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Church-Planting

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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).

This week’s guest post is from my friend and co-pastor, Mike Gehrling. God called us to start working together to plant The Upper Room together nearly five years ago. Those five years have been filled with a great gift of  friendship, which I’ve written about here. Throughout those five years God has also used Mike to teach me a lot about worship, so it’s fitting that his guest post here is about worship.

About the author: Mike loves Jesus. He also enjoys being a pastor and a campus minister. In his spare time he can be found going for a run, reading a good book, and appearing anonymously in Chris’s blogposts. One of his goals for 2013 is to write more blogposts than he did in 2012, which should be easy since he only wrote 9 last year. Keep him accountable at www.mikegehrling.wordpress.com.

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Have you ever worshipped in a church significantly different from your own? Maybe, on a mission trip, you’ve worshipped in a language other than English, and struggled to know what you were singing, praying and hearing. Maybe you’re a Protestant whose worshipped in a Catholic or Orthodox church, and have been taken aback when attention is given to Mary or to a saint. Maybe you come from a liturgical tradition and visited a contemporary or charismatic church, not knowing what to do what to do with your hands when you don’t have a bulletin and hymnal to hold, and when everyone around you is lifting their hands in the air. Experiences like these can be jarring and difficult, but they also provide opportunities to grow.

I’ve had the privilege of worshipping in a lot of different contexts, and have come to love worship that is outside of my own comfort zone. From worshiping in an African-American Baptist church for a semester in college, to learning worship songs while in a van on a mission trip in Southeast Asia, to visiting an Orthodox Church when I’m taking vacation time from Upper Room, I’ve learned a lot from the breadth of worship expressions that the body of Christ has to offer.

I started writing this blogpost with the intention of reflecting on what these experiences taught me about worship. However, I quickly realized that these experiences also taught me much about myself. Here are a few things that I’ve learned about myself from worshipping cross-culturally:

I Benefit From Being Spiritually Flexible

If you exercise regularly, you know that the more you stretch, the more flexible your body is. More flexibility means less discomfort, and less likelihood of injury. In a similar way, I’ve found that taking time to worship in other traditions, and learn from them, has stretched my spirit to the point that I’m now able to experience Christ’s presence in church contexts that are very different from what I had been used to. Five years ago, hearing someone speaking in tongues would have stretched me to the point of a spiritual muscle tear. Truly experiencing Christ while worshipping in another language would have been more than my spiritually flexibility could handle. Now, though, I’ve reached the point that I can experience God in familiar and unfamiliar contexts, and be content in either.

I Sometimes Use Humor as a Form of Judgment

I’ve rarely had negative experiences in worship. But there have been plenty of times that I’ve found myself laughing about elements of a worship service that were new for me. I remember as a teenager chuckling at the funny hat that the bishop was wearing in a Catholic service. I took great delight imitating the charismatic preacher at the first charismatic African-American church I visited. On the surface at least, I didn’t feel anything negative, but my tendency toward laughter blocked me from appreciating the deeper significance and beauty of what was happening. These experiences showed me that humor is my way of responding to culture-shock, and it was keeping me from learning.

Instead of Worshipping God, I Often Worship Idols of Mastery and Control

I’ve learned to sing praises to God in many languages. Swahili, Congolese, Vietnamese, Korean, French, Arabic and Hindi all come to mind immediately. But there’s one language that I always struggle with: Spanish. Many Latino worship songs move at such a tempo that the syllables go by faster than I can handle. That my tongue seems to be completely opposed to making that “rolling r” sound doesn’t help much, either. It used to be that my soul would check out during times of worship in which the leader had us singing in Spanish. It was too hard. I couldn’t do it well, or at all, and therefore I couldn’t really worship. My perspective changed, though, when I realized that it wasn’t the Spanish that was keeping me from worshipping; it was my attitude. In order to enter into a spirit of worship, I was demanding an ability to master the worship. While anyone can master particular forms of worship, or particular songs or prayer styles, no one can fully master what it means to worship the Triune God. The fact that I was demanding the capacity to master the worship style in order to worship meant that I had made an idol out of my own abilities, and that I was more often worshipping myself than God. The muscles in my tongue are still not good at speaking or singing in Spanish, but I’m thankful that my spiritual muscles can receive Latino worship as a reminder that entering into worship sometimes is hard work, and that I still have much to learn.

Praise the Lord that the Body of Christ has many members! May God grant all of us a heart that is open to experiencing him even in uncomfortable places.

18,000 people are spending the next few days gathering in St. Louis for Urbana 12, one of the largest and most significant missions conferences in the world.  Several friends and members of my church are there, but Eileen and I are at home in Pittsburgh, waiting for Baby’s imminent arrival. So I’m following Urbana from afar, via Urbana Live and the #U12 hashtag on Twitter. The enthusiasm for world mission is contagious, even over the internet.

Among other things, following Urbana online is making me thankful for Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. When I was looking for a seminary at the end of college, I chose PTS partially because of its World Mission Initiative program. WMI sends students on short-term overseas trips to learn from and minister with the Church across the globe. Having already had a summer-long overseas mission experience through my college ministry, I knew that God uses cross-cultural experiences to transform and sanctify us. Going on a WMI trip to Southeast Asia left an indelible impact on my ministry, to the point that friends who visited the same region of Asia say that our community in the Upper Room reminds them of the house churches they saw there.

The world mission focus at PTS was just one part of how God used my time there to prepare me for ministry as a church-planter. (If you’re interested, I talk about more ways here.) That’s one reason why I happily support PTS by giving back and by working with their Alumni Council.  If you’re looking to do some year-end giving, you can give to PTS online by clicking here or directly to WMI by clicking here. Such gifts really are investments in the future of the global Church.

I’ve been slow to speak any thoughts about the tragic Sandy Hook elementary school shooting last week. The nation has heard a lot of reactions, from the President to the news media to ordinary people through the eruption of commentary on Facebook and Twitter. I’ve paid attention to some of this, agreeing with some comments and ignoring others. But internally, my thoughts keep circling back to one question: What if more people had intentionally befriended the shooter before this happened? Could simple friendship have changed anything?

I’m thinking this way because friendship keeps coming up as a theme in my ministry. I’ve written elsewhere about how God gave my co-pastor and me a unique friendship through this call to plant a church together. In many ways, our church has quietly become a community where the lonely discover friendship. John V. Taylor wrote in The Go-Between God, that “every Christian group or cell should look for some way in which it can meet a genuine human need in the situation in which it is placed” (p. 150). When I read that two years ago, I scribbled in the margin a note saying “emotional needs are a genuine as physical.” The fellowship which authentic friends share is one example. Friendship doesn’t appear to be an immediate physical need for survival, but without friendship our souls slowly starve, wasting away until death comes to us – or others – as the result.  Surely one manifestation of Christ’s life-giving victory over death is the community of genuine friendship which bears His name.

Significantly, the most authentic friendships look outward. C. S. Lewis observes in The Four Loves that “Lovers are normally face to face, absorbed in each other; Friends, side by side, absorbed in some common interest” (p. 61). Those in the friendship of the Church stand side-by-side absorbed in their common interest in Jesus. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than at The Lord’s Supper, when the community gathers like a family to partake of one loaf and one cup, side by side, but with eyes focused upon their Savior. Accordingly, Taylor wrote that if the Church gathers in order to . . .

 . . . enable members to live in that current of mutual awareness and communion which is the gift of the Holy Spirit and the element in which he moves in our midst, then a simple sharing of the loaf and the cup should be the natural summing up of the group experience.  In many of the ‘little congregations’ today this has become a regular and essential element. Someone brings bread and wine to a coffee table, all stand round while one or another reads the scriptures and offers the prayers, and then the authorized celebrant, wearing his ordinary clothes, leads them in the great thanksgiving and the consecration prayer; plate and cup are passed from hand to hand and the denominational question seems irrelevant in such a context.  This is what must come – not twenty years hence, but now – as the normal way in which the majority of Christians make the Holy Communion central to their lives. (150)

Next to that paragraph, in the margin of my book, I wrote “Upper Room!” Taylor’s description of intimate fellowship during Eucharist reminds me so much of how Upper Room started, celebrating communion around a coffee table in a living room, and how we continue to worship as a larger and still-expanding family. I think this is one reason why visitors to Upper Room sometimes say they can tell that we have authentic relationships with each other.  We have friendship and community, not because we strive for the ideals of friendship and community, but because we focus our attention on Christ together. 

Like Christ, this fellowship exists not for its own sake, but for the life of the world. Christ calls us His friends (John 15:14-15), and if friends stand side by side looking at a common interest, then we’re called to stand next to Jesus and focus on the lost and broken of the world.  We were enemies of God when Christ chose to befriend us, so its only fitting that in His Name we befriend even our worst enemies. Even the mentally ill. Even the potential murders. Jesus called Judas “friend”, even when Judas came to betray Him (Matthew 26:50). Throughout The Go-Between God, Taylor argues that the Holy Spirit is constantly calling us to a new awareness of God and others. That new awareness could show up in such simple ways as us humbly taking the time to listen to the person we’d never noticed before. We can’t force these friendships to develop, but if we open up to such possibilities, God may surprise us with new companions.

So, let us be vigilant, especially in this season when so many feel lonely or isolated, to not let people fall through the cracks of relationships. Pray for God to show us the people we’re called to befriend. Ask the Holy Spirit to humble us and make us more aware of the significance of every person outside ourselves. If we listen, in a few weeks or months we might discover new companions next to us when we receive Communion. May God grant us the grace to do what Christ our Lord has done for us: befriend the friendless.

Later this morning, I’ll be speaking to a group of students at Pittsburgh Seminary, sharing the story of Upper Room as a case study in a class for their new Church-Planting M.Div. Specifically, I’ve been asked to share about vibrant faith in God, a characteristic which the course’s instructor identifies in his book as an essential trait for successful church-planters.  Most of what I’ll say will focus on prayer.  I’m taking the advice of St. Mark the Ascetic from the Philokalia: “If you want with few words to benefit one who is eager to learn, speak to him about prayer . . .” But after I wrote out my notes for the talk – filling it with illustrations about the importance of prayer in the life of Upper Room, the way we use the Jesus Prayer, the way Mike and I pray together –  I realized there was something missing: How do we maintain a vibrant faith and an active prayer life? It’s one thing to say to someone “pray more” and expect them to do it.  It’s a much bigger question to ask: What actually makes us want to pray more? What motivates us to stay active in our spiritual lives?

I think part of the answer is thankfulness.  Not long after my revelation earlier this summer that I needed to be more thankful, I read these words from my missionary hero, the monk Charles de Foucauld:

O beloved Bridegroom, what have you not done for me? What do you want from me? What do you expect from me, that you have so overwhelmed me? O God, give yourself thanks through me, create remembrance, gratitude, fidelity, and love in me; I am overcome, I fail, O God; create my thoughts, words, and deeds, so that they may all give you thanks and glorify you in me. Amen. Amen. Amen.

As I read this passage again this morning, I was overwhelmed. Brother Charles had such a deep sense of God’s blessing and presence in his life that he knew he could not thank God enough, and he believed this even in the midst of living a very ascetic and lonely life.  I can’t help but think that this very sense of thankfulness was part of what allowed Charles to be so bold in mission to the Tuareg people group of the Sahara. Thankful for the grace bestowed upon him, Charles responded both by expressing deeper love and affection for God and by eagerly seeking to share that blessing with others.  May the Lord grant us such thankfulness.

A few weeks ago, I posted that I’m writing a book. Since then, I’ve learned that making a deliberate effort to write is a lot like church-planting.  When we started Upper Room four years ago, I had no idea what the future would hold. I knew God had called me to plant a church with my friend Mike, but I had no idea how to start a church. Stepping out into that unknown world of church-planting meant practicing self-discipline and taking a risk. I know more about writing than I did then about church-planting, but my early forays into writing more than sermons and blog-posts have shown me that this combination of discipline and willingness to take risks is necessary to succeed in both.

1) It takes self-discipline.  Yesterday I had the opportunity to attend a satellite viewing of the Willow Creek Association’s Global Leadership Summit with some friends and colleagues from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.  Of the many great presentations, Jim Collins’ summary of his new book Great By Choice had the most insights which I want to put into practice.  One of these ideas was the 20 Mile March. Collins used the illustration of Ronald Amundsen, the Norwegian explorer of Antarctica who reached the south pole thanks to the remarkable self-discipline of proceeding twenty miles per day, no matter what the conditions.  While other explorers would race ahead in good weather and sit still in bad weather, Amundsen had the discipline to push ahead consistently when it was difficult. He also had the discipline not to overextend himself when he could have done more.

In the first two years of Upper Room’s history, there weren’t any established patterns of congregational life to determine my schedule or priorities. I had to have discipline to make time and space for the various work that needed to be done.  No one was looking over my shoulder to make sure I did it.  This is so much more true in the practice of writing. I have more ideas to write about than I have time to write. Solution: The 20 Mile March. I need to create a regular rhythm of writing that requires effort and discipline but doesn’t overextend myself. My intention is to get into a routine of rising early and working on my writing for two hours in the morning, three days per week.  I say intention because I disagreed with my alarm clock this morning. But I know that once I get into the rhythm, it will pay off.  20 Mile March.

2) Willingness to take a risk. Notice that the example Collins chose to illustrate self-discipline was that of an Antarctic explorer.  There are millions of people who could serve as great examples of self-discipline. What made Amundsen noteworthy is that he applied his self-discipline to a creative and adventurous undertaking. He combined his self-discipline with a willingness to take a risk.  Taking risks without self-discipline can lead to tragedy, as it did for the explorer Robert Scott, a contemporary of Amundsen who died during his expedition to the South Pole.  But taking risks with self-discipline can lead to great accomplishments.

When we answered God’s call to start Upper Room, the only secure thing about the work was the fact that God had called us to it.  We applied for grants, of course, and knew that we had the support of local Presbytery members.  But grants weren’t guaranteed.  There were always chances that people wouldn’t come, that things wouldn’t work out, that we would end up like one of the many new church starts that simply fail. That was a big risk to take for our first ordained positions in ministry. But I think the self-discipline God gave to Mike and me as co-pastors has enabled us to get through the unstable times in our church’s short history.

Similarly, starting to write more has felt risky. It is emotionally risky – writers put ideas forward, knowing they’ll be valued by some and criticized by others. Writing can be financially risky; most writers don’t earn much by writing. (Don’t worry; I’m not quitting my day-jobs. Pastoring Upper Room is still my primary calling and I don’t expect that to change. As I’ve indicated before on this blog, I see writing as an extension of  that ministry.)  But I’m willing to take risks to pursue the gifts God has given me in writing, and I trust that, when pursued with discipline, those risks will be worth taking.

I’m headed out of town today for a Company of New Pastors retreat where we’ll be discussing Alan Roxburgh’s book The Sky is Falling.  Despite being a church-planter, it’s been a while since I’ve read one of these “the world is changing and we have to become missional before the Church dies” books.  As I’ve discovered the fruitfulness of reading works from the early Church, books in Roxburgh’s genre have become less appealing.  But this book did have some important ideas regarding the formation of leaders for the Church in our context and the roles those leaders then fill. I want to comment on these because I find his proposal both promising and lacking.

Anyone considering reading this book should know that the first nine chapters (140 pages) of the book are designed to set up the final 3 chapters (48 pages).   This last section of the book is where it actually gets exciting. As for set up, here’s what you need to know: The Church in our context is in a situation of liminality – a period of change in which one is in-between two different stages or places, a prolonged time of standing in a threshold. Think of Israel wandering in the wilderness, living in-between the life they’d known in Egypt and the life they would know in the Promised Land.  During such periods of liminality, the people going through this change discover a new sense of connection or bonding called communitas.  If you’ve ever been on a mission trip, you know what this feels like. It’s the sense of connection that you develop with that team of people while you’re experiencing an adventure in an unfamiliar context.  Roxburgh sees the Church in a period of liminality, and argues that both traditional and non-traditional leaders need to work together to create communitas in order to survive the transition.

Once you get to Chapter 10, Roxburgh starts to lay out a vision for leadership in the Church which sees Christian leaders with various roles and gifts and united under the leadership of an “Abbot/Abbess”.  These leaders with differing functions and spiritual gifts would ideally be trained not in modern seminary environments but through hands-on apprenticeship under masters of the faith. These ‘masters’ should be characterized less by academic credentials and more by experience, wisdom, and spiritual maturity.  Ideally this is already the goal of apprenticeship programs such as The World Christian Discipleship Program. Here I agree with Roxburgh’s general observations about leadership formation. After describing some of the roles which these leaders fill – poet, prophet, pastor – Roxburgh moves on to his proposal for an office of “Abbot”. The Abbot or Abbess functions less as a manager of an organization and more as a curator of an environment. Borrowing a term from Lawrence Miller, Roxburgh calls this person a synergist, defined as “a leader with the capacity to unify diverse and divergent leadership styles around a common sense of missional vision for a specific community” (p. 155). Surprisingly to me, Roxburgh envisions the Abbot not as the leader of one congregation, but as an overseer of many various ministries and congregations. (If you have the book, see the chart on page 182 which makes this clear.)  Essentially, Roxburgh is proposing having a bishop.  He avoids this word, probably because of its authoritarian and institutional connotations, stressing that the Abbot is “not a denominational executive” (p. 182), but I can’t help but think that Roxburgh’s Abbot is close to what a bishop should be. This is good, and I find it particularly relevant to our own context where Pittsburgh Presbytery is implementing a new mission plan which will eventually lead to us having four “branch ministers” who could each lead just as Roxburgh envisions his Abbot or Abbess leading. Good.

Promising as this is, there’s something missing in Roxburgh’s ecclesiology. And it’s something big. The problem with this book, and with so many other books on missional ecclesiology, is that it totally neglects the role of the sacraments in shaping and sustaining the life of the Church.  Despite occasional suggestions that we look to our history for guidance, Roxburgh doesn’t always present an accurate reading of Church history.  Contrary to the overview of early Church history in pages 148-150,  the early Church did have a defined pattern of leadership in which hierarchy did not always equal bureaucracy. The office of bishop evolved very early in the life of the Church not out of captivity to our culture’s professionalism or bureaucracy, but out of a desire to ensure proper celebration of the sacraments. Ordination was practiced by the Church to set people apart for the leadership of worship, not administration. Like other similar books, Roxburgh at times reflects anachronistic projection of contemporary emergent distrust of hierarchy onto the history of the Church. The primary concern of the early Church’s first bishops wasn’t paperwork.  It was a life of worship culminating in the celebration of Eucharist each week.  And if that’s the primary job description of a bishop, I see no reason to fear using the word bishop. Roxburgh’s choice of the word Abbot reflects a low ecclesiology, rather than a true sense of monasticism, in which the Abbot also lives a life of worship.

But this correction is no reason to abandon Roxburgh’s vision. Rather, the book’s proposal for leadership should be deepened to reflect the spirituality necessary for leadership of the Church in our context.  What if the Abbot or Abbess whom Roxburgh pictures overseeing multiple congregations and ministries was primarily concerned with cultivating environments of holy and beautiful worship? What if prayer and spiritual disciplines were essential parts of the apprenticeships which prepare the leaders who serve under the Abbot? What if remembrance of our Baptismal identity and celebration of the Lord’s Supper provide the connections to the “core Christian narrative” which Roxburgh says we need to recover? That’s a vision for the Church that I find appealing.

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