Monthly Archives: April 2008

Today Dr. Peters took our Church and Society class to visit The Neighborhood Academy.  The Neighborhood Academy is a private, faith-based, college-preparatory school which serves low-income families and children from the inner-city neighborhoods of Pittsburgh.  In short, this school takes students from an underprivileged backgrounds and uses high expectations and a highly structured curriculum (12-hour school days, mandatory extracurriculars, nearly year-round schooling) to instill in them a strong work ethic and a good education, ensuring that they go on to college.  This is all a part of the bigger picture of breaking the cycle of generational poverty by giving these children tools to build a successful future. 

As Portia, a junior at the school, gave us a tour of the building and told us about her classes, I was blown away. I kept thinking, “This is real ministry.”  I had the same feeling a few weeks ago when we visited The Pittsburgh Project.  These institutions are doing the work of the Kingdom of God in such powerful, Spirit-filled ways.  And they are not churches.  The Neighborhood Academy grew out of a church.  The Pittsburgh Project is associated with a congregation that meets on their campus.  But these ministries are not “churches” in terms of being congregations of disciples who gather together for worship on Sunday mornings.  Nor are they programs of churches – they’re not branches of congregations who simply wish to extend their influence and ministerial brand-name over a certain social cause.  These are separate institutions – “public ministries” as opposed to “parish ministries”, in my professor’s words.  And the people who work at these institutions truly are missionaries and ministers – whether they’re teaching, answering telephones and scheduling appointments, or serving as janitors – because God is using them for the sake of the Kingdom.
And this makes me wonder:  Since there’s such a need for public ministry, and since institutions like the Neighborhood Academy and the Pittsburgh Project are already doing it so well, what does this mean for the parish ministry that takes place on Sunday mornings?  Should the parish ministry – the “church” which gathers for worship – also be preoccupied with creating additional programs to do public ministry?  Or should it focus on how worship and the sacraments enable its members to serve outside of the church’s structure in public ministry throughout the rest of the week?  What would it look like if church existed for the purpose of “equipping the saints” for the service of God in their respective vocations?  What if pastors worked to call to light the ways in which the vocations of our members are a part of the public ministry of the Kingdom of God?  What would church and ministry look like? 
  • Perhaps more “church” time and energy could be given to spiritual formation.
  • Church members would be commissioned regularly in worship to serve God through their vocations, thus highlighting and recognizing the missional value of their vocations.  This could be done for people with virtually any job description (provided the job is not inherently sinful). 
  • More “mission” takes place because it’s not bracketed off from the rest of life for church members. Instead they’re encouraged to see everything they do as mission.
  • There might be less burnout among church members. Their ministries would be their vocations, rather a pile of church programming which they feel pressured to heap on top of their supposedly “secular” day job.


Of course there’s still room for service in the name of a particular congregation, but it would not be the focal point of the church.  Rather, church members could point to the day-to-day work of others in the congregation and say confidently “that’s what our church does to serve God in the world.”  I’m thinking out loud a bit here – I don’t know if this is really possible and I’m not necessarily saying that this is the philosophy we’ll use in the new congregation we hope to begin in the coming year – but I think there’s something to this.  

Is this realistic?  What does this mean for the role of the pastor?  For the church-member/attendee – how would you feel about this vision for a vocationally missional congregation?

The email copied below is one I wrote which went out to the Open Door’s email list yesterday.  Most of the information in it has been posted on this blog before, but this email is the first public announcement of it we’ve made to the whole community.  We’ll be explaining more in worship this Sunday (6pm @ Union Project).  Also, the password on the NCD Vision page has now been removed, so you can feel free to check out and comment on the theologizing behind this idea. 

What if . . . there is one neighborhood in Pittsburgh with 4,000 people between the ages of 25 and 34, and only a handful of churches, none of which are actively seeking out that age group?

What if . . . that neighborhood has the widest variety of ethnic groups in Pittsburgh, yet little is being done by the local churches to bring together the rich gifts of these cultures?

What if . . . that neighborhood is home to professors, health-care workers, and others who serve in vocations which can make an impact for the Kingdom of God, if only they would be called to see their vocations in that light?

These are the questions I’m asking as I approach the last month of my internship at The Open Door and the end of seminary. I’m looking back at the many joys, challenges, and surprises God has brought to me, and one of those surprises has been a particular sense of call to church-planting.

One year ago, BJ suggested that I consider a call in church-planting. That led me to meet with Vera White, the New Church Development director of Pittsburgh Presbytery, who arranged for me to attend a church- planting training/discernment weekend in Washington, D.C., last November. As other pastors affirmed and encouraged me to pursue this specific ministry, I sensed God confirming my call to new church development. Last September, my friend from seminary Michael Gehrling and I began praying together for mutual discernment regarding our future calls, specifically wondering whether either of us may be called to church-planting. After I returned from the event in Washington, we began to pray about whether we were called to plant a church together. In December and January, that turned into prayer-walking various neighborhoods of Pittsburgh on cold Friday mornings, still unsure where God was leading us.

What we discovered as we prayed and explored Pittsburgh was the neighborhood described above – a place rich in possibility for a new church to grow and lead others to become followers of Jesus. That neighborhood is Squirrel Hill. And so, through prayer, fasting, discussions with the Presbytery, Open Door Steering Team meetings, and conversations with other churches and pastors, we’ve discerned an opportunity to begin a new ministry in Squirrel Hill. As Michael and I go forward into this adventure, we’re going out like missionaries, recognizing that people everywhere – whether on the other side of the world or a few blocks away – need to experience the good news of the Kingdom of God in both word and deed.

Now we’re asking you (as individuals and collectively as The Open Door), to prayerfully consider how God may be calling you to be a part of this journey. As you do, this is a chance for Open Door to continue living out what it means to be a missional church. While we do not desire to be “birthed” by The Open Door in the same way that Bellefield gave birth to The Open Door just a few years ago, we are seeking to be “sent”, recognizing that all churches are both sent and sending, constantly participating in the mission of Jesus who told the disciples, “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you” (John 20:21).

If you’d like to know more about this opportunity, please come to the worship gathering on Sunday the 27th, where I’ll say a few more words about it and share some specific ways in which you can participate in this ministry with us. In the meantime, feel free to read more on my blog (just click “church-planting” in the category cloud). You can also comment here or email me with any questions you have. Thanks!

Grace and Peace,

Why plant new churches? Check out this video by Tim Keller, and this link, from the Pittsburgh Presbytery,

Today is the Pennsylvania Primary, so it was good timing to stumble upon this last night which pointed me to a great episode of American Public Media’s Speaking of Faith.   In it, Krista Tippet interviews three evangelicals about politics:  Charles Colson, Greg Boyd, and Shane Claiborne.  In the spirit of Bruce Reyes-Chow’s thoughts on transparency, I’ll do a little self-disclosure here.  Each of the men in this interview has influenced me at some point in my life.  As a freshman in college, Colson’s book How Now Shall We Live? made me afraid to step outside my dorm room, terrified that evolutionists and liberal politicians were lurking ready to attack my fragile faith.   Thankfully, I came to my senses and eventually came out of that cave.   As I grew in maturity and gained a broader perspective on life, I came to a much more balanced point of view.  Greg Boyd spoke at a retreat I attended through our college ministry and I remember being impressed not just by his speaking, but even more by his willingness to move into the inner-city to live out his message. (And I highly recommend his book Myth of a Christian Nation, especially for his thoughts on pacifism and being “pro-life in a Kingdom way”.)  And it was Shane Claiborne’s book The Irresistible Revolution that persuaded us to move into living in community in the inner-city.  I have yet to read Jesus for President, but I’m looking forward to the tour which will bring Chris Haw and Shane to Pittsburgh on June 26th at the Union Project. 

As I listen to the interview, and prepare to go vote today, I’m asking myself a few questions.  How much can we as Christians participate in a political system that often requires choosing the lesser-of-two-evils?  How can we endorse certain political leaders without placing false hope in a “savior on capital hill” (to use Derek Webb’s words)?  How do we as the Church encourage faithful people to serve in the public sector, while still taking a “power-under” approach (Greg Boyd’s term) to serving the world rather than a “power-over” approach which brings corruption?

Mike and I returned yesterday afternoon from the PC(USA) Multicultural Conference in San Antonio.  We went to this conference hoping to gain insight about church-planting and multi-ethnic churches, given our hopes for starting a new multicultural church here in Pittsburgh.  What we experienced were frustrations, challenges, and encouragement.  This will be a long post, but it’s necessary, so please read on. 

First the frustrations: It is tempting to make “multicultural” into a buzzword.  We were given multicultrual bags, fed multicultural buffets, sang in a multicultural choir, etc.  At times it seemed the word became a meaningless adjective to which people attached anything else happening at the conference.  While the preaching was phenomenal, the music used in worship was considerably lessmulticultural than worship services at places like the Association of Presbyterian Mission Pastors conference, or World Communion Sunday at the Presbyterian Center with the Company of New Pastors.  The temptation this reveals is that of turning the idea of multiculturalism to an end in itself.  When we seek our diversity just for the diversity’s sake, we will be disappointed, because it will be robbed of all integrity and joy.  Instead, as preachers like Cyprian Kimath Guchienda, James Kim, James Lee, and Rashell Hunter reminded us, the focus should always be on Jesus.  It is Jesus who will draw all nations to himself.  It is Jesus whom people from every tongue, tribe, and nation will worship in the Kingdom of God.  When the church began on Pentecost, the multicultural vision of the nations hearing the good news in their own tongues was realized because the Spirit was empowering witness to Jesus.  

Second, the encouragements and challenges:  The best moments of the conference were those spent sitting at the feet of Jin Kim, pastor of Church of All Nations in Minneapolis, and his incredible team of interns: John, Dana, Hikari, and Joo.  Together they challenged us to examine ourselves more closely about the effects of white privilege in our own lives.  As we met with them and others at this conference and told them we’re hoping to plant a multicultural church, for the first time people were bold enough to say “but you’re two white guys.”  It was almost relieving to have people name it, instead of just looking at us funny and keeping their skepticism to themselves.  But no one told us we can’t do it, that it’s impossible for two white men to lead a multi-ethnic congregation.  Instead, we were told that we have to start wrestling with our identity.

So we’re diving further into grappling with our white privilege and the ways in which our society is a system of injustice from which we often benefit.  My own life so far has pursued the token efforts at righting my own injustices: I buy fair-trade coffee, care about the environment, speak up about politics.  But to what extent are these just guilt-relief mechanisms? My friend Austin has written about this.  I responded by quoting a book from one of the classes I’m taking right now:  Miguel de la Torre writes, “How then can those who are privileged by the present social structures find their own liberation from those structures, a liberation that can lead to their salvation? By nailing an crucifying one’s power and privilege to the cross so as to become nothing.” (Doing Christian Ethics from the Margins [Maryknoll, NY:  Orbis  2004] p. 17.)  I have failed to do this.  I moved into the neighborhood, but never crucified my ambitions at school and work, and thus have failed at even getting to know my neighbors.  What does this crucifixion truly look like?  And, as Michael asked, what are we raised to in the resurrection from this crucifixion?  Are we raised to a new awareness? To relationship?  To love? 

The bottom line is that it comes down to a ministry of reconciliation – in honesty and transparency forgiving and accepting forgiveness, both on a personal level and on a societal level.  I have to confess that (like so many others in the emerging church) I’m quick to speak out about these things on a societal level, but I fail constantly to pursue this in my personal life.  Why?  Because I forget my identity as a child of God.  I forget my identity in Christ.  Dr. Peters closed class today that reminding us that when we identify ourselves as “white-male” or “black-female” or any other label, we implicitly deny our identity in Christ.  I am a child of God before I am a white-male or any other label which can be applied to me.  We can only grapple with the effects of my privileged place in society and the ways in which we’re called to take up a cross if we recognize our identity in Christ.  For, as with the discussion of multiculturalism above, it is Jesus to whom every knee will bow.  And it is in Christ that we find reconciliation, both personal and societal, across all other barriers. 


PC(USA) Multicultural Conference

Tomorrow morning, Michael and I will be headed off to San Antonio for the PC(USA) Multicultural Conference.  In addition to eating authentic Mexican food (which I’ve missed dearly since leaving Colorado), I’m excited about the opportunity to meet leaders in the sort of ministry we’re hoping to do and to be inspired by what we learn from them.  On top of refining the vision for the church-plant, I’m also hoping to pick up some information to pass along to people from Open Door who are grappling with the call to multicultural ministry right now.  Pray that it goes well!

Brian tagged me for the Presbymeme, so it’s now my turn.  Here are the rules: 
  1. In about 25 words each, answer the following five questions;
  2. Tag five Presbyterian bloggers and send them a note to let them know they were tagged;
  3. Be sure to link or send a trackback to this post  

My answers:

1. What is your earliest memory of being distinctly Presbyterian? When I was 8, my mom’s next door neighbors were very active Baptists.  I had a crush on the girl who lived next door, so I tried to talk her into coming to the Presbyterian church sometime.  She declined.

2. On what issue/question should the PC(USA) spend LESS energy and time? Our preoccupation with maintaining existing institutional structures, as evidenced in the New Wineskins property battles.  Sometimes you just have to let go.    

3. On what issue/question should the PC(USA) spend MORE energy and time? Mission in the context of post-Christendom America.  I was glad to see that Brian and Michael both wrote “New Church Development” here.  As one who aspires to be a church-planter, I agree.  But I want to broaden the scope because the PC(USA) also needs to transform stagnant existing congregations into missional congregations and to reunite evangelism and justice. 

4. If you could have the PC(USA) focus on one passage of scripture for an entire year, what would it be?  John 17. When I went to General Assembly in 2004 and returned home disgusted by the divisiveness I encountered, I preached on this passage for my home church.  Specifically, verses 20 and 21 are what are most important: “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (NRSV). The Church’s unity models the Trinity’s unity, which reaches beyond itself in sending and being sent.

5. If the PC(USA) were an animal what would it be and why?  A turtle – it’s slow and it has a defensive shell in which it hides its head from its context.

Tagged: Jan, John, RussellDerrick, and BJ, who was tagged by Bruce Reyes-Chow and still hasn’t answered the questions!