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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.

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Last Thursday, Eileen and I brewed beer together at Copper Kettle Brewing. My dad had given us a gift card to Copper Kettle, allowing us to use their equipment and ingredients to brew a beer from a recipe which we chose. Because we’re not very experienced in brewing, someone from Copper Kettle accompanied us through the process, guiding us as we measured and added ingredients and sharing interesting facts about brewing along the way. At one point, she said something that I think is significant for how the Church thinks about leadership, and which connects quite well with what I read for my class at PTS this week.

She said that the title “brewmaster” is becoming increasingly rare in the craft brewing world. According to what she’s learned, certified brewmasters have to have a master’s degree in the science of brewing. As more and more people have learned to brew on their own or while working at small breweries, fewer and fewer have gone to the trouble of pursuing a graduate degree in brewing, which they could only do in Germany or at one of the few American schools which offer such programs. As a result, many of the craft breweries which are proliferating across the country have brewers who were self-taught or apprenticed into their trades, rather than ones who received formal education.

Some would say the same is happening (again) in the Church. Seminary enrollment is generally decreasing, and alternative formation programs are springing up across the country. Many new churches in my denomination are led by “commissioned ruling elders” who haven’t been to seminary or completed the ordination process. I loved my seminary so much that I’m currently pursuing a second degree at it, but I do think this trend raises an important question: How do we recognize the authority of leaders in the Church? Do we look for degrees, credentials, or titles? Or do we look for something else? How can we tell that someone is worth trusting with the spiritual oversight of others? 

Francis Asbury, one of the founding leaders of the Methodists in America, had no degrees. But he had an authority that others recognized based on the integrity of his spiritual life and his abiding commitment to his flock. As John Wigger writes in his book American Saint: Francis Asbury & the Methodists,

Asbury redefined the religious landscape of America. There was no blueprint for what he did, for building a large strictly voluntary religious movement led by non-elites in a pluralistic society. Yet his understanding of what it mean to be pious, connected, culturally responsive, and effectively organized has worked its way deep into the fabric of American religious life. (p. 417)

Asbury did all of this with little formal education. He was born in England in 1745. When he was a child, his father worked a humble job at a brewery and public house. This meant Asbury was raised in what we would consider a “working-class” home. Asbury’s mother taught him to read, but the highest level of formal education Asbury seems to have completed is an apprenticeship as a metalworker. It was during this teenage apprenticeship that he began preaching at Methodist class meetings. That he had little education didn’t matter. As Wigger explains, “Most Methodists weren’t the kind of people who could attend university, and Wesley didn’t require his preachers to have a formal theological education. Instead, they learned on the job, by speaking in prayer meetings and to crowds gather outdoors” (p. 33).

Having “learned on the job” in England, in 1771 Asbury was selected to go to America to help extend the Methodist movement there.  This was before American Methodism formally split from the Anglican Church, and while it existed as something of an unwelcome renewal movement within the Anglican Church. Not surprisingly, Asbury at times received harsh treatment at the hands of Anglican clergymen. John Wigger explains part of the conflict between the Anglican establishment and the Methodists this way:

Here in a nutshell was the conflict between Methodist preachers and Anglican priests in the South. From ministers’ points of view, Methodists were unlearned charlatans seeking to break down the basic foundations of church and society. They took people away from their work and challenged the authority of the clergy, which was based largely on their superior education. From the Methodist perspective, Anglican priests were mostly lazy hirelings, too much addicted to the pleasures of this world and too little concerned with the salvation of souls. (p. 58)

Authority, by the standards of the Anglican establishment in the mid-eighteenth century, was recognized by university degrees and statuses conferred by the Church. Asbury’s sense of authority, on the other hand, came from a deeper source. Unlike George Whitefiled, Asbury did not gain a reputation for being a dazzling preacher. But he did gain a reputation for outstanding personal piety and a deep love and commitment to the flock entrusted to his care. Asbury was like other early Methodists in that he valued hard work and treated wealth and worldly goods with suspicion. His poverty and charity were seen as signs of his apostolic character. So also was his devotional life, including his fasting and early morning hours of prayer. On top of this, and even as he aged, Asbury maintained rigorous itinerary of travel in which he visited preachers and church-members throughout the entire eastern half of the United States each year. Those who knew Asbury knew him as a man of spiritual integrity, and so they trusted his leadership.

Interestingly, though he was recognized as a spiritual leader, Asbury refused to celebrate the sacraments until he was ordained. Methodism was renewal movement, existing within the bounds of Anglicanism, though it evangelized people who would have been alienated from the Anglican Church. This created tension between Methodists who wanted to baptize their converts and celebrate communion together, and those who still submitted to Anglican discipline. All of this changed in 1784 when John Wesley finally broke with the Church of England, legally incorporated Methodism in England, and began ordaining preachers on his own. One of those ordained by Wesley, Thomas Coke, came to the United States and with Asbury was elected joint superintendent of the new Methodist Church in America. Asbury, who had no degree and had never celebrated the sacraments before, was suddenly ordained a bishop in a brand new denomination. 

Asbury’s acceptance of ordination at this point raises several deeper ecclesiological questions worth pondering: Why is it that ordination has historically been reserved for the celebration of the sacraments, rather than merely the preaching of the Gospel? What did Asbury believe about ordination that gave him such respect for the authority associated with it? For our purposes here, though, it suffices to say that Asbury’s episcopacy, which he held and stewarded faithfully for decades, was conferred upon him and upheld not because of degrees or worldly status, but because others recognized his faithfulness. Wigger concludes that “If ever there was an American saint, it was Francis Asbury” (p. 417). How different would the Church look today if we entrusted positions of leadership primarily to those who we could one day call saints?

When someone first visits The Upper Room, that person may not realize they’re in a Presbyterian congregation. It’s not because we hide that affiliation. We do talk about our connection with the denomination and our Presbyterian partner churches, and we share our gratitude for their support. But our worship services deliberately don’t feel like they come from any particular brand of Christianity. The focus is on Jesus, revealed in Word and Sacrament. No one comes to Upper Room because they want a Presbyterian church. We come because we’re seeking Jesus. While this lack of exclusive identification with a particular denomination is characteristic of our younger demographic, we’ve been shaped by historical forces that have been at work for centuries. American denominational relativism has its roots in events that took place three hundred years ago, such as the surprisingly trans-denominational Great Awakenings.

This week I read The Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism by Harry S. Stout. (This book – and the one I wrote about last week, and the one I’ll write about next week – is part of the American Religious Biography class that I’m taking over at Pittsburgh Seminary.) Whitefield was ordained as an Anglican priest, but his itinerant preaching ministry brought him into fellowship with all branches of Protestantism throughout England and the colonies in the middle of the eighteenth century.

One of the first true celebrities in America, Whitefield dazzled audiences – or congregations – with his dramatic flair. His sermons were so infused with skills he had honed in his youthful studies of the theater that he took the art of communication in the pulpit into the realm of acting and entertainment. But because the content of his message was the proclamation of salvation in Jesus Christ, those who heard him responded with emotionally infused conversion and repentance. These experiential responses to the proclamation of the Gospel made the institutions of the Church take a much less important role in how Americans understood their faith. As Stout explains,

In the evangelical parachurch, individual experience became the ultimate arbiter of authentic religious faith. Experience . . . came to be the legitimating mark of religion over and against family, communal covenants, traditional memberships, baptisms, or sacraments (p. 205).

Stout’s biography of Whitefield can be seen as an extended illustration of how this shift played out in the culture of the revivals. Whitefield prized his own religious experience, treasuring the exhilarating highs he experienced while preaching as evidence of God working in him. Whitefield valued this experience over family, being an absentee husband to a wife who could not come along for his endless travels. Concerning the sacraments, we’re left to assume that Whitefield deliberately chose not to over-think them. Stout disappointingly explains very little of Whitefield’s thoughts on the sacraments, but the fact that Whitefield was quite comfortable with Christians in traditions who understood the sacraments differently suggests that he saw them as secondary to the feelings engendered by passionate preaching of the Gospel.

It wasn’t that theology didn’t matter for Whitefield. He was a Calvinist who did not shy away from criticizing his friend John Wesley that Wesley’s ideas of Christian perfection. But Whitefield refused to connect his revival preaching to any one denomination. As Harry Stout poignantly observes, Whitefield also resisted the temptation to found his own denomination when he easily could have. One could be a Calvinist Anglican, or a Presbyterian, or a Congregationalist, and never feel that Whitefield was calling one to change denomination affiliation. In fact, at Whitefield’s funeral, an ecumenical mixture of pastors from those three denominations served as pallbearers for Whitefield’s body (Stout pp. 280-281). 

This matters for us today because many of these same values have been passed on through successive generations in American Christianity, for good and for ill. On the one hand, American evangelicalism still emphasizes the centrality of the Gospel rather than one exclusive institutional structure of the Church. On the other hand, these truths mean that many American Christians have a very shallow sense of ecclesiology. When we value personal experience over corporate experience, it’s easy to become consumers of religion. We “shop” for churches that meet “our needs,” or we seek entertainment in the musical or preaching styles of a congregation. This isn’t entirely bad. Whitefield did genuinely touch lives for Christ through his entertaining preaching. As the Apostle Paul wrote, what matters is that, “Christ is preached, and in this I rejoice” (Phil 1:8). But giving personal experience of faith priority over corporate experience of faith means we may under-value the importance of the Church.

While this is the legacy American Protestants and evangelicals have inherited, we should be discerning in which parts of it we pass on. To be true to Whitefield’s legacy,  we should remember that he was a loyal Anglican up to the point of his death. He chose to remain loyal even though jealous Anglican bishops actually incited mob violence against him and other revival preachers in England. Whitefield was among the early Methodists, a group which began as a revival-oriented anti-institution strain within the Anglican Church. In such a role, he challenged the institution, but did so in loyal opposition.

This suggests to me that Whitefield recognized his place in the Body of Christ. He knew the Body of Christ was larger than the skeleton of one denomination, so he could preach Christ to anyone who was willing to listen, and act charitably to (almost) anyone who believed in the same Lord. But he also knew that the Body needed structure, and that it would be inappropriate to say to that he, as a unique member of Christ did not belong to the rest of the Body (cf. 1 Cor. 12:15-20). In the face of all the individualism and entertainment that Whitefield ushered into the American Church, let’s not forget his deep sense of the necessity of connection to other believers.