The other day I saw a prickly pear cactus growing on the roof of a trailer home. That, my friends, is church planting in Arizona. Just when you think the ground is too hard, the sun is too hot, and the drought is too long, God puts a cactus on the roof.
In 2008, you would have thought planting an Orthodox Presbyterian church in Tucson, Arizona, was impossible. There was no core group in Tucson, and in all of Arizona there were only two Orthodox Presbyterian pastors and a few ruling elders. This small group was stretched thin, overseeing four different bodies: Calvin Presbyterian Church in Phoenix and Prescott Presbyterian Church in Prescott, as well as two daughter mission works, Verde Valley Reformed Chapel in Cottonwood and Iglesia Nueva Vida in Phoenix.
When four families from Tucson approached the session of Calvin Presbyterian Church and asked if they would support another work two hours away, the session was rightfully hesitant.
The hesitation was not for a lack of desire. An OP mission work in Tucson was an exciting idea. Churches committed to Reformed theology, worship, and government were not widely available in Arizona. A mission work in Tucson would extend our witness to a huge portion of the state that had many people in need of the gospel. There were only a few congregations of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) to serve the million people who lived in the metropolitan Tucson area.
In addition to the need, the core group was persistent and clearly committed, so the session agreed to try.
Trials came at the beginning, but before long the Bible study stabilized and began to grow. In May 2009, the Presbytery of Southern California sent its regional home missionary, Rev. Dave Crum, to Tucson twice a month to minister to the group. By the grace of God, in less than six months the group grew to twenty-four people. The work needed a space bigger than the homes of the people. On October 25, 2009, Covenant OPC began regular morning worship services in the chapel of a local Seventh-day Adventist church.
The mission work was being blessed in many ways. First, God gave hearts of service to many of the members. This provided for the smooth operation of the work, despite the distance from a local session or church planter. Second, God blessed the church with the regular pulpit supply of two local, retired PCA pastors. Third, he blessed the church with steady numerical growth and giving. During this time, the church continued to be “knit together in love,” and its desire to one day have an OP church in Tucson was strengthened.
What had seemed impossible was beginning to look like a reality. After a year of regular worship services, the session began to consider calling a full-time church planter—and I was interested in being that church planter.
Having grown up in Arizona, I was in love with the people of the Valentine State. I also
knew that Arizona needed more churches that were unashamedly Reformed. I knew this because a decade ago I had never even heard of a Reformed church.
Growing up in Phoenix, I had spent most of my time worshiping in a Chinese Baptist church and in an Anglican-styled worship service at a megachurch. When I left for college, I wandered around, but eventually ended up at a Calvinistic Baptist church in Flagstaff. Through that church and the friends I met there, I came into contact with a theology that would change my life.
I remember one evening in particular, when I came home and found my roommates taking turns asking questions of one another from something printed off the Internet. “What is prayer?” “What is sin?” “What is sanctification?”
I joined in, stumbling my way through answers to basic questions about our faith. After the embarrassing attempts, the questioner would read the answer. I was amazed each time. Never before had I heard such basic Christian questions answered so clearly, succinctly, and biblically. Moreover, I couldn’t believe that such a helpful document existed and that I had never heard of it during all the years of my Christian upbringing.
“What is that?” I asked. “The Westminster Shorter Catechism,” one of my roommates answered.
In addition to such events, God provided good opportunities for theological discussion through the White Horse Inn and the pastor of the church in Flagstaff, who took me and my friends (who included Brian Chang and Paul Johnson, now OP church planters in Cottonwood, Arizona, and Colville, Washington, respectively) under his wing.
God used these kinds of things to change my theology. I heard in Reformed theology the teaching of Scripture faithfully expressed with a depth of strength, beauty, and truth I had hoped existed, but had never experienced. As a result, I found a new energy and strength in my faith.
Around this time God began to open my ears to his call to ministry. It was not long before I enrolled at Westminster Seminary California and moved to Escondido with my wife, Della. Trusting in God, we began a period of testing my call and training for ministry in Christ’s church. Those were wonderful years. Westminster Seminary California gave me the training I never knew I needed.
I also took full advantage of the OPC’s generosity and passion for Christian Education by continuing to test my call and reinforce my training through internships at Escondido OPC in Escondido, California; Bonita OPC in Bonita, California; Grace OPC in Vienna, Virginia; and Calvin Presbyterian Church in Phoenix. Through these internships, my faith in Christ grew, my call to ministry was strengthened, and I fell more deeply in love with the Reformed theology and piety of Presbyterianism, particularly that professed and practiced by the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.
This love for the Reformed Christianity of the OPC, combined with a continuing love for the people of Arizona, gave birth to many prayers that the Lord would send me and my family back to Arizona to serve as an OP church planter.
At the same time, unknown to me, a small group in Tucson began praying that the Lord would raise up a man to plant an OP church there.
Before long, the Lord answered all our prayers. I was ordained and installed to be the organizing pastor of Covenant Orthodox Presbyterian Church. This occurred one day after Brian Chang was ordained and installed to serve the church plant in Cottonwood. With these ordinations, God doubled the number of OP pastors in Arizona.
Covenant OPC is a diverse body of people. Many in the congregation have come from Reformed backgrounds, but some have not. Some grew up in Christian homes, but some did not. The hearts of some visitors are tender and receptive to the gospel. Others are as hard as the caliche of the Sonoran Desert. But the gospel is the power of God to save. Putting a cactus on a roof is nothing to our God, who can take the dry, dusty hearts of dead men and make them alive for him.