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Church-Planting

My three year old daughter just entered the “Why?” phase of childhood. Everything around us provides endless possibilities for questions. Why is it dark out? Why do I have to go to sleep? Why don’t we eat boogers? As I’ve listened to her unending curiosity, I’ve become convinced that this inquisitiveness is one reason why Jesus called us to become like little children (Mt 18:2-4). Childlike curiosity actually enables us to more faithfully participate in what Jesus is doing around us in the world.

That means that for pastors and churches in rapidly changing ministry contexts, questions are far more valuable than more static programs or tools. Asking questions puts us in postures of humility and dependence, a posture where we wait upon God and learn to listen to the Holy Spirit. Once we adopt that posture, it’s time to think critically about what kinds of questions we ask. Here are three kinds of questions which can help you engage your whole congregation in more vibrant mission and ministry:

Who is our congregation?

A recent blog post at “Hacking Christianity” tells the story of Brad Laurvick, a Methodist pastor in Denver whose vision for ministry was transformed when another pastor identified himself as pastor to the people of a whole city, not just pastor to a church. That expansive vision of a parish led Laurvick to look for opportunities to serve the community outside the church, including serving ice cream for charity at a local creamery. His thinking demonstrates the ideas of the book The New Parish which encourages churches to recapture their mission to serve and witness to their immediate geographical contexts.

Who is included in your parish? Would the members of your church include their unchurched neighbors in their “congregation”? Do you define yourself as pastor of First Presbyterian Church, or as pastor to the town of Indiana, Pa.? To whom has God sent you?

What is right in our church/neighborhood/town/community context?

It’s too easy to identify and dwell on what is not going well in and around the Church. But what if we asked what is right? This practice is called appreciative inquiry. Consider it an application of Philippians 4:8 to your parish or your ministry context: “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable – if there is any excellence or anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

Look at your community: Where do you see truth, justice, and beauty happening? How can we lift up the people, events, or parts of a neighborhood culture that are commendable? A world that often hears the Church pointing out what’s wrong might be pleasantly surprised to encounter Christians with eyes to see how God’s latent goodness within the culture we inhabit.

What actions is God calling us to take?

Scott Belsky, argues in his book Making Ideas Happen that most great ideas never come to fruition because we lack the discipline to translate them into action items. My own denomination – the Presbyterian Church – is often caricatured for forming committees to talk, plan, debate, brainstorm, and discuss various ideas, but then failing to translate those ideas into action.

If you lead a church, pay attention and ask these questions in your next meeting: What concrete actions need to be taken in response to our discernment together? Who will take those actions? This doesn’t mean that you need to act on ideas haphazardly. Waiting, praying, and learning are all actions that we can take to ensure more well-informed decision-making. But there always comes a time to move from waiting to going, from praying in the church to praying in the street, and from learning with our heads to learning with our hands.

 Lastly, a question for you: What questions have you found to be clarifying or empowering for your ministry?

 

This post originally appeared on the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary Blog.

Starting Something NewBack in September, I listed seven books which contemplative church planters ought to read. Now I’m adding one more to the list.

I requested a review copy of Starting Something New: Spiritual Direction for Your God-Given Dream because the title resonates so well with our approach to developing new Christian communities. Planting a church is about listening to the Holy Spirit as God sends us out into mission. We can’t do such ministry faithful unless we’re attentive to God’s voice. Spiritual direction helps us learn to live with such attentiveness.

Starting Something New offers a taste of such direction for those who would read it as they participate in the formation of a new ministry. As Booram writes, “This book is intended to be a companion guide offering spiritual direction for those who are wondering if they have a God-given dream forming inside them but don’t know what to do with it” (p. 14).

Booram succeeds in providing such direction in many places, consistently relating the principles she describes to points in her own journey or to the stories of over a dozen other Christian leaders whom she interviewed for the book. Each chapter addresses a different stage in the birth and growth of an emerging ministry and is followed by questions for inward reflection. All of this is laced with generous amounts of cheerleading for those who may not have the courage to follow their dreams.

But how do we know our dreams are God-given? How can we be sure we’re listening to the Spirit and not just following our own desires? Booram offers some of her best advice in response to this question: “Pay attention to what you are praying. . . . Prayers related to God-inspired dreams seem to be irrepressible” (p. 36). Also, discern whether you are feeling “drawn” into this new life, or “driven.” A feeling of being driven is often more indicative of human ambition or temptation, while God often invites us into something new through visions to which we’re genuinely attracted or drawn (p. 115).

As a church planter in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, I recognized many of the dynamics Booram names: the time someone told me to plant a church and I responded with skepticism (p. 97), the ambivalence one might feel after a dream-deferred again becomes possible (p. 133), the challenge of adjusting to the “new normal” of life in this dream and developing rhythms to keep it sustainable (p. 163). I can see retrospectively how relevant this book is for church planters. What a gift it would have been to have it as a handbook seven years ago.

Read this slowly and reflectively. The stages of discernment and growth Booram describes can spread out over many years. Let this be one of many companions in discernment throughout the long and joyful journey of starting something new.

Thank you to InterVarsity Press for providing me with a copy of Starting Something New so that I could write this review.

Books-for-Church-PlantersThe words contemplative and church planter do not frequently appear together. Church planters are sometimes caricatured as driven, gregarious, extroverted individuals who magnetically attract the team of followers who help them launch a new worship service. But that’s not the only way–and I would say not the best way–to plant a church.

At Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, we use words like discerning and attentive to describe future leaders of new worshiping communities. New churches don’t come out of a box with step-by-step instructions that make them easy to assemble. Instead, new churches emerge when we listen attentively to the Holy Spirit, listen attentively to the people to whom God sends us, and discern in that conversation what form the Church ought to take in a given context. The fruit of such listening and discernment: congregations who speak and demonstrate God’s Word with authenticity and integrity in the communities where God has placed them. Rather than being driven by the personality of the “planter”, these churches are guided by the Spirit of the only Sower of the Seed, Jesus Christ.

What we read shapes the way we think, and in the sea of literature on church planting, books which really help cultivate postures of discernment and attentiveness are rare. These seven books have helped me develop such postures in my ministry. Some are by well-known theologians, others by local church leaders and missionaries who are living this calling at the grassroots level. With each I’ve given a quote or two, followed by a comment on its relevance for contemplative church planters. Here are 7 books for church planters:

1 Growing Local Missionaries: Equipping Churches to Sow Shalom in Their Own Cultural Backyard by Dan Steigerwald

“As missionaries, we must continually cultivate our listening and noticing capacities, comparing and contrasting what is already known about our context with new discoveries” (p. 55).

“Far too many Christians do little or nothing to cultivate relationships with people outside the Church” (p. 61).

Dan’s suggested rhythm of missional engagement begins with “Immerse and Listen.” We want to know our mission field intimately, and Dan’s advice and example show how we can.

2 Sailboat Church: Helping Your Church Rethink Its Mission and Practice by Joan Gray

“Prayer saturates the lives of leaders and members in a Sailboat church” (p.51).

Gray uses the contrasting images of a rowboat and sailboat to describe how churches (both new and established) function. Many are rowboats, with members and leaders straining at the oars as they rely on human strength and direction. Sailboat churches, by contrast, are blown along and directed by the wind of the Holy Spirit. Our role as leaders and participants in such churches is to trim the sails of attentiveness to the Spirit through prayer and obedience.

3 Marks of the Missional Church: Ecclesial Practices for the Sake of the World by Libby Tedder Hugus, Keith Schwanz, and Jason Veatch

“Waking up to God’s presence means tuning-in: watching and listening for the times and places God’s word appears in our world. This awakening is even brighter when mediated through the community of faith, a shared experience among God’s people” (p. 62).

Each chapter of Marks of the Missional Church is designed like a small liturgy. This has the beautiful effect of leading the reader to “wake up to God’s presence” through the book itself.

4 The Go-Between God: The Holy Spirit and Christian Mission by John V. Taylor

“The main concern of any missionary training should be to help people to become more receptive to the revelations of God” (p. 70).

Taylor pictures the Holy Spirit’s work as one of awakening awareness, opening our eyes to perceive more clearly those to whom God has sent us. Our task is to learn to listen to the Spirit and recognize what he is doing, to become “receptive to the revelations of God.”

5 Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

“Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish dream” (p. 26).

“A Christian fellowship lives and exists by the intercession of its members for one another, or it collapses” (p. 86).

Every Christian should read Bonhoeffer’s Life Together. For the church-planter, his warnings against the idolatry of our “wish dreams” are particularly relevant. What matters is God’s desire for the people whom he loves, not our vision for a new church.

6 In The Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadershipby Henri Nouwen

“Jesus has a different vision of maturity [than the world]: It is the ability and willingness to be led where you would rather not go. . . . The servant-leader is the leader who is being led to unknown, undesirable, and painful places. The way of the Christian leader is not the way of upward mobility in which our world has invested so much, but the way of downward mobility ending on the cross” (pp. 81-82).

Nouwen frames his reflections on leadership in In the Name of Jesus around the temptations of Christ described in Matthew 4:1-11. Church planters experience the temptations Nouwen identifies in even greater degrees: to be relevant, to be spectacular, to be powerful. Nouwen challenges us to turn away from self-aggrandizing ministry, and to pursue instead an intimate nearness to Christ.

7 The Joy of the Gospel by Pope Francis

“The primary reason for evangelizing is the love of Jesus which we have received, the experience of salvation which urges us to ever greater love of him. What kind of love would not feel the need to speak of the beloved, to point him out, to make him known? If we do not feel an intense desire to share this love, we need to pray insistently that he will once more touch our hearts” (p. 127 / ¶264).

Pope Francis’ Joy of the Gospel is a missional, holistic, and justice-seeking call to “all Christians, everywhere” to rediscover the joy of sharing the Gospel. His words about motivation are particularly poignant for church-planters: Are we engaged in this ministry primarily because of the love of Jesus which we’ve experienced? Do we take delight in inviting others into relationship with the One who loves us so deeply? Do we find such joy in Jesus himself that mission is our natural response?

This post was first published on the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary Blog on September 10, 2015.

Squirrel-Hill-fire-2On Ascension Day this year, a fire broke out two buildings away from The Upper Room’s worship space. We were untouched, though the building that caught fire was completely destroyed. Friends, colleagues, and supporters asked me for days afterward if The Upper Room was affected. I reassured them that we were, though the theater next door will now be torn down and our block frankly looks blighted.

Strangely, the reaction I heard within our congregation makes me think we noticed the fire less than our friends and supporters from other neighborhoods. We cancelled our Ascension Day service, and I later heard a few people comment on the rubble outside. But I’ve yet to hear us express either hopes and visions or concerns and worries for what will come of ruined properties right beside us. We’re thankful our space didn’t burn, but I’m embarrassed to say we’ve shown little interest in others affected by the fire. And this makes me wonder . . .

What if The Upper Room’s worship space had burned down? Would we have searched for another space in Squirrel Hill? Would Squirrel Hill notice our absence? Who would care?

The possible answers to those questions make me queasy.

Seven years ago, as we started gathering the community that has become The Upper Room, I was reading Lesslie Newbigin. A twentieth century missionary from Scotland to India, Newbigin worked tirelessly to promote the unity of the Church and to strengthen its global witness. When he returned to the UK near the end of his career, he noticed the sharp decline of the Church in Europe. He observed then the reality that we’re now responding to by starting new worshiping communities like The Upper Room: our immediate context is a mission field.

Newbigin-Gospel Pluralist_Reprint_PB_04268.qxdIn Newbigin’s The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, he argues that “The only hermeneutic of the gospel is a congregation of men and women who believe it and live it” (p. 227). In other words, the only way the world will see and understand what the Kingdom of God looks like is if members of a local church believe the Gospel and live it out earnestly together. And because a congregation exists in a specific, concrete place and time, the neighborhood in which a congregation gathers is the first set of eyes to see if we’re actually living out the Gospel as a community.

So Newbigin writes that this congregation

will be a community that does not live for itself but is deeply involved in the concerns of its neighborhood. It will be the church for the specific place where it lives, not the church for those who wish to be members of it – or, rather, it will be for them insofar as they are willing to be for the wider community” (p.227)

For Newbigin, the local congregation ought to be “perceived in its own neighborhood as the place from which good news overflows in good action.” It’s “God’s embassy in a specific place.” We’re called to be a visible, tangible outpost of the Kingdom of God that anyone from our

So this begs the question: Who from Squirrel Hill would say that good news is overflowing from The Upper Room? I believe the youth at Allderdice High School who meet in our space each week with Young Life experience an overflow of good news. But who else?

I want to hear more voices answering that question. I want us to be more in touch with our community and context.

This doesn’t mean that we all have to move to or work in Squirrel Hill. (I myself live on the other side of Frick Park because we couldn’t afford a home in Squirrel Hill.) The Upper Room has members from all throughout the East End of Pittsburgh and all of our members have other spheres of influence that include other parts of the city. Newbigin himself acknowledges and blesses the plurality of places in which we live out our vocations. He even says that “the major impact of such congregations on the life of society as a whole is through the daily work of the members in their secular vocations” (p. 234, emphasis added). We celebrate this at The Upper Room through our monthly “Fruit We Bear” sessions – a portion of our worship service where members share how God is at work in their workplaces, families, and other spheres of influence. But as a church, as a community, this is a calling for us to attend together to Squirrel Hill. As Newbigin wrote above, our local congregation can be for us insofar as we “are willing to be for the wider community.”

When I welcome people to worship at The Upper Room each week, I often say that “we’re a community who does not exist for ourselves, but to glorify God and bear witness to Christ in this place.” Our place includes all the spaces where we individually work, live, and play. But as a congregation, our place is first Squirrel Hill, then the radius around Squirrel Hill in which most of us live. Will we be a community who does not live for itself? Can we be deeply involved in the concerns of our neighborhood? How will good news increasingly overflow from The Upper Room into the lives of our neighbors?

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.

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