A Missionary to… Philadelphia?

My name is Dave Holmlund, and I have just taken up my labors as the new regional home missionary for the OPC’s Presbytery of Philadelphia. I’m joined in this new adventure by my beloved family—my wife Elizabeth and our four children: Zach, Ezra, Evie, and Ben.

This particular ministry is so new that, as I sit here at my desk writing (last December for all of you readers holding the current issue), I’ve only just taken my computer out of the box a few hours ago, following the move from New Hampshire, and it is still another three weeks before I am scheduled to do anything official in my new position! In other words, I feel slightly presumptuous to write an article at this point if it is supposed to be a report on all the work I have been doing. However, the timing is probably very good if it might offer insight into how you can pray for one of the presbyteries in the OPC where there is much church planting to be done and now a guy in place to help on a full-time basis.

But perhaps we need to stop and explain a couple of things. What does a regional home missionary (RHM) do? I’m going to guess that many New Horizons (OPC's denominational publication) readers do not know the answer to this question.

The Philadelphia area is at the heart of the Presbyterian tradition in America, and historically it has been a place of strong OPC presence through several churches, the denominational offices, and Westminster Theological Seminary.

To put it most simply, an RHM is a minister-at-large for a given presbytery who is available to help with the planting of new congregations. Often this means that he serves as a temporary pastor for a very young mission work until an organizing pastor can be called onto the field. But there are many other kinds of settings where an RHM can be helpful: talking to groups of people who are interested in the OPC, doing the spade work of outreach or evangelism in a community that seems to need the clear gospel witness of an OPC congregation, mentoring church planters who are often thrown into this challenge only months after finishing seminary, and perhaps even serving on the session for young congregations in the presbytery.

Because we believe in connectionalism, which brings churches in a presbytery together to help start new congregations, the ideal is to have OPC ministers and ruling elders from a larger region to assist in all of our OPC church plants. However, OPC ministers and ruling elders are already very busy people, and so it helps a great deal to have a single minister available to focus on the needs of various church-planting endeavors. This is where the RHM comes into the picture. Out of the seventeen presbyteries of the OPC, nine of them have an RHM, and this investment by the presbytery has often proved to be very helpful to make sure that church planting continues with healthy core groups in cities that demonstrate a need for a Reformed and Presbyterian, Bible-believing church.

So, having given this background on what an RHM is supposed to do, that brings up a question for those who are familiar with the OPC: Is there actually a need for an RHM in the Presbytery of Philadelphia? The Philadelphia area is at the heart of the Presbyterian tradition in America, and historically it has been a place of strong OPC presence through several churches, the denominational offices, and Westminster Theological Seminary.

The need for church planting with the help of an RHM even in the Presbytery of Philadelphia is clear in several ways. First, even in regions with relatively many Bible-believing congregations, it is a mark of health and biblical faithfulness to continue to plant churches, since the Great Commission demands it. Secondly, while there are several strong OPC congregations close to Westminster Seminary and the OPC denominational offices, there are certainly cities and whole counties within the boundaries of the presbytery that are in great need of new congregations to give faithful witness for the gospel. Our existing churches are not easily accessible from all parts of the larger metropolitan area of Philadelphia, and if this is true for the city of Philadelphia, it is certainly true for the smaller cities and towns in the presbytery. Therefore, even in the Presbytery of Philadelphia, the work of home missions must continue!

I am quite impressed by the priority which the churches in the Presbytery of Philadelphia have placed upon home missions. Because of that commitment, they have brought me “onto the field” to begin this work in the months and years ahead. While other presbyteries have been able to call an RHM from among the pastors already serving in their region, the Presbytery of Philadelphia was led by its Home Missions Committee to extend a call to me despite my lack of familiarity with Eastern Pennsylvania and Delaware—the geographical boundaries of that presbytery.

When foreign missionaries first arrive on the field, they must learn the language and the culture in order to have a fruitful and lasting ministry with the natives. In my case, there is not much of a language barrier to consider, but I’m still aware of the need to understand the “natives” in Pennsylvania and Delaware before I make too many blunders as a newcomer to the region. In one sense, the natives are those who inhabit the region and the specific communities where the Lord is opening a door for possible OPC home missions works. The demographics of these people change from one setting to another, so I will seek to be an RHM who ministers the gospel with attention to the specific spiritual and cultural needs represented in each community where the Lord opens a door for ministry.

Yet there is an altogether different group of natives to consider—the Christian people who are already part of an OPC congregation in this presbytery. They will need to support the church planting that we desire to do and have already begun to uphold in prayer. I am looking forward to meeting many new friends around the Presbytery of Philadelphia in order to join them in prayer for regional mission work and learn about the opportunities they see in the towns and cities around them. In the particular region where I now live, this group even includes a good number of seminary students interested in OPC ministry. Please pray that God, in his perfect wisdom, would bring me into conversations with OPC sessions and church members to whom I can offer the most needed help for the sake of the Great Commission in our region.

We are still prayerfully considering where the Lord would have me focus my RHM efforts for the sake of future church plants, but we see fields ripe for gospel ministry by a church such as the OPC in the urban environment of Philadelphia, in some of the relatively unchurched suburban areas north and west of the city, in the smaller towns and cities reaching up to the northeast corner of Pennsylvania, in Lancaster County, on the southwestern side of Wilmington, Delaware, and in many areas clear down to the southern beach cities of Delaware. It will take wisdom to know how to balance the needs of daughter congregations from established churches with the church planting needs in areas that are far from OPC congregations.

The Great Commission brings changes and challenges when the raising up of laborers for one field means a transition for the previous field of service as well, but God is good and faithful.

I mentioned at the start of this article that I am not beginning this exciting ministry adventure alone; my family will be a part of this as well. Since they need the community and pastoral care that comes from being in a single local church, they will settle down in a local OPC congregation where they can serve and be served in the larger body of Christ. Please pray that Elizabeth and the kids will find the community they need for church and school, since we are still a relatively young family with children between three and ten years of age. My involvement in home missions in various parts of the presbytery in the years ahead will make it all the more important for them to have continuity in relationships for as long as the Lord gives me the privilege of being an RHM.

Since I have only recently arrived in Pennsylvania, I also feel the need to pray for the people of Pilgrim Presbyterian Church back in Dover, New Hampshire. Please join me in praying for the Lord to be with them during this pastoral transition. We trust that the Lord and Head of the church will in due time supply the man of his choosing to be their undershepherd to lead them, now that the Lord has called me to a new place of ministry.

The Great Commission brings changes and challenges when the raising up of laborers for one field means a transition for the previous field of service as well, but God is good and faithful. We can trust him to supply all that is needed, both in the places where missionaries are sent and in the places doing the sending, as we remain faithful before him. This has been a lesson learned in the OPC many times in the past, and we trust it will again be found to be true through a revamped effort for home missions in the Presbytery of Philadelphia.