Monthly Archives: July 2008

The Church Basement Roadshow

If you’re in Pittsburgh this Saturday night, August 2nd, come to the new home of Hot Metal Bridge (2700 Jane St., South Side), and hear Tony Jones, Doug Pagitt, and Mark Scandrette in the Church Basement Roadshow.  It starts at 7:00pm, and there’s $10 suggested donation.  Their new website Rethink Christianity is definitely worth a look, too.

When I share our vision statement for the new church with friends who aren’t familiar with the PC(USA), they’re struck by the words “submission and service” to the PC(USA) and the Church universal.  In an otherwise missional-sounding statement, here’s this sudden note of denominationalism, something antithetical to the missional renewal of the Church.  Denominationalism (defined as pledging one’s allegiance to a particular denomination rather than to the whole of the Body of Christ) is dying.  This is good. Our denominations, however, are not dying – they are being reshaped.  Last week I wrote a post on Presbymergent about a new paper the PC(USA)’s Office of Theology and Worship put out this month called “Rebuilding the Presbyterian Establishment.” A number of people have contributed great comments about the paper as well, so please go read them.  Simply put, I think the paper reflects the denomination’s preoccupation with self-preservation and the striving for institutional power and social influence.  


How can we get past the bureaucratic mindset of church as a manageable human institution and move towards church as a demonstration of God’s Kingdom (G-3.0200)? I am going into ministry in the PC(USA) because I want to be a part what God’s doing to reshape it into something new.  My dream is to see the PC(USA) be reshaped into something that better reflects the Kingdom: contagious, passionate, relational, just, loving, self-sacrificing, at times subversive, and above-all committed to the lordship of Christ alone.  Greg Boyd wrote in his book Myth of a Christian Nation about God’s Kingdom being one that exercises power under rather than power over.  For the church to exercise power under people or society is to spend itself in service and mission, trusting God for its sustenance, vision, and future. And that may even mean that institutions in their current forms have to die before there can be resurrection.


The funny thing is, our Book of Order even reflects this vision. “The church is called to undertake this mission even at the risk of losing its life, trusting in God alone as the author and giver of life, sharing the Gospel, and doing those deeds in the world that point beyond themselves to the new reality in Christ” (G-3.0400).  What if we actually believed this?  Would we trust in God more than in our endowments?  Would we make decisions through prayer and discernment rather than politicized debate?

When I think of how our new church will hopefully participate in the denomination, I pray that it will do so as a voice that exercises power under rather than power over, as a witness that points to the priority of mission over self-preservation.  And I pray that as other creative new ministries across the country choose to participate in the PC(USA) – rather than to abdicate responsibility to their denomination – that we will be reshaped into a truer demonstration of God’s coming Kingdom.

I’m really excited about a series of books I recently discovered: Brazos Press’s Christian Practices of Everyday Life Series.  Last week I finished reading Norman Wirzba’s Living the Sabbath.  Impressed by Wirzba’s articulation of the importance (and challenging counter-cultural call) of living a sabbath lifestyle in our world, I decided to check out some of the other books in the series.  Now I’m reading Eric Jacobsen’s Sidewalks in the Kingdom: New Urbanism and the Christian Faith, and Eileen’s reading Elizabeth Newman’s Untamed Hospitality.  If you’re looking for thoughtful books on how to live out your faith in the midst of contemporary culture, these are definitely worth your time.

Can an introvert plant a church?  Or, better yet, can two introverts plant a church together?  Contrary to at least one person out there, I believe we can.  Adam McHugh has a great blog for introverts in the church (and is working on a book which I can’t wait to read), and he made room for some discussion about this on his blog a while ago.  (Thanks, Adam, for linking me a while ago, too!) 

Several reasons why I think an introverted personality is actually helpful for the specific new church development work we’ll be doing:

  • The cultures represented in the neighborhood of our NCD require us to participate in interreligious dialogue.  This requires a certain intellectual bent, for which an introverted personality is helpful.
  • Introverts prefer serious conversation over small-talk, and in a well-educated neighborhood (right next to a major university), serious conversation won’t be hard to find.
  • We don’t plan to become a mega-church.  Instead, our vision is highly relational and discipleship-focused, which means that we value deep relationships over many shallow ones.

When Eileen and I travelled through Chicago on our vacation in June, we stopped to visit Nanette Sawyer, pastor of Wicker Park Grace, another Presbyterian NCD.  As we talked about Wicker Park over lunch, she shared that she’s an introvert.  Wicker Park is small, and thus intimately relational among its members.  It’s not evangelically extroverted, but the Spirit is doing great things within the congregation.  From what we saw when we were there, it seems Nanette is able to lead the congregation at Wicker Park precisely because her personality was compatible with the personality of the congregation: contemplative and intellectual.  (Nanette, I hope this is a fair characterization – please correct me if I’m wrong!) 

My hopeful (but as of yet untested) opinion is that the key to being an introvert in church-planting is finding that rhythm of contemplation and rest that recharges one’s batteries, in turn providing energy for the more labor-intensive times of needing to meet new people.  It’s just the same on the congregational level.  A new church has to be “outgoing” in order to survive, but it also needs time to contemplate in order to solidify its identity.  This is why our vision statement includes “equipping” and “sending”.  They aren’t stages in a process – they’re rhythms of being equipped and being sent which the whole congregation will need to live into every day.   And if that rhythm is present, I believe that introverts can be very effective church-planters.  Now please pray that I’m right.

Two years ago, Eileen and I moved into a home with three other people (two of whom were married and have since had a child).  Writing about that move, I said we were starting a season of community.  Last week, that season came to a close as Eileen and I moved to a duplex in the Squirrel Hill.  Last night with our men’s group from The Open Door, I shared that it’s a bittersweet feeling to have moved.  Eileen and I are happy to have our own place – more space, a kitchen all to ourselves, a study where I can keep all my books and read and write in peace and quiet.  And there’s the rub: the emphasis in my mind has been on “our” and “my”.  In some ways moving out is an admission that I am not good at living in community.  We knew it would be a spiritual discipline to live with others, but what it revealed in me is much that still needs to be sanctified: my selfishness, my attachment to “my” possessions, my desire to sneak away and hide from the world at times. 

And this is why I will miss the ways in which I saw Christ shining through our old housemates, the ways in which I saw the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit alive in them: Alison’s passion for justice and her desire for open and honest communication.  Kendall’s selfless and saintly work for his church, ELDI, and the communities of East Liberty and Garfield.  Jen’s natural pastoral concern for others.  Lucia’s reflection of the image of God and the beauty of creation, life, and new birth.  The house garden growing organic vegetables in our backyard.  I thank God for them and pray that God will continue to bless them and use them for the good of the Kingdom.

The end of one season is also the beginning of another, though.  As the men’s group sat in our living room last night, being brutally honest with each other in a way that can only happen through the work of the Spirit, I had a foretaste of what’s ahead of us.  In the coming months, that space will be where the core group of members for the new congregation will meet.  We’ll pray with each other, eat with each other, share various parts of our lives with each other. Just as in the cycles of life and death everywhere else in creation, one season has ended but a new one with new life is beginning, and I look forward to watching what blooms.