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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.

It was a hectic morning. I’d overslept, our sixteen-month-old daughter had awakened early, and our small family was grasping for order amid the chaos of what promised to be another busy day. Trying to occupy her attention, I said,  “Why don’t we read a book?” She pointed at the bookcase, said “Book!” and proceeded to grab a copy of the Jesus Storybook BibleI opened the pages and started reading aloud. Most of the language was still far above her head, but it went straight to my heart. With a sigh of relief I thought, It’s refreshing to simply be told a story about Jesus.

Then I had a flashback. Ten years ago, I was working in a cafe in Boulder, CO. One weeknight during my closing shift, I was sweeping the floor and preparing to clean the sparsely filled cafe when I overheard a conversation between three customers. They were college-age women having a Bible study. One, who appeared to be the leader, was talking to the others who both listened attentively. As I tried to hear more, I noticed that all she was doing was telling them stories about Jesus. And the women she was speaking to kept asking questions curiously. They wanted to hear more about Him. It was beautiful. I could have continued sweeping for hours while eavesdropping on that conversation.

These two experiences stand in contrast with most of the conversations I overhear in the Church at large. We talk about a lot about things related to our life together, but it’s been a long time since I heard (or sadly, preached) a sermon that was only about how magnificent Jesus is. We have lots of good theological conversations at the seminary, but we constantly run the risk of reducing Jesus to a distant historical figure or a moral principle, instead of the compassionate divine lover of humankind that He is. This distancing of our conversation from Jesus seems to happen even more in the higher levels of the bureaucracy of denominations.

This weekend I’ll go to Detroit for the 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA). I’m not a delegate; I’ll be there to represent and promote Pittsburgh Seminary’s Church Planting Initiative. There will be a lot of talk at General Assembly, good and bad, about a lot of different issues. I’ll even engage in some of those conversations. But I think we’ll all be better off – our hearts will be more joyful, the Church will be edified, our decisions will be more faithful – if we take moments this week to set aside those debates and instead focus upon Jesus. So here’s my suggestion:

If you’re attending General Assembly, try speaking about Jesus more than yourself and more than your agenda. I want to hear you tell me about Jesus. If you’re using Twitter or Facebook throughout the Assembly, hashtag your posts with #TellMeAboutJesus. For one example of a possible tweet, a member of my congregation whom I recently asked to simply tell me about Jesus responded with, “He’s the sort of person who, when he speaks, you want to hear more.” I’m thinking that if we at GA share such holy thoughts with one another, we’ll find ourselves caught up in surprisingly beautiful conversations. Perhaps we’ll even recognize Jesus’ presence with us more clearly. I pray that the Holy Spirit will inspire our words, and guard us against any blasphemy.

So here we go . . . Tell me about Jesus.  

Sundays_Off[1]This picture is from the schedule book at the 61C Café. Keith, our manager (who is a greater saint than many churchgoers I know), wrote the note in the center a few years ago in response to other notes requesting time off. It says, “God is the only reason to take off Sunday, and even then it’s only in the morning.”

It’s been three months since I left the café and began my work at the seminary. In that transition I’ve been surprised by both how much I miss the café and how much I love my job at PTS. I’ve also been surprised at just how difficult it is to balance my work at the seminary with my work at The Upper Room and with my life as a husband and father. All these factors are making me think it’s time to begin writing that series of posts on the theology of work that I promised, beginning today with Keith’s note: “God is the only reason . . .”

In Keith’s note, God is the only valid reason to rest. In Scripture, God is actually the only valid reason to work. Let me elaborate:

The epistle reading from the daily lectionary today includes these words about work from Colossians 3: “Whatever your task, put yourselves into it, as done for the Lord and not for masters.” Ephesians 6 contains a similar command to, “Render service with enthusiasm, as to the Lord and not to men and women.” These verses fall in passages discussing how servants and masters relate to each other. Notice what Paul’s commands imply about our earthly working relationships: No matter who our bosses are, Christians are really “slaves of Christ” (Eph. 6:6).

To be a slave of Christ is not drudgery. It is to receive a gift of freedom and joy and meaning in one’s work. If Christ is our only master, we can be freed from the other gods that drive us in our work: money, people-pleasing, pride, etc. And if we offer our work, however “ordinary,” to Christ as a way of seeking to please and obey him, we can discover the deep joy of communion with Christ throughout our daily labors.

What does this look like in practice? Fr. Walter Ciszek’s book He Leadeth Me provides a stunning example. As a missionary in Poland during World War II, Ciszek was captured by the Russian military. After a season of solitary confinement and interrogation in Moscow, Ciszek was sent to work in the slave-labor camps of Siberia. There, he continued to embrace his missionary lifestyle by serving as a priest to his fellow slaves. And one of the most beautiful ways he fulfilled his priestly responsibility was through the attitude he adopted toward his work.

While other prisoners would show their rebellion against their captors by intentionally doing shoddy work, Ciszek chose to put into practice the verses quoted above from Colossians and Ephesians. He did his work well because he was offering it to God, rather than to earthly masters. By counter-culturally embracing the value of his work, Ciszek participated in God’s transfiguration of that work into a holy act.

Ciszek was able to do this because he believed that through the Incarnation, Jesus gives even deeper validity to our day-to-day labors. As Ciszek puts it,

There is a tremendous truth contained in the realization that when God became man he became a workingman. . . . For the rest of the time of his life on earth, God was a village carpenter and the son of a carpenter. He did not fashion benches or tables or bed or roof beams or plowbeams by means of miracles, but by hammer and saw, by ax and adz. (pp. 102-103)

By becoming human and working this way, the Son of God “restored to man’s work its original dignity, its essential function as a share in God’s creative act.” The fact that Jesus did this as an ordinary carpenter – work that is not obviously spiritual – means that any job which is not obviously spiritual can still be offered to God as work done for God and not for man. Any job. As Ciszek says, “God has not asked of us anything more tedious, more tiring, more routine and humdrum, more unspectacular, than God himself has done” (p. 103)

To approach our work in the holy way that Ciszek did, we need to be converted to see work as inherently good. In Genesis, God gave Adam and Even the job of tending the Garden before the Fall. Sabbath rest was also given before the Fall, and the ideal human life is meant to consist of work and rest, in the proper proportions, done in harmonious fellowship with both God and all of creation. This should mean that  any human job, even laying bricks in a Siberian labor camp, can be done in a way that glorifies God. I say this requires conversion because we’re much more used to looking at work through the lens of the Fall and the curse God spoke to Adam:

Cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return. (Genesis 3:17-19)

Because we live in a broken world and are broken people, our work is tainted by sin. Work is not always pleasant, not always successful, not always satisfying. We sinfully overindulge in our work - working constantly without boundaries or rest because of pride or greed or escapism – or we become lazy – denying the goodness of work and over-indulging in leisure. Whether we overwork or underwork, the begrudging or resentful attitude many of us take to our work is itself a manifestation of the curse. This seems to be the state where a lot of us are tempted to dwell.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. When we offer to Christ our work – whether we’re consturction workers, IT people, nurses, teachers, baristas, garbage collectors, parents, or pastors – we can labor with greater joy and freedom. Working in such a way then also translates into better rest, as well, because we’re free both to experience satisfaction in our work and to reject the voices that falsely seek to enslave us. And any job done with the intention of glorifying God can lead naturally to a Sabbath of basking in God’s presence. As Wendell Berry puts it in one of his Sabbath poems, “When we work well, a Sabbath mood/ Rests on our day, and finds it good.”

What joy might we discover, what freedom might we find, if we believed that God truly is the only reason for working?

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