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Church-Planting

Last Monday, our seminary community was shocked by the sudden death of professor Jannie Swart. Despite having only served on the faculty at PTS for a year, his loving and enthusiastic faith had transformed the culture of the entire campus. The Lord used Jannie in such powerful ways that even people he never met were compelled to come to Friday’s memorial service.

My first encounter with Jannie was the day he approached me at the New Wilmington Mission Conference in 2013 and said, “We have to teach a church planting class together.” Jannie drew people into relationships in such a way that we couldn’t help but be implicated in whatever he was doing. Soon three other friends and colleagues had joined us and we planned the course I wrote about here.

Anyone who met Jannie felt as though they had made a new close friend. For me, Jannie was a friend, but also a colleague. We co-led the Church Planting Initiative at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and served on Pittsburgh Presbytery’s New Church Development Commission together. We only worked with each other formally for less than a year, but I am forever thankful for the time I spent laboring under his guidance.

On Thursday, my co-pastor and I attended the memorial service at the church which Jannie had pastored in Oil City, PA, before coming to teach in Pittsburgh. Friends, parishioners, and colleagues all shared testimonies about the love, joy, and zeal which marked Jannie’s ministry. One person recalled having once asked Jannie why he gave himself with such devotion to his ministry. Jannie’s response: “I really believe this stuff!”

He really believed this stuff. That Christ’s death and resurrection had conquered sin and death. That the Gospel called us to be reconciled not just to God, but also to one another. That the two greatest commandments truly ad simply are to love the Lord your God and love your neighbor as yourself.  He really believed this stuff.

And he didn’t just believe it in sermons or books. Jannie believed it in ordinary conversation and daily life. That’s what set Jannie apart. Many of us in the Church believe this stuff when we’re preaching or writing or counseling. But Jannie believed it every minute of every day. Every word he spoke radiated confidence that God was alive and active in the present moment. He spoke and lived with an awareness of the reality of God, not just when he was teaching, but when he was sharing a beer with you, or receiving your hospitality, or spontaneously stopping by your office to say hello and share his joy.

It was this spirit of true belief that Jannie called us to when he preached at the PC(USA)’s Evangelism and Church Growth Conference one month ago. His sermon there has been recalled many times in the past week because of his exhortation to laugh at death. I remember the very beginning of the sermon, though: He began by running up to the baptismal font and asking if we really believed that Jesus Christ is living water. If we really believed that fullness of life is to be found in relationship with Jesus, our hearts would be overflowing with desire to share that love with the world (John 7:38). This is the gift I received in Jannie Swart: a friend and colleague who knew the love of God in the depths of his being, and from whose heart flowed streams of living water. Thanks be to God for a man who really believed this stuff.

It was a hectic morning. I’d overslept, our sixteen-month-old daughter had awakened early, and our small family was grasping for order amid the chaos of what promised to be another busy day. Trying to occupy her attention, I said,  “Why don’t we read a book?” She pointed at the bookcase, said “Book!” and proceeded to grab a copy of the Jesus Storybook BibleI opened the pages and started reading aloud. Most of the language was still far above her head, but it went straight to my heart. With a sigh of relief I thought, It’s refreshing to simply be told a story about Jesus.

Then I had a flashback. Ten years ago, I was working in a cafe in Boulder, CO. One weeknight during my closing shift, I was sweeping the floor and preparing to clean the sparsely filled cafe when I overheard a conversation between three customers. They were college-age women having a Bible study. One, who appeared to be the leader, was talking to the others who both listened attentively. As I tried to hear more, I noticed that all she was doing was telling them stories about Jesus. And the women she was speaking to kept asking questions curiously. They wanted to hear more about Him. It was beautiful. I could have continued sweeping for hours while eavesdropping on that conversation.

These two experiences stand in contrast with most of the conversations I overhear in the Church at large. We talk about a lot about things related to our life together, but it’s been a long time since I heard (or sadly, preached) a sermon that was only about how magnificent Jesus is. We have lots of good theological conversations at the seminary, but we constantly run the risk of reducing Jesus to a distant historical figure or a moral principle, instead of the compassionate divine lover of humankind that He is. This distancing of our conversation from Jesus seems to happen even more in the higher levels of the bureaucracy of denominations.

This weekend I’ll go to Detroit for the 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA). I’m not a delegate; I’ll be there to represent and promote Pittsburgh Seminary’s Church Planting Initiative. There will be a lot of talk at General Assembly, good and bad, about a lot of different issues. I’ll even engage in some of those conversations. But I think we’ll all be better off – our hearts will be more joyful, the Church will be edified, our decisions will be more faithful – if we take moments this week to set aside those debates and instead focus upon Jesus. So here’s my suggestion:

If you’re attending General Assembly, try speaking about Jesus more than yourself and more than your agenda. I want to hear you tell me about Jesus. If you’re using Twitter or Facebook throughout the Assembly, hashtag your posts with #TellMeAboutJesus. For one example of a possible tweet, a member of my congregation whom I recently asked to simply tell me about Jesus responded with, “He’s the sort of person who, when he speaks, you want to hear more.” I’m thinking that if we at GA share such holy thoughts with one another, we’ll find ourselves caught up in surprisingly beautiful conversations. Perhaps we’ll even recognize Jesus’ presence with us more clearly. I pray that the Holy Spirit will inspire our words, and guard us against any blasphemy.

So here we go . . . Tell me about Jesus.  

Sundays_Off[1]This picture is from the schedule book at the 61C Café. Keith, our manager (who is a greater saint than many churchgoers I know), wrote the note in the center a few years ago in response to other notes requesting time off. It says, “God is the only reason to take off Sunday, and even then it’s only in the morning.”

It’s been three months since I left the café and began my work at the seminary. In that transition I’ve been surprised by both how much I miss the café and how much I love my job at PTS. I’ve also been surprised at just how difficult it is to balance my work at the seminary with my work at The Upper Room and with my life as a husband and father. All these factors are making me think it’s time to begin writing that series of posts on the theology of work that I promised, beginning today with Keith’s note: “God is the only reason . . .”

In Keith’s note, God is the only valid reason to rest. In Scripture, God is actually the only valid reason to work. Let me elaborate:

The epistle reading from the daily lectionary today includes these words about work from Colossians 3: “Whatever your task, put yourselves into it, as done for the Lord and not for masters.” Ephesians 6 contains a similar command to, “Render service with enthusiasm, as to the Lord and not to men and women.” These verses fall in passages discussing how servants and masters relate to each other. Notice what Paul’s commands imply about our earthly working relationships: No matter who our bosses are, Christians are really “slaves of Christ” (Eph. 6:6).

To be a slave of Christ is not drudgery. It is to receive a gift of freedom and joy and meaning in one’s work. If Christ is our only master, we can be freed from the other gods that drive us in our work: money, people-pleasing, pride, etc. And if we offer our work, however “ordinary,” to Christ as a way of seeking to please and obey him, we can discover the deep joy of communion with Christ throughout our daily labors.

What does this look like in practice? Fr. Walter Ciszek’s book He Leadeth Me provides a stunning example. As a missionary in Poland during World War II, Ciszek was captured by the Russian military. After a season of solitary confinement and interrogation in Moscow, Ciszek was sent to work in the slave-labor camps of Siberia. There, he continued to embrace his missionary lifestyle by serving as a priest to his fellow slaves. And one of the most beautiful ways he fulfilled his priestly responsibility was through the attitude he adopted toward his work.

While other prisoners would show their rebellion against their captors by intentionally doing shoddy work, Ciszek chose to put into practice the verses quoted above from Colossians and Ephesians. He did his work well because he was offering it to God, rather than to earthly masters. By counter-culturally embracing the value of his work, Ciszek participated in God’s transfiguration of that work into a holy act.

Ciszek was able to do this because he believed that through the Incarnation, Jesus gives even deeper validity to our day-to-day labors. As Ciszek puts it,

There is a tremendous truth contained in the realization that when God became man he became a workingman. . . . For the rest of the time of his life on earth, God was a village carpenter and the son of a carpenter. He did not fashion benches or tables or bed or roof beams or plowbeams by means of miracles, but by hammer and saw, by ax and adz. (pp. 102-103)

By becoming human and working this way, the Son of God “restored to man’s work its original dignity, its essential function as a share in God’s creative act.” The fact that Jesus did this as an ordinary carpenter – work that is not obviously spiritual – means that any job which is not obviously spiritual can still be offered to God as work done for God and not for man. Any job. As Ciszek says, “God has not asked of us anything more tedious, more tiring, more routine and humdrum, more unspectacular, than God himself has done” (p. 103)

To approach our work in the holy way that Ciszek did, we need to be converted to see work as inherently good. In Genesis, God gave Adam and Even the job of tending the Garden before the Fall. Sabbath rest was also given before the Fall, and the ideal human life is meant to consist of work and rest, in the proper proportions, done in harmonious fellowship with both God and all of creation. This should mean that  any human job, even laying bricks in a Siberian labor camp, can be done in a way that glorifies God. I say this requires conversion because we’re much more used to looking at work through the lens of the Fall and the curse God spoke to Adam:

Cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return. (Genesis 3:17-19)

Because we live in a broken world and are broken people, our work is tainted by sin. Work is not always pleasant, not always successful, not always satisfying. We sinfully overindulge in our work - working constantly without boundaries or rest because of pride or greed or escapism – or we become lazy – denying the goodness of work and over-indulging in leisure. Whether we overwork or underwork, the begrudging or resentful attitude many of us take to our work is itself a manifestation of the curse. This seems to be the state where a lot of us are tempted to dwell.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. When we offer to Christ our work – whether we’re consturction workers, IT people, nurses, teachers, baristas, garbage collectors, parents, or pastors – we can labor with greater joy and freedom. Working in such a way then also translates into better rest, as well, because we’re free both to experience satisfaction in our work and to reject the voices that falsely seek to enslave us. And any job done with the intention of glorifying God can lead naturally to a Sabbath of basking in God’s presence. As Wendell Berry puts it in one of his Sabbath poems, “When we work well, a Sabbath mood/ Rests on our day, and finds it good.”

What joy might we discover, what freedom might we find, if we believed that God truly is the only reason for working?

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Sunrise over Sorocaba, São Paolo state

I spent the last two weeks in Brazil with a group of Pittsburgh Seminary students, studying how Presbyterian churches there plant new congregations. We encountered a variety of creative ministries, but all their leaders shared one characteristic. It’s the simple desire to share Jesus with people who don’t yet know Him. As one pastor, Renato, of Campolim Comunidade Presbyteriana, said simply, “The Gospel is the important message.” These leaders have the heart that the Apostle Paul expresses in Romans 1:16: “I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.”

This is why Christians in Manaus do street evangelism in the midst of the idolatry that manifests itself in the city’s celebration of Carnival. This is why Christians have a fleet of boats traveling up the Rio Negro and down the Amazon providing care for villagers and planting churches among them. This is why a jiu jitsu master incorporates Bible study and prayer into his classes. This is why a multicultural congregation operates and supports shelters for orphans, neglected children, and babies born with HIV. All the pastors and leaders we met in Brazil seemed to have the desire to share Christ as their primary motivation for ministry. They really are like the shepherd of Luke 15, leaving the ninety- nine sheep to seek the one that is lost.

I’m willing to bet that this is the primary reason the Church is growing in Brazil. A heart for the Gospel matters more than any technique or method of church planting. Our team learned a lot about specific topics such as how church planters are trained in Brazil and how churches (rather than Presbyteries) plant other churches there. But any lessons we can bring back to apply in our communities in America derive from that confidence in the proclamation of Christ.

For example, churches there invest heavily in leadership development. Pastor Ricardo, of Chácara Primavera, told us that his church planted 28 other churches because they focused on raising up new church planters. This is in contrast to methods of planting that identify target communities and demographics before a pastor or leader is even called in. Having a leader who has the right heart for church planting comes first. Applied to our work in America, this confirms that church planting doesn’t begin in seminary classrooms or Presbytery offices. It begins when God calls particular men and women to give their lives in submission to Jesus’ desire that all people would hear the Gospel. If we want to see more churches planted in our context, we should likewise pray for and invest in future leaders who are motivated primarily by a desire to see others enter life-giving relationships with Jesus. The task of those who want to support church planting in America is to help these new leaders grow in their ability to hear and obey the direction of the Holy Spirit.

The way this plays out in practice is of course different in every context. A church in my neighborhood can’t use the same outreach strategies we saw in Brazil. Post-Christendom North America is very resistant to some of the styles of evangelism we encountered there. But if we cultivate the same desire that our Brazilian brothers and sisters have to see lives transformed by Christ, I believe we will indeed see the development of many new churches that bear good fruit.

Lord of the harvest, send out laborers into Your harvest. May we have such confidence in Your Gospel, and such love for Your world. Amen.

It’s early on a Tuesday morning. A month ago at this time, I was pulling muffins out of the oven and steaming milk for lattes at the cafe where I worked for five a half years. Today, I’m reading over the recently approved statement of goals for the M.Div. program at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in preparation for two meetings I’ll have this morning. It’s all a part of my new job.

I am excited to be taking on the challenge of coordinating the Church Planting Emphasis at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. The seminary feels like home to me. Conversations with students and faculty bring joy to my heart. I see great potential in this program, and am both humbled and delighted to participate in something that has such power to shape the future of the Church.

But I am truly going to miss the cafe. When my co-pastor and I answered God’s call to plant The Upper Room five and a half years ago, we chose to become bivocational pastors. Like the Apostle Paul, who had a trade of making tents which at times supported his ministry, we chose to take second jobs that would both ease the financial burden of starting a new church and give us additional ways to build relationships for our ministries.

I wanted a job in the neighborhood which would allow me to meet people I wouldn’t meet inside the walls of a typical church. The 61C and 61B Cafes gave me more opportunities to develop meaningful relationships than I could have ever imagined. Over five and a half years, these relationships became so strong that stepping back from them now brings about a genuine feeling of grief. On my last morning of work, I cried as I handed my keys back to my manager and friend Keith. Then I sobbed as I sat in my car, preparing to go directly from the cafe to the seminary.

This is week three of my work at the seminary, and it’s going quite well, but I don’t want to forget the things God showed me over my years at the cafe. So I hope to do some writing here in the coming months which will intentionally reflect on the things the Lord taught me through my work at the cafe. After my trip to Brazil next week – where PTS students and I will study how the Brazilian Presbyterian Church plants new congregations – I’ll put together a series of posts here about what my ministry at the cafe taught me about prayer, relationships, mission, and work. Especially work. It seems that many of us have under-developed theologies of work, and God used my years in the cafe to teach me much about the purpose and value of our daily labors.

Time to get ready for work. If I hurry, I might be able to grab a cup of coffee on the way.

“If your church disappeared overnight, would your neighborhood notice? Would anyone miss you?” More than once, I’ve heard a speaker at a church-planting conference ask questions along these lines. The speakers intend to be provocative, to ask questions which will make leaders wonder whether their congregations are making an impact on their cities by meeting real needs in their neighborhoods. The question is a simplistic test of any congregation’s connection with its surrounding, but it’s particularly relevant for church-planters. In some understandings of church-planting, the pastors or leaders of the church seem to succeed because they are great community organizers.

Take Richard Allen for one example. I’m now reading Richard Newman’s Freedom’s Prophet: Bishop Richard Allen, the AME Church, and the Black Founding Fathers. Allen is known as the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which began when Allen planted Bethel Church in Philadelphia. Allen was by nature entrepreneurial, and founded businesses and social organizations as well as his church and denomination. In all of these ventures, Allen was thinking beyond himself, seeking the good of both free and enslaved African-Americans and the new country in which they lived. Because of this, Newman even argues that Allen should be considered among the “Founding Fathers” of the new United States. He writes, 

Allen believed himself to be a member of two founding generations. He was a black leader who built reform institutions to redeem African Americans and he was a broader moral leader who wanted to redeem the American republic from the sin of racial subjugation. (p. 21)

What made Allen a successful “founder” involved more than simply his vision for change or his entrepreneurial personality. Allen had a gift for bringing people together, and he connected with his diverse community in such a way that people joined and followed him. Two events which took place early in Allen’s career display this gift:

As mentioned above, Allen founded Bethel Church and the AME denomination. These institutions started when Allen and several other black Christians walked out of St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church in protest of newly enforced segregated seatingAllen had been born into slavery, and it was while a slave that heard Methodist preachers proclaiming the Gospel and its liberating message. When Allen entered the ministry, he did it as a typical itinerant Methodist preacher. He was bi-vocational, preaching early in the morning and then working a variety of day-jobs to support his ministry. Once he settled in Philadelphia in 1786, his congregants were primarily the black men and women who attended St. George’s Methodist Church. The black population of the congregation grew so much under Allen’s leadership that the white leaders of the congregation became anxious. At some point during Allen’s years there, the white leaders built a balcony and declared that a new policy of segregated seating in worship would be enforced. On the Sunday that the policy was first enforced, Allen and all the other African-Americans in the church walked out as one “body” (p. 64). 

But the events of that day were not spontaneous. The date of this legendary event is uncertain, but Newman seems to favor a later date, around 1792 or 1793. Several pieces of evidence suggest that the walk-out Allen helped lead was an intentional act of non-violent activism, planned in advance in order to make a point to the white church members. Allen dreamed of leading an independent black church long before that fateful day, as evidenced by his efforts to have the Free African Society (which he also founded) consider supporting an independent black church as early as 1789. This suggests that much went on behind-the-scenes to rally the black members of St. George’s to respond together to the discrimination they experienced. The events which took place later in St. George’s were choreographed to make a point: racial discrimination had no place in the Kingdom of God, and Allen’s followers would accept it no longer. 

Allen’s response to Philadelphia’s 1793 outbreak of Yellow Fever and its racially-charged aftermath also displays Allen’s gifts in community relations. When the Yellow Fever struck Philadelphia, Benjamin Rush, a famous physical and signer of the Declaration of Independence, invited Allen and his flock to respond to the crisis. Rush did so on the basis of the mistaken belief that black people were immune to the Yellow Fever. Inaccurate as that assumption was, Allen and his friend Absalom Jones agreed to help because they believed that “black aid to white citizens would help the cause of racial justice” (p. 88). Throughout the crisis, Allen and other black leaders rallied black volunteers to serve as nurses and aid workers, often doing work that involved physically touching those who would have considered their caretakers virtually untouchable because of their skin color.

Racism resurfaced after the crisis ended, though, with whites accusing blacks of exploiting whites and profiting off of their suffering. Allen and Jones responded to the criticism in print, publishing an essay which defended their motives and documented the sacrifices blacks had made to serve their white brothers and sisters. In doing so, Allen stepped boldly into both the public sphere and the use of new media and technology. These steps strengthened his influence in the community beyond his congregation.

Allen’s leadership in each of these instances raises questions for us who claim to be “church-planters” today. First, if the leaders in our community needed something, would they call us? Today, will respected community members or civic leaders call upon us when the neighborhood is in crisis? I have a friend who pastors a church in Rockford, IL, who joined the local chamber of commerce precisely to build the relationships that could lead to such service. How can we build similar relationships in our own contexts today?

Second, Richard Allen’s life challenges us to consider if we are both confident and shrewd enough to act prophetically when necessary. When we react to injustice, are the measures we take as carefully calculated and wisely executed as those Allen took? Are we such examples of integrity that when criticized, we can respond with dignity and confidence? The more we are able to answer these questions affirmatively, the more our churches will leave a positive impact upon their neighborhoods.

It’s a long story. It’s been over five years since I naïvely posted here that I was thinking and praying about church-planting. I had some clue then that this venture would stretch me, that I was stepping into a situation which God would use to refine and teach and discipline me. But I had no idea what would be the hardest disciplines to receive, or how the Sovereign Teacher would structure such lessons. Least of all did I expect patience to be something I would learn need to learn from the supposedly fast-paced work of starting a new worshiping community.

For example, in November of 2009, Upper Room moved into a storefront space in Squirrel Hill. By the middle of 2010, we were talking with our property manager about expanding into part of the vacant Squirrel Hill Theater, adjacent to our current space. This week, after nearly three years of debating, bargaining, consulting with lawyers and architects, applying for zoning variances, and no small amount of prayer, we will sign the paperwork giving us the right to expand. Three years. At times, I wondered if it would take 40 years, as though God were leading us through a wilderness before allowing us to enter some sort of Promised Land. But now it’s happening. We’re moving on to the next step.

If you want to read more about why and how we’re expanding, you can do so here, and if the Lord nudges your heart to support our expansion, an easy way to do so is by giving online here.  But, lest talk of the building distract us from the spiritual lesson here, my point is that God has used this experience to force me to grow in patience. He’s used the seeming futility of some of our past work on this to remind me to “number my days” (Psalm 90:12). I only have a short time to live, and I should use it wisely, but I should also remember that little I accomplish will outlive me on this earth. What bears fruit that lasts for eternity is the sanctification which God works in us through the ordinary trials of our days and years.

This leads me to think that patience is a matter of eternal perspective. The Apostle Peter told first-century Christians to be patient in waiting for the new heavens and the new earth Christ promised. “Regard the patience of our Lord as salvation,” Peter wrote (2 Peter 3:15 NASB). It’s as though Peter meant, “Relax, Jesus is giving us more time!”  We’re not ready for Him yet. We need more time to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (3:18). More time for us to grow in love and holiness, more time for us to submit wholly to His will, more time for us to repent. We can’t be prepared for eternity overnight.

As far as building projects go, the three years we’ve waited to move ahead with this expansion seem slow in today’s fast-paced culture of instant gratification. But the decades or centuries that it took to build some of Europe’s great cathedrals reflect the patience which grows from viewing life in light of eternity. Yesterday, while telling me of his recent trip to Spain, my co-pastor Mike suggested that the reason such cathedrals aren’t built in our age isn’t for lack of resources. It’s because we lack the patience to wait decades to see the fruit of our labor, or even worse, to spend our lives toiling for an end we may not live to see.  To labor long for an end one cannot see requires faith in something bigger than oneself, and hope that such faith will be rewarded. I’m thrilled that we’re moving forward with this expansion into the theater, but I’m much more impressed by the virtues behind the cathedrals.

Though I’m short on patience, this perspective does give me hope. Not necessarily hope that I’ll accomplish great things in my remaining years, but rather the hope that comes from knowing God’s not finished with me yet. A lot has happened in five years, but how much will happen in fifty? Thomas á Kempis  wrote in the Imitation of Christ that “If every year we would root out one vice, we should soon become perfect men” (Bk I, Ch. XI). It’s taking me much longer than a year to root out impatience, but if the Lord has used this short season to accomplish what He has, how much more more will God do in a lifetime? The Apostle Paul wrote that “He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6). God will complete the work the Holy Spirit’s doing both in and through me, and my family, and my church. And while He does, I pray for the grace to “wait patiently for the Lord” until I can say with finality that “he brought me up out of the pit of destruction, out of the miry clay” (Psalm 40:1-2).

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