The founding of Sovereign Grace Church is the story of one church, but it’s the same story of every Christ-centered church founded down through the ages. In every time and every place, the Holy Spirit moves in the hearts and minds of believers. They feel inspired to move from the safety, comforts and fellowship of their existing church to give life to another church and bring the Gospel to another set of people—some of whom are believers, while others are not, and still others who may even be hostile to the Lord.
This is the story of one such Spirit-led endeavor. While large parts of it are easy to explain and straightforward, other parts of it are unexplainable. Where now stands a 33,000 square-foot-church, there once was a family farm. Where now hundreds of people gather on a Sunday to worship, learn and teach, there was only a small but dedicated group meeting in homes and public-school buildings.
This is the story of how a small group of believers came from a sending church to start another church, enriching the lives of hundreds in the process. It’s the story of how Sovereign Grace Church in Marlton, NJ came to be.
Where it all started
In the summer of 1992, members of Covenant Fellowship Church in Glen Mills, PA had an idea to plant a church. It’s easy to say that the Holy Spirit had raised up the idea for this in their minds. But at a fundamental level, what does that mean?
Certainly, it wasn’t an idea that the church elders arrived at easily. At the time Warren Boettcher, now Senior Pastor at Sovereign Grace, was a young dad working two jobs. He was a full-time teacher at Delaware County Christian School (DCCS) and a part-time Singles pastor at Covenant Fellowship.
It was enough to keep the young father and husband busy. He and his wife, Kim were already parents to four young children, two girls and two boys. Warren is nothing if not a prayerful man and even the idea of becoming a pastor was not one that he arrived at easily. He had been teaching and coaching at DCCS for nine years while attending Covenant Fellowship. He was affected by two things at his church. First, the preaching was, in his words, “good and godly.” But it was also the transparency of the pastors and how they conducted themselves with an inspiring humility and led their congregation with what Warren terms, “a joyful seriousness of following God.” The pastors led by example, teaching men how to follow God and at the same time be better men, better husbands and better fathers. “It was the wedding of preaching and practical application that really got my attention,” he says.
Then came a Sunday with a particularly affecting sermon. In Warren’s words: “I went home, then Kim and I took a long walk. And I said to her that I just felt that I am being called to ministry.” But he also had strong and inspiring thoughts about what a local church could look like. “You know,” Warren said in a recent interview, “the only institution that God created in the New Testament is the Church. It’s the only organization with complete instructions regarding mission and discipleship, for example. As good as parachurch organizations are with specific missions, such as education, they are not charged with the role of developing family discipleship. The Church is charged with that. The Church is the living witness of Christ in the earth. It is the Body of Christ. As much as I love Christian schooling, it’s not the living Body. That’s the Church.”
So Warren became a part-time pastor at Covenant Fellowship while finishing his teaching contract, and when that expired, he began a life of full-time pastoral ministry. He and the elders of Covenant Fellowship were meditating on the idea of the church plant and after a prayer meeting about it, they arrived at the decision to hold off. Then Lattie McDonough, a native of Webbers Falls, OK, and a southern minister gifted in prophesy rose, and declared that he had a strong sense from the Lord that the church plant should move ahead. “You can’t keep him,” he said, referring to Warren. That word from the Lord was enough.
By the end of the year, and after holding several meetings, it was clear that sufficient numbers of people were interested in the idea. On Sending Sunday, January 24, 1993, a group of pioneers set out to begin a new church. At this point, about all they knew was that they were determined to spread the Gospel somewhere in southern New Jersey. If that sounds a bit vague, that’s understandable. But believers know that God moves in mysterious ways to accomplish His purposes.
The group was known as the Plant Team and they began meeting in the home of John and Carol Orr and their two children. Everybody stuffed themselves into the Orrs’ living room while children’s ministry was held in the basement. It may have been cozy, but it wasn’t practical. The Orr’s living room was meant as nothing more than a starting place. A larger space was needed and that’s what the Lord provided in the form of James F. Cooper Elementary School in Cherry Hill, NJ, on Greentree Road about two miles from the location that would become Sovereign Grace’s current home. The church planters gave their gathering a name, Community Life Church and the little church was soon to get its own secretary to help everything and everybody stay on track.