If there’s one thing that I would add to that, and it isn’t really an add on, it’s how the word, prayer, and sacraments take shape on the ground. That’s where discipleship steps in. I love personal and pulpit evangelism. I’m sharing the gospel with 14 other people outside of Sunday worship! It’s the “word” part of the ordinary means that I most love to invest in. But one passion that really grew in Atlanta is the discipleship part.
The Aquila Report had the opportunity to interview TE Christopher Robins, who is planting a PCA congregation in San Francisco. Chris and his wife Marijane moved there in August. Prior to this move, Chris served as the founding pastor of St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church in Atlanta since 1998.
The Aquila Report (TAR): The world is a big place, so why plant a church in San Francisco, California? What led to your decision?
Christopher Robins (CR): The parts and pieces of a call are something you just can’t take credit for. It has to be, in my ministry experience, the sort of thing that always pictures predestining love. There’s a triangulation that happens between your own heart, the opinions of trusted men of God, and the opportunity to actually get to a place. My wife Marijane and I had visited San Francisco and loved it. The diversity and beauty of the city was enticing and exciting. So there was an inner connection already at work in us. That grew with two external affirmations. First a mentor encouraged us that church planting was something we should do. Again. We had done it Atlanta in 1998. He thought we should have another go. It was a natural fit for our makeup and personalities. Then Mission to North America (MNA), our Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) church planting ministry, asked me about it. They’d been looking for someone for San Francisco, and apparently my name came up. With that internal and external alignment, it seemed like something we should start pressing into. Investigating. So we visited. I talked to donors. We prayed. I talked to mentors like Al Baker. We visited and prayed. Then the third piece came together, in a whirlwind of clarity and opportunity. The presbytery out here issued the call. Good. A large donor came through, someone we barely knew. Wow. A local SF pastor called because his grandma’s house in the city was open and inexpensive. Amazing! It brought us out here faster than we even expected. So all these parts came together, in a way that confirms and connects my faith to God’s sovereignty. The call belongs to Him, not to us.
The need in San Francisco sells itself. It isn’t overblown hype either. We moved here in August. There is a wantonness, an open carnality that confronts you all the time. Morning coffee at the café is the best coffee I’ve ever had. Folks sit outside and smoke marijuana openly as they drink their favorite cup of joe. Parts of town greet you with open nudity. Strange religious groups hawk their worship, Pure Land Buddhists alongside social gospel protestants. But in the middle of all that something wonderful is happening. Church planters are literally flocking to the city. I’ve met over a dozen, coming from the broad range of the evangelical family. And there’s a strange openness among the people living here. Folks I meet are curious about what I do. Very curious. It’s wonderfully easy to start spiritual and gospel conversations. And people know nothing, I mean absolutely nothing, about Biblical Christianity, let alone the Reformed faith. At the same time many many people are coming to the city. There’s a lot of money to be made, and the city itself is both picturesque and culturally exciting. People want to move here and experience it, and a number of them grew up in the church. You might know someone who’s here now. It all adds up to a great need and an amazing opportunity.
TAR: How do you envision working with the PCA churches already laboring in the Bay area?
CR: One thing that’s so different out here is how spread out we are. I didn’t realize how good we had it in Atlanta. I took it for granted. It’s a 45+ minutes to the nearest PCA church here. But the funny thing is how that creates the opposite effect of what you expect. Men are very devoted and eager to help one another. There’s not a lot of money, but several local churches are giving as radically as they can. We began gathering as the closest PCA churches and church planters in the Bay area for prayer and encouragement monthly. It’s strange how the greater the obstacles to fellowship seem to be, the more they help to actually create it.
TAR: These days, there are many different methods to church planting. What will be your approach as you plant Glory San Francisco?
CR: When I planted in Atlanta in 1998 I was faced with this question. There are so many methodologies out there. But I found it difficult to know what to do with it all. I heard things like “preaching will never plant a church.” I knew for a fact I didn’t agree with that. There was a great deal of “common” wisdom in church planting circles. But I always felt like David trying on Saul’s armor. It just didn’t fit. So I ignored it. I committed us to word, prayer, and sacrament. That was our work. Period. God grew St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church out of that in Midtown Atlanta. As I reflect back on it, I’m not sure what happened. But I came across an old copy of the letterhead I was using back then. It was the usual business contact stuff, but below that was I Corinthian 2:2. “I resolved to know nothing when I was among you, save Christ and Him crucified.” That was it. In one way it is terribly simple and direct. But like all wise simplicity it guides us through complexity. That’s what the next 14 chapters of I Corinthians are. Paul began with this simple resolve, and through that worked at unraveling the strategies and needs of that ancient city. And as a bonus, San Francisco is a modern version of Corinth. This “strategy” is called “the ordinary means of grace.” It’s a return to the church planting modes and models of the first great church planter, the apostle Paul. It’s freeing as well. I’m called to plant the gospel. What grows from that – from word, prayer and sacrament seeded in the streets, neighborhoods, and barrios of the city – is our Savior’s bride herself. That’s God’s business. My work is so much simpler. And in the Spirit’s hands, the ordinary means of grace produce extraordinary results.
What this means practically is that’s what we started doing. It’s only 14 of us right now. We just began in January. It’s the worship of God in our living room. I tell our folks, we aren’t playing church or practicing church. We are the church. Size does not determine that. It’s both precious and powerful. Sometimes it’s a bit strange and surprising. In some ways it’s an act of faith itself, that these means and this gospel are the very things our God has always used to build His church. It was like this from the start, when Peter’s preaching resulted in that cryptic and compelling description of the early church in Acts 2:42: “They devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” Doesn’t that just sound beautiful and refreshing?
If there’s one thing that I would add to that, and it isn’t really an add on, it’s how the word, prayer, and sacraments take shape on the ground. That’s where discipleship steps in. I love personal and pulpit evangelism. I’m sharing the gospel with 14 other people outside of Sunday worship! It’s the “word” part of the ordinary means that I most love to invest in. But one passion that really grew in Atlanta is the discipleship part. The way that my friend Randy Pope describes it is “life on life” discipleship. I love that expression. This is where the “word and prayer” parts really hit the pavement. Discipleship is where you see growth in holiness, understanding the faith, reproduction, and church leadership. It’s just indispensible. It’s how the ordinary means of grace are breathed and walked in our lives, and how our lives are walked alongside and with others. Sunday worship is the starting point, where the ordinary means take their orderly shape. It’s the scheduled and foundational piece of what it is to be a church. Monday through Saturday are the connecting points, where the ordinary means take shape in the messy parts of family, work, and relationships. It’s the unscheduled and living pieces of what it is to be a church.
TAR: Do you have a target group? Who do you hope to reach?
CR: I wrestle a lot with that sort of question. In one sense it just works out that you reach folks like yourself. It really doesn’t matter if you have a target or not, you’re going to hit it. But in another sense it seems irrelevant to me. If you’re asking me to think about how to preach the gospel in a context like San Francisco, and how to speak in a language that these people can understand, well I suppose that creates a sort of target. But that’s just love in action. If I want to reach a child, I speak like a child. If I want to reach a frat boy at Georgia Tech, I speak like a college student (which at Tech is it’s own peculiar language!) If I want to reach the retired artist down the street in SF, I speak like an artist. So that’s a sort of “targeting” I suppose. Paul modeled that for us and taught it to us. But there’s a danger here. In reaching into the diversity of the city, and loving the enormous range of cultures and peoples, there must be no favorites. The gospel is for every creature. A “target” is not the question I’m trying to answer in that sense. That’s why it seems irrelevant, and perhaps a little irreverent. My prayer is this. That somehow, in His love and for His own name, that the Lord will call many different folks to eternal life.
This targeting issue is everywhere. I’ve been to several local “network” meetings of church planters and established churches in the city. There are plenty of opportunities for pastors to get to know each other and meet. One thing I’ve heard a number of times in prayer is “God we know how much you love this city.” That always puzzles me. I can’t say amen. Does God love this city? Isn’t that His secret will, those He loves? Our God is showing mercy and kindness to this city, and to this generation. My hope and prayer is that His kindness will lead San Francisco to repentance. It’s just as possible that God will reject this city, and that we’re here to preach and bear witness against it. I don’t know the secret will of God. But I do know I get to haggle with Him like Abraham did for Sodom. I do know that I must preach like Jonah, to a modern Nineveh where folks don’t know right from wrong. I do know that the grace that comes by faith is the “visible word” to San Francisco in the sacraments. What are these things I “know”? The ordinary means of grace! Word, prayer, and sacrament. There’s a report I’ve heard for the past several years, and just heard this week from a local pastor. There’s no report of there ever being a revival in this city. Never. Wouldn’t it be amazing if that happened? I suppose in the end I do have a target group. It’s God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit; that His glory will be the glory of San Francisco.
But if we want to talk about “target” practice, we can still do it. The reality that hits you so quickly here, right between the eyes, is how different this is from the South. No big insight there! But this isn’t a cultural observation I’m thinking of. That’s a given. It’s the spiritual and religious difference. San Francisco is more like Singapore. It’s a mission field. Many of our urban centers in North America are rapidly becoming like that. It’s a post-Christian world, shaped both by immigration and intense intellectual secularism. That makes “targeting” an issue in this way: you need to learn how to speak the gospel truth to these many different folks. In Delhi you can build a church out of people from America and other countries. People do. You can also build that way here in San Francisco. Nothing wrong with that. The apostle Paul first recruited the God fearers of a city, going to the synagogue. Then after that he went out into the public forums. So the folks I hope to reach are both those who know Christ and want to worship Him, and those who Christ will choose to reveal Himself to.
TAR: Are there particular churches supporting the work?
CR: Yes! A number of churches are making their decisions right now. So pray! Because it’s so expensive out here the budget needed to get started is huge. I put together a budget that’s less than most, but my big concern is how rent in the city is increasing dramatically. Even since we moved here. Space for worship is the big ticket item. Other denominations are pouring enormous resources into San Francisco right now. I don’t think that’s where our confidence should come from. But still, I want to grow the number of sister churches who will share in our work and our blessing. I’m hoping to make some good contacts at General Assembly this year. Pray for that! Right now we’re receiving support from the church I planted in Atlanta, St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church; Oak Mountain Presbyterian Church; Altadena Valley Presbyterian Church; Calvary Presbyterian Church in Willow Grove, PA; Catalina Foothills Church in Tucson; Christ Presbyterian Church in New Haven as a part of the Anabaino Network; Covenant Presbyterian Church in Nashville; Grace Presbyterian Church of Silicon Valley; Canyon Creek Presbyterian Church; Northern California Presbytery; and Pacific Crossroads Church.
TAR: Is there already a core group?
CR: Yes! In an amazing work of our Lord, folks have networked and heard about us. In a short span over a dozen folks have gathered. They’re very committed. Alongside that, I’m sharing the gospel with that many people right now in personal evangelism. Incredible and encouraging. If you know folks in San Francisco please tell them about us, or tell me about them. You can contact me at [email protected].
TAR: What is the general schedule? When will the work officially begin?
Because of my convictions about the ordinary means of grace, we’ve already started. We moved out here in August because of the housing opportunity. For the first five months I kept raising funds. That’s still a focus, but now I’m also doing worship, personal evangelism, and discipleship. I hope that we’ll have the fund raising all done by the Fall of 2014. Then by next January of 2015 I hope that our momentum and financial strength will put us in a facility.