by A.J. Millsaps
My work as an evangelist in East Tennessee started with a question: “Are there any open doors for church planting in the region?”
I had been born and raised in East Tennessee, and I had come to faith in the Baptist church, which dominates the local religious landscape. Yet, in high school and college, I found my theological convictions increasingly challenged by my study of the Scriptures, and eventually, those studies landed me in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. My personal experience left me with an eagerness to share the riches of the Reformed faith with others from my little part of the world.
Then came an opportunity. Upon graduating seminary, the Lord opened the door for a year-long internship at Sandy Springs Presbyterian Church in Maryville, Tennessee, under the oversight of pastor James Ganzevoort. In God’s providence, this church was only about ten miles from my childhood home. It was the sort of opportunity that I was eager to engage. However, an internship is, by definition, limited in scope and length.
So, the question remained: “Are there any open doors for church planting in this part of the presbytery?” This was the question which Ganzevoort and I put to the Presbytery of the Southeast’s regional home missionary, Lacy Andrews, in the fall of 2021. However, as he explained, there were no mission works seeking organizing pastors, no core groups hoping to become a plant of the OPC, and no active leads.
Under these circumstances, the path of least resistance would have been to consider the matter settled and to move on, but a lack of leads is not the same thing as a lack of needs. Regardless of whether or not there were folks out there look- ing for another OP church in East Tennessee, it remained true that confessionally Reformed churches made up a very small drop in a very big bucket.
As I considered the problem, it struck me that one way to overcome the challenges of church planting in East Tennessee would be to call an evangelist to one of the existing congregations, who would work alongside the congregation’s pastor, in order to gather core groups from scratch. Such an individual could simultaneously serve the established church and work to initiate another. In other words, what was needed was a “local home missionary,” as some have described the role since.
This was the idea which I pitched to James Ganzevoort, who had been serving as pastor at Sandy Springs since 2005. The more that we talked about the idea, the more it sounded like something worth exploring. Starting an outreach Bible study was already one of the requirements of my internship; maybe that could be the first step towards the establishment of another Orthodox Presbyterian church?
Even if Ganzevoort and I were on the same page, there were many bridges which had to be crossed if this idea were ever to become reality. The Sandy Springs session would need to approve of it, the congregation would need to desire it and issue a call, and other denominational entities would need to help with the funding.
The people of God heartily embraced the idea. There was an evident hunger to see the gospel go forth in our community, and this was a tangible way to make progress toward that goal. So, in due time, the congregation issued a call for me to serve as their evangelist. However, there was still an unanswered question: how would such a call be funded if Sandy Springs could not do it on its own?
Lacy Andrews had an idea. Of course, we would approach the presbytery and the OPC’s Committee on Home Missions and Church Extension to see if they would be willing to support the work, as is typical in the case of mission works. But, at an early meeting, Andrews put forward a suggestion which we had not previously considered. When trying to solve a regional problem, why not try to fund it regionally?
There are three OPC congregations in the eastern portion of Tennessee: Sandy Springs in Maryville, Cornerstone in Chattanooga, and Faith in Cookeville. Located in a geographic triangle, the three congregations are each between 100–120 miles apart. So, at Lacy Andrews’s prompting, we approached the other two congregations to see if they would be willing to help fund the call, and after prayerful consideration, both congregations graciously agreed to partner with Sandy Springs. Consequently, with the support of Cornerstone and Faith, I was called to serve as an evangelist at Sandy Springs.
A Reality and a Blessing
While I would not be ordained and installed until June 2022, we began some of the work earlier, during the internship. We began considering locations for an outreach Bible study in the fall as we were having conversations about a potential call. In the hopes that this outreach Bible study could pave the way for a church plant, we decided on Athens, Tennessee.
Athens is the county seat of McMinn County, and it is located halfway between Sandy Springs in Maryville and Cornerstone in Chattanooga. We determined that this would be a strategic location for a church plant, made more strategic by the fact that we had two couples worshiping at Sandy Springs who lived closer to Athens than to Maryville. They agreed to help us get the Bible study started, and so by January 2022, we were inviting folks to a weekly Bible study at the local library. On the first Thursday in February, the Athens Reformed Bible Study commenced.
We were prepared to enjoy many weeks of Bible studies attended by only my family and the two families from Sandy Springs who had committed to participate. However, when we arrived at the library for our very first meeting, there were five people already waiting for us at the door. One woman, Dianne, had seen our advertisement on Facebook and invited some friends. As was quickly confirmed, there was, indeed, a need for a greater Reformed witness in McMinn County.
Attendance waxed and waned, but due to outreach efforts and personal invitations, the group grew to the point that we could expect between twenty-five and thirty-five people to be there weekly. Ultimately, as we endeavored to sow and water seeds, God gave the growth through the study of his Word. As a result, after several months, we determined that it was time to take the next step.
On October 16, the Athens Reformed Chapel met for worship for the first time. A group of about thirty, made up of Bible study attendees and members of Sandy Springs, gathered in the local senior center to make use of the ordinary means of grace. The Athens Reformed Chapel now meets weekly on the Lord’s Day.
Now, we wait expectantly for Christ to build his church in East Tennessee. As such, we pray that the Lord will soon establish a full-fledged mission work of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Athens, even as we plan to initiate other outreach Bible studies in places like Knoxville. This is not an area where the Reformed faith has historically flourished, and due to the prevalence of nominal, cultural Christianity, many are not convinced that they need to hear the gospel message at all. Yet, by God’s grace, we press forward in this unusual work in the hopes that God will use our meager contributions to set up new lampstands for his glory.