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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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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.

Squirrel-Hill-fire-2On Ascension Day this year, a fire broke out two buildings away from The Upper Room’s worship space. We were untouched, though the building that caught fire was completely destroyed. Friends, colleagues, and supporters asked me for days afterward if The Upper Room was affected. I reassured them that we were, though the theater next door will now be torn down and our block frankly looks blighted.

Strangely, the reaction I heard within our congregation makes me think we noticed the fire less than our friends and supporters from other neighborhoods. We cancelled our Ascension Day service, and I later heard a few people comment on the rubble outside. But I’ve yet to hear us express either hopes and visions or concerns and worries for what will come of ruined properties right beside us. We’re thankful our space didn’t burn, but I’m embarrassed to say we’ve shown little interest in others affected by the fire. And this makes me wonder . . .

What if The Upper Room’s worship space had burned down? Would we have searched for another space in Squirrel Hill? Would Squirrel Hill notice our absence? Who would care?

The possible answers to those questions make me queasy.

Seven years ago, as we started gathering the community that has become The Upper Room, I was reading Lesslie Newbigin. A twentieth century missionary from Scotland to India, Newbigin worked tirelessly to promote the unity of the Church and to strengthen its global witness. When he returned to the UK near the end of his career, he noticed the sharp decline of the Church in Europe. He observed then the reality that we’re now responding to by starting new worshiping communities like The Upper Room: our immediate context is a mission field.

Newbigin-Gospel Pluralist_Reprint_PB_04268.qxdIn Newbigin’s The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, he argues that “The only hermeneutic of the gospel is a congregation of men and women who believe it and live it” (p. 227). In other words, the only way the world will see and understand what the Kingdom of God looks like is if members of a local church believe the Gospel and live it out earnestly together. And because a congregation exists in a specific, concrete place and time, the neighborhood in which a congregation gathers is the first set of eyes to see if we’re actually living out the Gospel as a community.

So Newbigin writes that this congregation

will be a community that does not live for itself but is deeply involved in the concerns of its neighborhood. It will be the church for the specific place where it lives, not the church for those who wish to be members of it – or, rather, it will be for them insofar as they are willing to be for the wider community” (p.227)

For Newbigin, the local congregation ought to be “perceived in its own neighborhood as the place from which good news overflows in good action.” It’s “God’s embassy in a specific place.” We’re called to be a visible, tangible outpost of the Kingdom of God that anyone from our

So this begs the question: Who from Squirrel Hill would say that good news is overflowing from The Upper Room? I believe the youth at Allderdice High School who meet in our space each week with Young Life experience an overflow of good news. But who else?

I want to hear more voices answering that question. I want us to be more in touch with our community and context.

This doesn’t mean that we all have to move to or work in Squirrel Hill. (I myself live on the other side of Frick Park because we couldn’t afford a home in Squirrel Hill.) The Upper Room has members from all throughout the East End of Pittsburgh and all of our members have other spheres of influence that include other parts of the city. Newbigin himself acknowledges and blesses the plurality of places in which we live out our vocations. He even says that “the major impact of such congregations on the life of society as a whole is through the daily work of the members in their secular vocations” (p. 234, emphasis added). We celebrate this at The Upper Room through our monthly “Fruit We Bear” sessions – a portion of our worship service where members share how God is at work in their workplaces, families, and other spheres of influence. But as a church, as a community, this is a calling for us to attend together to Squirrel Hill. As Newbigin wrote above, our local congregation can be for us insofar as we “are willing to be for the wider community.”

When I welcome people to worship at The Upper Room each week, I often say that “we’re a community who does not exist for ourselves, but to glorify God and bear witness to Christ in this place.” Our place includes all the spaces where we individually work, live, and play. But as a congregation, our place is first Squirrel Hill, then the radius around Squirrel Hill in which most of us live. Will we be a community who does not live for itself? Can we be deeply involved in the concerns of our neighborhood? How will good news increasingly overflow from The Upper Room into the lives of our neighbors?

st-patrick-228x300On March 17, Americans celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. Cities like Pittsburgh celebrate with parades. Revelers will indulge in Irish-themed food and drinks, even beer that’s been artificially dyed green. Amusing and entertaining as these festivities may be, they reveal little to us of the glorious ways God moved through humble Patrick’s life and ministry.

Like St. Nicholas – the fourth-century bishop who rescued impoverished girls from prostitution, but whom the world has transformed into Santa Claus – St. Patrick was a saint whose original story of holiness we need to hear afresh today. The real St. Patrick was a man of prayer and discipline as well as an evangelist who baptized – by his own account – “many thousands of people.”[1] And that means that St. Patrick sets a valuable example for those of us who seek to start and lead new churches today.

Based upon St. Patrick’s autobiography, his Confession, here are five lessons which Patrick can teach us:

  1. Patrick was humble. He begins his Confession with the words, “I am Patrick, a sinner, most unlearned, the least of all the faithful, and utterly despised by many.”  Patrick confesses that he’s uneducated and a poor writer. He talks about his failures more than his successes, sharing how his trials were used by God to sanctify him: “. . . thus I was purged by the Lord and He made me fit so that I might be now what was once far from me – that I should care and labor for the salvation of others, whereas then I did not even care about myself.”[2] When he does mention his successes, he’s quick to attribute them to God’s power working through him, never his own strength.
  2. Patrick knew Scripture inside and out. The edition of the Confession which I’m citing here italicizes every allusion to the Bible. The effect is startling: Patrick couldn’t go more than a few sentences without quoting Scripture. He interpreted every major event of his life in terms of Scripture. His knowledge of Scripture went beyond academic knowledge to form and shape every aspect of his life.
  3. Patrick was a man of prayer. Patrick recounts that as a teenage shepherd, long before his public ministry, he prayed hundreds of prayers each day. Fasting and nighttime prayer vigils were regular parts of Patrick’s life. This life of prayer both prepared Patrick for the powerful ministry which God performed through him and enabled Patrick to discern God’s call upon his life. In a scene reminiscent of the Apostle Paul’s vision of the Macedonian man in Acts 16:9-10, Patrick had a vision in which a man from Ireland begged him to come back and minister there. Prayer determined Patrick’s participation in God’s mission.
  4. Patrick loved his flock. Patrick was originally from Britain, and first went to Ireland as a captive slave. He eventually escaped and returned in freedom to Britain, but God called him to return to the people who had once enslaved him. Despite longings to go home to Britain or to visit Gaul, Patrick resolved not to abandon his call to stay in Ireland because he loved the people entrusted to his care. In his own words, “as regards the heathen among whom I live, I have been faithful to them, and so shall I be.” [3]
  5. Patrick did not seek his own gain. Near the end of the Confession, Patrick insists that he never charged fees for the ministry he performed. He writes, “I know perfectly well, though not by my own judgment, that poverty and misfortune becomes me better than riches and pleasures. For Christ the Lord, too, was poor for our sakes; and I, unhappy wretch that I am, have no wealth even if I wished for it.” Patrick knew that he was not called to profit from the gospel, but to give his life freely in service of One who had given him new life.

In light of these aspects of Patrick’s life, leaders of church plants and new worshiping communities today would do well to ask ourselves a few questions:

  1. Do we acknowledge our failures and embrace our hardships, letting God use them to grow compassion and humility within us?
  2. How deeply has Scripture shaped the pattern of our lives? Do our visions for ministry come from God through prayer, or from our own ambitions and egos?
  3. Do we love the people to whom God has sent us so deeply that we would stay with them no matter the cost?

Patrick’s world was not that different from our own, and Patrick’s ministry was fruitful not because he became like the world around him, but because he pursued God with zeal and unflinching devotion. May God give us the humility, prayerfulness, and faithfulness of the real St. Patrick.

_

[1] St. Patrick’s Confession, as printed in Readings in World Christian History: Vol. I: Earliest Christianity to 1453, eds. John W. Coakley and Andrea Sterk (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis 2004) p. 223

[2] Confession p. 225

[3] Confession  p. 227

This post was first published on the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary blog.

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.

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.