When I heard the news that Phyllis Tickle passed away Sept. 22, 2015, I wondered what office of prayer she had just completed. I imagine that a woman who led so many into deeper practices of prayer would surely pass into the fullness of the Kingdom by way of prayer. In her own prayer-book, the Vespers office for the night before she died included a hymn with these words: “So when the world is at its end / And Christ to judgment shall descend, / May we be called those joys to see / Prepared for all eternity.” The refrain for that Vespers service: “Let the faithful rejoice in triumph; let them be joyful on their beds.”[1] By grace we trust that Phyllis now sees those joys with the Church Triumphant.

Tickle was the founding religion editor at Publisher’s Weekly and a prolific author, but her influence on the Church extended far beyond books. She supported and sponsored many voices in the emerging church movement, lending credibility to a phenomenon that others regarded with suspicion. She used her publishing savvy to bolster budding authors and bring fresh voices to the Christian publishing market. But her greatest contribution to the Church was how she taught a new generation of Christian leaders to pray in a very old way.

The one conversation I had with Phyllis took place with a group of other Pittsburgh pastors at a local bar after she spoke at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary’s Summer Leadership Conference in 2012. [2] After the table had talked about the paradigm shifts affecting our culture and the Church for quite a while, I offered a quick interjection: “Phyllis, thank you for The Divine Hours.” She lit up. Then with joy she recounted the story behind her greatest works.

The Divine Hours was Phyllis’ biggest writing project – a series of prayer books revolving around the practice of fixed-hour prayer. Long maintained by the monastic wing of the Church, fixed-hour prayer involves pausing to pray at specific, predetermined times throughout the day. The early Church inherited this practice through its Jewish roots. Psalm 119:164 says “Seven times a day I praise you for your righteous laws” and this verse was taken quite literally in Jesus’ day. By the time of the Apostles, praying liturgical prayers up to seven times a day was a common practice in Jewish religion, and the Apostles maintained such practices even after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Acts 3:1 shows Peter and John going to the temple “at the time of prayer – at three in the afternoon.” Peter and Cornelius are practicing fixed-hour prayer in Acts 10 when they receive the revelations that lead to the inclusion of the Gentiles in the Church.

In the history of the Church, these have been systematized in various ways by different traditions. A simple list of some of the key hours includes (1) Vespers – 6:00 p.m., (2) Compline – Before Sleep, (3) Midnight or the Night Watch, (4) First Hour or “Prime” – 6:00 a.m., ( 5) Third Hour or “Terce” – 9:00 a.m., (6) Sixth Hour or “Sext” – Noon, and (7) Ninth Hour or “None” – 3:00 p.m. An attentive person will notice that the prescribed prayers for certain times often refer to biblical events which occurred at those hours. For example, many Third Hour prayers ask the Holy Spirit to fall upon us as a Pentecost. Ninth hour prayers may ask that our sin would be crucified with Christ. When practiced regularly, fixed-hour prayer becomes a way of weaving the story of Jesus and the Church into our daily lives, increasing our attentiveness to God and our sense of identification with Christ and the Apostles.

In that conversation three years ago, Phyllis told us the story of how her publisher invited her to write the series of prayer books. She prayed the hours regularly for years before compiling The Divine Hours, and the series thus flowed out of the deep well of her own prayer life and experience. She maintained the rhythm even when at work during the day, often leaving her office to go to the bathroom for privacy when it was time to pray. When her editor approached her with the idea for a book on fixed-hour prayer, she asked why she’d been chosen for such a task. The editor responded with a statement like, “We figured you either had the most regular bladder of any human being, or you were praying.”

By writing The Divine Hours, Phyllis opened up the practice to a whole new audience. Many were transformed by adopting this new rhythm of prayer. When other prayer books could quickly become stale, The Divine Hours offered fresh sets of seven offices for each day of each season of the year, with each prayer painstakingly selected by Phyllis. When other prayer books felt clumsy to operate, The Divine Hours arranged all the prayers and readings one needed for a given office on one page.

Ken Wilson, a Vineyard pastor in Ann Arbor, Mich., wrote about the Divine Hours: “I was able to relax with this kind of prayer. It didn’t depend as much on my state of mind or my feelings of spirituality at the time of prayer. It felt like dipping my canoe into a river of prayer that has been flowing since the time of Abraham.”[3] Wilson was so enlivened by the practice that he convinced Phyllis to let his church post a regularly updated version of the Divine Hours on their website.

If I had one more opportunity to speak to Phyllis, I would offer a similar gesture of gratitude. But it would be phrased a bit differently, in recognition of the growing effect which her work has had on me: “Thank you, Phyllis, for teaching me to pray.”

This post originally appeared on the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary Blog.


[1] Phyllis Tickle, The Divine Hours (Volume One): Prayers for Summertime: A Manual for Prayer (New York: Image 2000) p. 571

[2] Videos of Phyllis’s presentations at the Summer Leadership Conference are available at

[3] Ken Wilson, Jesus Brand Spirituality: He Wants His Religion Back (Nashville: Thomas Nelson 2008) p. 119

Books-for-Church-PlantersThe words contemplative and church planter do not frequently appear together. Church planters are sometimes caricatured as driven, gregarious, extroverted individuals who magnetically attract the team of followers who help them launch a new worship service. But that’s not the only way–and I would say not the best way–to plant a church.

At Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, we use words like discerning and attentive to describe future leaders of new worshiping communities. New churches don’t come out of a box with step-by-step instructions that make them easy to assemble. Instead, new churches emerge when we listen attentively to the Holy Spirit, listen attentively to the people to whom God sends us, and discern in that conversation what form the Church ought to take in a given context. The fruit of such listening and discernment: congregations who speak and demonstrate God’s Word with authenticity and integrity in the communities where God has placed them. Rather than being driven by the personality of the “planter”, these churches are guided by the Spirit of the only Sower of the Seed, Jesus Christ.

What we read shapes the way we think, and in the sea of literature on church planting, books which really help cultivate postures of discernment and attentiveness are rare. These seven books have helped me develop such postures in my ministry. Some are by well-known theologians, others by local church leaders and missionaries who are living this calling at the grassroots level. With each I’ve given a quote or two, followed by a comment on its relevance for contemplative church planters. Here are 7 books for church planters:

1 Growing Local Missionaries: Equipping Churches to Sow Shalom in Their Own Cultural Backyard by Dan Steigerwald

“As missionaries, we must continually cultivate our listening and noticing capacities, comparing and contrasting what is already known about our context with new discoveries” (p. 55).

“Far too many Christians do little or nothing to cultivate relationships with people outside the Church” (p. 61).

Dan’s suggested rhythm of missional engagement begins with “Immerse and Listen.” We want to know our mission field intimately, and Dan’s advice and example show how we can.

2 Sailboat Church: Helping Your Church Rethink Its Mission and Practice by Joan Gray

“Prayer saturates the lives of leaders and members in a Sailboat church” (p.51).

Gray uses the contrasting images of a rowboat and sailboat to describe how churches (both new and established) function. Many are rowboats, with members and leaders straining at the oars as they rely on human strength and direction. Sailboat churches, by contrast, are blown along and directed by the wind of the Holy Spirit. Our role as leaders and participants in such churches is to trim the sails of attentiveness to the Spirit through prayer and obedience.

3 Marks of the Missional Church: Ecclesial Practices for the Sake of the World by Libby Tedder Hugus, Keith Schwanz, and Jason Veatch

“Waking up to God’s presence means tuning-in: watching and listening for the times and places God’s word appears in our world. This awakening is even brighter when mediated through the community of faith, a shared experience among God’s people” (p. 62).

Each chapter of Marks of the Missional Church is designed like a small liturgy. This has the beautiful effect of leading the reader to “wake up to God’s presence” through the book itself.

4 The Go-Between God: The Holy Spirit and Christian Mission by John V. Taylor

“The main concern of any missionary training should be to help people to become more receptive to the revelations of God” (p. 70).

Taylor pictures the Holy Spirit’s work as one of awakening awareness, opening our eyes to perceive more clearly those to whom God has sent us. Our task is to learn to listen to the Spirit and recognize what he is doing, to become “receptive to the revelations of God.”

5 Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

“Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish dream” (p. 26).

“A Christian fellowship lives and exists by the intercession of its members for one another, or it collapses” (p. 86).

Every Christian should read Bonhoeffer’s Life Together. For the church-planter, his warnings against the idolatry of our “wish dreams” are particularly relevant. What matters is God’s desire for the people whom he loves, not our vision for a new church.

6 In The Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadershipby Henri Nouwen

“Jesus has a different vision of maturity [than the world]: It is the ability and willingness to be led where you would rather not go. . . . The servant-leader is the leader who is being led to unknown, undesirable, and painful places. The way of the Christian leader is not the way of upward mobility in which our world has invested so much, but the way of downward mobility ending on the cross” (pp. 81-82).

Nouwen frames his reflections on leadership in In the Name of Jesus around the temptations of Christ described in Matthew 4:1-11. Church planters experience the temptations Nouwen identifies in even greater degrees: to be relevant, to be spectacular, to be powerful. Nouwen challenges us to turn away from self-aggrandizing ministry, and to pursue instead an intimate nearness to Christ.

7 The Joy of the Gospel by Pope Francis

“The primary reason for evangelizing is the love of Jesus which we have received, the experience of salvation which urges us to ever greater love of him. What kind of love would not feel the need to speak of the beloved, to point him out, to make him known? If we do not feel an intense desire to share this love, we need to pray insistently that he will once more touch our hearts” (p. 127 / ¶264).

Pope Francis’ Joy of the Gospel is a missional, holistic, and justice-seeking call to “all Christians, everywhere” to rediscover the joy of sharing the Gospel. His words about motivation are particularly poignant for church-planters: Are we engaged in this ministry primarily because of the love of Jesus which we’ve experienced? Do we take delight in inviting others into relationship with the One who loves us so deeply? Do we find such joy in Jesus himself that mission is our natural response?

This post was first published on the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary Blog on September 10, 2015.

Holy Week is my favorite time of year to be a pastor. That’s not to say it isn’t stressful. It is intense and tiring. But the extra effort seems worthwhile because of what it allows: For one week, we focus solely on Jesus. For one week, all the petty distractions and concerns that disproportionately consume our ministries during the rest of the year fade away. For one week, we pay attention to the one thing needful.

For a few years, our young church has hosted a full set of Holy Week services. At The Upper Room, we observe Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Vigil, Easter Sunrise, and our regular 11:00 a.m. worship on Easter Sunday. This seems uncommon among Presbyterians – a bit too “high church” for some of our sister churches. It’s also a lot for a small congregation to take on. With only 40 regular attendees on a Sunday morning, you may expect our church to have a sparse turnout at so many midweek services, but people come. One year we were filled to overflowing on Good Friday. People seem to come to church with an increasingly genuine hunger for Jesus in this season. And all the extra services are worthwhile if the Holy Spirit uses them to draw one person more deeply into love with Jesus.

By walking through every part of the narrative of Holy Week, we also “wrap our lives around Jesus’ life.”[1]  It’s the core story of our faith, that narrative which formed and forms us. By hearing the story anew, we’re reminded both of who we are and who we’re becoming in Christ. We start to see ourselves in the people surrounding Jesus: On Thursday we may identify with the Beloved Disciple, resting our heads against Jesus’ chest in intimate fellowship. Then as the story continues, we recognize the Judas within ourselves, we identify with Peter’s betrayal, and we watch with Mary as her son dies.

But then a beautiful thing happens: At the Easter Vigil, we join with the angels in proclaiming the victory of Light over darkness. When the sun rises on Sunday morning, we feel the magnitude of the resurrection more strongly. Having dwelt with Jesus through those hours of betrayal and agony yields for us a deeper joy, such that when we contemplate the glory of the resurrection, we too experience transformation into the ever-increasing glory of Jesus’ likeness (2 Cor 3:18). The Apostle Paul said that we “share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory” (Rom 8:17), and dwelling deeply in the narrative of Holy Week gives us a taste of such transformation from suffering to glory.

Of course, this all will happen in a messy, incarnate manner. A child may spill her food at Thursday’s agapé meal. It will be freezing cold on Sunday morning and my fingers will go numb while playing guitar in the park at sunrise. All of this is taking place in the context of a church plant in Pittsburgh where we’re still struggling to follow Jesus together. But that’s exactly what this week is about: following Jesus together, wrapping our lives around his death and his life, so that his glory can shine in our lives.

As we experience Holy Week, may the Lord give us the grace to soak in the story of his passion and resurrection. May we delight in the extra work, the extra worship, the extra time spent adoring Christ upon the cross. And may our current sufferings prove unworthy of comparison to the glory that is being revealed to us.

This post first appeared on the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary blog.

[1] Our church picked up this phrase from the bridge of the popular worship song “Center” by Charlie Hall: “We lift our eyes to heaven; we wrap our lives around Your life.”


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.  


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.


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