Archive

Tag Archives: Christianity

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.

Advertisements

I‘m starting to measure the value of a book by whether or not it makes me want to pray. This book succeeded, even to the point of bringing tears to my eyes as God used it to speak to me about life in the congregation which I help lead.

Marks of the Missional Church is unique in that it is a book that you can’t merely read. It’s a book that’s meant to be practiced, prayed, and pondered in the company of others. As its subtitle suggests, Marks of the Missional Church emphasizes both the importance of the gathered community of faith and the practices in which they engage. The authors write with a love of the Church and awareness that life in community with others is not optional for one who believes in and follows Jesus Christ. That gathered community, in turn, engages in distinctive practices through which God forms them and allows them to participate in the ongoing story of Jesus Christ’s redemption of the world. These are missional practices, rhythms of life and action that invite others into the Kingdom of God. Practices like the study of Scripture and corporate prayer form a community that embodies the mission of God in Jesus Christ, leading that community naturally to practices like hospitality, attentive listening to the needs of the world, and selfless service.

The brilliant aspect of the book is the way it makes reading it become a practice in and of itself. Every chapter is structured around a Collect and Benediction. That format puts the reader a place of prayerful reflection and formation, not just study.  Because the reflection questions at the end of each chapter are framed with the Collect and Benediction, there’s potential for small group discussions of the book to feel like a dynamic participation in worship. Well chosen narratives illustrate the points of each chapter, further inviting readers to experience God’s power forming them into missional disciples.   

For having three separate authors who took turns writing the chapters, Marks of the Missional Church also has a remarkably consistent tone and style. The Collect/Benediction format aids in maintaining this consistency, as does the repeated thesis statement upon which every chapter elaborates:

“The church participates in God’s mission by proclaiming to the whole world – all classes and cultures, all ages and genders, all nationalities and races – that God is holy love and, through Jesus, God is transforming a people who embody that holy love as empowered and knit together by the Holy Spirit, a sign that the Kingdom of God is here.”

I like the emphasis on holy. Structured around the four marks of the Church in the Nicene Creed (One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic), this book seems unique in its emphasis upon holiness. To be sent into the world does not necessarily mean being like the world. Rather, God calls out a holy people to proclaim the praises of the One who calls us out of darkness and into marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9). My favorite paragraph of the entire book sums this up well:

The universal sent-ness of God’s people on a mission finds expression in the holiness of God’s church. The credibility of the church’s witness depends on it. Holiness is apostolic in nature. Holiness equips the church to practice its vocation as ambassadors of love and grace. (p. 112)

Amen. May the Holy Spirit indeed use this book to form many holy and missional new Christian communities who bear witness to the loving reign of God revealed in Jesus.

Tomorrow’s Ash Wednesday. At my congregation’s service in the morning, I will smear ashes on the foreheads of a number of friends and congregation members.  For some, this practice will be new, something that the churches in which they were raised rejected, calling it “too Catholic.” I find such objections puzzling, particularly because in my observations, whenever Protestants get serious about learning to pray, we end up looking to Catholics and Orthodox to teach us how. For a few examples: I join a group of other Presbyterian pastors every month at a Catholic monastery where we receive spiritual instruction from an older priest. My Presbyterian seminary offers a certificate program in spiritual direction based on the teachings of Ignatius of Loyola. Most non-denominational writers I’ve read eventually end up quoting at least one of the great saints of the Roman Church.

As one such Protestant who likes to learn from Catholics, I was delighted to receive a review copy of a new book from Paraclete press: Catholic Spiritual Practices: A Treasury of Old & NewEdited by Colleen Griffith and Thomas Groome, of Boston College’s Church in the 21st Century Center, this short book is a collection of essays on various spiritual practices which some might think of as distinctively Roman Catholic. I say some because many of the practices included are common to all Christians. The essay on The Lord’s Prayer, for example, was written by N. T. Wright and highlights the small “c” catholicity of the practices described here. Joseph Wong’s chapter on the Jesus Prayer describes a practices that’s more commonly associated with Eastern Orthodoxy than with the Roman Church.

Coming to the book from a Presbyterian background, I was especially curious to read the chapters on practices which I used consider distinctively Roman. Most such chapters did not disappoint. Groome’s chapter on the Rosary explained the practice and its historical development very concisely and accessibly.  Brian Daley’s personal description of the practice of Eucharistic Adoration was also illuminating. My favorite chapter of the entire book, though, was Esther de Waal’s essay called “Living the Sacramental Principle.”  In a narrative description of Celtic spirituality, de Waal shows how devotion to Christ can permeate even the most mundane elements of life.  These five pages are worth the price of the whole book. In fact, it could be the point of the whole book. This tiny collection of essays describes itself as a treasury of practices, meaning “consciously chosen, intentional actions” which express and shape our lives of faith (p. 5). When one faithfully practices such practices, one is changed, having acted one’s way into a new way of thinking and being. A life spent practicing some of the disciplines described in this book is exactly how one can cultivate a sacramental worldview, “letting heaven break through,” as de Waal writes, to “let the mundane become the edge of glory, and find the extraordinary in the ordinary” (p. 67).

For being such a slim volume, this book is heavy with the weight of glory. The Prayer Book of the Early Christians is a collection of prayers and prayer services modeled after the liturgies left to us from the ancient Church and used today in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. And having drawn from such deep wells, this prayer book presents its reader/user/pray-er with a treasury of “prayers that have been tried and proved” (p. ix). I am thankful to John McGuckin for editing this collection (and to Paraclete Press for sending me a copy to review). As I’ve used it over the past week and a half, I’ve noticed a few things worth sharing here.

(1) This method of prayer differs from what most of us evangelical-flavored Protestants have been taught. I’m not just referring to the many passages in the book which invite the Theotokos and the saints to intercede for us. (That deserves its own post.) The different I’m referring to here is that, in my experience, our approach to prayer relies heavily on feeling. We want to pray extemporaneously with feeling, from the heart. Unfortunately, this has the unintended consequence of quenching prayer whenever we don’t feel like praying. Correcting this, McGuckin writes in the introduction:

It does not really matter whether we feel fervent or dry as a bone.  It does not really matter whether we feel God’s presence breathing on our face or feel as if he is locked up behind a bronze heaven, never showing a sign of his presence.  What matters is how he sees us.  We do not need to ‘feel’ his presence at every turn, when we know, by faith, that he is more present to us, at every moment of our life, than we are present to ourselves or our most beloved family.  And if at morning and night we present ourselves before God and sing his praise, we have (no question about it) stood in the presence of Christ, prayed along with Christ our High Priest in the pure presence of the Holy Spirit of God, and offered our prayer like incense in the sight of the Father. (p. xiv)

Showing devotion through our actions, especially when our hearts don’t want to do so, can be one way to cultivate the heart’s participation in prayer. Over time, the disciplined practice of these prayers will yield the fruit of an inner disposition of fear, reverence, and deep love of God.

(2) This approach to prayer also requires a different relationship to timeIf you’re already accustomed to using prescribed prayers for different hours of the day, you might be used to shorter liturgies. One can pray through an office of The Divine Hours or Celtic Daily Prayer relatively quickly.  These take longer.  It took me thirty minutes to pray through the Matins liturgy on Sunday morning.  McGuckin notes that “Twenty minutes seems a long time for a pressed twenty-first-century dweller,” but once we dive into these longer and richer prayers, “those who swim the ocean of prayer find that time starts shrinking” (p. xv). Increased time spent in prayer is never something to regret. It’s time spent in the life-giving Light of Christ, and the more we experience this Light, the longer we’ll want to bathe in it.

(3) These are serious prayers.  There is a sort of joyful heaviness which permeates the prayers shared here. Though always mindful of God’s grace in Jesus Christ and our common hope of resurrection, most of these prayers have a somber, repentant tone. The Psalms included in the liturgies are Psalms of battle and lament. The selected prayers in Parts 2 and 3 include prayers of repentance like this:

Lord I stand knocking at the door of your compassion, seeking your forgiveness.  By evil I have been kept from the path of life.  My mouth has not praised you; my feet have not walked in your holy place.  Lover of our race, have pity on me. Your who are the splendor of the Father give light of my eyes that I may give thanks for your grace.  I have lain in darkness in this deceit-filled world.  Morning has passed and I did not repent.  Evening has fallen and my sins have increased.  But let your compassion now ascend before my face. (p. 162)

A few may catch the reader off-guard, only to reveal their profound meaning upon deeper meditation. For an example, read the fifth-century vegetarian grace before eating which includes these lines:

Far from us that hungering lust / That craves a bloody feast, / And tears apart the flesh of beasts. / Such wild banquets, made from slaughtered flocks, / Are fit only for barbarians. / For us, the olive, wheat, and ripening fruits, / And vegetables of every kind: / These compose our righteous feast. (pp. 184-185)

At first, I laughed at the “I thank you God that I’m not a carnivore” tone of this prayer (see Luke 18:11). But when I considered its deeper meaning, I was humbled and convicted.  The person praying this is thanking God for simplicity, not luxury.  How often do we thank God for the ability to make do with less?  And the person who prays this acknowledges the violence inflicted upon creation by our appetites.  When we eat meat, how often do we really give thanks for the lives of the animals whose flesh we consume? I’m not a vegetarian (at least for most of the year), but God did use this prayer to convict me about the excesses in my own consumption of food.  It seems these prayers provide avenues not only for us to speak to God, but for God to speak to us.

(4) The book closes with a brief note on the Jesus Prayer, and an invitation to check out the movie about it which McGuckin produced: Mysteries of the Jesus Prayer. Much could be (and has been) written about the Jesus Prayer, but if the few pages about the Jesus Prayer here pique your interest, do check out the movie. It’s worth watching not just for an introduction to the Jesus Prayer, but for its portrayal of the entire ethos of prayer conveyed in this prayer book.  The film provides new depth and perspective as it displays the monasteries where these prayers have been prayed for centuries – the environments where these prayers have been “tried and proved.”