In the beginning of 2014, St. Stephen Church of New Holland, PA had 35 people in each of two sparsely attended worship services, was looking desperately for a new pastor, but couldn’t afford to pay a full-time pastor. Now, in 2016, this thriving congregation has more than 200 attending each Lord’s Day with new people visiting every week. The formerly United Church of Christ (UCC) church is now a Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) congregation, having made the dramatic transition in less than two years. How can you explain such a significant change in such a short period of time? According to Dr. Tim Witmer, professor of practical theology at Westminster, who acts as St. Stephen’s part-time pastor, “there was a hunger for the Word, and the Spirit has chosen to bless the regular, expository preaching of the Scriptures to transform this dying church into a thriving congregation.”
The story began in January 2014, when Witmer retired from Crossroads Community Church (PCA) where he had served in Upper Darby, PA for 27 years. Two weeks after retiring, Witmer and his wife ran into his wife’s cousin at the local grocery store. Knowing of his retirement, she mentioned that her church was in dire need of a pastor. Would Witmer be able to help out?
After hearing him preach, the church consistory offered to hire Witmer as part-time pastor. They told him that the part-time position would include “all the preaching, teaching, visiting, counseling, marrying and burying.” Witmer noted that this wasn’t part-time! They agreed, after which Witmer suggested that they needed to consider principles before particulars and encouraged them to consider leaving the UCC. The stage was now set for the first major step. In May of 2014, the church voted 54-2 to leave the UCC.
Witmer then encouraged them to consider affiliating with a biblically based denomination and suggested the PCA. Among his encouragements to move to the PCA was the reminder that St. Stephen Reformed, when it was founded in 1732, had originally been part of the German Reformed tradition, which was steeped in the Heidelberg Catechism. Over the years, through various denominational mergers, the church had gradually moved from this solid foundation to the more liberal theological tradition represented by the UCC. Witmer suggested that a move to the PCA would return them to their biblical and theological roots. But it would not be easy.
During the next few months, Witmer held several public forums and personal conversations with the church consistory and congregants, walking them through the particulars of the reformed tradition and the differences between the tenets of the UCC and the PCA. There were discussions about women’s ordination, the biblical view of human sexuality, church government, and many other issues.
There were some in the church who originally said that these issues would be deal-breakers. Some threatened to leave if the church hired Witmer and voted to move to the PCA. Through a thorough examination of Scripture, however, opinions gradually changed. By October 2014, the consistory voted 9-1 to move to the PCA, and within another month the congregation voted with 80 percent approving the transition. Over the next year, Witmer worked hard to train elders for Presbytery examination, which was a requirement for joining the PCA. In December 2015, the church was officially welcomed as a congregation of the PCA by the Susquehanna Valley Presbytery.
But the story doesn’t end there! Since moving from the UCC to the PCA, this congregation has flourished, adding 122 new members just in the last year. While the congregation lost some members over the denominational transition, some of those people have since returned, and, even more astonishing, many people who had left the church before Witmer arrived have now returned. As one long-time congregant expressed to Witmer, “More people have come here because of you than left here because of you!”
One other aspect of the church’s transformation is that families with children have begun to fill the pews. Back in 2014, the majority of the congregation was elderly, and there were very few families with children. There was, after all, no children’s ministry. Early in 2015, the church established a lively children’s ministry that has attracted younger families and served to re-energize the church community.
“I sit there every Sunday, and continue to be amazed at everything that goes on around me,” said Witmer. “My wife, Barb, has been remarkable along the way. At first, it seemed like such a stormy situation, but Barb said, ‘If God keeps opening the doors, let’s keep walking through!’”
Regarding the rapidity and relative smoothness of the transition, he said, “It’s unbelievable to think about. The Lord has done one remarkable thing after another. Early on it seemed like a house of cards with the potential for collapse at every step, but the Lord kept it all moving forward.”
While the church is thriving and building community inside and outside its walls, there is still much work to be done. They are currently in the process of putting together a long-range planning committee that will be asking the question: what do we want the church to look like on its 300th anniversary? That won’t be until 2032, but no one can accuse this church of not planning ahead! As part of these long-term goals, the church plans to establish a missions program and a small group ministry, while developing a new women’s ministry that has recently begun—all of this while continuing to build their music, youth, and children’s ministries. Witmer is also hoping that St. Stephen Church will serve as a template for other UCC churches with a German Reformed heritage who are willing to consider such a transition and revitalization.
Long-term goals are important, but equally important is serving your current congregation, knowing your strengths and doing them well. “What we offer to our community is Bible preaching and traditional worship,” said Witmer. “This is our niche, and we’re sticking to it!”
St. Stephen Reformed Church definitely has a niche, but more importantly, the story of this unique congregation is the story of the transformational power of the Word of God—the Word that is “sharper than any two-edged sword” (Heb. 4:12 ESV). That power, and that power only, brings true transformation.
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