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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.

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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.

It’s early on a Tuesday morning. A month ago at this time, I was pulling muffins out of the oven and steaming milk for lattes at the cafe where I worked for five a half years. Today, I’m reading over the recently approved statement of goals for the M.Div. program at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in preparation for two meetings I’ll have this morning. It’s all a part of my new job.

I am excited to be taking on the challenge of coordinating the Church Planting Emphasis at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. The seminary feels like home to me. Conversations with students and faculty bring joy to my heart. I see great potential in this program, and am both humbled and delighted to participate in something that has such power to shape the future of the Church.

But I am truly going to miss the cafe. When my co-pastor and I answered God’s call to plant The Upper Room five and a half years ago, we chose to become bivocational pastors. Like the Apostle Paul, who had a trade of making tents which at times supported his ministry, we chose to take second jobs that would both ease the financial burden of starting a new church and give us additional ways to build relationships for our ministries.

I wanted a job in the neighborhood which would allow me to meet people I wouldn’t meet inside the walls of a typical church. The 61C and 61B Cafes gave me more opportunities to develop meaningful relationships than I could have ever imagined. Over five and a half years, these relationships became so strong that stepping back from them now brings about a genuine feeling of grief. On my last morning of work, I cried as I handed my keys back to my manager and friend Keith. Then I sobbed as I sat in my car, preparing to go directly from the cafe to the seminary.

This is week three of my work at the seminary, and it’s going quite well, but I don’t want to forget the things God showed me over my years at the cafe. So I hope to do some writing here in the coming months which will intentionally reflect on the things the Lord taught me through my work at the cafe. After my trip to Brazil next week – where PTS students and I will study how the Brazilian Presbyterian Church plants new congregations – I’ll put together a series of posts here about what my ministry at the cafe taught me about prayer, relationships, mission, and work. Especially work. It seems that many of us have under-developed theologies of work, and God used my years in the cafe to teach me much about the purpose and value of our daily labors.

Time to get ready for work. If I hurry, I might be able to grab a cup of coffee on the way.

The House of St. Michael the Archangel just published an essay that I wrote called So That Your Hearts Will Not Be Weighted Down. It’s an extended meditation on  watchfulness, revolving around Jesus’ words in Luke 21:34: “Be on guard, so that your hearts will not be weighted down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of life.”  It’s also an invitation to repentance, to turn away from all the figurative and literal drunkenness of the world, and to instead receive the blessed inebriation of communion with Christ.

I wrote most of the essay months ago, but the timing of its release is perfect: Advent is an appropriate time to grow in watchfulness, as we “wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13).

Hard copies are available for suggested donations of $6. A free pdf is also available. Both can be ordered here.

 

While you’re at the House of St. Michael’s website, also check out Shea Cole’s album of original worship music. It can also be downloaded for free, or hard copies are available for a suggested donation. (The cds make great Christmas presents, if you’re still shopping.)

Last Thursday, Eileen and I brewed beer together at Copper Kettle Brewing. My dad had given us a gift card to Copper Kettle, allowing us to use their equipment and ingredients to brew a beer from a recipe which we chose. Because we’re not very experienced in brewing, someone from Copper Kettle accompanied us through the process, guiding us as we measured and added ingredients and sharing interesting facts about brewing along the way. At one point, she said something that I think is significant for how the Church thinks about leadership, and which connects quite well with what I read for my class at PTS this week.

She said that the title “brewmaster” is becoming increasingly rare in the craft brewing world. According to what she’s learned, certified brewmasters have to have a master’s degree in the science of brewing. As more and more people have learned to brew on their own or while working at small breweries, fewer and fewer have gone to the trouble of pursuing a graduate degree in brewing, which they could only do in Germany or at one of the few American schools which offer such programs. As a result, many of the craft breweries which are proliferating across the country have brewers who were self-taught or apprenticed into their trades, rather than ones who received formal education.

Some would say the same is happening (again) in the Church. Seminary enrollment is generally decreasing, and alternative formation programs are springing up across the country. Many new churches in my denomination are led by “commissioned ruling elders” who haven’t been to seminary or completed the ordination process. I loved my seminary so much that I’m currently pursuing a second degree at it, but I do think this trend raises an important question: How do we recognize the authority of leaders in the Church? Do we look for degrees, credentials, or titles? Or do we look for something else? How can we tell that someone is worth trusting with the spiritual oversight of others? 

Francis Asbury, one of the founding leaders of the Methodists in America, had no degrees. But he had an authority that others recognized based on the integrity of his spiritual life and his abiding commitment to his flock. As John Wigger writes in his book American Saint: Francis Asbury & the Methodists,

Asbury redefined the religious landscape of America. There was no blueprint for what he did, for building a large strictly voluntary religious movement led by non-elites in a pluralistic society. Yet his understanding of what it mean to be pious, connected, culturally responsive, and effectively organized has worked its way deep into the fabric of American religious life. (p. 417)

Asbury did all of this with little formal education. He was born in England in 1745. When he was a child, his father worked a humble job at a brewery and public house. This meant Asbury was raised in what we would consider a “working-class” home. Asbury’s mother taught him to read, but the highest level of formal education Asbury seems to have completed is an apprenticeship as a metalworker. It was during this teenage apprenticeship that he began preaching at Methodist class meetings. That he had little education didn’t matter. As Wigger explains, “Most Methodists weren’t the kind of people who could attend university, and Wesley didn’t require his preachers to have a formal theological education. Instead, they learned on the job, by speaking in prayer meetings and to crowds gather outdoors” (p. 33).

Having “learned on the job” in England, in 1771 Asbury was selected to go to America to help extend the Methodist movement there.  This was before American Methodism formally split from the Anglican Church, and while it existed as something of an unwelcome renewal movement within the Anglican Church. Not surprisingly, Asbury at times received harsh treatment at the hands of Anglican clergymen. John Wigger explains part of the conflict between the Anglican establishment and the Methodists this way:

Here in a nutshell was the conflict between Methodist preachers and Anglican priests in the South. From ministers’ points of view, Methodists were unlearned charlatans seeking to break down the basic foundations of church and society. They took people away from their work and challenged the authority of the clergy, which was based largely on their superior education. From the Methodist perspective, Anglican priests were mostly lazy hirelings, too much addicted to the pleasures of this world and too little concerned with the salvation of souls. (p. 58)

Authority, by the standards of the Anglican establishment in the mid-eighteenth century, was recognized by university degrees and statuses conferred by the Church. Asbury’s sense of authority, on the other hand, came from a deeper source. Unlike George Whitefiled, Asbury did not gain a reputation for being a dazzling preacher. But he did gain a reputation for outstanding personal piety and a deep love and commitment to the flock entrusted to his care. Asbury was like other early Methodists in that he valued hard work and treated wealth and worldly goods with suspicion. His poverty and charity were seen as signs of his apostolic character. So also was his devotional life, including his fasting and early morning hours of prayer. On top of this, and even as he aged, Asbury maintained rigorous itinerary of travel in which he visited preachers and church-members throughout the entire eastern half of the United States each year. Those who knew Asbury knew him as a man of spiritual integrity, and so they trusted his leadership.

Interestingly, though he was recognized as a spiritual leader, Asbury refused to celebrate the sacraments until he was ordained. Methodism was renewal movement, existing within the bounds of Anglicanism, though it evangelized people who would have been alienated from the Anglican Church. This created tension between Methodists who wanted to baptize their converts and celebrate communion together, and those who still submitted to Anglican discipline. All of this changed in 1784 when John Wesley finally broke with the Church of England, legally incorporated Methodism in England, and began ordaining preachers on his own. One of those ordained by Wesley, Thomas Coke, came to the United States and with Asbury was elected joint superintendent of the new Methodist Church in America. Asbury, who had no degree and had never celebrated the sacraments before, was suddenly ordained a bishop in a brand new denomination. 

Asbury’s acceptance of ordination at this point raises several deeper ecclesiological questions worth pondering: Why is it that ordination has historically been reserved for the celebration of the sacraments, rather than merely the preaching of the Gospel? What did Asbury believe about ordination that gave him such respect for the authority associated with it? For our purposes here, though, it suffices to say that Asbury’s episcopacy, which he held and stewarded faithfully for decades, was conferred upon him and upheld not because of degrees or worldly status, but because others recognized his faithfulness. Wigger concludes that “If ever there was an American saint, it was Francis Asbury” (p. 417). How different would the Church look today if we entrusted positions of leadership primarily to those who we could one day call saints?

A few weeks ago, I posted that I’m writing a book. Since then, I’ve learned that making a deliberate effort to write is a lot like church-planting.  When we started Upper Room four years ago, I had no idea what the future would hold. I knew God had called me to plant a church with my friend Mike, but I had no idea how to start a church. Stepping out into that unknown world of church-planting meant practicing self-discipline and taking a risk. I know more about writing than I did then about church-planting, but my early forays into writing more than sermons and blog-posts have shown me that this combination of discipline and willingness to take risks is necessary to succeed in both.

1) It takes self-discipline.  Yesterday I had the opportunity to attend a satellite viewing of the Willow Creek Association’s Global Leadership Summit with some friends and colleagues from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.  Of the many great presentations, Jim Collins’ summary of his new book Great By Choice had the most insights which I want to put into practice.  One of these ideas was the 20 Mile March. Collins used the illustration of Ronald Amundsen, the Norwegian explorer of Antarctica who reached the south pole thanks to the remarkable self-discipline of proceeding twenty miles per day, no matter what the conditions.  While other explorers would race ahead in good weather and sit still in bad weather, Amundsen had the discipline to push ahead consistently when it was difficult. He also had the discipline not to overextend himself when he could have done more.

In the first two years of Upper Room’s history, there weren’t any established patterns of congregational life to determine my schedule or priorities. I had to have discipline to make time and space for the various work that needed to be done.  No one was looking over my shoulder to make sure I did it.  This is so much more true in the practice of writing. I have more ideas to write about than I have time to write. Solution: The 20 Mile March. I need to create a regular rhythm of writing that requires effort and discipline but doesn’t overextend myself. My intention is to get into a routine of rising early and working on my writing for two hours in the morning, three days per week.  I say intention because I disagreed with my alarm clock this morning. But I know that once I get into the rhythm, it will pay off.  20 Mile March.

2) Willingness to take a risk. Notice that the example Collins chose to illustrate self-discipline was that of an Antarctic explorer.  There are millions of people who could serve as great examples of self-discipline. What made Amundsen noteworthy is that he applied his self-discipline to a creative and adventurous undertaking. He combined his self-discipline with a willingness to take a risk.  Taking risks without self-discipline can lead to tragedy, as it did for the explorer Robert Scott, a contemporary of Amundsen who died during his expedition to the South Pole.  But taking risks with self-discipline can lead to great accomplishments.

When we answered God’s call to start Upper Room, the only secure thing about the work was the fact that God had called us to it.  We applied for grants, of course, and knew that we had the support of local Presbytery members.  But grants weren’t guaranteed.  There were always chances that people wouldn’t come, that things wouldn’t work out, that we would end up like one of the many new church starts that simply fail. That was a big risk to take for our first ordained positions in ministry. But I think the self-discipline God gave to Mike and me as co-pastors has enabled us to get through the unstable times in our church’s short history.

Similarly, starting to write more has felt risky. It is emotionally risky – writers put ideas forward, knowing they’ll be valued by some and criticized by others. Writing can be financially risky; most writers don’t earn much by writing. (Don’t worry; I’m not quitting my day-jobs. Pastoring Upper Room is still my primary calling and I don’t expect that to change. As I’ve indicated before on this blog, I see writing as an extension of  that ministry.)  But I’m willing to take risks to pursue the gifts God has given me in writing, and I trust that, when pursued with discipline, those risks will be worth taking.