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Tentmaking / Bi-Vocational Ministry

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.

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

 

Sundays_Off[1]This picture is from the schedule book at the 61C Café. Keith, our manager (who is a greater saint than many churchgoers I know), wrote the note in the center a few years ago in response to other notes requesting time off. It says, “God is the only reason to take off Sunday, and even then it’s only in the morning.”

It’s been three months since I left the café and began my work at the seminary. In that transition I’ve been surprised by both how much I miss the café and how much I love my job at PTS. I’ve also been surprised at just how difficult it is to balance my work at the seminary with my work at The Upper Room and with my life as a husband and father. All these factors are making me think it’s time to begin writing that series of posts on the theology of work that I promised, beginning today with Keith’s note: “God is the only reason . . .”

In Keith’s note, God is the only valid reason to rest. In Scripture, God is actually the only valid reason to work. Let me elaborate:

The epistle reading from the daily lectionary today includes these words about work from Colossians 3: “Whatever your task, put yourselves into it, as done for the Lord and not for masters.” Ephesians 6 contains a similar command to, “Render service with enthusiasm, as to the Lord and not to men and women.” These verses fall in passages discussing how servants and masters relate to each other. Notice what Paul’s commands imply about our earthly working relationships: No matter who our bosses are, Christians are really “slaves of Christ” (Eph. 6:6).

To be a slave of Christ is not drudgery. It is to receive a gift of freedom and joy and meaning in one’s work. If Christ is our only master, we can be freed from the other gods that drive us in our work: money, people-pleasing, pride, etc. And if we offer our work, however “ordinary,” to Christ as a way of seeking to please and obey him, we can discover the deep joy of communion with Christ throughout our daily labors.

What does this look like in practice? Fr. Walter Ciszek’s book He Leadeth Me provides a stunning example. As a missionary in Poland during World War II, Ciszek was captured by the Russian military. After a season of solitary confinement and interrogation in Moscow, Ciszek was sent to work in the slave-labor camps of Siberia. There, he continued to embrace his missionary lifestyle by serving as a priest to his fellow slaves. And one of the most beautiful ways he fulfilled his priestly responsibility was through the attitude he adopted toward his work.

While other prisoners would show their rebellion against their captors by intentionally doing shoddy work, Ciszek chose to put into practice the verses quoted above from Colossians and Ephesians. He did his work well because he was offering it to God, rather than to earthly masters. By counter-culturally embracing the value of his work, Ciszek participated in God’s transfiguration of that work into a holy act.

Ciszek was able to do this because he believed that through the Incarnation, Jesus gives even deeper validity to our day-to-day labors. As Ciszek puts it,

There is a tremendous truth contained in the realization that when God became man he became a workingman. . . . For the rest of the time of his life on earth, God was a village carpenter and the son of a carpenter. He did not fashion benches or tables or bed or roof beams or plowbeams by means of miracles, but by hammer and saw, by ax and adz. (pp. 102-103)

By becoming human and working this way, the Son of God “restored to man’s work its original dignity, its essential function as a share in God’s creative act.” The fact that Jesus did this as an ordinary carpenter – work that is not obviously spiritual – means that any job which is not obviously spiritual can still be offered to God as work done for God and not for man. Any job. As Ciszek says, “God has not asked of us anything more tedious, more tiring, more routine and humdrum, more unspectacular, than God himself has done” (p. 103)

To approach our work in the holy way that Ciszek did, we need to be converted to see work as inherently good. In Genesis, God gave Adam and Even the job of tending the Garden before the Fall. Sabbath rest was also given before the Fall, and the ideal human life is meant to consist of work and rest, in the proper proportions, done in harmonious fellowship with both God and all of creation. This should mean that  any human job, even laying bricks in a Siberian labor camp, can be done in a way that glorifies God. I say this requires conversion because we’re much more used to looking at work through the lens of the Fall and the curse God spoke to Adam:

Cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return. (Genesis 3:17-19)

Because we live in a broken world and are broken people, our work is tainted by sin. Work is not always pleasant, not always successful, not always satisfying. We sinfully overindulge in our work working constantly without boundaries or rest because of pride or greed or escapism – or we become lazy – denying the goodness of work and over-indulging in leisure. Whether we overwork or underwork, the begrudging or resentful attitude many of us take to our work is itself a manifestation of the curse. This seems to be the state where a lot of us are tempted to dwell.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. When we offer to Christ our work – whether we’re consturction workers, IT people, nurses, teachers, baristas, garbage collectors, parents, or pastors – we can labor with greater joy and freedom. Working in such a way then also translates into better rest, as well, because we’re free both to experience satisfaction in our work and to reject the voices that falsely seek to enslave us. And any job done with the intention of glorifying God can lead naturally to a Sabbath of basking in God’s presence. As Wendell Berry puts it in one of his Sabbath poems, “When we work well, a Sabbath mood/ Rests on our day, and finds it good.”

What joy might we discover, what freedom might we find, if we believed that God truly is the only reason for working?

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.

“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.

A few nights ago, I started reading Poustinia: Encountering God in Silence, Solitude, and Prayer by Catherine Doherty. Tired from a busy day, and not looking forward to my early-morning shift at the cafe the next day, I started crying when I read this passage:

If we are to witness to Christ in today’s marketplaces where there are constant demands on our whole person, we need silence.  If we are to be always available, not only physically, but by empathy, sympathy, friendship, understanding, and boundless caritas, we need silence. To be able to give joyous, unflagging hospitality, not only of house and food, but of mind, heart, body, and soul, we need silence. (p. 4)

Poustinia is the Russian word for desert or wilderness.  Following the pattern of the monastic saints of the early Church sought who communion with Christ in the desert, the Russian Church developed a tradition of the poustinik, a person who retreated to solitary and silent places in search of deep communion with God.  For the person seeking poustinia, the “desert” could be any secluded place to which one would retreat for a time, short or long.  Perhaps you build a hut or cabin in the wilderness, like the one pictured on the cover of the book. Perhaps it’s a corner of your home dedicated to prayer. Wherever your poustinia is, go there alone. Listen to God. Take only your Bible. Fast. Listen. Pray. Wait for God in solitude and silence

It was this sort of solitude and silence that I had in mind when I read the quote I shared above.  To be available to others, to witness faithfully in the midst of our crowded lives, we must have a rhythm of life that allows us to retreat periodically into silence and solitude. At least that’s what I thought she meant. And that’s what I wanted. But the further I read in the book, the more I realize that the quote above referred to what Doherty calls a “poustinia of the heart.” Not all of us can practically get away for solitary retreats as often as we’d like.  Nor would it be faithful for some of us to hide in solitude when we’ve been called elsewhere: I would have been like Jonah on the ship to Tarshish if I had awakened Tuesday morning and decided to take a solitary retreat that day instead of fulfilling my obligations to work the opening shift at the cafe.  Apparently I need a way to learn to listen to God in the midst of life just as I would in the midst of the desert. But how?

In the chapter “Poustinia in the Marketplace,” Doherty provides the image of a womb in which Christ is present within us. Like Mary, we have a poustinia within us, a place where we can internally commune with Christ in the midst of the world and from which we also bear Christ’s light and presence into the world. This poustinia within us doesn’t require us to hide in the desert to commune with Christ. Rather:

It means that within yourselves you have made a room, a cabin, a secluded space. You have built it by prayer – the Jesus Prayer – or whatever prayer you have found profitable. You should be more aware of God than anyone else, because you are carrying within you this utterly quiet and silent chamber.  Because you are more aware of God, because you have been called to listen to him in your inner silence, you can bring him to the street, the party, the meeting, in a very special and powerful way (p. 64).

Notice that she says this inner desert has been built by prayer, especially the Jesus Prayer.  She goes on the following pages to describe in different terms what the desert monks called watchfulness, the capacity to objectively observe our own thoughts and attentively respond to them.  In the midst of a crowded room, the watchful person can be non-anxiously aware of all that is happening within themselves and submit those internal operations to Christ. This requires the cultivation of an interior silence which quiets all voices but God’s. And how do we cultivate this? Doherty says, “The answer is simple: you pray more” (p. 65). 

She recommends other practices as well: attentiveness to Christ’s presence in the Eucharist, occasional solitary retreats, fasting, vigiling, simplifying our schedules, and limiting our recreational activities.  But the goal of all these practices remains prayer. By praying, we learn to pray. By communing with Christ in prayer and worship and simplicity, we learn to commune with Christ in the inner desert of the soul. After listing examples of saints whom she thought achieved this, Doherty says, “The secret of all those people I am talking about is that they prayed continually, while all the time they served their people” (p. 69).

This is a difficult calling, but if Doherty was right that we really need silence in order to minister effectively today, then we have no choice but to accept the challenge.  So, I accept the call. I want to pray for my cafe customers while I make their drinks. I want to pray for my congregation in the midst of meetings about budgets and the expansion of our space.  I want to pray while leading a wedding rehearsal tonight and officiating a wedding tomorrow. I’m not there yet; I’m a long way away. But I want the poustinia of the heart. Lord have mercy on your servants, and grant us the gift of unceasing prayer.

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.

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