Grace Harbor Church: Our Philippian Partner

written by Neal Thornton, Senior Pastor (August 20, 2023)

The book of Philippians is one of the more frequently read books of the New Testament. It’s short, easy to read and packed full of great verses to memorize for the Christian life. Perhaps some of them have been yours, such as: “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain,” (1:21) and “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” (4:13) But as readers soon discover there is more to this little letter than devotional material and memory verses.

Paul’s letter to the Philippians is rooted in the background of missional ministry. In short, it’s a “thank you note” from having received a financial gift for his missionary journeys (cf. “Epaphroditus,” 2:25; and “gift,” 4:18). Paul loved the Philippians, and they loved him. They were his “joy and crown” (4:1) as some have called this letter “the epistle of joy.”


Power in Partnerships

Through missionary efforts Paul had established a relationship with the people of Philippi. He worked to see a church planted among them. Then by God’s good grace, such relationship turned into a missional “partnership,” (1:5) which is the background of the Philippian letter. Though we don’t know the details, we do know it was of great value to the apostle Paul. If there’s one take away from the letter to the Philippians, it would be this: There is power in partnerships. We can do more together than we ever could alone.

Christians know that not all partnerships are the same. All involve prayer at some level (1:3), most involve a form of financial support (4:15), and some even involve people on short term trips or long-term stays (2:19, 28). At whatever level, partnerships are of great gospel value as they can be a rich source of encouragement. To share stories of life and ministry, pray for one another and visit one another (Romans 1:11-12) can be a very healthy way to go about gospel ministry. Churches should strive to cultivate the kind of partnerships we see between Paul and the Philippians.

With that said, I’d like to float a main idea to you about the Philippian church. It is this: They were poised to partner.That is, there was something about the missional health of the Philippian church that made them an ideal partner for the apostle Paul. Therefore, when we seek to partner with churches, we need to look for what I’d like to call “Philippian marks” of partnership. I see at least three: sound theology, missional strategy, and organized ministry. At a minimum, these marks should be present in every church partnership.

I am glad to say that we as Coats Baptist are developing at least three of these types of what we might call, “Philippian partnerships.” One with the Asian church networks in London, England; another with the missionary efforts in Puebla, Mexico; and a third with local church planters in New Bedford, MA. It is in this last partnership with New Bedford that we see the marks of the Philippian partnership most clearly. Follow with me in the space below as I explain.

Our Brothers and Sisters in New Bedford, MA

As a church leader I’m always looking for healthy partners. Over the last decade of my ministry, I have discovered something: they are hard to find! But when you do find one (when the Lord brings you together), lean in and leverage it for all that it’s worth to the advancement of God’s kingdom. I believe the Lord has brought such a partner into our life: Grace Harbor Church in New Bedford, MA, pastored by Morgan Proudfoot. In days past, I’ve been able to find one, perhaps two, but not all three “Philippian marks” in a partner. But they have all three.

I can say personally as well as pastorally that these three marks separate our partnership from any other church planting partner with which I’ve worked or been affiliated. Let me explain to your exhortation and encouragement. Grace Harbor is a Philippian partner.

1. Sound Theology

From beginning to end, the Philippian letter attests to a strong and sound theological foundation in the Philippian church. They are partners “in the gospel.” (Phil. 1:5) We see this theological undergirding perhaps most clearly in chapter 2. One must go to great lengths to find passages with a more clearly defined Christology than verses 6-9. Further, Paul gives a robust, yet testimonial treatment of the gospel in chapter 3. The assumption is that Paul and the Philippians were of a like mind theologically. It is such upstream unity that makes it very natural, dare I say easy, for Paul to consider the Philippians a lead partner, and they to consider him the same.

We must note that the Philippians’ partnership is built upon a sound theology. Genuine like-mindedness begins with theology. It isn’t a particular methodology or strategy that bound Paul to Philippi, but common convictions and beliefs. A theological like-mindedness is the first mark of a healthy church partner.

We at Coats Baptist share a like-mindedness with Morgan Proudfoot and the folks at Grace Harbor Church. They are committed to the authority of Scripture, the sovereignty of God in salvation; and the urgency of the Great Commission through disciple-making and church planting. GHC is quick to make theological convictions a matter of first importance, and from there build out their methodology. Remember, theology drives methodology; not vice versa.

2. Missional Strategy

We are first introduced to the city of Philippi in the book of Acts. Philippi, located in the southern region of modern-day Turkey, was a stop on Paul’s second missionary journey (Acts 16:12). It was an intentional stop along the way, and one, we must note, that involved much persecution and suffering (Acts 16:22-24, 1 Thess. 2:2). However, God was at work. It was there that a slave girl was set free from a spirit of divination (Acts 16:16-18). It was there that a lady named Lydia responded to Paul’s preaching and gave her life to Christ. Having heard Paul and Silas praying and singing hymns from their prison cell, it was there that a Philippian jailor was converted to Christ upon the occasion of a midnight earthquake.

It’s now clear what God was doing. He was embedding a missionary mindset “from the first day” (Phil. 1:5) of the Philippian church. He was preparing them for something great, to use them to touch the world for Christ through the apostle Paul. We should not be surprised, then, that Paul received a financial gift from the Philippians. The gospel has brought them to life, and therefore it was the gospel to which they would give their lives. By virtue of their support for the apostle Paul, the Philippian church was a church planting church.

Planting healthy churches is the central visionary focus of Grace Harbor Church. Their commitment is so strong that they have created a ministry called “Neighborhood Churches” to centralize their efforts. They want to see churches planted among forgotten places such as the south coast of Massachusetts, one of the least reached places with the gospel in all of New England. Our partnership is a church planting partnership, one that could not be more aligned with the missionary task found throughout Scripture.

3. Organized Ministry

Church polity refers to the structure and governance of a church. The New Testament is clear that churches should be congregation ruled, pastor led and deacon served. Christians derive such ecclesiology most clearly from the Gospels; the book of Acts; the pastoral epistles (1-2 Timothy and Titus); and a handful of other epistles, one of which is Philippians.

The office of “deacon” for instance is only mentioned three times in Scripture, and one of those times is Philippians. This occurrence found in the opening verse, “to the overseers and deacons,” affirms both offices as present within the life of Pauline church plants but also testifies to the spiritual responsibility of the office of deacons. Whatever their service was to the church, it was at some level connected with the pastoral ministry. We know from Scripture that the Philippian church was a well-ordered church with a plurality of both “overseers and deacons,” a model that churches today do well to emulate.

Grace Harbor Church is one of those churches. Their polity is a biblical polity, as the health of their ministry attests. From their inception they have been committed to raising up lay leaders to form a plurality of both pastors and deacons. By God’s good grace, they have their ducks in a row when it comes to polity.

The New England Need

What a gem of a partner the Lord has given us in Grace Harbor! A healthy church, wanting and willing to partner with us, to reach one of the most lost places in our county. Just think about that. Pray about that. Before you make a quick assessment, allow the Lord to show you what he has done.

I’m willing to bet most people at Coats Baptist had never heard of New Bedford, MA until a few years ago. I sure had not. But now we have, and now we know their need and we cannot ignore it. Only the Lord can put together two places like Coats and New Bedford, and that is exactly what he has done.

The New England need is greater than most understand. It is like few others throughout our country. The severity of lostness is overwhelming. Missiologists consider the northeast United States to be one of the most spiritually dark regions in our country, only rivaled by Salt Lake City. To serve in New England is to serve among an unreached people. Statistically you are more likely meet a Christian in India (not Indiana) than you are in New England.

Though much work remains, the Lord has brought about a great church planting effort in the Boston area through networks such as the North American Mission Board. The needle has at least been moved among Bostonians. However, in other smaller New England cities, such as New Bedford, a smothering darkness remains. On the south coast of Massachusetts, there reside over 200,000 people from Fall River to the beginning of Cape Cod. Among them, there is one gospel-preaching, disciple-making church. One. Just one. That’s Grace Harbor.

To put that in perspective, our home of Harnett County has half of the population of New England’s south coast yet with dozens of churches. You and I could name at least 6 healthy churches preaching the gospel and making disciples within a 10-mile radius of Coats Baptist Church. The ratio could be as high as 100 times as many churches to people here in our greater area of Harnett County than there on the south coast. That difference is staggering, and the south coast is not the only part of New England with such a dearth of evangelical presence. There is more.

So, is there a need in Harnett County? Absolutely. We would love to see more healthy churches planted in our area. The fact remains that many people are coming to us from the greater Raleigh area and out of state. Homes are being built over night. But our need pales in comparison to the needs of other places, such as New England. May we be a church to see the Great Commission with eyes wide open. May we be a people who long to pursue and leverage Philippian partnerships. And may we be a ministry with passionate focus to raise up and send out leaders to reach some of the most spiritually lost places on the planet. May we take personal responsibility to train ourselves in the competencies of the missionary task to be equipped for life on mission, for places near and far. Places like New England, places like New Bedford.

Please pray to that end.