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New research on the Fresh Expressions movement in the Church of England was released this month, suggesting that new forms of church will not solve the problem of declining church attendance. In a small-scale study, the Rev. Dr. John Walker compared five fresh expressions – creative, highly-contextual ministries like pub churches or child-friendly “messy” churches – with five traditional parishes, observing that both the traditional and innovative churches seemed equally successful at “attracting the non-churched.” Translation: changing your worship style isn’t the way to bring unchurched people sitting in your pews.

On one level, this isn’t news. In Fresh Expressions’ language, we need a “mixed economy” of traditional and innovative ministries to faithfully proclaim the Gospel to diverse peoples. Though Walker’s observations could sound antagonistic toward pioneers of new forms of ministry, Walker writes in support of the mixed economy, arguing that the Church needs both traditional and new models of mission. Again, new worship styles aren’t the solution to declining church attendance.

But the reaction to this news reveals the anxiety latent in our shrinking churches. In a world where the Church is experiencing declining worship attendance and waning public influence, the Church fretfully waits for news of any way we can draw. The anxiety is captured well by Canon Kerry Thorpe, a leader of a fresh expression who was studied by Walker, who opened a review of Walker’s book by saying “Well, do they pass or don’t they?” People want to know: will new worshiping communities save our denominations?

Thorpe summarizes Walker’s findings, saying the answer is both “Yes, and no.” But Thorpe helpfully notes a constructive finding in Walker’s work, the finding that new Christians in these communities shared a common journey which Walker called the “Transformative Cycle.”

In the Transformative Cycle, these women and men had experienced significant life-events which, when processed in relationship with a Christian community, led them to come to a new self-understanding that included a deepened Christian identity. For example, a recent divorcee is invited to a small group where she experiences loving community. That community, in turn, responds to her questions about faith and journeys alongside her. Over time, the love of the community and the Gospel communicated to her through them leads the woman to make a new commitment to follow Christ. An earlier version of Walker’s study noted that the Transformative Cycle happened most often in congregations with a strong “culture of care” and an ability to communicate the tradition of the Church through that care (p. 117). Translation: Relationships with committed Christians lead to personal transformation.

Walker’s work on the Transformative Cycle is much more detailed and nuanced, but churches where the Transformative Cycle takes place share a culture of hospitality and deep relationships. This should inform the questions we’re asking about our churches, whether they were planted one year ago or one hundred years ago.

First, we should begin with relationships. With whom has God already put us in relationship? Are we hospitable to our neighbors? Do we habitually invite new people deeper into our circles? Then we ought to ask ourselves about what gospel is communicated through those relationships. Do we speak naturally about what God has done and is doing in our lives? Do we preach ourselves, or do we speak and act as loving servants of Christ the Lord (2 Cor 4:5)?Regardless of the outward form or worship style of our churches, are we a people who communicate Gospel in community?

Starting with these questions reframes the earlier question about Fresh Expressions: “Well, do they lead to transformed lives or don’t they?” Many do, and we should pray for the grace to become part of transformative Christian communities ourselves. May the Holy Spirit lead us forward in faithful mission, to the glory of the One who underwent the transformative cycle of death and resurrection for us and our salvation.

This post originally appeared on the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary blog.

Last Monday, our seminary community was shocked by the sudden death of professor Jannie Swart. Despite having only served on the faculty at PTS for a year, his loving and enthusiastic faith had transformed the culture of the entire campus. The Lord used Jannie in such powerful ways that even people he never met were compelled to come to Friday’s memorial service.

My first encounter with Jannie was the day he approached me at the New Wilmington Mission Conference in 2013 and said, “We have to teach a church planting class together.” Jannie drew people into relationships in such a way that we couldn’t help but be implicated in whatever he was doing. Soon three other friends and colleagues had joined us and we planned the course I wrote about here.

Anyone who met Jannie felt as though they had made a new close friend. For me, Jannie was a friend, but also a colleague. We co-led the Church Planting Initiative at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and served on Pittsburgh Presbytery’s New Church Development Commission together. We only worked with each other formally for less than a year, but I am forever thankful for the time I spent laboring under his guidance.

On Thursday, my co-pastor and I attended the memorial service at the church which Jannie had pastored in Oil City, PA, before coming to teach in Pittsburgh. Friends, parishioners, and colleagues all shared testimonies about the love, joy, and zeal which marked Jannie’s ministry. One person recalled having once asked Jannie why he gave himself with such devotion to his ministry. Jannie’s response: “I really believe this stuff!”

He really believed this stuff. That Christ’s death and resurrection had conquered sin and death. That the Gospel called us to be reconciled not just to God, but also to one another. That the two greatest commandments truly and simply are to love the Lord your God and love your neighbor as yourself.  He really believed this stuff.

And he didn’t just believe it in sermons or books. Jannie believed it in ordinary conversation and daily life. That’s what set Jannie apart. Many of us in the Church believe this stuff when we’re preaching or writing or counseling. But Jannie believed it every minute of every day. Every word he spoke radiated confidence that God was alive and active in the present moment. He spoke and lived with an awareness of the reality of God, not just when he was teaching, but when he was sharing a beer with you, or receiving your hospitality, or spontaneously stopping by your office to say hello and share his joy.

It was this spirit of true belief that Jannie called us to when he preached at the PC(USA)’s Evangelism and Church Growth Conference one month ago. His sermon there has been recalled many times in the past week because of his exhortation to laugh at death. I remember the very beginning of the sermon, though: He began by running up to the baptismal font and asking if we really believed that Jesus Christ is living water. If we really believed that fullness of life is to be found in relationship with Jesus, our hearts would be overflowing with desire to share that love with the world (John 7:38). This is the gift I received in Jannie Swart: a friend and colleague who knew the love of God in the depths of his being, and from whose heart flowed streams of living water. Thanks be to God for a man who really believed this stuff.

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.  

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Sunrise over Sorocaba, São Paolo state

I spent the last two weeks in Brazil with a group of Pittsburgh Seminary students, studying how Presbyterian churches there plant new congregations. We encountered a variety of creative ministries, but all their leaders shared one characteristic. It’s the simple desire to share Jesus with people who don’t yet know Him. As one pastor, Renato, of Campolim Comunidade Presbyteriana, said simply, “The Gospel is the important message.” These leaders have the heart that the Apostle Paul expresses in Romans 1:16: “I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.”

This is why Christians in Manaus do street evangelism in the midst of the idolatry that manifests itself in the city’s celebration of Carnival. This is why Christians have a fleet of boats traveling up the Rio Negro and down the Amazon providing care for villagers and planting churches among them. This is why a jiu jitsu master incorporates Bible study and prayer into his classes. This is why a multicultural congregation operates and supports shelters for orphans, neglected children, and babies born with HIV. All the pastors and leaders we met in Brazil seemed to have the desire to share Christ as their primary motivation for ministry. They really are like the shepherd of Luke 15, leaving the ninety- nine sheep to seek the one that is lost.

I’m willing to bet that this is the primary reason the Church is growing in Brazil. A heart for the Gospel matters more than any technique or method of church planting. Our team learned a lot about specific topics such as how church planters are trained in Brazil and how churches (rather than Presbyteries) plant other churches there. But any lessons we can bring back to apply in our communities in America derive from that confidence in the proclamation of Christ.

For example, churches there invest heavily in leadership development. Pastor Ricardo, of Chácara Primavera, told us that his church planted 28 other churches because they focused on raising up new church planters. This is in contrast to methods of planting that identify target communities and demographics before a pastor or leader is even called in. Having a leader who has the right heart for church planting comes first. Applied to our work in America, this confirms that church planting doesn’t begin in seminary classrooms or Presbytery offices. It begins when God calls particular men and women to give their lives in submission to Jesus’ desire that all people would hear the Gospel. If we want to see more churches planted in our context, we should likewise pray for and invest in future leaders who are motivated primarily by a desire to see others enter life-giving relationships with Jesus. The task of those who want to support church planting in America is to help these new leaders grow in their ability to hear and obey the direction of the Holy Spirit.

The way this plays out in practice is of course different in every context. A church in my neighborhood can’t use the same outreach strategies we saw in Brazil. Post-Christendom North America is very resistant to some of the styles of evangelism we encountered there. But if we cultivate the same desire that our Brazilian brothers and sisters have to see lives transformed by Christ, I believe we will indeed see the development of many new churches that bear good fruit.

Lord of the harvest, send out laborers into Your harvest. May we have such confidence in Your Gospel, and such love for Your world. Amen.

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 feel dizzy. I just finished reading a biography of Aimee Semple McPherson. She was a nationally famous Pentecostal megachurch preacher whose career spanned from the early 1920’s to her sudden death in 1944. The story of her life is dizzying because – unlike the other figures we’ve studied in the American Religious Biography class at Pittsburgh Seminary – McPherson led a remarkably chaotic life. She was a Hollywood celebrity, and her life included many moments we would associate with celebrities more than preachers: a grand jury indictment, a sex scandal, a possible kidnapping, and an accidental drug overdose. Despite these mistakes and challenges, she was a pioneer in blending fundamentalist Christianity with American mass media and pop-culture, and in so doing, she shaped the America we now know.

Matthew Avery Sutton, the author of Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America argues that “Americans came to embrace a thoroughly modern form of evangelicalism” because of trends McPherson set in motion (p. 6). The phrase “thoroughly modern form of evangelicalism” hints at the tightrope McPherson walked between accommodating to new cultural norms and upholding fundamentalist values. Three aspects of her life reveal the difficult balancing act she tried to keep up.

(1) Gender Roles: As flappers and feminists challenged gender roles for women, McPherson challenged male leadership in the Church. Though fundamentalist in her theology, she pastored a five-thousand member church long before more liberal mainline denominations began to ordain women. (2) Mass Media: Though living near the center of the American entertainment industry, McPherson initially condemned theatrical entertainment. Yet she was eager to incorporate drama and visual-storytelling in her sermons, prompting some to say she had “the best show in town.”  (3) Faith and Politics: Believing that America occupied a special pace in God’s plan for the world, McPherson was a major political figure urging America to return to its “Christian roots.”

Today’s evangelical Christian culture can bear witness to McPherson’s influence in all of these places. Though female senior-pastors are rare even in mainline denominations, Christianity in America is much more accepting of female leadership than it was a century ago. In terms of Christian use of mass media, she laid the foundation for every pastor who has ever podcasted a sermon today. Contemporary Christian music reflects McPherson’s ambivalence about popular culture, providing an alternative to secular media while mirroring its style in every way. Commenting on her political legacy, Sutton writes:

McPherson’s most significant contribution was pushing pentecostals in particular and evangelicals more generally to rethink their mission on earth. At a moment when the United States seemed to be moving in a more secular direction, she called on her colleagues to ‘Christianize’ the United States. (p. 278)

This goal of “Christianizing” politics is obviously alive and well today in many evangelical and fundamentalist Churches. As Sutton suggests, McPherson’s blend of faith and politics seems to have set the stage for today’s alliance between the Republican party and American evangelicals.

“Successful” as McPherson may have been in balancing fundamentalism with emerging American culture, it’s worth noting that she also fell off the tightrope a few times. A mysterious disappearance which she explained as a kidnapping gave way to rumors that McPherson was having an affair. In the wake of the scandal, she began to live more like a Hollywood celebrity, alienating her followers by adopting an image of luxury and sensuality which she had previously condemned in others. Though she later returned more authentically to her Pentecostal roots, McPherson was a walking paradox who was no stranger to hypocrisy or self-contradiction. She adovcated for global disarmament even as she cheered and blessed American troops going into World War II. She both argued for racial equality and had an ambiguous relationship with the Klan. Perhaps the evangelical leaders whose careers have been tarnished by scandals and inconsistency can see their failures as part of McPherson’s legacy, as well.

I think the moral for us in McPherson’s story is that the Church needs to reflect more critically upon its own engagement with the culture around us. On the one hand, McPherson’s use of modern media in her promotion of her Church follows the example of Reformation-era Christians who used the newly invited printing press to publish their views. On the other hand, I think reckless adoption of new technology and accommodation to culture seriously can be dangerous to our spiritual health. McPherson’s love affair with Hollywood led her into the loneliest and darkest period of her career.  What will be the unforeseen consequences of today’s Church’s infatuation with our latest technologies? I wish McPherson could have resisted more strongly the temptations that accompanied stardom. What does her example of tightrope walking, and falling from the tightrope, have to say to the Church today as we interact with the world? Given the exponentially increasing rate of technological innovation and cultural change around us, this question leaves me feeling as dizzy as McPherson’s life.

“If your church disappeared overnight, would your neighborhood notice? Would anyone miss you?” More than once, I’ve heard a speaker at a church-planting conference ask questions along these lines. The speakers intend to be provocative, to ask questions which will make leaders wonder whether their congregations are making an impact on their cities by meeting real needs in their neighborhoods. The question is a simplistic test of any congregation’s connection with its surrounding, but it’s particularly relevant for church-planters. In some understandings of church-planting, the pastors or leaders of the church seem to succeed because they are great community organizers.

Take Richard Allen for one example. I’m now reading Richard Newman’s Freedom’s Prophet: Bishop Richard Allen, the AME Church, and the Black Founding Fathers. Allen is known as the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which began when Allen planted Bethel Church in Philadelphia. Allen was by nature entrepreneurial, and founded businesses and social organizations as well as his church and denomination. In all of these ventures, Allen was thinking beyond himself, seeking the good of both free and enslaved African-Americans and the new country in which they lived. Because of this, Newman even argues that Allen should be considered among the “Founding Fathers” of the new United States. He writes, 

Allen believed himself to be a member of two founding generations. He was a black leader who built reform institutions to redeem African Americans and he was a broader moral leader who wanted to redeem the American republic from the sin of racial subjugation. (p. 21)

What made Allen a successful “founder” involved more than simply his vision for change or his entrepreneurial personality. Allen had a gift for bringing people together, and he connected with his diverse community in such a way that people joined and followed him. Two events which took place early in Allen’s career display this gift:

As mentioned above, Allen founded Bethel Church and the AME denomination. These institutions started when Allen and several other black Christians walked out of St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church in protest of newly enforced segregated seatingAllen had been born into slavery, and it was while a slave that heard Methodist preachers proclaiming the Gospel and its liberating message. When Allen entered the ministry, he did it as a typical itinerant Methodist preacher. He was bi-vocational, preaching early in the morning and then working a variety of day-jobs to support his ministry. Once he settled in Philadelphia in 1786, his congregants were primarily the black men and women who attended St. George’s Methodist Church. The black population of the congregation grew so much under Allen’s leadership that the white leaders of the congregation became anxious. At some point during Allen’s years there, the white leaders built a balcony and declared that a new policy of segregated seating in worship would be enforced. On the Sunday that the policy was first enforced, Allen and all the other African-Americans in the church walked out as one “body” (p. 64). 

But the events of that day were not spontaneous. The date of this legendary event is uncertain, but Newman seems to favor a later date, around 1792 or 1793. Several pieces of evidence suggest that the walk-out Allen helped lead was an intentional act of non-violent activism, planned in advance in order to make a point to the white church members. Allen dreamed of leading an independent black church long before that fateful day, as evidenced by his efforts to have the Free African Society (which he also founded) consider supporting an independent black church as early as 1789. This suggests that much went on behind-the-scenes to rally the black members of St. George’s to respond together to the discrimination they experienced. The events which took place later in St. George’s were choreographed to make a point: racial discrimination had no place in the Kingdom of God, and Allen’s followers would accept it no longer. 

Allen’s response to Philadelphia’s 1793 outbreak of Yellow Fever and its racially-charged aftermath also displays Allen’s gifts in community relations. When the Yellow Fever struck Philadelphia, Benjamin Rush, a famous physical and signer of the Declaration of Independence, invited Allen and his flock to respond to the crisis. Rush did so on the basis of the mistaken belief that black people were immune to the Yellow Fever. Inaccurate as that assumption was, Allen and his friend Absalom Jones agreed to help because they believed that “black aid to white citizens would help the cause of racial justice” (p. 88). Throughout the crisis, Allen and other black leaders rallied black volunteers to serve as nurses and aid workers, often doing work that involved physically touching those who would have considered their caretakers virtually untouchable because of their skin color.

Racism resurfaced after the crisis ended, though, with whites accusing blacks of exploiting whites and profiting off of their suffering. Allen and Jones responded to the criticism in print, publishing an essay which defended their motives and documented the sacrifices blacks had made to serve their white brothers and sisters. In doing so, Allen stepped boldly into both the public sphere and the use of new media and technology. These steps strengthened his influence in the community beyond his congregation.

Allen’s leadership in each of these instances raises questions for us who claim to be “church-planters” today. First, if the leaders in our community needed something, would they call us? Today, will respected community members or civic leaders call upon us when the neighborhood is in crisis? I have a friend who pastors a church in Rockford, IL, who joined the local chamber of commerce precisely to build the relationships that could lead to such service. How can we build similar relationships in our own contexts today?

Second, Richard Allen’s life challenges us to consider if we are both confident and shrewd enough to act prophetically when necessary. When we react to injustice, are the measures we take as carefully calculated and wisely executed as those Allen took? Are we such examples of integrity that when criticized, we can respond with dignity and confidence? The more we are able to answer these questions affirmatively, the more our churches will leave a positive impact upon their neighborhoods.

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