Controversy Brews over PCA Church Planting in the West

Central Georgia and Grace Presbyteries Overture the Assembly

Concerned about the direction of denominational home missions, particularly in the Western United States, two Deep South presbyteries have overtured the 26th General Assembly on the matter. The current controversy centers around the proposed extension of the boundaries of Northern California Presbytery and an apparent intention to prevent ministers with a traditional Presbyterian understanding of worship from coming into that court.

The situation began as Central Georgia was in the process several months ago of approving for ordination Mr. Jason Wallace, with the prospect of his being sent as a church planter to Provo, Utah. A resident of Savannah, Mr. Wallace has long had a desire to be a missionary to the Mormons in their home base.

At present, all of the state of Utah is outside the geographic boundaries of any presbytery. Being "open territory", any presbytery or church may plant congregations there.

The one organized church and the two mission works in the Beehive State are now part of Northern California Presbytery, but such was not always the case. TE Phil Stogner was sent by Central Florida Presbytery to Park City, Utah, in 1993 to do church planting. In 1996, he transferred to the jurisdiction of Northern California.

Not only is it lawful for non-contiguous church courts to plant churches in areas outside the bounds of a presbytery-the General Assembly has encouraged such activity. In 1984, the Assembly declared that "our presbyteries be encouraged to limit their boundaries to those geographic areas for which they are able to take meaningful responsibility in evangelism and church development, leaving other areas for the orchestrated action of all presbyteries working together through the General Assembly." The same Assembly stated: "That churches of the PCA give a higher priority to evangelism and church development in the neglected parts of the United States and Canada . . . ."

Wallace had not been approved by the denominational Assessment Center for church planting. But his presbytery was convinced that his gifts were adequate for the task, and voted in January to ordain him.

Central Georgia also arranged for a mentoring program under the direction of veteran church planter TE Phil Stogner. The plan, which was agreed to by all parties, called for Mr. Wallace to observe Mr. Stogner's work in the Salt Lake City suburbs, while concentrating his own energies on Provo, some 45 minutes to the south.

However, that deal, which was struck in late 1997, started to unravel in early 1998. In March 1998, Mr. Stogner corresponded with Mr. Wallace, stating that he it would be "a recipe for disaster" for him to plant a church in Provo; and that he should instead demonstrate a servant's attitude by pastoring or organizing a church in the Southeast before trying to go to Utah.

Two months prior to that, correspondence from TE Lewis Ruff, the MNA's Western Coordinator, was indicating his attitude toward Mr. Wallace and the prospect of his coming to Utah. Ruff wrote: "My concern with Jason is that he has a confrontational evangelistic style that will guarantee a small, struggling church with few Mormon converts or any other converts for that matter. We have had encouraging success in seeing some Mormons come to Christ in the Salt Lake area, but it has not been by reinforcing their natural predilection to replace Mormon law with Reformed law. It has been by introducing them to the truth of radical, undeserved grace. Thus, the name of our newest church in the area, Grace Presbyterian in Layton.

I encouraged Phil to use Jason as a servant at Park City, to give him simple responsibilities in the church and to see if he would be faithful in carrying them out, to demonstrate a true heart of teachability and humility and faithfulness. If he does that, then I think Phil could give him greater responsibilities, such as teaching. Only when Jason shows that he has 'gotten' it, and that he has a well-defined model for church planting (one of the concerns of the assessment is that Jason virtually never talked about church planting, but only spoke of evangelizing Mormons; his model of ministry was very sketchy)."

Mr. Ruff continued: "Our Presbytery [Northern California] will not endorse any candidate who has a problem affirming the legitimacy of other philosophies of ministry and who promises to bring conflict into our unified and growing Presbytery. Jason, as you remember, has been openly critical of non-liturgical styles of worship, such as those employed in most of the churches of our Presbytery. While he would not have to embrace those different styles,he would have [to] grant their legitimacy within our fellowship. I would want to see and hear progress in this area before giving blessing to his involvement in ministry under our Presbytery's banner."

That correspondence, which was filed with Central Georgia's MNA Committee, helped to convince the presbytery to adopt two overtures. The first opposes the proposed doubling of Northern California's boundaries, through the annexation of most of Nevada and all of Utah. The second asks for a full investigation of whether there has been a policy, either implicit or explicit, by MNA staffers to exclude traditional Presbyterians from doing church planting, and calls for the termination of employment of any such staff who either implemented such a policy or had knowledge of such a policy and acquiesced in it by not bringing it to the attention of the church at large. The overture also calls for replacement of MNA personnel who approved of the type of worship manifest at New Song-Salt Lake.

That action took place on April 14. Four weeks later, on May 12, Grace Presbytery unanimously adopted an overture of support for Central Georgia.

Sponsoring the Grace Presbytery overture was the Session of First Presbyterian Church, Gulfport, MS. Its pastor, Rev. M. D. Connor, has long had a concern for church planting efforts in the West. He was ordained in 1981 by the PCA to be an organizing pastor in Arizona.

According to Pastor Connor, key to the overture's passage was the showing of a ten minute video to the court just before lunch. Produced by Presbyterian Media Productions, Inc., What's at Stake in the West is an expose of the type of worship offered at the PCA mission work in downtown Salt Lake City and it suggests potential ramifications for church planting in the West if Northern California's overture to double its territory is approved. Numerous copies of the video have been distributed throughout the denomination, accompanied by a cover letter from the Gulfport minister.

The Central Georgia Overtures

WHEREAS, from its beginning, the Presbyterian Church in America has sought to reach out to the entire nation; and

WHEREAS, the PCA's philosophy in doing so has been to restrict geographical boundaries of presbyteries to a reasonable size and to allow all of the presbyteries and churches to have responsibility for spreading the gospel in the destitute areas of the church; and

WHEREAS, the 1984 General Assembly stated: "That our presbyteries be encouraged to limit their boundaries to those geographic areas for which they are able to take meaningful responsibility in evangelism and church development, leaving other areas for the orchestrated action of all presbyteries working together through the General Assembly"; and

WHEREAS, Central Georgia Presbytery ordained a man in March 1998 to be a church planter in the Provo, Utah, area; and

WHEREAS, Central Georgia, in ordaining this man to undertake this work, was acting in full accord with the encouragement of the General Assembly and the examples of other presbyteries; and

WHEREAS, Northern California Presbytery has overtured the General Assembly to extend its boundaries so that Nevada and all of Utah would be included within its bounds, thus adding close to 200,000 square miles to its territory; and

WHEREAS, if this overture from Northern California were approved, no other presbytery could lawfully plant churches in this vast territory; and

WHEREAS, Northern California is a small presbytery numerically, as is evident from the latest available denominational statistics (1,166 communicant members, thus ranking 43rd out of 49 Anglo presbyteries in

communicant strength; total giving to the presbytery from the churches was $21,247, thus ranking 39th out of 49 Anglo presbyteries); and

WHEREAS, as adopted by the General Assembly, the minimal ideal for a presbytery is to have at least three churches with 125 communicant members, and according to the latest denominational statistics, Northern California has only two such churches; and

WHEREAS, the ideal boundaries for a presbytery, as set forth by the General Assembly, include driving distances of no more than two and a half hours; and

WHEREAS, the driving distance across Nevada and Utah along Interstate 80 is more than 600 miles; and

WHEREAS, the driving distance between the Nevada-California border and San Francisco is another more than 200 miles; and

WHEREAS, if the Northern California overture were adopted, Northern California's boundaries would stretch about 4,000 miles, from the International Dateline in the middle of the Pacific Ocean to near the Rocky Mountains; and

WHEREAS, Utah has more in common with Colorado than with California, as evident culturally and geographically and as reflected in the fact that the old Skyline Synod of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America encompassed Colorado and Utah;

NOW THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, that Central Georgia Presbytery hereby overtures the 26th PCA General Assembly to do the following:

Deny the request from Northern California Presbytery to extend its boundaries so that the denomination may continue to bring its entire resources to bear on the destitute regions of the Nation.

WHEREAS, Central Georgia Presbytery ordained a man in March 1998 to be a church planter in the Provo, Utah, area; and

WHEREAS, it has now come to the attention of Central Georgia Presbytery that some of the PCA Mission Churches in the Utah area are introducing into worship many questionable practices, including what might be called an MTV format of rock music, film clips, and video; and

WHEREAS, affirming the legitimacy of such practices has been made a test for service by some in the western region of our denomination, including those in positions of authority; and

WHEREAS, one of the prime examples of the type of ministry with which our evangelist would have had to work is that of New Song Salt Lake; and

WHEREAS, New Song Salt Lake's approach to ministry can be seen in its internet website which featured pictures of the pastor and pastoral assistant on Beavis and Butthead torsos; and

WHEREAS, New Song Salt Lake has regularly employed alternative rock music as part of "public worship"; and

WHEREAS, among the lyrics which have been offered in "public worship" are the following: "What will people think when they hear that I'm a Jesus freak?/What will people do when they find that that's true?/I don't really care if they label me a Jesus freak/There is no disguising the truth"; and

WHEREAS, at worship services film clips from secular movies, such as Soul Food, have been shown, including extremely offensive profanity; and

WHEREAS, at least two people, including a youth worker from a congregation of the liberal Presbyterian Church (United States of America), have been regularly leading in worship and supplying the pulpit at New Song Salt Lake even though neither of them has regular ministerial credentials which would qualify them for that work; and

WHEREAS, many in the PCA would be offended to know that their benevolence dollars are being used to promote the type of worship as described above;

NOW THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, that Central Georgia Presbytery hereby overtures the 26th PCA General Assembly to do the following:

1. Investigate whether or not such practices have been promoted as a regular part of the worship of PCA Missions in Utah; and

2. Investigate whether or not acceptance of such practices has become, whether implicitly or explicitly, a requirement for service in the western region of our denomination; and

3. Remove from employment any MNA personnel who have in any way encouraged the type of "worship" displayed at New Song Salt Lake, or who have encouraged making affirming the legitimacy of such a test of service, or who, knowing what was going on, acquiesced in it by failing to bring such to the attention of the church-at-large.