A New Way To Do Missions And A New Way To Worship

by Nori Nicholas

Shortly after completion of the gymnasium/worship center in 1983 David was commissioned by the world mission board of the PCA to do an evaluation of their mission teams in three different countries.  David was deeply affected by what he witnessed on those trips and that would completely change the way he would view mission work for the rest of his life.

The Move To Church Planting

David found American missionaries floundering and failing to learn the language and culture of their mission field.  He saw millions of dollars being spent just to get Americans trained to the point where they could function in a foreign environment.  He saw very little ministry taking place, and he found most missionaries living in isolation from the local people, usually they were busy trying to recreate their American way of life in a foreign land.

When David returned from these trips he shared his misgivings about the state of missionary activity with Ernie Tomforde who was the new chairman of the mission committee.  Together they decided that no new missionaries were to be added to the list of those receiving support and that a new way should be found to do missions.  Several key non-negotiable factors were decided during this time of study and reflection, and they became the new foundation and framework for missions at Spanish River. 

Newspaper article detailing the church's mission shift to church planting.

Newspaper article detailing the church's mission shift to church planting.

Firstly, as they studied the scriptures it became clear that the New Testament format for doing ministry was through the local church.  The book of Acts is filled with the stories of the apostles planting churches all over their world.  Those local churches were responsible for reaching out with the gospel to their own city, both by sharing the truth of the gospel and also by ministering to the needs of local people.

Secondly, they felt that a closer bond needed to exist between Spanish River Church and any missionary that they supported.  This would make for a more caring personal relationship and also greater accountability.  In order for this to happen Spanish River Church would have to take on the major percentage of the support for every missionary/church planter.  The missions landscape would move from being wide and shallow to being narrow but deep.

Thirdly, as they analyzed the reports from many missionaries they deduced that the most efficient and financially responsible way to do missionary work was to use qualified local pastors.  They decided that it was most often counter productive to spend time and money training Americans who would never be able to fit seamlessly into a foreign culture.

As a result of these conclusions the Church Planting ministry of Spanish River Church was born.  The West Boca Presbyterian Church, since renamed Hammock Street Church, had been started several years before but now it became an intentional focus of the mission committee to find suitable pastors who were equipped with gifts, talents and passion for church planting.  The plan was to come alongside of these pastors with financial and prayer support, mentoring, training and encouragement.  This mode of doing missions has since become a hallmark of Spanish River Church and continues to be the practice to this day.

The first “daughter church” to be planted after this shift in focus, was the Naperville Presbyterian Church in the Suburbs of Chicago.  This would be the first of an exponentially growing family of daughter churches that stretch around the country and the world.

The first partnership that was formed outside of the United States was with the Mexican Presbyterian Church.  Ernie Tomforde heard of Samuel May, a Mayan pastor in Cancun, Mexico.  Samuel had a passion for the gospel and a desire to plant a church in Cancun.  Spanish River Church came to his aid. That first venture in church planting using native pastors resulted in the planting of dozens of churches across the Yucatan peninsular.

Every year we host the Spanish River Church Planting Retreat for current and past church planters and their wives.

Every year we host the Spanish River Church Planting Retreat for current and past church planters and their wives.

The Move To Contemporary Worship

At the same time as these changes were occurring in the area of missions, there were other changes taking place in our own style of worship.

Up until this time Spanish River had had a fairly traditional style of worship.  David used visual aids to make his sermons memorable – a cows tongue hanging from a post during a sermon on gossip, a bowl of whipped cream over gunk for a sermon on temptation, preaching in a tuxedo to demonstrate that all it took was a towel over his arm and a change of attitude to change a playboy into a servant, and always the occasional basketball that would come hurtling out into the congregation.  Despite these anomalies the worship style was geared around traditional music and liturgy.

Some of the staff had heard about an amazing church in Illinois named Willow Creek.  They had experimented with varying their worship style and creating “Seeker Sensitive” services.  They were about to have their very first conference to share their discoveries.  The staff begged to be allowed to attend.  They all came back so thrilled that David made an appointment with the executive pastor, Don Cousins, at Willow Creek and the very next week we made a trip up to meet with him and to experience the Willow Creek style of worship.

So much of what we saw resonated with our desire to make our services more appealing to the unchurched and the younger generation.  The staff had many meetings to sift through all of these new ideas.  Many of their ideas were adopted and many changes were made to our worship services.  At first a blend of the traditional and the contemporary modes was tried but it did not work for us.  Eventually there was a decision to maintain a traditional service at the traditional hour of 11:00 am on Sunday.  A contemporary service was held at 9:00 am.  Within a few weeks the contemporary service was more than twice the size of the traditional.  Another contemporary service was added on Saturday evening.  The contemporary services continued to grow and the traditional continued to shrink. 

Construction of the chapel.

Construction of the chapel.

The chapel was built at about this time.   The traditional service was moved to the chapel.  This made room for yet another contemporary service in the gym.  David would preach at the Saturday evening service and then at 8:30am and 10:00am contemporary service.  At the end of the 10:00 am service he would dash down to the Chapel.  By this time the traditional service was concluding their worship, and he was just in time to preach at the 11:00am traditional service.

This schedule continued for several years but there was tension because of parking issues.  The overlap of the 10:00am and 11:00am services meant that there was not enough space in the parking lot, and the police objected to cars on the street.  Eventually the decision was made to close down the traditional service and to move forward with just one style of worship. Sadly, several families stopped attending SRC and began attending other churches that had a more traditional style of music.

The Changing Culture

In 1987 the Florida state house of representatives passed some legislature that had major repercussions on the city of Boca Raton.  They decided to inflict huge tax burdens on corporations.  In less than a year IBM and many of the other IT companies in Boca closed their doors and moved away.   It was estimated that Boca Raton lost about 10,000 high paying jobs in less that a year.  No longer was Boca Raton the up and coming new high tech capital of the nation. 

This event had a drastic affect on Spanish River Church.  We were losing families every month.  Boca became a buyers market for homes.  Many folk from the northeast discovered this and soon they were snapping up the bargains.  A significant number of these people were Jewish.  In 1995 the Sun Sentinel ran an article on the changing demographics of Palm Beach and Broward Counties.  They estimated, at that time, that Boca was then 63% Jewish.  For a Presbyterian Church this was a game changer!  And it is still a challenge.


Coming Up

Some Special People And Their Ministries: Part 1