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Holy Week is my favorite time of year to be a pastor. That’s not to say it isn’t stressful. It is intense and tiring. But the extra effort seems worthwhile because of what it allows: For one week, we focus solely on Jesus. For one week, all the petty distractions and concerns that disproportionately consume our ministries during the rest of the year fade away. For one week, we pay attention to the one thing needful.

For a few years, our young church has hosted a full set of Holy Week services. At The Upper Room, we observe Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Vigil, Easter Sunrise, and our regular 11:00 a.m. worship on Easter Sunday. This seems uncommon among Presbyterians – a bit too “high church” for some of our sister churches. It’s also a lot for a small congregation to take on. With only 40 regular attendees on a Sunday morning, you may expect our church to have a sparse turnout at so many midweek services, but people come. One year we were filled to overflowing on Good Friday. People seem to come to church with an increasingly genuine hunger for Jesus in this season. And all the extra services are worthwhile if the Holy Spirit uses them to draw one person more deeply into love with Jesus.

By walking through every part of the narrative of Holy Week, we also “wrap our lives around Jesus’ life.”[1]  It’s the core story of our faith, that narrative which formed and forms us. By hearing the story anew, we’re reminded both of who we are and who we’re becoming in Christ. We start to see ourselves in the people surrounding Jesus: On Thursday we may identify with the Beloved Disciple, resting our heads against Jesus’ chest in intimate fellowship. Then as the story continues, we recognize the Judas within ourselves, we identify with Peter’s betrayal, and we watch with Mary as her son dies.

But then a beautiful thing happens: At the Easter Vigil, we join with the angels in proclaiming the victory of Light over darkness. When the sun rises on Sunday morning, we feel the magnitude of the resurrection more strongly. Having dwelt with Jesus through those hours of betrayal and agony yields for us a deeper joy, such that when we contemplate the glory of the resurrection, we too experience transformation into the ever-increasing glory of Jesus’ likeness (2 Cor 3:18). The Apostle Paul said that we “share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory” (Rom 8:17), and dwelling deeply in the narrative of Holy Week gives us a taste of such transformation from suffering to glory.

Of course, this all will happen in a messy, incarnate manner. A child may spill her food at Thursday’s agapé meal. It will be freezing cold on Sunday morning and my fingers will go numb while playing guitar in the park at sunrise. All of this is taking place in the context of a church plant in Pittsburgh where we’re still struggling to follow Jesus together. But that’s exactly what this week is about: following Jesus together, wrapping our lives around his death and his life, so that his glory can shine in our lives.

As we experience Holy Week, may the Lord give us the grace to soak in the story of his passion and resurrection. May we delight in the extra work, the extra worship, the extra time spent adoring Christ upon the cross. And may our current sufferings prove unworthy of comparison to the glory that is being revealed to us.

This post first appeared on the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary blog.

[1] Our church picked up this phrase from the bridge of the popular worship song “Center” by Charlie Hall: “We lift our eyes to heaven; we wrap our lives around Your life.”

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st-patrick-228x300On March 17, Americans celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. Cities like Pittsburgh celebrate with parades. Revelers will indulge in Irish-themed food and drinks, even beer that’s been artificially dyed green. Amusing and entertaining as these festivities may be, they reveal little to us of the glorious ways God moved through humble Patrick’s life and ministry.

Like St. Nicholas – the fourth-century bishop who rescued impoverished girls from prostitution, but whom the world has transformed into Santa Claus – St. Patrick was a saint whose original story of holiness we need to hear afresh today. The real St. Patrick was a man of prayer and discipline as well as an evangelist who baptized – by his own account – “many thousands of people.”[1] And that means that St. Patrick sets a valuable example for those of us who seek to start and lead new churches today.

Based upon St. Patrick’s autobiography, his Confession, here are five lessons which Patrick can teach us:

  1. Patrick was humble. He begins his Confession with the words, “I am Patrick, a sinner, most unlearned, the least of all the faithful, and utterly despised by many.”  Patrick confesses that he’s uneducated and a poor writer. He talks about his failures more than his successes, sharing how his trials were used by God to sanctify him: “. . . thus I was purged by the Lord and He made me fit so that I might be now what was once far from me – that I should care and labor for the salvation of others, whereas then I did not even care about myself.”[2] When he does mention his successes, he’s quick to attribute them to God’s power working through him, never his own strength.
  2. Patrick knew Scripture inside and out. The edition of the Confession which I’m citing here italicizes every allusion to the Bible. The effect is startling: Patrick couldn’t go more than a few sentences without quoting Scripture. He interpreted every major event of his life in terms of Scripture. His knowledge of Scripture went beyond academic knowledge to form and shape every aspect of his life.
  3. Patrick was a man of prayer. Patrick recounts that as a teenage shepherd, long before his public ministry, he prayed hundreds of prayers each day. Fasting and nighttime prayer vigils were regular parts of Patrick’s life. This life of prayer both prepared Patrick for the powerful ministry which God performed through him and enabled Patrick to discern God’s call upon his life. In a scene reminiscent of the Apostle Paul’s vision of the Macedonian man in Acts 16:9-10, Patrick had a vision in which a man from Ireland begged him to come back and minister there. Prayer determined Patrick’s participation in God’s mission.
  4. Patrick loved his flock. Patrick was originally from Britain, and first went to Ireland as a captive slave. He eventually escaped and returned in freedom to Britain, but God called him to return to the people who had once enslaved him. Despite longings to go home to Britain or to visit Gaul, Patrick resolved not to abandon his call to stay in Ireland because he loved the people entrusted to his care. In his own words, “as regards the heathen among whom I live, I have been faithful to them, and so shall I be.” [3]
  5. Patrick did not seek his own gain. Near the end of the Confession, Patrick insists that he never charged fees for the ministry he performed. He writes, “I know perfectly well, though not by my own judgment, that poverty and misfortune becomes me better than riches and pleasures. For Christ the Lord, too, was poor for our sakes; and I, unhappy wretch that I am, have no wealth even if I wished for it.” Patrick knew that he was not called to profit from the gospel, but to give his life freely in service of One who had given him new life.

In light of these aspects of Patrick’s life, leaders of church plants and new worshiping communities today would do well to ask ourselves a few questions:

  1. Do we acknowledge our failures and embrace our hardships, letting God use them to grow compassion and humility within us?
  2. How deeply has Scripture shaped the pattern of our lives? Do our visions for ministry come from God through prayer, or from our own ambitions and egos?
  3. Do we love the people to whom God has sent us so deeply that we would stay with them no matter the cost?

Patrick’s world was not that different from our own, and Patrick’s ministry was fruitful not because he became like the world around him, but because he pursued God with zeal and unflinching devotion. May God give us the humility, prayerfulness, and faithfulness of the real St. Patrick.

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[1] St. Patrick’s Confession, as printed in Readings in World Christian History: Vol. I: Earliest Christianity to 1453, eds. John W. Coakley and Andrea Sterk (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis 2004) p. 223

[2] Confession p. 225

[3] Confession  p. 227

This post was first published on the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary blog.

New research on the Fresh Expressions movement in the Church of England was released this month, suggesting that new forms of church will not solve the problem of declining church attendance. In a small-scale study, the Rev. Dr. John Walker compared five fresh expressions – creative, highly-contextual ministries like pub churches or child-friendly “messy” churches – with five traditional parishes, observing that both the traditional and innovative churches seemed equally successful at “attracting the non-churched.” Translation: changing your worship style isn’t the way to bring unchurched people sitting in your pews.

On one level, this isn’t news. In Fresh Expressions’ language, we need a “mixed economy” of traditional and innovative ministries to faithfully proclaim the Gospel to diverse peoples. Though Walker’s observations could sound antagonistic toward pioneers of new forms of ministry, Walker writes in support of the mixed economy, arguing that the Church needs both traditional and new models of mission. Again, new worship styles aren’t the solution to declining church attendance.

But the reaction to this news reveals the anxiety latent in our shrinking churches. In a world where the Church is experiencing declining worship attendance and waning public influence, the Church fretfully waits for news of any way we can draw. The anxiety is captured well by Canon Kerry Thorpe, a leader of a fresh expression who was studied by Walker, who opened a review of Walker’s book by saying “Well, do they pass or don’t they?” People want to know: will new worshiping communities save our denominations?

Thorpe summarizes Walker’s findings, saying the answer is both “Yes, and no.” But Thorpe helpfully notes a constructive finding in Walker’s work, the finding that new Christians in these communities shared a common journey which Walker called the “Transformative Cycle.”

In the Transformative Cycle, these women and men had experienced significant life-events which, when processed in relationship with a Christian community, led them to come to a new self-understanding that included a deepened Christian identity. For example, a recent divorcee is invited to a small group where she experiences loving community. That community, in turn, responds to her questions about faith and journeys alongside her. Over time, the love of the community and the Gospel communicated to her through them leads the woman to make a new commitment to follow Christ. An earlier version of Walker’s study noted that the Transformative Cycle happened most often in congregations with a strong “culture of care” and an ability to communicate the tradition of the Church through that care (p. 117). Translation: Relationships with committed Christians lead to personal transformation.

Walker’s work on the Transformative Cycle is much more detailed and nuanced, but churches where the Transformative Cycle takes place share a culture of hospitality and deep relationships. This should inform the questions we’re asking about our churches, whether they were planted one year ago or one hundred years ago.

First, we should begin with relationships. With whom has God already put us in relationship? Are we hospitable to our neighbors? Do we habitually invite new people deeper into our circles? Then we ought to ask ourselves about what gospel is communicated through those relationships. Do we speak naturally about what God has done and is doing in our lives? Do we preach ourselves, or do we speak and act as loving servants of Christ the Lord (2 Cor 4:5)?Regardless of the outward form or worship style of our churches, are we a people who communicate Gospel in community?

Starting with these questions reframes the earlier question about Fresh Expressions: “Well, do they lead to transformed lives or don’t they?” Many do, and we should pray for the grace to become part of transformative Christian communities ourselves. May the Holy Spirit lead us forward in faithful mission, to the glory of the One who underwent the transformative cycle of death and resurrection for us and our salvation.

This post originally appeared on the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary blog.

This post originally appeared on the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary Blog on February 12, 2015:

A few nights ago, I found myself live-tweeting a sermon. I was so moved, I couldn’t contain my enthusiasm. But there was no one around to hear if I said, “Amen.” So I took to the Internet.

The sermon I was reading was the sermon preached by the Rev. Henry Highland Garnet to the US Congress Feb. 12, 1865. He stood before them as a 50-year-old, disabled, former slave who had become known around the nation as passionate abolitionist and pastor. He preached from Matthew 23:4, where Jesus condemns the Pharisees for tying up heavy burdens on others which they themselves won’t lift. Seamlessly, Garnet drew a parallel between the Pharisees and those who maintained the institution of slavery, placing heavy burdens on the shoulders of his brothers and sisters. Garnet’s sermon before Congress was delivered after the 13th Amendment (abolishing slavery) had been approved by Congress, but before it had been ratified by the states. Garnet was known as an accomplished (and controversial) orator, but his words that day were rooted in his life experience.

Born into slavery in Maryland in 1815, Garnet’s family escaped when he was nine years old and moved north to Bucks County, Pa. The family eventually settled in New York City. After two years at the African Free School, Garnet sailed as a cabin boy on ships to Cuba and served as a cook and steward on ships travelling between New York and Washington, DC. A traumatic leg injury in 1830 led him to return to school at the Noyes Academy in Canaan, N.H.

But the trauma only continued: the Noyes Academy was burned down by an angry mob who disapproved of educating African Americans. Garnet next enrolled in the Oneida Theological Institute, then a progressive Presbyterian school known to support black students, from which he graduated in 1839. The next year his leg was amputated due to complications from his earlier accident. But that didn’t slow Garnet down in any way. Over the next decades of his ministry, Garnet was an abolitionist, a pastor, an advocate of fair trade as an economic means to fight slavery, and a college president. The last role is what brought him to Pittsburgh.

Garnet arrived in Pittsburgh in 1868 as the newly appointed President of Avery College, on Pittsburgh’s North Side. Avery College had been founded by a Methodist abolitionist and served as a station on the Underground Railroad, and when Garnet arrived it served as a school for African Americans. While in Pittsburgh, Garnet was a bivocational church planter, working at Avery College while also organizing and laying the foundation for Grace Memorial Presbyterian Church (where Ron Peters, founding director of the Seminary’s Metro-Urban Institute, now serves). After leaving Pittsburgh, Garnet again served as a pastor in New York before being appointed as the United States ambassador to Liberia.

One-hundred and fifty years after Garnet spoke to Congress, his life still can speak volumes to us today. Our systems of racial injustice need to hear his prophetic condemnation. Our economy needs to hear his advocacy of fair-trade. And our churches need to follow his example of uniting biblical proclamation with prophetic action, especially as we pioneer new worshiping communities.

In the tradition of the Church, saints are honored and celebrated on the anniversary of their deaths. On Feb. 12, 1882, 17 years after his famous sermon to Congress and while serving as a diplomat in Liberia, Garnet passed away and entered the Promised Land of eternal freedom. May the Lord grant us the grace to honor Garnet’s legacy through our ministries this day.

To read Garnet’s sermons directly, see Lift Every Voice: African American Oratory ed. Philip S. Foner and Robert Brantham (Univ. of Alabama Press, 1997).

This post originally appeared on the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary Blog on December 8, 2014:

For weeks now, social media has been filled with reactions to the grand jury decisions about the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. The whole nation has been talking again about race and police brutality. I’ve been hesitant to chime in. As a privileged person, I’ve thought this is a season when I’m called to listen more than speak. And listening well, I believe, leads to prayer. In this case, my prayers have mostly consisted of a simple plea: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us. I pray this because my limited experience in cross-cultural ministry has taught me just how much we need the Lord’s help.

When my friend Mike Gehrling and I set out to plant The Upper Room in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pa., six years ago, we said we wanted to be a “multi-cultural” congregation. Mike had experience working in a cross-cultural setting as the English speaking pastor at a Korean congregation. I had spent two years living in the mostly African-American neighborhood, the place about which my humble and wise friend Jen Pelling recently wrote in her post “Walking While White”. Given these experiences, both Mike and I both thought we had a passion for cross-cultural ministry and a calling to lead a multi-ethnic church.

I did, and still do, believe that planting new, intentionally multi-ethnic churches is one of the best ways to combat racism in America. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is often quoted as having said that “eleven o’clock on Sunday morning” is “the most segregated hour of Christian America.” But as Aaron Howard, the pastor of As One Fellowship says and shows in this video, “We’re working to change that through the love of Jesus Christ.” New congregations have the potential to break down the walls that divide us by committing from their inception to pursue cross-cultural relationships and to speak explicitly against racism and injustice. That is what we wanted to do.

When Mike and I shared our plan with the leader of one prominent multicultural church several years ago, he bluntly stated what I’m sure many others were thinking: “But you’re two white men. And you think you can plant a multi-ethnic church?” We were naïve, but we were confident of the calling God gave us. But confidence doesn’t make fulfilling a calling easy.

Two years into that journey, we changed the way we spoke about the congregation. By claiming to be multi-cultural, we were (at that time) shining a spotlight on our Korean member. What we thought was well-intentioned felt like tokenism. So we began to speak of being a cross-cultural church, a community that believes God calls us into relationships that cross cultural, ethnic, and economic barriers. Changing the language we used was easy, but our newer adjective carries an even weightier calling. A cross-cultural church will not only cross cultural barriers, it will be cruciform, shaped by the cross of Christ. To truly be a multicultural church we have to both take up our crosses and actively live counter-culturally. Those who claim to have a passion for reconciliation should expect to bear in their own bodies the passion of Christ.

According to our denomination’s low bar, we now barely meet the standard for being multi-cultural: having one-fifth our worshiping congregation representing “non-majority” people groups. It’s still an uphill battle, and thanks to the honesty and vulnerability of a few current members of the congregation, we’re beginning again to intentionally press toward becoming a more authentically cross-cultural church.

We’re not giving up because the Church is called to be a community where the “mystery of Christ” is proclaimed and embodied. The Apostle Paul wrote, “This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members of one body, and sharers together in the promise of Jesus Christ” (Eph 3:6 NIV). The Gospel has from the very beginning included a calling to unite people groups who once excluded each other. The Father’s purpose in sending the Son was “to create in himself one new humanity out of [Israel and the Gentiles] . . . to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility” (Eph 2:15-16).

That means that this Advent, as we confess our need for Christ and our hope in his return, we wait upon the One who comes to put to death our hostilities. We are not capable of achieving reconciliation or peace or justice alone. Only the Christ, who from the cross could have cried “I can’t breathe,” can tear down our dividing walls. Only his Holy Spirit can inspire the creation of counter-culturally integrated churches. And I believe that such reconciliation is the Father’s cross-cultural purpose for us in Christ. Come Lord Jesus.

I‘m starting to measure the value of a book by whether or not it makes me want to pray. This book succeeded, even to the point of bringing tears to my eyes as God used it to speak to me about life in the congregation which I help lead.

Marks of the Missional Church is unique in that it is a book that you can’t merely read. It’s a book that’s meant to be practiced, prayed, and pondered in the company of others. As its subtitle suggests, Marks of the Missional Church emphasizes both the importance of the gathered community of faith and the practices in which they engage. The authors write with a love of the Church and awareness that life in community with others is not optional for one who believes in and follows Jesus Christ. That gathered community, in turn, engages in distinctive practices through which God forms them and allows them to participate in the ongoing story of Jesus Christ’s redemption of the world. These are missional practices, rhythms of life and action that invite others into the Kingdom of God. Practices like the study of Scripture and corporate prayer form a community that embodies the mission of God in Jesus Christ, leading that community naturally to practices like hospitality, attentive listening to the needs of the world, and selfless service.

The brilliant aspect of the book is the way it makes reading it become a practice in and of itself. Every chapter is structured around a Collect and Benediction. That format puts the reader a place of prayerful reflection and formation, not just study.  Because the reflection questions at the end of each chapter are framed with the Collect and Benediction, there’s potential for small group discussions of the book to feel like a dynamic participation in worship. Well chosen narratives illustrate the points of each chapter, further inviting readers to experience God’s power forming them into missional disciples.   

For having three separate authors who took turns writing the chapters, Marks of the Missional Church also has a remarkably consistent tone and style. The Collect/Benediction format aids in maintaining this consistency, as does the repeated thesis statement upon which every chapter elaborates:

“The church participates in God’s mission by proclaiming to the whole world – all classes and cultures, all ages and genders, all nationalities and races – that God is holy love and, through Jesus, God is transforming a people who embody that holy love as empowered and knit together by the Holy Spirit, a sign that the Kingdom of God is here.”

I like the emphasis on holy. Structured around the four marks of the Church in the Nicene Creed (One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic), this book seems unique in its emphasis upon holiness. To be sent into the world does not necessarily mean being like the world. Rather, God calls out a holy people to proclaim the praises of the One who calls us out of darkness and into marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9). My favorite paragraph of the entire book sums this up well:

The universal sent-ness of God’s people on a mission finds expression in the holiness of God’s church. The credibility of the church’s witness depends on it. Holiness is apostolic in nature. Holiness equips the church to practice its vocation as ambassadors of love and grace. (p. 112)

Amen. May the Holy Spirit indeed use this book to form many holy and missional new Christian communities who bear witness to the loving reign of God revealed in Jesus.

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 and 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.

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