planted the seeds for several churches; his successor brought them to fruition.
The TVP Church Planting Movement operates under the oversight of the presbytery’s MNA Committee but is budgeted separately. Unlike other networks, the majority of TVP’s funds come from individual donors. A director of operations is responsible for fund raising.
In its early days, TVP targeted growing areas within the presbytery. More recently it has focused on poorer communities, rural towns, and places where there is racial and socioeconomic diversity.
A “process guide,” created by the movement, explains how, step-by-step, planters and sessions can move a church from concept to particularization.
TVP commits $25,000 per year for three years to each plant. It also offers training for fund-raising, budgeting, and fostering mutual support among planters, and provides a temporary session for each plant.
Stepping Into New Territory
These networks have emerged in areas where the PCA enjoys a strong presence. Other networks have developed in places where the denominations isn’t nearly so prominent.
The Great Plains Church Planting Network (GPCPN) is one example. While Great Plains has prioritized major metropolitan areas — the Twin Cities, Kansas City, Omaha, Des Moines, and Wichita — it’s open to planting “wherever the Lord provides an opportunity.” For example, the network is currently supporting plants in Omaha, Nebraska; Fargo, North Dakota; and Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
GPCPN provides $50,000 grants to MNA-assessed and approved planters, and $5,000 per year grants to church-planting apprentices. It also funds MNA assessment.
On Wisconsin (OWN) is the “boots-on-the-ground” arm of the Wisconsin Presbytery’s MNA committee. Churches within the presbytery are encouraged to give to OWN rather than to individual plants, the thinking being that because OWN does a detailed analysis of target areas and thoroughly assesses potential candidates, that those “closest to the action” are in the best position to allocate financial resources.
Networks are effective because they’re flexible. They change and adapt to circumstances: local, cultural, social, and demographic. As a result, they help presbyteries fulfill one of their key roles: “to devise measures for the enlargement of the Church within its bounds.”
On Wisconsin “homegrows” its planters, identifying leaders and providing them with financial assistance to earn an M.Div. through they hybrid seminar program offered by Covenant Seminary, Reformed Theological Seminary, and LAMP Seminary. In addition, students complete internships in Wisconsin churches and meet in mentored cohorts for specialized training.
The Bluegrass Network was formed in 2015 when Tates Creek Presbyterian decided that church planting should become a priority, an integral part of the church’s culture. Other area churches have since joined.
Like OWN, the Bluegrass Network “homegrows” church planters. It employs distance learning, internships, and mentored cohorts to train pastors and church planters. But the network is unique in that it has a very specific target within the Ohio Valley Presbytery: college towns in Eastern Kentucky. And that’s because so many of the planters-in-training are already involved in campus ministry.
Reach South Texas (RST) was created in spring 2018 when several pastors in Austin and San Antonio, seeing the dramatic growth in their region, began to dream about reaching the cities of the Rio Grande Valley and the Austin-San Antonio corridor.
RST held its inaugural meeting in September 2019 and set out to plant churches that would seek the welfare of their surrounding communities, engaging them in every area of life: the arts, academia, armed forces, health care, business, and politics — for the sake of the gospel.
RST is governed by a board that establishes target areas for new plants; plans call for the network to provide $100,000 for each plant, spread over three years. It will also provide coaching and hold semiannual meetings with planters to provide insights and advice.
The network currently plans to identify church planters in collaboration with the MNA Assessment Center but also plans to develop a local “planter pipeline,” made up of assistant pastors, RUF pastors, and other leaders now in South Texas.
Not all Networks Are Geographic
Networks continue to spring up around the PCA. The ones profiled here have all started in the past decade and are defined by geography. Others are affinity based: African American Ministries, Haitian American Ministries, Hispanic Ministries, the Korean American Leadership Initiative, Korean Ministries, Native American and First Nations Ministries, Network of Portuguese Speaking Churches, and the New City Network. Together, they demonstrate how networks have become a major part of our denomination’s strategy for growth and evangelism.
Networks are effective because they’re flexible. They change and adapt to circumstances: local, cultural, social, and demographic. As a result, they help presbyteries fulfill one of their key roles: “to devise measures for the enlargement of the Church within its bounds” (BCO 13-9).
To borrow an analogy developed by Colin Marshall and Tony Payne, authors of “The Trellis and the Vine,” they are a sort of “trellis” to accommodate the “vine” of church planting in their region. They’re able to provide the nurture a new church needs, preparing it to be fully and permanently rooted in its presbytery, every PCA church’s permanent home.
As such, networks are provisional. They can — and given enough time likely will — decay and die. But during their lifetime they can help fledgling plants grow into flourishing, disciple-making churches that reach new communities with the gospel.