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.

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.)

A few evenings ago, I stood in the kitchen peeling a yam. Eileen and I were making dinner, using what we had available.  The previous Saturday, I had taken a friend to a food distribution event sponsored by the Greater Pittsburgh Community Foodbank, where he had received a generous amount of free food including frozen chicken, potatoes, apples and yams.  “I won’t use the yams,” he said, “Do you want them?”

So I stood in our kitchen, peeling a yam for Eileen to roast with some other vegetables on a night when I frankly would have preferred to be at D’s, our favorite local bar and hot dog restaurant.  Eileen and I had just had a conversation about our finances in which I tried to romanticize making do with less. “God is faithful to provide for all we need,” I’d said. As I peeled the yam in the kitchen I realized: This is how God’s providing. It’s not what I wanted or what I’m asking for, but it’s feeding us tonight. That yam was a gift of grace.  But the more I thought about it, the more my thoughts landed on the but it’s not what I wanted part of the sentence, rather than on God’s providing. I felt like one of the Israelites in the wilderness, complaining, “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost – also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic.  But now we have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna!” (Numbers 11:4-6 NIV).

Manna was not what the Israelites wanted. And in their grumblings, they blamed God for not meeting their desires. But the problem wasn’t on God’s end. The problem was that they measured the goodness of God’s provision by Egypt’s standards. Today I fear that in an affluent society like America, we don’t even recognize how often we measure God’s goodness by Egypt’s standards. Maybe manna is all we need, but we’re not going to be content with it if our minds are focused on the things the empire tells us we need. To learn to receive God’s provision with gratitude, many of our worldly appetites have to first be put to death.  Back in Egypt we may have lived the high life.  But God has called us out of Egypt.

As Jan at A Church for Starving Artists wrote recently, there is a cost to following the call God has placed on our lives.  Eileen and I are feeling part of the cost of God’s call right now.  We’re not at home in Colorado, not near family, not making much money, not taking much time to rest, and not always happy. But along with the cost also comes a certain joy.  It’s the joy of looking at a yam and realizing that God really is providing for our every need. It’s the joy of seeing the beauty of creation in the daffodils blooming in our yard right now, a sight we’d see less if we went out every time we wanted to.  It’s the joy of having several friends cheer my soul by visiting me at my cafe on a day where our espresso machine was in need of repair and where I’d started my shift by dealing with a leaky milk dispenser. It’s not always what I would have chosen, but there is room for joy in this life.

And I’m finding that the joy increases when I measure the cost by God’s standards rather than Egypt’s. Egypt may tell us our manna is flavorless and that giving up the delicacies of Egypt was a high cost to pay for following this call. But the Lord can gives us eyes to see manna as the “grain of heaven” and “bread of angels” (Psalm 78:24-25), even to seek the Manna which is the “bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world” (John 6:33).  Egypt may tell us we need a second car, a new computer, a real vacation, etc., but these are small costs compared to the life of the One who “had no place to lay his head” (Matthew 8:21). Egypt may say that the Lord’s provision of yams is laughable, but by the Lord’s standards it was confirmation that he is faithful to provide abundantly more than our daily bread (Matthew 6:11). May the Lord continue to multiply our joy by exposing Egypt’s lies and leading us toward the Promised Land of his goodness and truth.

It’s “stewardship season” in most churches – the time of year when churches communicate openly about their financial needs to the congregation, often soliciting pledges of regular giving from their members so as to budget appropriately for the coming year. At The Upper Room this Sunday, we’ll have an all-church meeting where we’ll talk about the vision for the future of the church, including our decreasing grant funding and our (challenging but attainable) goal of reaching $53,000 in tithes and offerings in 2012.  So we’re participating in the festivities of “stewardship season”, but I think there are deeper issues beneath the surface that need to be addressed, in our church and in all churches.  Stewardship is not a season.  It’s not something we only practice part of the year.  Faithful stewardship is about what we do with all the resources God has entrusted to us all the time.  And while this particular conversation needs to be had this Sunday, we run the risk of an impoverished understanding of stewardship if we only talk about it this Sunday and only use typical churchy language.  In fact, I think the language we use often gets in the way of faithful stewardship.  We have to change the way we talk about money.

Take for instance the word “tithing”. Churches like to encourage tithing, defining it usually as the giving of ten-percent of one’s gross (pre-tax) income to the ministry of the church. The idea comes from several Old Testament passages. Leviticus 27:30-33 says that a tenth of the fruit of the land is to be “holy to the Lord”.   Numbers 26:12 says that a tithe collected every three years went “to feed the Levite, the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow”.  So the principle is often applied to the present-day life of the Church: a tenth of the income of the Church’s membership should be holy to the Lord, and should thus provide for the paid ministers of the church (Levites) and the mission budget (foreigners, widows and orphans).

But it’s not that simple. Consider these words from Richard Foster about why the New Testament actually never speaks of tithing as a practice in the early Church:

“The tithe simply is not a sufficiently radical concept to embody the carefree unconcern for possessions that marks life in the kingdom of God.  Jesus Christ is the Lord of all our goods, not just 10 percent.  It is quite possible to obey the law of the tithe without ever dealing with our mammon lust. . . . Perhaps the tithe can be a beginning way to acknowledge God as the owner of all things, but it is only a beginning and not an ending” (Freedom of Simplicity: Finding Harmony in a Complex World – Revised and Updated [HarperOne 2005] pages 58-59).

If Jesus is Lord of everything – the One who already owns everything we have in our possession and the One whom we can trust to provide everything we truly need – then ten percent seems like a paltry amount to give back.  It’s a starting place, a beginning, as Foster suggests.  But on the other hand, when we really look at our finances and where our money goes, ten percent starts to seem like an incredibly high amount to give.  For most of us, it seems like it’s always getting more difficult to make ends meet.

Again, tithing isn’t simple. Consider also the issue of “split-tithing”, an increasingly common practice in my generation in which people give away (at least) ten-percent of their income to “Kingdom-work”, but only a portion of that ten-percent ends up going to the local church.  I understand this concept well.  In fact (I confess) it’s what Eileen and I still practice.  The problem with this line of thinking, however, is that it runs the risk of thinking that the local congregation isn’t really “the Church”.  But the truth is the local congregation really is the Church and its mission is just as valuable as feeding orphans overseas. Both are worthy of our giving because both are ministries of Jesus Christ.

So where do we begin this stewardship season?  Maybe by asking Jesus what we need to do to grow in our discipleship.  As his constant push against the legalism of the Pharisees in the Gospels shows, Jesus is less concerned with whether we give 10 percent and more concerned with whether He is master of our life, or if we bow to money (Matthew 7:24).  So how is Jesus calling you to show that He’s master of your life? Maybe by giving more to the church this year, taking a step towards tithing if you haven’t before.  Maybe Jesus would just as soon ask you to sponsor a child through World Vision  or support an overseas missionary or a local campus minister.  Or maybe Jesus wants you to “sell your possessions and give to the poor, and then you will have treasure in heaven” (Matthew 19:21).  He didn’t just say that to the Rich Young Ruler; He also said it to all his disciples (see Luke 12:33).  The question is which step is necessary for you to grow in your discipleship.

So if you’re in Upper Room,  you’ll receive a commitment card which we’re asking you to fill out and return to the church.  And on it there will be a line with the following options which could be checked: “□ This is a step towards tithing. □  This is my tithe.  □ This commitment goes beyond tithing.”  Whichever box you check, know that it’s not about “measuring-up” to human standards of giving; it’s about making a tangible commitment to grow in your discipleship this year.  Know that there’s no shame in a step towards tithing, committing to tithe is not fulfilling a law, and going beyond tithing is no reason to be proud. Make the commitment that will go deeper than the surface of the words and transform your discipleship.

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” – Luke 12:32-34 TNIV –

I think I’ve found a new spiritual role model.  I just finished reading Charles de Foucauld: Essential Writings in Orbis Books “Modern Spiritual Masters” series.  Brother Charles (b. 1858) was a French man who converted to Roman Catholicism after serving in the French military and exploring the deserts of northern Africa.  Following his conversion, he became a Trappist monk at a monastery in Syria, but even this life was not rigorous enough for Charles in its discipline or asceticism. Inspired by God to imitate what he called “the hidden life of Jesus of Nazareth”, Charles moved to Nazareth and took a position as a servant at a women’s monastery there. There he sought to live a simple life of poverty, prayer, and service, just as he imagined Jesus had during the first 30 years of His life.  Eventually, Charles felt led to pursue even greater degrees of solitude, so he moved to the deserts of Algeria and Morocco to pursue a life of poverty, prayer, service and quiet witness amongst the region’s Arab Muslims and the nomadic Tuaregs.  In 1916, he was martyred there.

I found may things about Charles inspiring, but I want to highlight three in particular here.  These were his approaches to work, Eucharist, and witness.

Work: Foucauld believed that a life in imitation of Christ was a life of ordinary work, often doing the lowliest and most humble tasks available, but working to support oneself in ministry.  (In this sense his ministry is both inspiring and challenging for those of us in tentmaking and bi-vocational ministries.)  But work wasn’t about money for Charles.  Instead it was about learning humility and obedience.   He journalled Christ’s voice speaking to him about Christ’s hidden life in Nazareth: “How clearly I preached humility at Nazareth, by spending thirty years in obscure labors, and obscurity by remaining so completely unknown for thirty years – I who am the light of the world – and obedience, in that I, who am God, made myself subject for thirty years to parents who, although unquestionably holy, were human beings nonetheless” (p. 48).  Humble and obscure work for Charles equalled intimate imitation of Christ.

Thus it makes sense that for Foucauld work went hand-in-hand with simplicity of life.  He journalled in the voice of Jesus speaking to him, “Work hard enough to earn your daily bread, but less than ordinary workers.  They work to earn as much as possible.  You and I work only so as to earn a very frugal diet and the poorest of clothing and lodgings, together with enough to give small sums in alms” (p. 57).   In the Rule he wrote for the monastic order he hoped to found, he said the brothers would be forbidden to receive any gifts.  Instead, “We will live solely by the work of our hands. . . . On Saturday, when the weekly pay is received, all money that is left over from the week before will be given to the poor.” They would earn their living doing ordinary labor and give away (rather than save) that which exceeded their simple needs.  Surely this example raises serious questions for the state of Christianity in America today.  Too many pastors and church workers understand their careers in terms more similar to climbing corporate ladders than to this example of simplicity.  How much more could ordinary church members give to mission if they simplified their lives in such a way?  Would not joy replace much of the stress in our lives if making money were not the goal of work?

Eucharist: Brother Charles was so in love with Jesus that he spent hours upon hours meditating upon Christ’s presence in the sacraments. “You were not nearer to the Blessed Virgin during the nine months she carried you in her womb than you are to me when you rest on my tongue at Holy Communion,” he wrote (p. 52).  This sense of sacramental intimacy with Jesus was like Foucauld’s approach to work: all he did was for the sake of drawing closer to Christ.  But this also translated into the fruit of witness and mission in Foucauld’s life.  Writing about his vision for a monastic community following his pattern of life in the Moroccan desert, he said that the men would live in adoration of the Holy Sacrament, because the practice both bore witness to the real presence of Christ with them in the desert and inspired hospitality and love toward every human being they came into contact with.  Meditating on Christ’s presence in the Eucharist led him even more deeply to sense Christ’s presence in “the least of these” (Matthew 25).  Personally and pastorally, I rejoice that many people are saying the sacramental piece of our church’s life is a place where they meet Christ. I pray that it will inspire mission as the Eucharist did for Foucauld and his followers.

Witness: One does not normally think of a hermetic monk in the African desert as an example of mission or evangelism. But Foucauld believed he was called to “cry the Gospel” with his life, just as every follower of Jesus is called to do. He wrote, “the salvation of one’s neighbor is as important as the salvation of one’s self.  Every Christian must be an apostle. That is not advice; it is a command – the command of charity” (pp. 80-81). By living in imitation of Jesus in the deserts of northern Africa, Foucault believed he was participating in apostolic presence among unreached peoples.  And what was his method of sharing gospel amongst non-Christian people groups? Prayer. Intimacy with Jesus. And presence.  The prayerful person who lets Christ’s presence shine through him or her becomes a conduit through which others are drawn closer to Christ. Hence he writes, “By entering into friendly relationships with people totally opposed to religion we can, by our goodness and virtue, destroy their prejudices and bring them completely to God” (p. 83).  I find this personally inspiring because it’s what I pray could happen through my presence working as a barista at a local cafe.   Indeed, Foucault has much to teach those of us who are engaged in mission in the post-Christian west. He realized a hundred years ago that the West was becoming as much of a mission field as the rest of the world: “One has to be as much a missionary in France as in a country of unbelievers, and being so is the duty of us all, priests and lay people, men and women” (p. 83).  He wrote that in 1914, decades before talk of the “missional church” became a trendy topic in our context.  Now, as the Church in the West is awakening to the reality that it lives in a mission field, I think we need to recover much of the spirituality of people like Foucault.  Simply put, a culture that likes Jesus but not the Church needs to see Jesus. A culture that’s spiritual-but-not-religious needs to see true spirituality in action. Witness in our context will not succeed unless it boldly displays Christ-likeness and intimacy with Jesus.

The Pittsburgh Marathon is twelve days away.  Yesterday, I ran my 600th mile of the training schedule.  600 miles is a lot of running, and honestly I’m ready to be finished with the training.  But I’m still very much looking forward to 7:00am on Sunday the 15th when the race will begin (and to 10:45am when I’ll hopefully be approaching the finish line!).

Twelve days left until the marathon also means that we have twelve days left of raising support for our team running with Team World Vision.  Eileen and I and a few other friends from Upper Room are running to raise funds for clean water wells in Kenya and Ethiopia, and we’d appreciate gifts of any amount to support this mission.  To give online, visit our team page.  If you prefer to give by check, make the check out to “World Vision” and mail it to Upper Room at 5828 Forward Ave. Pittsburgh, PA 15217.

Today is Blog Action Day (see Blog Action Day), and writers all around the world are writing on the theme of clean water. I’m no expert about it, but World Vision says that at least 20 percent of the world does not have safe drinking water, and lack of access to safe water is the number one cause of preventable death. So what can we do about it?

It’s seven months away (exactly) but on May 15, 2011, several friends and I will be running in the Pittsburgh Marathon for Team World Vision to raise money for drilling clean water wells in Kenya and Ethiopia. One well costs upwards of $13,000, and we have a small team, so our goal is only a portion of that amount, but any giving will help go a long way to provide clean water for those who need it most. Again, I’m no expert, but this is something tangible we can do to transform lives. So, please support us. For more on what we’re doing with Team World Vision, go to my Team World Vision page.