Reformed Quarterly Volume 7, Issue 4
Ten years ago a small group in the Pensacola suburb of Cantonment, Florida, decided they wanted a church focused on three things: world missions, local outreach, and fellowship — in that order. A decade later those emphases have not changed, but because of them the congregation of Pinewoods Presbyterian surely has. From a nucleus of only twenty, membership today stands at 275 with over 300 in attendance each Sunday.
Overseeing this burgeoning growth is RTS graduate John Findlay, who has been there from the beginning. Called to help start the fledgling church in 1978, Findlay was impressed at once with the strong faith of the small band of believers. He had been pastor for little more than a year when the congregation built a sanctuary on ten acres of land which they had bought on faith before the Findlays even arrived.
Growth has been so consistent that the church is beginning a third building program to add additional classroom space, a fellowship hall, and a kitchen. And it comes not a moment too soon, since the Sunday School is bursting at the seams. With classes literally meeting in broom closets, the Sunday School has grown from ninety in 1984 to a sizeable 250 this year. Some of this growth could be attributed to the excellent catechism program headed by Sarah Oakes.
People are drawn to the church because of its unity, fellowship, and family atmosphere. Visitors sense a community among these believers. They also recognize that these people mean business and are committed to the Lord in the stewardship of time, talents and finances.
A CREATIVE APPROACH
Located in the prime growth area for Pensacola, Pinewoods has the perfect opportunity for ministry. Like many other areas of Florida, the population surrounding the church is transient; with a naval air station nearby, many residents are military.
Reaching such people can be difficult, but Pinewoods is succeeding by using a broad mixture of creative and innovative approaches, in addition to the usual Evangelism Explosion and Bible study programs. For example, each newcomer to the area receives a personal letter from one of the newer members who is very enthusiastic about sharing the church. The letter, which invites them to Pinewoods, also includes a brochure and a card offering an opportunity to call.
Also unique is Pinewoods’ approach to worship. The church has two services, each appealing to a different type of person. The earlier service, led by associate pastor Bill Bratley (RTS 1977), is more contemporary with the use of Scripture songs and more congregational involvement. It’s an ideal tool for outreach since it appeals more to the non-Christian. The later service is a more traditional service, led by Findlay. Quarterly, the church has a “Celebration” and combines the two congregations for an hour-and-a-half service. The event emphasizes Pinewoods’ unity and seeks to highlight what Christ has done for the members and the congregation as a whole in the last quarter. In the evening following the celebration, shepherding groups meet in homes where they have fellowship, prayer, and devotions.
This ability to maintain unity despite differences in taste and personality is mirrored in Findlay and Bratley, who complement each other perfectly. Says Bratley, “We are total opposites. John was born with a tie on, and you have to fight to get me to wear one on Sunday. But our differences are what make the church work. John offers stability and mature direction for our church, and I provide a lot of enthusiasm.”
Another of Pinewoods’ drawing cards is its music program, led by Bratley. Why? Because folks, according to Bratley, “just plain have a ball” singing in the choir. The key, says Bratley, is to make music fun, to sing music people like. And apparently he does. Under his leadership, the choir program has greatly expanded to include children’s choirs, a junior and senior high choir, three handbell choirs, and a 40-voice adult choir, which three years ago had only ten voices.
MISSIONS: A HIGH PRIORITY
Lest you think that fun and fellowship are Pinewoods’ only concerns, missions — both world and local — are a high priority. The middle-class congregation supports twenty-five missionaries, fourteen missions organizations, and puts a strong emphasis on faith-promise giving. Support for world and local missions accounts for almost twenty-five percent of the church’s total yearly budget.
Local missions are emphasized just as strongly. Everyone must take a spiritual gifts test before joining the church. Through this, new members are encouraged in their strengths and are funneled into certain ministries in the community.
The list from which they can choose is already impressive. Currently, Pinewoods works with the local prison farms, with a community abortion referral center, and with the Ninety and Nine Boys Ranch, a home for problem children. The church is now operating through three black churches to provide clothing, food, and Bibles to the black community. They also have a ministry at the Waterfront Mission, holding worship services and evangelizing one on one. In the past, members have also worked with the Guardian Ad Litem Program, assisting judges in evaluating family situations where there is child abuse and neglect. The volunteers serve as encouragers to the family and guardians of the children’s needs. These ministries are all in addition to the regular nursing home and hospital volunteer work of the church.
Characteristically, however, Pinewoods isn’t satisfied. Because the congregation is seriously attempting to respond to the needs of the community, one of the church goals is to add one new ministry a year.
This willingness to take risks and try new avenues of ministry and outreach is a large part of Pinewoods’ success. They simply don’t know the phrase, “Well, we’ve never done that before.” Consequently, they attempt great things for God, and He blesses them in great ways. Bill Bratley can testify to this powerful faith firsthand.
“My hiring was a gamble,” he remembers. “The same year they called me they started the building fund for the sanctuary. The session was trying to decide whether to build a new building or hire me. Their answer, after much prayer, was that God would have them do both–call a staff person and build a sanctuary. And they did it.”
Such trust in God’s providence has already enabled Pinewoods to be instrumental in starting another church in the Pensacola area. They spearheaded the effort with other PCA churches to start Northeast Presbyterian Church in 1983. Begun with a nucleus of only eight or nine families, the church today has 125 in worship and is going into its second building program.
But Pinewoods is not stopping there. Once membership reaches 350, the congregation will branch out. They have plans for three other churches — one to the north, one to the east, and one to the west of them, all in the northern part of the county. While they plan to work with other churches on two of them, the congregation plans to start the one to the north themselves, with the goal of acquiring property within five years.
Other goals for the future include a Christian school within five years, since there are none in the area. Also exciting is the possibility of an alternative worship service in the middle of the week — a regular worship service for those who cannot come to church on Sunday because of their jobs. This service would allow them to come in their factory clothes either before or after work.
And the ideas will continue to come because Pinewoods is the kind of church that really cares about people, both inside and outside the church. And you can safely bet this congregation will fearlessly try “anything” in God’s will to make the gospel a living, breathing force in their lives.
Planting Churches: A Way of Life for John Findlay
John Findlay (RTS 1978) doesn’t know why God chose him to plant churches here in the southeastern part of the United States. After all, he has been trying to get to the “foreign” mission field ever since he left seminary.
But God had plans for him right here in the United States. What makes Findlay so unique is that he began planting churches even before he graduated from seminary.
The summer after his first year at RTS, John and wife Janice worked with three families to start Faith Presbyterian Church in Robertsdale, Alabama. By the end of the summer they had forty- five people in worship. Today the church has a solid ministry with a Christian school.
The summer after his second year at RTS, he and Janice went to Louisville, Kentucky, to do survey work in church planting. Unexpectedly, Mission to the United States asked John to stay for a year and actually start a church. To ask a seminary student to plant a church without direct supervision is extremely rare, but Larry Mills, then coordinator for Mission to the United States, remembers John had unique gifts.
“John was just what we wanted in a church planter,” says Mills. “He was a self-starter, a man who had a close walk with God, a man who had developed a life of prayer and dependence on God, a man who made a very good impression on people in meeting them, and one who took direction easily.”
Working with only two core families in Louisville, the Findlays saw the church grow to 65 regular attenders in only a year.
When the Findlays returned to Jackson and RTS for their final year of seminary, yet another church planting challenge awaited them. It wasn’t long before they became deeply involved with the new Clinton Presbyterian Church, helping to get it solidly planted.
Findlay’s talent for organization and clear thinking, plus his humility, are some of the strengths which have made him a successful church planter. Pinewoods elder Tom Roberson puts it this way, “If we are interested in another church’s program, John will investigate it very thoroughly. The session then gets an in-depth overview, which makes it a lot easier to make a good decision. Second, he’s not afraid to use other people’s ideas; he adapts them to Pinewoods, and sometimes they work better.”
Friends, members of his congregation, and his wife Janice agree that another reason for John’s success is God’s gift of a pastor’s heart.
” I’ve never seen a pastor that spoils his congregation like John,” observes associate pastor Bill Bratley. “He accompanies widows to their doctor if he thinks they are not getting a clear understanding of their medication, he helps people find jobs, and, no matter how distant the relative, he’ll visit his congregation’s families in the hospital. He and Janice both have true servant attitudes; they really put themselves out. I would not dare try to follow in his footsteps.”
As the church has grown, John has found it hard to relinquish his job of total pastoring. “I like pastoring better than teaching others how to pastor and evangelize,” he admits. “My nature is to pastor every person in the church, and now that we are so big, I can’t do it anymore but must train my elders to help me.”
The same dedication John shows to his congregation, he also heaps upon his family. Several years ago he was convicted that, as a father, he should minister to his family as well as to his church. He wanted to spend more time with his children and participate more in their lives and education, but many times his schedule as a minister conflicted with theirs. Consequently, John and Janice were led to begin teaching their two girls at home. In this way, John can arrange his schedule to be with them, possibly for an hour and a half math lesson at lunch or a family field trip.
A pastor’s heart, dedication, humility, and keen organizational skills –it is certainly evident that God has blessed John Findlay with abundant gifts. How better to use them than by helping create new bodies of believers?