The Word Did the Work
At Reformanda, we are greatly encouraged by sound churches preaching sound doctrine. The local church is after all the "pillar and buttress" of the truth (1 Timothy 3:15). One congregation we are encouraged by is Grace Harbor in Providence, Rhode Island. The church is led by Kevin McKay, who has seen the Lord turn a once-tiny assembly into a center of gospel ministry in spiritually-dry New England. We asked Matt Damico, a gifted writer, to tell the story of God's work in Grace Harbor. Our hope is that reading an account like this inspires, blesses, and encourages Christ's church to attempt great things for God, and expect great things from God.
The Story of Grace Harbor Church in Providence, Rhode Island
In 1998, Andy Haynes moved to Providence, Rhode Island to do college ministry.
The city has a few campuses — Johnson & Wales University being the largest — and the North American Mission Board sent Haynes and his wife, Amy, to bring the gospel to those schools.
Before long, students started turning to Christ, but “church was the missing element,” Haynes remembers. There was no nearby English-speaking Baptist church where Haynes could send his students, so he would drive them out to the suburbs, making it difficult for them to plug in beyond Sunday mornings.
A couple years later, a church planter arrived and connected with Haynes. They worked together to gather a core group, comprised mostly of college students and people from the local rescue mission.
“It was an exciting time,” Haynes recalls.
That planter left after a few years, though, and Haynes, who now works with the New England Baptist Convention, held things together.
Eventually, the work of caring for a small, freshly planted church while doing college ministry grew burdensome, and Haynes prayed for some help.
In the meantime, he labored away.
About 90 minutes north of Providence, Travis Rymer was studying at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and working full-time in retail from 2004 until 2007.
Rymer is from Chattanooga, Tennessee, and the post-Christian world of New England left an impression.
“It became clear to me that virtually all the people I worked with had never known a serious Christian before,” Rymer said. “I knew I wanted to be in New England for the gospel, and I prayed that God would allow me to come back.”
Rymer and his wife, Rebeca, left after graduation. He wasn’t able to line up a ministry role, and accepted an internship at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C.
Even though the Rymers were no longer in New England, “we moved praying and hoping we would be back somehow,” Travis said.
Kevin McKay grew up not far from D.C., in the northern Virginia area. His mom took the kids to a loving church that preached the gospel, but McKay was slow to embrace it. He eventually did profess faith, but admits to living a double life, sincere in his church participation, but “living like all my friends” for the rest of the week.
McKay was devoted to basketball — “that was my idol,” he said — and to other worldly distractions that tend to ensnare young men.
He was snapped out of his nominal malaise when his sister came home from college a changed woman. Her commitment to the Lord and openness about her past brought Kevin conviction over his sin and apathy. He decided it was time to change.
“I remember praying that no one would get close to me and not hear the gospel,” he said.
He didn’t know where exactly that prayer would take him, but “I wanted to be in the northeast.”
Initially, it took him south and into the ministry. He did his undergraduate studies in Tennessee, met his wife, Melissa, and worked at a church in Knoxville before moving to D.C. in 2006 for an internship at Capitol Hill Baptist Church.
Mark Dever is something like an evangelical Baptist version of Kevin Bacon — most people in that world are separated from him by no more than six degrees. The Washington, D.C. pastor is nothing if not a connector of people.
This is something McKay realized shortly after arriving at Capitol Hill Baptist Church, where Dever serves as pastor, for his internship.
At one point, Dever asked McKay what kind of ministry he hoped to do. “I want to plant a church in the northeast; I’m thinking Philadelphia,” McKay told him.
“Why would you go to Philadelphia?” Dever replied. “You should go somewhere like Providence.”
McKay brushed this off as strange, given that Dever didn’t know him at all and McKay had no ties to Providence. Fast forward a few months, and McKay was accompanying Dever on a trip to Gordon-Conwell, a trip that took them through Providence. Dever prodded McKay about the city as his potential destination yet again. So, McKay eventually began praying about the possibility.
In the short term, McKay finished his internship at CHBC and stayed on at the church as a pastoral assistant.
CHBC hosts bi-annual Weekender events, where pastors can come and observe the ministry at the church. Dever would introduce McKay at these events and follow it up with something along the lines of, “Guys, Kevin wants to plant a church in Providence, Rhode Island. If you know of anyone there, please talk to him afterward.”
Eventually, someone did talk to McKay. It was a friend of Andy Haynes.
And so it was Haynes who McKay went to see on an initial visit to Providence. Some combination of answered prayer and pastoral prodding seemed to find confirmation upon McKay’s arrival: “My heart immediately turned toward the city,” he said.
Not long after, McKay and his family moved to Providence in hopes of providing something the city lacked: a healthy English-speaking Baptist church.
There were ten people present for McKay’s first Sunday. A small number, and yet the beginning of McKay’s ministry was full: he was preaching on Sunday mornings, teaching on Sunday evenings, caring for the members of the church, and, after Haynes left Providence, serving as the college minister for a year.
“It was really an answer to prayer when Kevin came,” recalls Haynes. “A huge blessing. Kevin was very faithful; his maturity and willingness made that transition positive.”
Ugly carpet. No signage. A janky website. A downtown hotel with no parking.
That’s not exactly a list you’d find in a chapter on how to plant and grow a church, but this is the situation the church found itself in when McKay arrived.
Providence — along with the rest of New England — is not known to be the most fertile soil in which to plant, as a city that is both heavily Catholic and heavily secular. And the church’s location within Providence wasn’t making things easier.
“There was no reason for this thing to get off the ground,” said McKay. “We didn’t do anything right. Everyone assumed we were a cult,” because of the discreet nature of their location.
McKay’s strategy in it all, though, was simple: preach, pray, love, and stay.
“I put all my confidence in the Word,” he says. “We didn’t do anything right in terms of church planting, but we did concentrate on teaching and studying God’s Word, praying a lot, evangelizing.”
He began by preaching through the Gospel of Mark, then Genesis 1–11, then 1 Corinthians. He did a Sunday evening study — those evening services took place in his living room — on what makes a healthy church, and then a topical series on a philosophy of ministry. The Word did the work.
“By that point, people were begging for church membership, discipline, and everything else that went with it,” he said. So 34 people covenanted together and Grace Harbor was born in the fall of 2009.
Around that time, McKay needed some help. So he called someone he’d overlapped with in Washington, D.C.: Travis Rymer.
““I prayed, applied, and looked for work all over the place,” said Rymer, “but no doors were opening.” So he and Rebeca kept praying that God would put them somewhere like New England, where they could be useful.
When McKay called in November 2009, “it sounded like exactly what we were praying for,” Rymer remembers. The Rymers arrived in June 2010.
“I wouldn’t have been able to do it without him,” McKay said.
Rymer remembers the hotel conference room with the same fondness — if that’s what you call it — as does McKay.
“Everyone was hauling speakers, toys for kids, Bibles, microphones in the car all week long and bringing it in on luggage carts,” he said. “The room muted all the sound. Sometimes the hotel would cancel on us on Thursday afternoon and we’d have to scramble.”
And yet the Word did the work:
“We discipled like crazy and shared the gospel regularly,” Rymer recalls from when he arrived. “Everyone was young, including us. But everyone was hungry for the Word. People kept coming for the Word and the community.”
That downtown Courtyard Marriot served as the church’s meeting place for four-and-a-half years. Eventually, they were freed of its ugly carpet and lack of parking, and they started renting a church building, where Grace Harbor still meets.
What is Grace Harbor like now? A lot like it was in 2009. Sure, the church has a different meeting place, about 150 more members — and around 100 kids — and ten years under its belt. But the Sunday gatherings are still simple, the work of the ministry is slow and steady, and there is more that McKay and Rymer hope to see happen. But the ministry is vibrant and alive.
“If you come to Grace Harbor, you’ll learn the Bible and you’ll see a great community,” McKay says. “Old and young, jocks and artists, charismatic people and socially awkward people, they all love one another.”
“The gospel really is the focus of our church,” says McKay. “The Word is really held up.”
One of the things that has made Grace Harbor unique, especially in its New England setting, is its commitment to a healthy and biblical ecclesiology. The church is elder-led with congregational rule. The elders guide the direction of the church, but the congregation is the final authority.
This may sound like an abstract commitment that affects nothing on the ground, but the polity cultivates the church’s health.
According to McKay, “We have a high regard for the teaching ministry and for elders. The congregation places a certain amount of trust in elders, but a lot of responsibility is put back on the congregation. And with responsibility comes spiritual maturity, it calls people to grow.
“The congregation feels responsible for what’s taught and to care for one another. A high view of membership does cultivate a sense of mutual responsibility for one another.”
“The church really does do the work of ministry,” says Rymer. “It’s not all roses, but every single week we hear of several members sharing the gospel. People are involved in each other’s lives.”
The health of Grace Harbor has led to a multiplication of leaders. McKay wants to develop other elders in the church, so neither he nor Rymer preach often on Sunday nights, but instead use it as an opportunity for other guys to gain experience and hone their abilities. As of now, there are 15 guys at the church who can teach.
Remarkably, the ten-year old church has produced not just capable preachers, but other churches. Grace Harbor is set to plant its third church next year.
The church’s first plant went out in 2016 to Bristol, Rhode Island. Grace Harbor sent out an elder and 14 members to plant Mount Hope Church, which now, just a few years in, has 50 members and is almost self-sustaining.
The second plant is in Cape Cod — a combined effort from Grace Harbor and another church in Cape Cod to provide a healthy church in that area.
McKay says that the highlight of serving in Providence — in addition to seeing these churches planted — has been having a front-row seat to the Spirit of God using the Word of God to bring people to faith.
“I love ministering in a place where it’s not uncommon for someone to walk in and it’s their first time ever in a church or ever opening up a Bible,” McKay said. While it’s sad that there are people totally ignorant to the things of God, McKay loves “being there for that moment. And then seeing that person come to faith…I just can’t even put it into words.”
The hotel meeting room and bad website weren’t enough to impede the growth of Grace Harbor in its first decade.
In the decade before that, the heavy workload and tiny core of people wasn’t enough to push Andy Haynes away. It didn’t keep Kevin McKay away, and the difficult environment is precisely what drew Travis Rymer back to New England.
The Word has done the work to this point, so don’t hold your breath if you expect to hear a pithy, catchy vision for what McKay hopes Grace Harbor looks like in the next decade.
“More of the same,” he said. And that to the glory of God.