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?

How do you learn to love and serve God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind? Not by using the conventional ways the world approaches learning.  I’m a pastor who’s been to seminary – a very good seminary for which I am grateful and which am happy to support – but I think the Church has become a bit too worldly in the way we train our leaders.  Learning to love and serve God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength is not merely an academic exercise.  It requires the use of all your heart, soul, mind and strength.  Discipleship is meant to be holistic, teaching us to love and serve God using relationships, our experience, prayer, worship, mission, service, and the intellect.

This is why I love the World Christian Discipleship Program. It’s a nine-month program designed for recent college graduates who want to learn to follow Jesus in community together.  The goal is to prepare them to live as missional Christians in any vocation.  Participants study early Church writings, create rules of life as they learn about spiritual formation, and  world mission.  During this time they’re volunteering in a local church and learning to practice living missionally in their workplaces. Participants also go on a short-term mission trip (international or domestic), giving them a cross-cultural mission experience as part of their missional and spiritual formation.  And this isn’t just for people who think they’re called to traditional ministry. It’s open to anyone. The congregation I pastor now has three people participating in it – one’s a nurse, one’s a social worker and future missionary, and one’s a seminary graduate preparing for overseas mission. And I believe that WCD will prepare each of these young women to glorify God wherever he calls them after this.

The biggest reason why I’m excited about WCD, though, is that I’ve experienced the transforming power of its components myself.  One of the books participants read is The Philokalia, a collection of monastic writings from the early Church which has completely transformed my own personal discipleship, the way I pray, the way I read scripture, and the way I approach my role as a pastor. In short, writings like this have encouraged me to pursue prayer and holiness in ways that I never before thought possible.  And with the way WCD is designed, such powerful material for spiritual formation is connected directly to mission.  Participants seek sanctification for the sake of mission in the world.  So they read Lesslie Newbigin beside St. Teresa of Avila. They learn to pray without ceasing while working part-time jobs in the neighborhoods where they live. They laugh and cry together and learn from each other what it means to be the Body of Christ.

I’ve spent three years as a church-planter doing bi-vocational ministry, learning what it means to be engaged in mission in a post-Christendom environment.  WCD offers both the training that I wish I had when preparing for ministry and the transformation I want members of the congregation I lead today to have. Anyone who wants to be truly transformed by God for the life of the world should consider applying.

I went Christmas caroling two nights ago with a group of people from Upper Room’s partner congregation in Greenfield. It was delightful, despite the fact that it was freezing out and by the time we finished I couldn’t feel my fingers. For an hour we walked up and down the streets of Greenfield, singing songs about Christ to whomever answered their doors.

Midway through the night, it hit me just how radical and subversive this gesture of holiday cheer actually was. We were singing lyrics like “Christ our Savior was born on Christmas Day to save us all from Satan’s power when we were gone astray.” At any other time of the year, in any other way, if you knocked on someone’s door and told them they had gone astray and were under the influence of the devil, you would have a door slammed in your face. Knock on a door to announce the reign of a king who transcends all earthly authority and people will think you’re mad. Knock on a door to invite people to come adore with you a baby you think is God, and you’ll at least get some raised eyebrows. But sing it in a Christmas carol, and people smile and thank you.

I noticed a similar phenomenon this morning when I was working at the cafe.  We had the radio playing Christmas music, and every other song was singing truth about Jesus loud and clear enough to offend anyone who would actually listen closely. But no one complained. Is it because they weren’t really listening? Or is it because the truth behind the lyrics is part of the perennial appeal of Christmas music? If Christmas carolers and the radio can sing so freely this time of year about the birth of Jesus to people who may not believe in Him, what prevents us from speaking publicly about Jesus in other contexts?

Lesslie Newbigin spoke of the Gospel as “public truth.” He wrote, “Truth must be public truth, truth for all. A private truth for a limited circle of believers is no truth at all. Even the most devout faith will sooner or later falter and fail unless those who hold it are willing to bring it into public debate and to test it against experience in every area of life” (Foolishness to the Greeks, page 117). The good news of “Joy to the World” is a public truth, one which we should be able to share with confidence any time of year in any appropriate situation.  If we’re timid in sharing the Gospel in less sugar-coated forms than Christmas carols, we should pause to question why.  Do we fear rejection or dismissal? Do we fear that we won’t be able to answer the questions of others?  Why do we hesitate?

I have never been and have no desire to be a door-to-door evangelist.  That’s far from how I believe the Gospel is best communicated in our context.  But I want to have the same boldness in speaking about Jesus in any context that I had on Sunday night when we were knocking on doors and singing, “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.”  I want to speak with the confidence that the public truth of the Gospel really brings “tidings of comfort and joy” all year-round.

The  newspaper reported a few weeks ago on the results of the most recent American Religious Identification Survey, a broad study American religious demographic changes.  (Click here for the full report.)  The most interesting to me were these:

  •  34 million people indicated no religious identity, and that number was up 20 million from 1990, now at 15% of the total US population.
  • 27% of Americans do not expect a religious funeral.
  • For some reason Asian Americans are substantially more likely to indicate no religious identity than other racial or ethnic groups.

It seems there’s a general movement away from Christianity toward unbelief and agnosticismJohn Ortberg responded by asking whether we’re witnessing the same process of secularization that took place in Europe a few decades ag0.  While only 76% of American’s population is nominally Christian, only 3.9% consciously identified as belonging to another religion.  But, that’s not to say other religions aren’t growing:  The ARIS study found that Islam is growing in the US and that “adherents of New Religious movements, inc luding Wiccans and self-described pagans, have grown faster this decade than in the 1990s.”  But the greater trend is a movement toward uncertainty, ambiguity in belief.  Ortberg notes that

Barry Kosmin, who co-authored the survey, commented that more than ever before “people are just making up their own stories of who they are. They say, ‘I’m everything. I’m nothing. I believe in myself.'” He said that faith is increasingly treated as a fashion statement that serves as a vehicle for self-expression rather than a transcendent commitment which demands costly devotion.

So, what does this mean for a new church like The Upper Room in Squirrel Hill?  Though often considered Pittsburgh’s Jewish neighborhood, Squirrel Hill is already high on the people who would have checked “None” on the ARIS survey.  In our grant writing for The Upper Room, a Percept demographic study of the neighborhood suggested that 38.3% of the people living here have no faith committment

How does the church relate with the “Nones” of our neighborhood, especially when many of them are de-churched?  Here are some thoughts based on Lesslie Newbigin’s writing about “The Congregation as Hermeneutic of the Gospel” in The Gospel in a Pluralist Society.  There Newbigin suggests that a church in this context will have six characteristics.

  1. It will be a community of praise.
  2. It will be a community of truth.
  3. It will not live for itself, but will be “deeply involved in the concerns of its neighborhood.”
  4. It will be a place where congregation members live out their “priesthood in the world.”
  5. It will be a community of mutual responsibility.
  6. It will be a community of hope. 

Of these, I think hope, the conviction that this world and life has a purpose, may be the message that the “Nones” most need to hear.  If one doesn’t expect a religious funeral (as 27% apparently doesn’t), then there is no proclamation of hope beyond death.  And if there’s no hope beyond death, then life has no meaning.  To be rooted in our own self-constructed identities provides nothing more than a coping mechanism without any sense of larger purpose to life.  When that purpose is discovered in the Kingdom of God a clear reason for hope and purpose is given: God’s work of redeeming, healing, and restoring a broken world through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  That hope of course leads to the other characteristics Newbigin lists: experiencing restoration in our own lives leads to praise, gives us an anchor of truth, and a reason to be responsible to one another.  That hope also is what moves us forward, with all members of the community caring for the world in concrete ways, specifically in our own neighborhood and workplaces. 

So, where do we proclaim hope in Squirrel Hill?  In the face of depression, loneliness, addiction? Into broken relationships and places of grief?   Into the places where the economic crisis has affected even a relatively well-to-do neighborhood?  I don’t think this is the only answer or way of approaching the un-religious population, but it’s a start.  It’s certainly not a vague or ambiguous hope we’re called to proclaim: it’s the hope of the resurrection of the crucified Jesus which means it will never lead to easy answers.

“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” Romans 15:13

I’ve been auditing a class on Lesslie Newbigin over at the seminary, and it’s the reading I’m doing today to prepare for tomorrow night’s class that’s prompting me to write this.  This week we’re reading Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture.   Newbigin continues to blow my mind, particularly with new insights into the true significance of parts of the Church’s work.  This week Newbigin’s inspired me to reflect more on The Upper Room’s hope to become a multi-ethnic/multi-cultural church.  Up until now, most of our conversation about “why” we want to be a multi-ethnic church has been answered by “because we’re supposed to be.”  We point to Acts 2 and Ephesians 2 and Revelation 7 as examples of how the early church pursued unity across cultural barriers.  We’ve also talked a lot about the importance of overcoming the racism latent in Pittsburgh’s culture.  But reading Newbigin has reminded me of yet another reason why becoming a multi-cultural church matters: We need to become a multi-ethnic/multi-cultural church so that we can understand the Gospel more fully.

As Newbigin points out in Foolishness to the Greeks, the Gospel is never without a cultural context.  We cannot speak of “the Gospel” in abstract.  Because all of life is embedded in culture and because our culture shapes the way we see and understand the world, we can only speak of the Gospel as it is articulated within different cultures or languages.  Thus in a neighborhood like Squirrel Hill, the Gospel is manifest in different ways in each of the different cultures where a Christian community exists: there’s the white-middle-class-academic-Gospel, the Russian-immigrant-Gospel, the messianic-Jewish-Gospel, the Korean-American-Gospel, the African-American-Gospel, and so on.  This is good, because for the message of Jesus to be understood, it must be fully translated into and articulated within each cultural context. 

We’re still missing something, though, because once the Gospel becomes embedded in our own culture, we end up with a Jesus who may look too much like ourselves.  While contextualization is necessary for communication, we risk misunderstanding the Gospel, or ending up with a truncated understanding of it (such as the reductionistic message often preached by white evangelical American churches).  But if the Gospel is incarnate in every one of these different cultures, then each culture can proclaim the Gospel to each other culture in a way that enriches and strengthens each culture. To quote Newbigin: “Each side, perceiving Christ through the spectacle of one culture, can help the other to see how much the vision has been blurred or distorted” (Foolishness to the Greeks; Eerdmans 1986  p. 9).  This means that we need each other to sharpen and correct each other’s understandings of the Gospel.   Our understanding, and thus our proclamation, of the Gospel is partial, broken, fragmentary, and in need of exposure to the Gospel incarnate in every other culture for healing and correction of the very message we preach. 

I think this perspective is important to have for two reasons as we strive toward becoming a multi-ethnic church.  First, it places the focus on Jesus rather than on ourselves or on cultural differences which could otherwise be objectified and stereotyped.  We seek this because we seek Jesus – not because we seek to justify ourselves, or be do-gooders, or rectify our white-guilt.  We seek the Risen Christ at work among all peoples of this earth so that the Risen Christ would be glorified.  Second, it requires humility.  True reconciliation between cultures can’t be forced. It won’t come out of arrogance or pushiness, but postures of confession, contrition, and honest humility may open us up to reconciliation.  To seek to understand the Gospel more fully through encountering it in another culture requires teach-ability – a willingness to not be the expert, to be humble, to place oneself in a posture of confessing our need for understanding.