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Years ago I read Jürgen Moltmann’s memoir A Broad Place. The book was so titled because Moltmann likened his experience of new life after military service in WWII to the words of Psalm 18:19: “He brought me out into a broad place; he rescued me because he delighted in me.”

Our experience of moving home to Colorado has likewise felt like being brought out into a broad place, and not only because the streets are wider and straighter than any in Pittsburgh. We loved (and very much miss) Pittsburgh, but our pace of life there left me feeling both wearied and claustrophobic. The pace of life here in Berthoud is more gradual and gentle. That’s partly because I am now serving an older congregation. But there’s more that makes this feel like a broad place.

There is something humbling about expanses of nature beyond our control – plains or oceans or mountains – reminding us how small we are. It’s easier to “Be still and know” that God is God and I am not when, instead of city traffic, I see this every morning:

Our last weeks in Pittsburgh are a blur befitting the frenetic pace of our life there: saying goodbyes to jobs and friends, preaching my final sermons at The Upper Room, shooting a video to promote a new seminary certificate program, moving out of our house, volunteering at the New Wilmington Mission Conference. On our last day in Pittsburgh, I left the New Wilmington Mission Conference, served communion at my best friend’s mother’s memorial service, drove my wife and daughters to the airport, picked up my father and began a three day cross-country drive through the broad place of middle America.

That drive through rolling Ohio hills to flat fields of corn and soybeans that lasted all the way to Kansas was healing for my soul. The Great Plains are full of space – space to breathe, to pray, to be still. I needed that drive to slow down, to catch my breath, and to prepare for a new life here in Colorado. 

In Fairview, Kansas, we stopped to see the church my great-grandfather pastored a hundred and ten years ago. 

James A. Hunsicker was born in Pennsylvania, but his pastorates moved further West with every new call. After several years in Kansas, Grandpa Hunsicker moved to Colorado to be a fruit rancher, teacher, and pastor. A few days after arriving in Berthoud, I took my oldest daughter to a family gathering at the church he founded in Eckert, Colorado. Seeing her in the portion of the church’s garden which commemorates their centennial anniversary, I couldn’t help but think that the Lord led our family out into a broad place generations ago, and now he’s led us along a similar path.

So what does life look like in this broad place? It’s not all empty space. Today I prepared to interview our church’s next secretary, visited two homebound members, and met with the mayor to ask how our church can seek the well-being of the whole town. Today was a full day, but it didn’t feel like I was striving or forcing anything. Another translation of Psalm 46:10 says, “Cease striving, and know that I am God.” Such steadiness, peace, and trust is ideally possible in any context, but I’m finding it easier here, and I’m grateful to be entering a season of life where the Lord is letting us live in such a broad place. 

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.

This post originally appeared on the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary Blog on February 12, 2015:

A few nights ago, I found myself live-tweeting a sermon. I was so moved, I couldn’t contain my enthusiasm. But there was no one around to hear if I said, “Amen.” So I took to the Internet.

The sermon I was reading was the sermon preached by the Rev. Henry Highland Garnet to the US Congress Feb. 12, 1865. He stood before them as a 50-year-old, disabled, former slave who had become known around the nation as passionate abolitionist and pastor. He preached from Matthew 23:4, where Jesus condemns the Pharisees for tying up heavy burdens on others which they themselves won’t lift. Seamlessly, Garnet drew a parallel between the Pharisees and those who maintained the institution of slavery, placing heavy burdens on the shoulders of his brothers and sisters. Garnet’s sermon before Congress was delivered after the 13th Amendment (abolishing slavery) had been approved by Congress, but before it had been ratified by the states. Garnet was known as an accomplished (and controversial) orator, but his words that day were rooted in his life experience.

Born into slavery in Maryland in 1815, Garnet’s family escaped when he was nine years old and moved north to Bucks County, Pa. The family eventually settled in New York City. After two years at the African Free School, Garnet sailed as a cabin boy on ships to Cuba and served as a cook and steward on ships travelling between New York and Washington, DC. A traumatic leg injury in 1830 led him to return to school at the Noyes Academy in Canaan, N.H.

But the trauma only continued: the Noyes Academy was burned down by an angry mob who disapproved of educating African Americans. Garnet next enrolled in the Oneida Theological Institute, then a progressive Presbyterian school known to support black students, from which he graduated in 1839. The next year his leg was amputated due to complications from his earlier accident. But that didn’t slow Garnet down in any way. Over the next decades of his ministry, Garnet was an abolitionist, a pastor, an advocate of fair trade as an economic means to fight slavery, and a college president. The last role is what brought him to Pittsburgh.

Garnet arrived in Pittsburgh in 1868 as the newly appointed President of Avery College, on Pittsburgh’s North Side. Avery College had been founded by a Methodist abolitionist and served as a station on the Underground Railroad, and when Garnet arrived it served as a school for African Americans. While in Pittsburgh, Garnet was a bivocational church planter, working at Avery College while also organizing and laying the foundation for Grace Memorial Presbyterian Church (where Ron Peters, founding director of the Seminary’s Metro-Urban Institute, now serves). After leaving Pittsburgh, Garnet again served as a pastor in New York before being appointed as the United States ambassador to Liberia.

One-hundred and fifty years after Garnet spoke to Congress, his life still can speak volumes to us today. Our systems of racial injustice need to hear his prophetic condemnation. Our economy needs to hear his advocacy of fair-trade. And our churches need to follow his example of uniting biblical proclamation with prophetic action, especially as we pioneer new worshiping communities.

In the tradition of the Church, saints are honored and celebrated on the anniversary of their deaths. On Feb. 12, 1882, 17 years after his famous sermon to Congress and while serving as a diplomat in Liberia, Garnet passed away and entered the Promised Land of eternal freedom. May the Lord grant us the grace to honor Garnet’s legacy through our ministries this day.

To read Garnet’s sermons directly, see Lift Every Voice: African American Oratory ed. Philip S. Foner and Robert Brantham (Univ. of Alabama Press, 1997).