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This post originally appeared on the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary Blog.

“We need more five-year church plants,” said John Ogren. He was Skyping into our “Planting and Leading New Churches” class at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, part of the M.Div. Church Planting Emphasis, and reflecting on his experiences in a new church that started, lasted a few years, and then for a variety of reasons, didn’t continue.

It was the first day of class, and our students who had assembled to learn how to plant a (presumably successful) church, seemed relieved to begin with a story of supposed failure. John described how ministry and mission have a “cruciforming” effect upon us. We can receive this as a grace: By following Jesus in mission, we are formed more into his likeness, including his death. Sometimes success is crucifixion and failure is preserving our lives.

“Failure” is not uncommon in church planting. One study suggests that only 68 percent of church plants last for four years. Two speakers coming to Pittsburgh Theological Seminary this month have been a part of new churches that didn’t continue: A church plant which Rachel Held Evans (Being Church, June 10-11) was part of failed and Mark Scandrette (Invitation to Simplicity, June 26-29) has written about his failed attempt to plant a particular kind of church in San Francisco.

The way we approach church planting can make a significant difference in how likely our new worshiping communities are to be sustainable. But there are also a host of other factors beyond our control which affect sustainability. And when for any combination of reasons a ministry has to call it quits, a ministry’s task becomes dying with faithfulness to the mission Christ gave it. So what does a faithful death look like?

I like Mark Scandrette’s approach. A dozen years ago he wrote that in the wake of seeming failure, his community “needed to go back to the Gospels and rediscover the goodness and beauty of the kingdom of God. Jesus is the place where reconstruction begins.”[1] Death became a launching point. Experience of failure led Mark and his family to explore “a more primal pursuit of Jesus and his kingdom . . . practicing and imitating Jesus’ life in our neighborhoods: eating with the homeless, creating art, engaging in classic spiritual disciplines, practicing hospitality, etc. Our vision has changed from a house-church movement to an indigenous Kingdom movement.”[2]

Sometimes our expectations have to be crucified so that Jesus’ reign can be fully displayed.

Christians believe resurrection follows death. Otherwise we would be “of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor 15:19). We’re supposed to be set free from the fear of death (Heb 2:15). So what might our ministries—new and old—look like if we didn’t fear institutional death?

Last fall, our Church Planting Initiative hosted a conference at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary about multi-cultural church planting. In one of his plenary talks, Jin Kim, founding pastor of Church of All Nations, described his church’s identity as a “high risk, low anxiety church because Jesus is Lord.” If Jesus is sovereign, we can take risks for the sake of witnessing to him, even risks that may lead to worldly “failure.” So why do we think we can add one hour to our churches’ lives by worrying about them?

My own church plant might be starting to think this way. I’m accepting a call to a church in another part of the country and will be gone in a couple months. The church we planted in Pittsburgh has dedicated and incredibly gifted leaders, but the transiency of our young demographic means we keep sending people out each year, and those losses are getting harder to replenish. As our elders imagined what could happen in the church in a couple years, one said that if it were to die, it shouldn’t be because of complacency. Rather, she said we should “take the reins and do something big” so that if we die it happens “in a blaze of glory” because we’ve remained faithful to our mission.

Amen. Jesus didn’t die because he gave up. He died because it was essential to the mission the Father had given him to bring resurrection life to the whole world.

For any church to follow that pattern will mean it takes a few risks, wades through lots of uncertainty, and experiences some suffering. But that’s what we’re called to do. The PC(U.S.A.)’s Book of Order actually says that the Church is called to be faithful in mission, “even at the risk of its own life.”

Death for a new church (or any other ministry) can be success as much as it can be failure. Sometimes it will be both at the same time. But a ministry’s degree of success and failure is not determined in terms of sustainability, as though sustainability is an end in itself. Rather success and failure are determined in relation to faithfulness to the mission God has given. A church or ministry can be sustainable but unfaithful. Or we can bear faithful witness to the reign of Jesus Christ and find ourselves broke and worn out. In which case do you think God’s power is more likely to be displayed?

As Romans 8:28 says, God works all things for the good of those who love him. The next verse says that we’re destined “to be conformed to the image” of Jesus. That conformity again includes both crucifixion and resurrection. The death of a ministry can be holy if it dies like Jesus: giving wholly of itself in fidelity to God’s mission in the world. Out of such deaths, the Spirit will bring new life.

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.

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?

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.

_

[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.

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.