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Earlier this afternoon, I sent the email below to our church community here in Pittsburgh announcing that we’ll be moving this summer. It’s been eight years since I wrote here that I was Thinking and Praying about Church Planting, and now God has called us on to something new. Eileen and I are delighted to be moving closer to family and are excited about new possibilities in ministry, even though we’ll miss our many friends in Pittsburgh. I hope to write more in the coming weeks and months about our discernment process, the move from being bi-vocational to tri-vocational to being a full-time solo pastor; and the other things God is showing us in this season. For now, here are the words I wrote to our church:


Beloved Friends of The Upper Room,

We often speak of The Upper Room as a “sending church.” In John 20:21 Jesus says, “As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.” For almost eight years, The Upper Room has sought to invite people into living relationship with Jesus Christ, nurture them in faith, and sent them out into the world to participate in God’s mission wherever the Holy Spirit leads them.

Now Eileen and I are asking you to send the Brown family out in the next stage of our vocation as well. On Sunday, May 8th, I preached a sermon at the First Presbyterian Church of Berthoud, Colorado, as the candidate to become their next pastor. After the service the congregation voted to extend a call to me to become their next pastor. I will be begin serving as a solo pastor for them on August 15, 2016.

As I explained to Upper Room’s elders, and to the congregation when this was announced at Upper Room on Pentecost, a pivotal moment in this journey came last fall when session committed to prayerfully ask God, Who should lead The Upper Room in 2016? The answer I sensed from God was that for The Upper Room to thrive in the next season of its life, I would need to move on from leadership here.

So, Eileen and I began asking even last fall where God might call us next. Mike has also been a close conversation partner in this discernment and has known about this possibility in Colorado since we first found out about it. Throughout this season I’ve processed these decisions in regular conversations with my spiritual director and with a few other trusted friends and pastors. The Lord called Mike and me to plant The Upper Room together and gave us a vision for its inception. At the turn of the year, we made the decision to continue serving together at quarter­-time hours because we wanted to honor that vision until God showed us what was next.

Now the Lord has shown us what’s next by placing before me an opportunity to continue to fulfill my vocation as a Minister of Word and Sacrament (Teaching Elder), while also nurturing my family and (I pray) better fulfilling my vocation as a husband and father. Berthoud, CO, is close to where Eileen’s parents live, and we look forward to raising our daughters closer to grandparents. The church which I will serve is a small traditional congregation in a rapidly growing town, and I feel called to help them discover how to relate to new neighbors in a changing context.

My last official day at The Upper Room will be July 15, with July 10 being my final Sunday in worship. Following our denomination’s Book of Order, Mike will become the solo-pastor of The Upper Room upon my departure. There will be other opportunities for goodbyes in the next two months, and I want to remain fully present with you all in this time to help prepare for a good transition. I am confident in the leadership that Mike and the elders will provide in the coming months and ask you to pray for them throughout this season.

We are immensely grateful for the family God has provided for us through The Upper Rooma family that proves true Jesus’ words in Luke 18:29­-30: “No one who has left home or wife or brothers or sisters or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will fail to receive many times as much in this age, and in the age to come eternal life”. Eileen and I left Colorado to follow God’s call to Pittsburgh for seminary and we were surprised by a call to stay and plant The Upper Room.

In our relationships at The Upper Room we’ve discovered not only friends and partners in God’s mission, but a surrogate family who has walked with us through these eight years. As we prepare to return to a homeland, I feel like Jacob: a man who had to leave home to mature and be formed through his service on Laban’s farm, all the while “longing to return to his father’s household” (Genesis 31:30). At the proper time, the Lord sent Jacob back to his home, and I sense that such a transition is before us.

My prayer for the future of The Upper Room is simply and earnestly that the Lord’s will would be done here and that Jesus Christ would be glorified through The Upper Room’s witness. I hope that The Upper Room will continue to be a sending community, genuinely preparing and commissioning others to serve the Lord across the nation and world. I also hope that The Upper Room will continue to live as a faithful family who welcomes others into Christ’s love in our part of Pittsburgh, thus laying deeper roots with long­-term members in Squirrel Hill and its surrounding neighborhoods.

Beautiful things are happening through The Upper Room’s ministry now: We are a family for people who lack family, a community that strives to worship in spirit and truth, and a community with much latent potential and many yet­-to-be discovered gifts. We participate in God’s mission through our members’ lives and through significant local partnerships such as Young Life and the Squirrel Hill Food Pantry. I pray for those gifts to blossom, those mission partnerships to continue to flourish, and for many in the coming years to find a family of people devoted to Jesus Christ at The Upper Room. Naming those hopes, I again pray that the Lord’s will would be done and that Jesus would be glorified through us all.

Thank you for the joy and privilege of serving as a pastor to you all. Feel free to contact me, or Mike, or any of the elders if you have any questions about this transition.

Grace and Peace,
Chris

 

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.  

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.

I’m headed out of town today for a Company of New Pastors retreat where we’ll be discussing Alan Roxburgh’s book The Sky is Falling.  Despite being a church-planter, it’s been a while since I’ve read one of these “the world is changing and we have to become missional before the Church dies” books.  As I’ve discovered the fruitfulness of reading works from the early Church, books in Roxburgh’s genre have become less appealing.  But this book did have some important ideas regarding the formation of leaders for the Church in our context and the roles those leaders then fill. I want to comment on these because I find his proposal both promising and lacking.

Anyone considering reading this book should know that the first nine chapters (140 pages) of the book are designed to set up the final 3 chapters (48 pages).   This last section of the book is where it actually gets exciting. As for set up, here’s what you need to know: The Church in our context is in a situation of liminality – a period of change in which one is in-between two different stages or places, a prolonged time of standing in a threshold. Think of Israel wandering in the wilderness, living in-between the life they’d known in Egypt and the life they would know in the Promised Land.  During such periods of liminality, the people going through this change discover a new sense of connection or bonding called communitas.  If you’ve ever been on a mission trip, you know what this feels like. It’s the sense of connection that you develop with that team of people while you’re experiencing an adventure in an unfamiliar context.  Roxburgh sees the Church in a period of liminality, and argues that both traditional and non-traditional leaders need to work together to create communitas in order to survive the transition.

Once you get to Chapter 10, Roxburgh starts to lay out a vision for leadership in the Church which sees Christian leaders with various roles and gifts and united under the leadership of an “Abbot/Abbess”.  These leaders with differing functions and spiritual gifts would ideally be trained not in modern seminary environments but through hands-on apprenticeship under masters of the faith. These ‘masters’ should be characterized less by academic credentials and more by experience, wisdom, and spiritual maturity.  Ideally this is already the goal of apprenticeship programs such as The World Christian Discipleship Program. Here I agree with Roxburgh’s general observations about leadership formation. After describing some of the roles which these leaders fill – poet, prophet, pastor – Roxburgh moves on to his proposal for an office of “Abbot”. The Abbot or Abbess functions less as a manager of an organization and more as a curator of an environment. Borrowing a term from Lawrence Miller, Roxburgh calls this person a synergist, defined as “a leader with the capacity to unify diverse and divergent leadership styles around a common sense of missional vision for a specific community” (p. 155). Surprisingly to me, Roxburgh envisions the Abbot not as the leader of one congregation, but as an overseer of many various ministries and congregations. (If you have the book, see the chart on page 182 which makes this clear.)  Essentially, Roxburgh is proposing having a bishop.  He avoids this word, probably because of its authoritarian and institutional connotations, stressing that the Abbot is “not a denominational executive” (p. 182), but I can’t help but think that Roxburgh’s Abbot is close to what a bishop should be. This is good, and I find it particularly relevant to our own context where Pittsburgh Presbytery is implementing a new mission plan which will eventually lead to us having four “branch ministers” who could each lead just as Roxburgh envisions his Abbot or Abbess leading. Good.

Promising as this is, there’s something missing in Roxburgh’s ecclesiology. And it’s something big. The problem with this book, and with so many other books on missional ecclesiology, is that it totally neglects the role of the sacraments in shaping and sustaining the life of the Church.  Despite occasional suggestions that we look to our history for guidance, Roxburgh doesn’t always present an accurate reading of Church history.  Contrary to the overview of early Church history in pages 148-150,  the early Church did have a defined pattern of leadership in which hierarchy did not always equal bureaucracy. The office of bishop evolved very early in the life of the Church not out of captivity to our culture’s professionalism or bureaucracy, but out of a desire to ensure proper celebration of the sacraments. Ordination was practiced by the Church to set people apart for the leadership of worship, not administration. Like other similar books, Roxburgh at times reflects anachronistic projection of contemporary emergent distrust of hierarchy onto the history of the Church. The primary concern of the early Church’s first bishops wasn’t paperwork.  It was a life of worship culminating in the celebration of Eucharist each week.  And if that’s the primary job description of a bishop, I see no reason to fear using the word bishop. Roxburgh’s choice of the word Abbot reflects a low ecclesiology, rather than a true sense of monasticism, in which the Abbot also lives a life of worship.

But this correction is no reason to abandon Roxburgh’s vision. Rather, the book’s proposal for leadership should be deepened to reflect the spirituality necessary for leadership of the Church in our context.  What if the Abbot or Abbess whom Roxburgh pictures overseeing multiple congregations and ministries was primarily concerned with cultivating environments of holy and beautiful worship? What if prayer and spiritual disciplines were essential parts of the apprenticeships which prepare the leaders who serve under the Abbot? What if remembrance of our Baptismal identity and celebration of the Lord’s Supper provide the connections to the “core Christian narrative” which Roxburgh says we need to recover? That’s a vision for the Church that I find appealing.

What is Church unity?  Seriously, what does it mean for the Church to be united?

Later this afternoon, I’ll attend a Presbytery meeting where we’ll discuss the creation of a “gracious dismissal” policy for churches from our Presbytery who want to leave the Presbyterian Church (USA).  To state it plainly, our denomination is dividing. The reasons are complex and more than I want to write about here, but across the country churches are leaving either for the more conservative Evangelical Presbyterian Church or for the newly created Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians (ECO).  I attended part of the Fellowship of Presbyterians conference in Florida two weeks ago where ECO was unveiled in John Ortberg’s compelling vision-casting sermon.  More than 10% of the congregations in the denomination were represented at the Fellowship’s two gatherings in the past year.  Almost as many people attended each of those gatherings as attend the PC(USA)’s biennial General Assembly, our national governing meeting.  These divisions can’t be ignored or dismissed.  And I have very mixed feelings about all of  this.

On the one hand, I grieve any division in the Church.  Schism is never God’s intention for the Church.  But on the other hand, the creation of a new denomination is really only giving concrete shape to an ideological schism which has been present for decades.  In the New Testament, unity in the Church often means being of “one mind” (Acts 2:46, Philippians 2:1-2). But what does it really mean to be of “one mind?”  There was room in the New Testament Church for ethnic and cultural diversity (Acts 2, Acts 10, Acts 15, Galatians 3).  And theological diversity was even present to an extent.  The writers of the New Testament clearly emphasize different theological concepts and different aspects of the faith. But for the most part, these cultural and theological differences in the New Testament are harmonious.  They’re different notes that still sound like they fit in a chord or scale together. Unfortunately, the PC(USA) is, and has long been, at the point where the different notes we hear aren’t even in the same key. The differences make a cacophony rather than music.

Ephesians 4 begins by calling the Church to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (NASB).  These verses are quoted in our Presbytery’s “Guidelines for Presbyterians During Times of Disagreement”, the intention being to emphasize tolerance.  But I think we often ignore what Ephesians 4 goes on to say about Church unity.  Paul says gifts were given to the Church to build up  the Body of Christ . . .

until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ.  As a result, we are no longer to be children tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness and deceitful scheming; but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ, from whom the whole body, being fittted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love. (Ephesians 4:13-15 NASB)

Maturity in Christ, according to this passage, includes unity in doctrine.  But the passage doesn’t speak about such maturity or unity as something which we’ve already attained.  It’s a process. We’re growing together toward maturity in Christ, and as we become more mature in Christ individually, the more united we become in terms of our belief. We’re not there yet.  We’re far from it, and it will take a lifetime to get there.

I personally have no intention of leaving the denomination.  Neither does my church. But I can’t say I’m of one mind with everyone in the PC(USA).  And yet I don’t want to invest my energy in division.  I sympathize with those desiring “gracious dismissal”, but at this point I would rather spend my time and energy seeking maturity in Christ.  I have close friends in this Church with whom I disagree on certain issues, but I’m confident we’re seeking maturity in Christ together.  I want to trust that if we are each on the road to sanctification, each trusting that “He who began a good work in us will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6), each striving to enter through the small gate and walk the narrow way that leads to life (Matthew 6:14), God will lead us to such unity in faith and maturity in Christ.

Following up on this past Saturday’s “End of Sexual Identity” event, I want to share about another book that has the potential to change the Church’s conversation about sexuality.  It’s Wesley Hill’s Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality.

Hill writes as a self-identified gay Christian man who is choosing to remain celibate.  As he shares in the book, it’s difficult to find others speaking up from his position.  The voices that speak the loudest in the Church’s debates about sexuality are either (1) those thumping the Bible defending traditional Christian views of sexuality, often with insensitivity toward those who experience same-sex attraction, or (2) those promoting the more culturally acceptable view that homosexual activity is not sin.  The arguments between those two sides are often marked by callousness and lack of compassion.  People become entrenched in their positions and then talk past each other.  Perhaps because of that insensitivity, it’s hard to hear the voice of men and women who experience attraction to members of the same sex, yet deliberately choose, because of their Christian convictions, not to live into those attractions.  Shame, the feeling that their sin is “worse” than others, and fear of insensitive responses from others in the Church too often keep Christians who experience same-sex attraction in a lonely closet. Thankfully, Hill has given voice to that struggle, and his voice needs to be heard.

Though Hill identifies as a gay man, and uses categories like “homosexual” in ways which Jenell Paris would not, he makes it clear that the most important part of his identity is his identity in Christ. And his very personal story bears witness to the fact that one’s identity in Christ includes taking up one’s cross.  Hill writes movingly about the loneliness, isolation, and shame he’s experienced.  But he also shares about loving community and supportive friends, other celibate gay men who have served as role models (including Henri Nouwen), and the hope he has looking forward to the day when Jesus will say to him, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”  The personal aspect of Washed and Waiting makes it impossible to talk about homosexuality in abstract terms.  It’s a deeply personal matter, and this is a moving testimony from someone living a deeply personal struggle. 

Anyone interested in the Church’s debates about sexuality should read this book. Anyone who’s struggling with their sexuality and unsure where to look for guidance should read it, too.  Just as I hoped our event with Jenell Paris would change the conversation about sexuality in the Church by giving us different language for the Church to use, I think this book can change the conversation by presenting a different perspective: that of someone who’s chosen the counter-cultural path of celibacy. Hill makes it clear that such a path is not easy, but he believes it’s the right path. One does not have to express oneself sexually in order to be fully human. Jesus Christ was fully human and remained celibate. Surely the Church should be a place where voices like Hill’s can speak openly as they seek faithfulness to their Lord.

I serve the Church in a denomination that has been entrenched in battles over human sexuality for decades.  Debates about ordination of people in active homosexual relationships, as well as about the definition or marriage, are tearing the Church apart.  Seven years ago, I went to a national conference for our denomination and saw the battle taking place.  Neither side listened to the other.  They talked past each other.  What was authoritative for one side wasn’t for the other.  There was no common ground on which a debate could even fairly take place.  Ever since, I’ve wondered if there could be a healthier, more constructive way for the Church to handle its debates about sexuality. Is there a better way to talk about sexual morality as Christians?  Is there a better way to frame the conversation?

I think there is.

This Saturday, January 28th, Upper Room is going to host an event with anthropologist, author, and professor Jenell Williams Paris called “The End of Sexual Identity.” Paris’s book, The End of Sexual Identity, takes a unique approach to our culture’s conversation about sexuality, particularly categories like homosexuality and heterosexuality.  And I think this approach could have a really positive impact on the way the Church talks about sex.  For a preview of what Jenell has to say, you can listen to this interview with her.

There is more information on Upper Room’s site and you can click here to register for the event.  It runs from 10am to 3:30pm.  The morning and afternoon sessions will also include panel responses from a variety of people living out their sexuality in different ways. Lunch will be available through Franktuary, who will be selling hot dogs and other items on site.

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