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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.

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My three year old daughter just entered the “Why?” phase of childhood. Everything around us provides endless possibilities for questions. Why is it dark out? Why do I have to go to sleep? Why don’t we eat boogers? As I’ve listened to her unending curiosity, I’ve become convinced that this inquisitiveness is one reason why Jesus called us to become like little children (Mt 18:2-4). Childlike curiosity actually enables us to more faithfully participate in what Jesus is doing around us in the world.

That means that for pastors and churches in rapidly changing ministry contexts, questions are far more valuable than more static programs or tools. Asking questions puts us in postures of humility and dependence, a posture where we wait upon God and learn to listen to the Holy Spirit. Once we adopt that posture, it’s time to think critically about what kinds of questions we ask. Here are three kinds of questions which can help you engage your whole congregation in more vibrant mission and ministry:

Who is our congregation?

A recent blog post at “Hacking Christianity” tells the story of Brad Laurvick, a Methodist pastor in Denver whose vision for ministry was transformed when another pastor identified himself as pastor to the people of a whole city, not just pastor to a church. That expansive vision of a parish led Laurvick to look for opportunities to serve the community outside the church, including serving ice cream for charity at a local creamery. His thinking demonstrates the ideas of the book The New Parish which encourages churches to recapture their mission to serve and witness to their immediate geographical contexts.

Who is included in your parish? Would the members of your church include their unchurched neighbors in their “congregation”? Do you define yourself as pastor of First Presbyterian Church, or as pastor to the town of Indiana, Pa.? To whom has God sent you?

What is right in our church/neighborhood/town/community context?

It’s too easy to identify and dwell on what is not going well in and around the Church. But what if we asked what is right? This practice is called appreciative inquiry. Consider it an application of Philippians 4:8 to your parish or your ministry context: “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable – if there is any excellence or anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

Look at your community: Where do you see truth, justice, and beauty happening? How can we lift up the people, events, or parts of a neighborhood culture that are commendable? A world that often hears the Church pointing out what’s wrong might be pleasantly surprised to encounter Christians with eyes to see how God’s latent goodness within the culture we inhabit.

What actions is God calling us to take?

Scott Belsky, argues in his book Making Ideas Happen that most great ideas never come to fruition because we lack the discipline to translate them into action items. My own denomination – the Presbyterian Church – is often caricatured for forming committees to talk, plan, debate, brainstorm, and discuss various ideas, but then failing to translate those ideas into action.

If you lead a church, pay attention and ask these questions in your next meeting: What concrete actions need to be taken in response to our discernment together? Who will take those actions? This doesn’t mean that you need to act on ideas haphazardly. Waiting, praying, and learning are all actions that we can take to ensure more well-informed decision-making. But there always comes a time to move from waiting to going, from praying in the church to praying in the street, and from learning with our heads to learning with our hands.

 Lastly, a question for you: What questions have you found to be clarifying or empowering for your ministry?

 

This post originally appeared on the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary Blog.

Starting Something NewBack in September, I listed seven books which contemplative church planters ought to read. Now I’m adding one more to the list.

I requested a review copy of Starting Something New: Spiritual Direction for Your God-Given Dream because the title resonates so well with our approach to developing new Christian communities. Planting a church is about listening to the Holy Spirit as God sends us out into mission. We can’t do such ministry faithful unless we’re attentive to God’s voice. Spiritual direction helps us learn to live with such attentiveness.

Starting Something New offers a taste of such direction for those who would read it as they participate in the formation of a new ministry. As Booram writes, “This book is intended to be a companion guide offering spiritual direction for those who are wondering if they have a God-given dream forming inside them but don’t know what to do with it” (p. 14).

Booram succeeds in providing such direction in many places, consistently relating the principles she describes to points in her own journey or to the stories of over a dozen other Christian leaders whom she interviewed for the book. Each chapter addresses a different stage in the birth and growth of an emerging ministry and is followed by questions for inward reflection. All of this is laced with generous amounts of cheerleading for those who may not have the courage to follow their dreams.

But how do we know our dreams are God-given? How can we be sure we’re listening to the Spirit and not just following our own desires? Booram offers some of her best advice in response to this question: “Pay attention to what you are praying. . . . Prayers related to God-inspired dreams seem to be irrepressible” (p. 36). Also, discern whether you are feeling “drawn” into this new life, or “driven.” A feeling of being driven is often more indicative of human ambition or temptation, while God often invites us into something new through visions to which we’re genuinely attracted or drawn (p. 115).

As a church planter in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, I recognized many of the dynamics Booram names: the time someone told me to plant a church and I responded with skepticism (p. 97), the ambivalence one might feel after a dream-deferred again becomes possible (p. 133), the challenge of adjusting to the “new normal” of life in this dream and developing rhythms to keep it sustainable (p. 163). I can see retrospectively how relevant this book is for church planters. What a gift it would have been to have it as a handbook seven years ago.

Read this slowly and reflectively. The stages of discernment and growth Booram describes can spread out over many years. Let this be one of many companions in discernment throughout the long and joyful journey of starting something new.

Thank you to InterVarsity Press for providing me with a copy of Starting Something New so that I could write this review.