The “New” PCA Strategic Plan

For thus says the Lord: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.

— JEREMIAH 29:10–11

Always wanting something new is a sign of a diseased soul.

— J.C. RYLE

D. A. CARSON: WESTERN EVANGELICALISM tends to run through cycles of fads. At the moment, books are pouring off the presses telling us how to plan for success, how “vision” clearly consists in clearly articulated “ministry goals,” how the knowledge of detailed profiles of our communities constitutes the key to successful outreach. I am not for a moment suggesting that there is nothing to be learned from such studies. But after a while one may perhaps be excused for marveling how many churches were planted by Paul and Whitefield and Wesley and Stanway and Judson without enjoying these advantages. Of course, all of us need to understand the people to whom we minister, and all of us can benefit from small doses of such literature. But massive doses sooner or later dilute the gospel. Ever so subtly, we start to think that success more critically depends on thoughtful sociological analysis than on the gospel; Barna becomes more important than the Bible. We depend on plans, programs, vision statements – but somewhere along the way we have succumbed to the temptation to displace the foolishness of the cross with the wisdom of strategic planning. Again, I insist, my position is not a thinly veiled plea for obscurantism, for seat-of-the-pants ministry that plans nothing. Rather, I fear that the cross, without ever being disowned, is constantly in danger of being dismissed from the central place it must enjoy, by relatively peripheral insights that take on far too much weight. Whenever the periphery is in danger of displacing the center, we are not far removed from idolatry.

The “New” Fascination
by Sinclair Ferguson
Courtesy of Ligonier Ministries

The “New” PCA Strategic Plan

Presented at the 2010 General Assembly by Dr. Bryan Chapell

The 2010 version of the PCA Strategic Plan is a twenty-eight page document presenting the Cooperative Ministries and Administrative Committees’ “development of missional purpose,” a plan to reverse “the decreasing rate of the PCA’s numerical growth.” The committees claim “Apathy and immobility characterize the [PCA] because any change is presumed to be the enemy of present comfort,” noting “the perceived enemy is not change but rather the leadership (past or present) that allowed this hopeless situation to develop.” The committees’ answer is to require a “compelling sense of mission” which “creates zeal.” The plan claims that if we cannot “unite in missional purpose…then our future is likely incessant, inward-focused pettiness.” The Strategic Plan is offered as strong medicine for fixing the growth challenges of the PCA.

The Firm Foundation Partnership has at least seven concerns regarding the Strategic Plan and it’s undermining of our denomination. We detail three of our concerns here and list four additional concerns further down the page.

1.

The Cooperative Ministries and Administrative Committees’ desire for growth dominates the Strategic Plan’s opening comments. The committees seem to assume church growth is good, while lack of growth is bad. But growth is not always good. We want our children to grow and it’s tragic if they don’t. But if their doctor announces “they have a growth,” that’s not good. Not all growth is good. Not all church growth is good.

 

So, why this emphasis on growth? Considering our culture, this emphasis may, in part, be a conditioned reflex. Our business and professional organizations often define success in terms of growth and, even though the church is not a business, it seems the committees are using a similar definition. Consequently, the Strategic Plan makes church growth a priority by offering changes they hope will attract congregants. To that end, the committees recommend diminishing the importance of doctrine, and replacing “reverence and awe” worship with “Variety regarding Worship Principles” hoping we will grow large and influential (Video) by attracting unbelievers and evangelicals to PCA churches.

 

FFP believes this kind of church growth has no support in Scripture, and is no proper substitute for church growth resulting from the Holy Spirit’s work through the faithfully preached Word. Only the Holy Spirit “creates zeal” that properly grows the church. Citing the events of Acts 2, Luke writes that, “the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing.” (Acts 2:33). This is the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise that “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8). Growth generated by other means, including the so-called “Missional” approach to ministry, is not proper or desirable.

I Corinthians 1:20,21: Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.

 

Joel Beeke: For those who find the preaching of “repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:21) too simple a remedy to be effective against the ills of the world, Christ insists that, like the mustard seed, such preaching will produce a result far out of proportion to the means employed. It will work in the world, in the church, and in the believer as a potent spiritual force, just as hidden leaven works in meal or flour.

2.

The Strategic Plan makes a false distinction between “formal values” and “animating values.” To understand that false distinction, we ask the question: Are formal values that don’t animate (motivate) us actually values? The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “value” as something having “worth, utility, or importance.” (Note) Merriam-Webster then defines “utility” as “something useful or designed for use.” In other words, real values are useful. Because they are real priorities, they motivate us to act, they are useful. Consequently, if “formal values” do not motivate us, they are not real values at all, and these unused and ineffective “formal values,” according to the committee, need to be replaced.

 

Note: In contrast, Webster offers this postmodern definition: “values – beliefs of a person or social group in which they have an emotional investment (either for or against something); ‘he has very conservatives [sic] values'” This seems the operative definition for the committees–an “emotional investment” is more easily replaced than a careful, thoughtful, rational investment in doctrinal standards. And an “emotional investment” is consistent with New Liberalism.

 

But read carefully and you’ll see the committees define PCA “formal values” that need replacing as “the values that the church has officially agreed will guide its beliefs and practices.” What is our guide to PCA “beliefs and practices?” It is our doctrinal summary of Scripture in the Westminster Standards. The committee is recommending we replace our Presbyterian confessional standards because they don’t animate (motivate) us. The committee wants them replaced with so-called “animating values.”

 

But we cannot accept this false distinction and replacement of our “beliefs and practices” and also remain Presbyterians! For the sake of church growth, the committees have replaced or qualified Reformed doctrine with “animating values” that “get us up and going each morning.” And, according to the committee, any insistence on Presbyterian “formal values,” sound doctrine, is “incessant, inward-focused pettiness.” FFP understands there may be diverse and valid “animating values,” but those animating values may not be allowed to qualify or replace our denomination defining “beliefs and practices,” our formal values, the sound doctrine that protects us from the “theological variance” the committee is seeking to allow.

 

The Strategic Plan further states that “In order for those in the PCA to see beyond self-interests,” being willing to work cooperatively despite differences in our so-called animating values, “we must have a renewed sense of collective mission.” Certainly, that is the case. But it’s those “formal” Biblical values, dismissed by the committees, that should define that “collective mission.” These formal values, found in Scripture and faithfully preached in the power of the Holy Spirit, provide our doctrinal boundaries and generate our enthusiasm for ministry. PCA leadership must recommit themselves, our churches, and our denomination to the Reformed “beliefs and practices” already in place, beliefs and practices articulated in our Presbyterian confessional standards

 

We now understand why the committees needed to minimize or dismiss Presbyterian formal values. Those values clash with the committee’s desire for tolerance of “theological variance.” But our “beliefs and practices” arm us against compromising theological variance. We are not the Broad Evangelical Church in America, (Note) we are the Presbyterian Church in America, and the  committees have invited us into Tim Keller’s doctrine-diminishing Big Tent. At the 2010 General Assembly, the PCA accepted that invitation.

 

Note: Reading the Strategic Plan, you will notice the committees write, “Evangelicalism has become a much broader tent theologically, embracing those who both in doctrine and lifestyle choices differ widely from previous generations. Evangelical leaders and laypersons are paying less and less attention to denominational lines and distinctives, but while trying to survive in an increasingly secular culture that views the church as either irrelevant or polarizing.” This is the direction in which the PCA has moved since the Strategic Plan’s presentation by Bryan Chapell and Tim Keller’s “big tent” presentation ten years ago.

 

Kevin DeYoung: Christianity is so much more than getting your doctrine right, but it is not less.

 

Al Mohler: We must understand that any compassion severed from truth is false compassion and a lie against the truth…We are called to live the truth, to teach the truth, to be the truth, and to love our neighbors on the basis of that truth.

 

Romans 6:17: But God be thanked, that ye were the servants of sin, but ye have obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine which was delivered you.

Upholding Sound Doctrine

by David McWilliams

Doctrine in the Dock

by Sinclair Ferguson

3.

The Cooperative Ministries Committee lists twelve strategic questions and concerns. The last of those concerns is “How to Provide Unity within Variety regarding Worship Principles.” The FFP reminds the CMC and other PCA leaders that it is not their prerogative to encourage “Variety regarding Worship Principles.” The PCA’s formal values regarding worship are clearly and comprehensively defined in Scripture and restated in the Westminster Standards. We believe if PCA leadership consistently stresses our Presbyterian “beliefs and practices” (formal values) and the Holy Spirit applies the Word faithfully preached in corporate worship, our believing congregants will share the Gospel and unbelievers will be saved. God may then choose to grow the Presbyterian Church in America.

Preaching God’s Word

by David McWilliams

Let Us Worship God

by Sinclair Ferguson

2 Timothy 2:15: Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.

 

1 Thessalonians 2:4: …but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts.

 

John Calvin: God not only rejects all invented manners of worship but strongly abominates them. It must be said, in fact, that as soon as men seek to worship God by their own judgment, whatever they produce is foul profanation.

 

John Knox: All worshiping, honoring, or service invented by the brain of man in the religion of God, without His own express commandment, is idolatry.

You’ve read THREE PRIMARY CONCERNS of the Firm Foundation Partnership. Four concerns we don’t address include: 

 

    1. the plan’s limited reference to scripture and the Westminster Standards, 
    2. an ecumenical “Global strategy” that may encourage further doctrinal compromise for the sake of missional cooperation, 
    3. the endorsement of young and inexperienced leadership, and 
    4. a hierarchical polity that consolidates power at the top.

CONCLUSION: Ten years ago the committees wrote that “any change is presumed to be the enemy of present comfort,” noting “the perceived enemy is not change but rather the leadership (past or present) that allowed this hopeless situation to develop.” Ten years after that statement FFP is stating that yes, we need change. The PCA needs to reinstate the doctrinal values of past PCA leadership, men the committees label “the perceived enemy.” That “leadership (past or present)” was not the enemy. They were faithful preachers of Scripture, men committed to the ordinary means of grace.

 

So, what can PCA congregants do? Pray that the PCA returns to the “ordinary means of grace” as God’s motivating (animating) means of growth in PCA churches. And you should ask your pastor about his opinion of the PCA Strategic Plan, as well as requesting answers to other important questions.

 

Geerhardus Vos: Biblical Theology can counteract the anti-doctrinal tendency of the present time. Too much stress proportionately is being laid on the voluntary and emotional sides of religion. Biblical Theology bears witness to the indispensability of the doctrinal groundwork of our religious fabric. It shows what great care God has taken to supply His people with a new world of ideas. 

The Ordinary Means of Growth

By Ligon Duncan:

It is not uncommon today to hear certain buzz-words and catch phrases that are meant to capture and articulate new (and presumably more culturally-attuned) approaches to ministry: “Purpose-driven,” “missional,” “contextualization,” “word and deed,” “ancient-future,” “emerging/emergent,” “peace and justice.” Now, to be sure, there are points, diagnoses, and emphases entailed in each of these terms and concepts that are helpful, true, and timely. Sadly, however, the philosophies of ministry often associated with this glossary are also often self-contrasted with the historic Christian view of how the church lives and ministers. That view is often called “the ordinary means of grace” view of ministry…

Ordinary means of grace-based ministry is ministry that focuses on doing the things God, in the Bible, says are central to the spiritual health and growth of His people, and which aims to see the qualities and priorities of the church reflect biblical norms. Ordinary means ministry is thus radically committed to biblical direction of the priorities of ministry. Ordinary means ministry believes that God has told us the most important things, not only about the truth we are to tell, but about the way we are to live and minister — in any and every context. Hence, God has given us both the message of salvation and the means of gathering and building the church, in His Word. However, important understanding our context is, however important understanding the times may be (and these things are, in fact, very important), however important appreciating the cultural differences in the places and times we serve, the ordinary means approach to ministry is first and foremost concerned with biblical fidelity. Because faithfulness is relevance. The Gospel is the message and the local church is the plan. God has given to his church spiritual weapons for the bringing down of strongholds. These ordinary means of grace are the Word, sacraments, and prayer.

An Alternative Proposal Toward a New PCA Strategic Plan

By Jon Payne:

Friends, the “PCA Strategic Vision” is, in large part, a strategy to reverse the downward trend of the denomination in terms of numerical growth, unity, financial support and cooperation. The framers of the vision, I believe, have the best intentions of making the PCA a stronger, healthier denomination. This effort should be commended. However, after reading the document, one cannot help but wonder if the remedy for the downward trend in the PCA is off target. Perhaps our downward trend and disunity is less due to cultural irrelevancy, missional narrowness, ethnic insensitivity and safe places for women and young people, and more a consequence of our unwillingness to give ourselves wholeheartedly to what God has promised to bless in the lives of His elect.

A Troubling Turn: PCA General Assembly 2016

Terry L. Johnson: 

Covenant Seminary changed the name of its Systematic Theology courses, the core of a seminary’s curriculum, to “Missional Theology.” Missional is a fashionable term of recent coinage. This, of itself, is enough to raise suspicions. Systematic theology is where the entire curriculum is supposed to be integrated: biblical theology, Old Testament, New Testament, church history all lend their insights. I’ll never forget Roger Nicole, at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary, responding to a proposed revision of the curriculum which would reduce the theological core. Nicole, of even temper; Nicole, who never got angry; Nicole, who never raised his voice; Nicole of cheerful disposition; Nicole turned red with anger and declared that the history of theological education showed that the slide towards liberalism always began with a reduction of the theological core in favor of what inevitably we called “practical” courses. Do our seminary administrators, our permanent committee, or our committee of commissioners know this history? The additional tasks assigned to Systematics, implied by the new title “Missional,” inevitably will dilute commitment to core dogmatics.

Covenant Theological Seminary / Course Offerings Table

Source: CBE International

Note: Bryan Chapell, presenter of the Strategic Plan, began teaching at Covenant Seminary in 1985. He served as president from 1994-2012, and was a member of the PCA Strategic Planning Committee.

Though the curriculum concerns cited here are cause for significant concern, for the sake of clarity and precision FFP must qualify this chart with the following analysis:

 

Comparing Covenant Theological Seminary with Westminster Theological Seminary,

some initial comments:

 

  1. Number of courses is important, but so are credit hours for those courses.
  2. “Topical Groupings” do not have universally agreed-upon definitions across seminaries.
  3. Electives matter. WTS has a high percentage of electives that are “theology.” CTS has a high percentage of electives that are “practical theology”. But in actual tracks, electives only matter if they are allowed. And in the pastoral ministry tracks, there’s not much space for them. For the CTS M.Div. degree, you only get 7 elective hours. For the WTS M.Div. Pastoral Ministry degree, you only get 3.
  4. We can identify general trends, such as CTS’ greater emphasis on practical theology style courses. But given the first two points above, the percentages given in the CBE study are probably not helpful.

 

To illustrate, FFP compared the current M.Div. at Covenant with the M.Div. Pastoral Ministry track at WTS. WTS in general has more course hours required in its program (111 vs. 98 with CTS – they have a mistake and put 99, but it’s 98 at least from their breakdown). But beyond that, using the divisions mentioned in the CBE document, here’s what we found:

 

  • WTS has 11 more hours of Biblical Studies than CTS.
  • WTS has 5 more hours of Theology than CTS.
  • WTS has 5 more hours of History than CTS.
  • CTS has 2 more hours Practical Topics than WTS. (If all 7 elective hours for CTS and 3 elective hours for WTS were chosen as practical theology on both sides, CTS would have 6 more hours in PT).


CONCLUSION:
 We would affirm that Covenant Theological Seminary leans heavily toward Practical Theology when it comes to all courses including electives and other degree programs. You can see this from a quick scan of their course catalog. But when restricted to the primary pastor-producing MDiv degree, things are a bit different. Takeaways from that comparison:

 

  1. CTS lumps hermeneutics in with languages. The split is 12 hrs languages, 6 hrs hermeneutics. Using a more comparable division, WTS is 19 hrs languages, 4 hrs hermeneutics. WTS has more hours total regardless. So CTS students are most likely not as skilled with languages, or are less trained in hermeneutics, or, in all likelihood, both.
  2. With that division, WTS would still have 7 more hours of Biblical Studies. Those 7 hours are the biggest difference between the two programs, and arguably the most concerning ones.
  3. The Systematic Theology program differences are important. Not only does WTS have two more hours total, but systematic ethics at CTS is given 3 hours, whereas with WTS its only 2 hours. So formal systematic topics at CTS get short shrift.
  4. One could theoretically add 4 more hours in systematic topics in theology for WTS that CTS doesn’t have, as CTS has no answer for the WTS classes “Theology and Practice of Preaching” or “Theology of Evangelism and Missions.”
  5. CTS is weak on church history, a known issue.

 

As one pastor who regularly sat licensure/ordination exams said, “CTS guys present themselves well, but WTS guys know their stuff.”

I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one may say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas. Beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.

– I Corinthians 1:10-17
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