Monthly Archives: April 2009

The  newspaper reported a few weeks ago on the results of the most recent American Religious Identification Survey, a broad study American religious demographic changes.  (Click here for the full report.)  The most interesting to me were these:

  •  34 million people indicated no religious identity, and that number was up 20 million from 1990, now at 15% of the total US population.
  • 27% of Americans do not expect a religious funeral.
  • For some reason Asian Americans are substantially more likely to indicate no religious identity than other racial or ethnic groups.

It seems there’s a general movement away from Christianity toward unbelief and agnosticismJohn Ortberg responded by asking whether we’re witnessing the same process of secularization that took place in Europe a few decades ag0.  While only 76% of American’s population is nominally Christian, only 3.9% consciously identified as belonging to another religion.  But, that’s not to say other religions aren’t growing:  The ARIS study found that Islam is growing in the US and that “adherents of New Religious movements, inc luding Wiccans and self-described pagans, have grown faster this decade than in the 1990s.”  But the greater trend is a movement toward uncertainty, ambiguity in belief.  Ortberg notes that

Barry Kosmin, who co-authored the survey, commented that more than ever before “people are just making up their own stories of who they are. They say, ‘I’m everything. I’m nothing. I believe in myself.'” He said that faith is increasingly treated as a fashion statement that serves as a vehicle for self-expression rather than a transcendent commitment which demands costly devotion.

So, what does this mean for a new church like The Upper Room in Squirrel Hill?  Though often considered Pittsburgh’s Jewish neighborhood, Squirrel Hill is already high on the people who would have checked “None” on the ARIS survey.  In our grant writing for The Upper Room, a Percept demographic study of the neighborhood suggested that 38.3% of the people living here have no faith committment

How does the church relate with the “Nones” of our neighborhood, especially when many of them are de-churched?  Here are some thoughts based on Lesslie Newbigin’s writing about “The Congregation as Hermeneutic of the Gospel” in The Gospel in a Pluralist Society.  There Newbigin suggests that a church in this context will have six characteristics.

  1. It will be a community of praise.
  2. It will be a community of truth.
  3. It will not live for itself, but will be “deeply involved in the concerns of its neighborhood.”
  4. It will be a place where congregation members live out their “priesthood in the world.”
  5. It will be a community of mutual responsibility.
  6. It will be a community of hope. 

Of these, I think hope, the conviction that this world and life has a purpose, may be the message that the “Nones” most need to hear.  If one doesn’t expect a religious funeral (as 27% apparently doesn’t), then there is no proclamation of hope beyond death.  And if there’s no hope beyond death, then life has no meaning.  To be rooted in our own self-constructed identities provides nothing more than a coping mechanism without any sense of larger purpose to life.  When that purpose is discovered in the Kingdom of God a clear reason for hope and purpose is given: God’s work of redeeming, healing, and restoring a broken world through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  That hope of course leads to the other characteristics Newbigin lists: experiencing restoration in our own lives leads to praise, gives us an anchor of truth, and a reason to be responsible to one another.  That hope also is what moves us forward, with all members of the community caring for the world in concrete ways, specifically in our own neighborhood and workplaces. 

So, where do we proclaim hope in Squirrel Hill?  In the face of depression, loneliness, addiction? Into broken relationships and places of grief?   Into the places where the economic crisis has affected even a relatively well-to-do neighborhood?  I don’t think this is the only answer or way of approaching the un-religious population, but it’s a start.  It’s certainly not a vague or ambiguous hope we’re called to proclaim: it’s the hope of the resurrection of the crucified Jesus which means it will never lead to easy answers.

“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” Romans 15:13


Come join us this afternoon for “Converge: A Picnic in the Park Celebrating Diversity Through Music and Dance”!  It runs from 12:00-4:00 up at Frick Park.  Go in the Blue Slide entrance (Beechwood & Nicholson) and walk along the path toward the dog park.  We’ll have live music from Kim Faught, the Guinea West African Drum and Dance Ensemble, and Joy Ike.   Bring some food and a blanket and prepare for a fun afternoon of music in the park.  For more, go here.

Sometimes I get hungry while I’m at the cafe.  Thankfully, one of my coworkers there makes some excellent homemade granola.  So in the middle of a long closing shift, a cup of this granola with a little soy-milk hits the spot.  But a couple weeks ago, as I was munching away on my granola we suddenly got slammed with a line of customers.  Some wanted smoothies – which take a while to make – others wanted coffee or espresso drinks.  I was hungry, but customers took priority.  When I finally got back to my granola, it was soggy. It occurred to me later that my soggy granola was a suitable analogy for the spiritual life of those in ministry. 

When we got busy, I had to put my need for nourishment on hold to serve others.  How often do people engaged in ministry feel like they’re forced to do the same thing, resulting in a soggy prayer/spiritual/devotional life?  The past few weeks have been very busy for everyone involved in The Upper Room, and it’s been tempting to set aside spiritual disciplines like prayer and scripture reading because “there’s just not enough time.”  We even had this problem Sunday before our worship service: going straight from a long planning meeting for Converge to Phipps to set up for worship, we felt so rushed that we forgot to pray before the service began.  Not good.

So this prompts the question: How do we maintain healthy spiritual nutrition during our busiest times?  The obvious answer is to slow down and build times of sabbath, daily office, rest and reflection into our schedules.  But sometimes the demands of ministry won’t fit into our schedules.  And still the nourishment necessary, lest we look to other things to satisfy the hungers that arise when we’re stressed.  (The granola at the cafe also keeps me from being tempted to eat less healthy things such as the cookies or muffins we serve.)  Attempting (emphasis on the attempt) to pray silently during busy times, taking advantage of short moments of rest, and pausing to read short passages of scripture in the midst of busy-ness have helped for me. (Having internet access on my phone is great: wherever I am I can open up the daily lectionary and read for a moment, whether I’m walking or at the cafe or on the bus).  But I’m curious how other people handle this challenge.  Thoughts anyone?

I’ve been auditing a class on Lesslie Newbigin over at the seminary, and it’s the reading I’m doing today to prepare for tomorrow night’s class that’s prompting me to write this.  This week we’re reading Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture.   Newbigin continues to blow my mind, particularly with new insights into the true significance of parts of the Church’s work.  This week Newbigin’s inspired me to reflect more on The Upper Room’s hope to become a multi-ethnic/multi-cultural church.  Up until now, most of our conversation about “why” we want to be a multi-ethnic church has been answered by “because we’re supposed to be.”  We point to Acts 2 and Ephesians 2 and Revelation 7 as examples of how the early church pursued unity across cultural barriers.  We’ve also talked a lot about the importance of overcoming the racism latent in Pittsburgh’s culture.  But reading Newbigin has reminded me of yet another reason why becoming a multi-cultural church matters: We need to become a multi-ethnic/multi-cultural church so that we can understand the Gospel more fully.

As Newbigin points out in Foolishness to the Greeks, the Gospel is never without a cultural context.  We cannot speak of “the Gospel” in abstract.  Because all of life is embedded in culture and because our culture shapes the way we see and understand the world, we can only speak of the Gospel as it is articulated within different cultures or languages.  Thus in a neighborhood like Squirrel Hill, the Gospel is manifest in different ways in each of the different cultures where a Christian community exists: there’s the white-middle-class-academic-Gospel, the Russian-immigrant-Gospel, the messianic-Jewish-Gospel, the Korean-American-Gospel, the African-American-Gospel, and so on.  This is good, because for the message of Jesus to be understood, it must be fully translated into and articulated within each cultural context. 

We’re still missing something, though, because once the Gospel becomes embedded in our own culture, we end up with a Jesus who may look too much like ourselves.  While contextualization is necessary for communication, we risk misunderstanding the Gospel, or ending up with a truncated understanding of it (such as the reductionistic message often preached by white evangelical American churches).  But if the Gospel is incarnate in every one of these different cultures, then each culture can proclaim the Gospel to each other culture in a way that enriches and strengthens each culture. To quote Newbigin: “Each side, perceiving Christ through the spectacle of one culture, can help the other to see how much the vision has been blurred or distorted” (Foolishness to the Greeks; Eerdmans 1986  p. 9).  This means that we need each other to sharpen and correct each other’s understandings of the Gospel.   Our understanding, and thus our proclamation, of the Gospel is partial, broken, fragmentary, and in need of exposure to the Gospel incarnate in every other culture for healing and correction of the very message we preach. 

I think this perspective is important to have for two reasons as we strive toward becoming a multi-ethnic church.  First, it places the focus on Jesus rather than on ourselves or on cultural differences which could otherwise be objectified and stereotyped.  We seek this because we seek Jesus – not because we seek to justify ourselves, or be do-gooders, or rectify our white-guilt.  We seek the Risen Christ at work among all peoples of this earth so that the Risen Christ would be glorified.  Second, it requires humility.  True reconciliation between cultures can’t be forced. It won’t come out of arrogance or pushiness, but postures of confession, contrition, and honest humility may open us up to reconciliation.  To seek to understand the Gospel more fully through encountering it in another culture requires teach-ability – a willingness to not be the expert, to be humble, to place oneself in a posture of confessing our need for understanding.

Two quick updates on things for Upper Room:

1) TONIGHT we have our first service at Phipps Conservatory.  It will be in Botany Hall at 7:00PM.  Look for the signs outside. Check our website for details about Phipps and our Holy Week schedule.

2) We’re also featured in this month’s issue of Squirrel Hill Magazine!  There’s a full page article about us on page 22, as well as a blurb later on in a section called “This Just In”.  It comes out in the mail this week to everyone in the 15217 zip code.  Extra copies are available at select places in Squirrel Hill, including 61C Cafe.

As a part of our moderator Bruce’s challenge to have a Presbyterian Bloggers Unite Campus Ministry Day, I want to pay tribute to The Annex, the university ministry of First Pres Boulder.  The Annex meant a lot to me during my time at the University of Colorado.  It provided a home for me as a lonely freshman.  Faithful adults from from First Pres like Jim Fletemeyer and Dean Schulz lead “core groups” where students who were leaders in the university ministry came together for fellowship and Bible study.   The Annex was also (one of the places) where I met Eileen – a full seven-and-a-half years ago.   Recognizing all of these blessings, I’m very grateful for The Annex and First Pres Boulder. 

As I go about the work of church-planting now, though, I’m especially grateful for one thing: My experience with The Annex taught me to be a missionary. 

First,the culture of The Annex was “missional” long before missional became a buzz-word.  It was assumed that The Annex existed not for our own sake, but to proclaim Jesus to CU’s campus.  Of course we did this in large outreach/advertising things, such as giving away thousands of cans of pop and bottled water on the first day of classes with tags inviting people to the Tuesday night worship gatherings.  But more importantly, students in The Annex were taught that their witness in personal relationships, in their academic work, and in their vocations mattered.  The message that all Christians have a vocation of gospel-proclamation was implicit in all we did.  Living in a city like Boulder and attending school at CU, no one had any delusions of “Christendom” – the fact that the post-Christian West is a mission-field was readily apparent to anyone involved.  This was a reflection of First Pres Boulder’s missional nature: as a church concerned with growing the Kingdom, they generously supported a very large university ministry, even though few of those students went to worship there on Sunday mornings.   That is Kingdom-thinking.

Second, The Annex emphasized global mission and provided mission trips all around the world which helped students grow in their faith and gave them a chance to serve in other countries.  As freshmen, Eileen and I went on a short trip to Jamaica.  Two summers later, I spent two months in Chiang Mai, Thailand, teaching English through their Messenger program.  The next summer Eileen went to Poland.  My time in Thailand transformed me: I came back healthier spiritually, mentally, and physically; I had a confirmed sense of call to ministry; and I  had experienced cross-cultural ministry in powerful and challenging ways.  Messenger didn’t just have this effect on me, but on a number of my friends, too: Sarah (married to Jonathan, both of whom were in Chiang Mai with me), Jimmy, and Anna (and a number of others who don’t have blogs for me to link to here).

The Annex grew from about 120 students on Tuesday nights to over 700 over our four years there.  I’m convinced that this was because it took its missionary vocation seriously.  Of course, success in ministry shouldn’t be measured solely by numbers.  That’s why I wanted to share my story here today:  if so many of us Annex alumni see the world with missionary eyes, then the ministry of The Annex and First Pres Boulder has had an exponential effect in growing the Kingdom of God.   This is what leads to seeds “multiplying thirty, sixty, and a hundred times” (Mark 4:8).  And that should be the hope of campus ministry – reaching people at a time and place in their lives when they can go forward and have an exponential missional impact for the Kingdom of God.