From its beginning, Mission to North America (MNA) has advanced the Gospel in the United States and Canada through coordinating church planting and missional partnerships in the PCA. In December 2017, MNA formally added church renewal as a third “leg to the stool,” approving an amended mission statement reflecting the new direction.

But why now? 

As MNA Coordinator Paul Hahn sees it, for years the PCA has been hooked on the adrenaline rush of growth — getting bigger and reaching further. Back in the 1980s, people would talk about how the PCA was the fastest-growing denomination in the U.S. These days, while many PCA churches are still healthy and growing, the stats within many congregations reveal a pattern of gradual decay — the train is slowing down.

“So many of our churches are in a place where they’re not seeing growth in membership, worship attendance, missions engagement, number of baptisms, and conversions,” Hahn said. “So what do we do with that?”

Addressing a Hidden Epidemic

Former MNA Coordinator Terry Gyger says that in the early days, the agency focused squarely on church planting. “Back when I took responsibility [of the organization] in ’84, MNA was caught up in church planting. We were really pioneers then.”

Admitting that you need and want renewal is one thing. It’s quite another to understand and embrace the significant change that is necessary to bring it.

After years of service with MNA, then founding and leading both Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan and Redeemer City to City, Gyger began researching church health and renewal while serving as interim pastor for a struggling congregation. To his horror, he found that the vast majority of evangelical churches in America, “at least 70 to 80 percent,” are either static or in decline. Though a complete study has not yet been done, Gyger reckons that the numbers for the PCA are likely at least 60 to 70 percent.

“It’s not just a little problem,” Gyger said. “It’s epidemic. It is the problem. And what makes this so discouraging and overwhelming is that virtually no one is doing anything about it.”

That’s where MNA’s new church renewal emphasis comes in.

“If you have been given a stretch of ground to make lush and beautiful … you’ve got to plant in new areas,” Hahn said. “But you also have to take good care of the grass that already exists. If we are to become vital in a fresh way, we have to pursue both church planting and church renewal.”

This past March, MNA held the first meeting of its subcommittee on church renewal, exploring how to move forward and serve.

“We want to change the perception of renewal,” said Hahn. “What happens now is that if a pastor or a session comes to a presbytery gathering and says, ‘Our church needs renewal,’ they immediately feel like they have failed. There’s a huge stigma for pastors.”

Instead, Hahn hopes to reinforce the idea that renewal is a way of life for the Christian and for the church. There is, after all, a history of renewal woven throughout the biblical narrative — the judges, kings, and prophets, and Paul’s letters to the churches at Corinth and Antioch. Throughout history and now, God’s people exist in a cycle of brokenness and rebuilding, sin and repentance, death and resurrection, and this pattern ultimately points to the Cross. 

“The whole [point] of Easter is that Christ is risen from the dead to create a new world by His resurrection,” Hahn said. “That means not only the hope of conversion for individuals, but ongoing renewal in the Gospel. Those motifs [of death and resurrection] are not just the grounds of salvation, they’re the patterns of our lives. … We should be constantly humbling ourselves and going before the Lord and asking: ‘What are the new things you want us to be? What are new ways we need to embody [your grace and love]?’”

Hahn says that buy-in is essential. If the PCA wants to promote church renewal, key churches and key leaders must stand up at presbytery meetings and admit with humility where they too need renewal, both as church bodies and as
individual Christians. 

Embracing Renewal and the Change That Comes with It

But admitting that you need and want renewal is one thing. It’s quite another to understand and embrace the significant change that is necessary to bring it. 

“[Churches have to ask,] ‘Are we willing to seek help that will transform [us]?’ while holding on to the historic means of grace, the Word, sacraments, and prayer,” said Hahn. We cannot ever let go of those things, he notes, because Jesus has taught that this is how the church grows. But Hahn’s question is, “How do we embody them in fresh ways that reach the community around us?”

Church renewal is complex. There’s no magic bullet or quick fix, and MNA is still in the early stages of its new initiative. Though no plans have been formalized, Hahn anticipates that MNA’s renewal strategy will involve identifying, training, and mentoring key leaders, working through pre-existing church renewal ministries, and perhaps even creating new, yet-to-be-determined renewal structures. 

MNA hopes to put all those resources together and make them known and available to churches throughout the PCA. Ideally, by building on the foundational philosophy of renewal as a way of life, MNA will be able to offer struggling churches and presbyteries a palette of options that will eventually produce trained pastors steeped in a praxis of renewal and ministries with the tools to help.