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LETTER FROM AMERICA: A joyful church union

November 2018 | by Ben Wilkerson

In recent days, the providence of God has brought about an extraordinary union between two churches in Columbia, South Carolina.

The rate of church decline in the United States is staggering. Over the course of the coming year nearly 10,000 churches will close their doors. However, in spite of this, two declining congregations, both desperate for the spread of God’s Word and kingdom, have joined as one: Christ Church of the Carolinas and Covenant Presbyterian Church (PCA).

Just as in the case of a human marriage, the two congregations are joining under a new name: Christ Covenant Church (PCA). Their story is one of the providence of God.

In recent days, the providence of God has brought about an extraordinary union between two churches in Columbia, South Carolina.

The rate of church decline in the United States is staggering. Over the course of the coming year nearly 10,000 churches will close their doors. However, in spite of this, two declining congregations, both desperate for the spread of God’s Word and kingdom, have joined as one: Christ Church of the Carolinas and Covenant Presbyterian Church (PCA).

Just as in the case of a human marriage, the two congregations are joining under a new name: Christ Covenant Church (PCA). Their story is one of the providence of God.

Covenant Presbyterian

In late January 2018, Rev. Jim Wilkerson was working in his study when he received a call from an unknown source. The voice on the other end of the line was Bob Allen, an elder at Covenant Presbyterian. Mr Allen had been a member of Covenant as well as a ruling elder for many years.

During their call, Allen explained to Mr Wilkerson that they had been without a pastor for over two years and the church was in rapid decline. He explained that they had been working with their presbytery for a solution, but nothing concrete was happening. He asked if Jim would be interested in meeting to hear more of the story and think through a possible solution.

Covenant Presbyterian was instituted on 4 March 1951, in a small building three miles from the centre of the city of Columbia, as a part of the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUSA). Later, they built a larger sanctuary on the property, as well as several other buildings to support its ministry.

The church grew tremendously in those early years, with nearly 1,400 members at one time. In 1973 the congregation voted to leave the PCUSA and join the newly constituted Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), a much more conservative and Reformed denomination.

The church also founded a school, Covenant Classical Christian School, which still convenes on the premises to this day. After many fruitful years, the most recent pastor, Rev. Eric Dye, retired and the pastorate was left empty.

Due to this change and other circumstances, a majority of the members left for other churches in the area and those who remained were mostly elderly. Since Mr Dye’s retirement, the congregation was desperate not only for a pastor but also for a young and growing congregation with families. They realised that if they could not find a pastor or another congregation to revitalise them, the church would probably be gone in just a few years.

Christ Church of the Carolinas

Christ Church of the Carolinas was in hardly better straits in the winter of 2017. Started by Rev. Det Bowers in 2000, it had a similar beginning to Covenant, with large numbers gathering to hear the preached Word.

Although the church started in a small building in Irmo, the church leaders decided to move the congregation closer to downtown Columbia and renovated a large warehouse. Situated in the heart of Columbia, the church had hundreds flocking to its pews and many were saved through its ministry. However, in 2011, one of the church leaders left, taking a large portion of the members.

When Mr Bowers decided to retire from the ministry in 2013, the elders sought someone to take his place in the pulpit. Through old connections, Rev. Jim Wilkerson, a church planter and teaching elder in the PCA, was called to the pastorate in Easter 2013.

Pastoring this large church was not easy and over the next five years Jim saw little growth at Christ Church, as members continued to leave. However, faithful in season and out of season, Jim Wilkerson and the elders continued to teach and seek the Lord’s will in the life, worship and ministry of the congregation. Their vision for the surrounding area was also crippled by a large debt that had been placed on the church.

Knowing that future ministry opportunities were hindered by the debt and feeling the call to become a connectional church in a community needing gospel ministry, the elders approached the congregation in January 2018 about selling their property and joining a Presbyterian and Reformed denomination.

This was received warmly by the Christ Church congregation and the members were encouraged to pray toward that end. During an encouraging worship conference at the end of that same month, both guest speakers — Dr Mark Ross of First Presbyterian Church and Rev. Nicholas Batzig of New Covenant Presbyterian Church, Richmond Hill, GA — spoke to those connected with Covenant Presbyterian about Christ Church’s current predicament and alerted them of their desire to join a Presbyterian denomination.

Ideal match

Covenant needed a pastor and a fresh, younger congregation that would bring life and ministry to their ageing congregation; Christ Church needed a bought-and-paid-for building centred in a prime area for ministry. It seemed like a match made in heaven!

Over the course of the next six months, both congregations spent much time praying and talking about the possible merger. As one member recounts, it was exhilarating to see God’s providence unfolding, to see church elders excited about this union, and to even see that excitement spread among the children. One could sense the Holy Spirit working in the midst of the preparations as members from both congregations met to pray and plan.

The date for the vote was set as 24 June. Covenant only needed a majority vote in favour of the motion, while Christ Church needed 88 per cent vote in favour. The odds seemed too great. But as the votes were counted, the motion passed by 94 per cent at Christ Church and 100 per cent at Covenant Presbyterian!

Tears of joy were shed by many. On 19 August Christ Covenant Church was officially commissioned as a congregation in the PCA, and there was much rejoicing by those both near and far as they witnessed the marriage of two congregations.

Ben Wilkerson served with Sheffield Presbyterian Church, UK, and is a Christian writer residing in the USA