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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.

This post originally appeared on the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary Blog on February 12, 2015:

A few nights ago, I found myself live-tweeting a sermon. I was so moved, I couldn’t contain my enthusiasm. But there was no one around to hear if I said, “Amen.” So I took to the Internet.

The sermon I was reading was the sermon preached by the Rev. Henry Highland Garnet to the US Congress Feb. 12, 1865. He stood before them as a 50-year-old, disabled, former slave who had become known around the nation as passionate abolitionist and pastor. He preached from Matthew 23:4, where Jesus condemns the Pharisees for tying up heavy burdens on others which they themselves won’t lift. Seamlessly, Garnet drew a parallel between the Pharisees and those who maintained the institution of slavery, placing heavy burdens on the shoulders of his brothers and sisters. Garnet’s sermon before Congress was delivered after the 13th Amendment (abolishing slavery) had been approved by Congress, but before it had been ratified by the states. Garnet was known as an accomplished (and controversial) orator, but his words that day were rooted in his life experience.

Born into slavery in Maryland in 1815, Garnet’s family escaped when he was nine years old and moved north to Bucks County, Pa. The family eventually settled in New York City. After two years at the African Free School, Garnet sailed as a cabin boy on ships to Cuba and served as a cook and steward on ships travelling between New York and Washington, DC. A traumatic leg injury in 1830 led him to return to school at the Noyes Academy in Canaan, N.H.

But the trauma only continued: the Noyes Academy was burned down by an angry mob who disapproved of educating African Americans. Garnet next enrolled in the Oneida Theological Institute, then a progressive Presbyterian school known to support black students, from which he graduated in 1839. The next year his leg was amputated due to complications from his earlier accident. But that didn’t slow Garnet down in any way. Over the next decades of his ministry, Garnet was an abolitionist, a pastor, an advocate of fair trade as an economic means to fight slavery, and a college president. The last role is what brought him to Pittsburgh.

Garnet arrived in Pittsburgh in 1868 as the newly appointed President of Avery College, on Pittsburgh’s North Side. Avery College had been founded by a Methodist abolitionist and served as a station on the Underground Railroad, and when Garnet arrived it served as a school for African Americans. While in Pittsburgh, Garnet was a bivocational church planter, working at Avery College while also organizing and laying the foundation for Grace Memorial Presbyterian Church (where Ron Peters, founding director of the Seminary’s Metro-Urban Institute, now serves). After leaving Pittsburgh, Garnet again served as a pastor in New York before being appointed as the United States ambassador to Liberia.

One-hundred and fifty years after Garnet spoke to Congress, his life still can speak volumes to us today. Our systems of racial injustice need to hear his prophetic condemnation. Our economy needs to hear his advocacy of fair-trade. And our churches need to follow his example of uniting biblical proclamation with prophetic action, especially as we pioneer new worshiping communities.

In the tradition of the Church, saints are honored and celebrated on the anniversary of their deaths. On Feb. 12, 1882, 17 years after his famous sermon to Congress and while serving as a diplomat in Liberia, Garnet passed away and entered the Promised Land of eternal freedom. May the Lord grant us the grace to honor Garnet’s legacy through our ministries this day.

To read Garnet’s sermons directly, see Lift Every Voice: African American Oratory ed. Philip S. Foner and Robert Brantham (Univ. of Alabama Press, 1997).

This post originally appeared on the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary Blog on December 8, 2014:

For weeks now, social media has been filled with reactions to the grand jury decisions about the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. The whole nation has been talking again about race and police brutality. I’ve been hesitant to chime in. As a privileged person, I’ve thought this is a season when I’m called to listen more than speak. And listening well, I believe, leads to prayer. In this case, my prayers have mostly consisted of a simple plea: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us. I pray this because my limited experience in cross-cultural ministry has taught me just how much we need the Lord’s help.

When my friend Mike Gehrling and I set out to plant The Upper Room in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pa., six years ago, we said we wanted to be a “multi-cultural” congregation. Mike had experience working in a cross-cultural setting as the English speaking pastor at a Korean congregation. I had spent two years living in the mostly African-American neighborhood, the place about which my humble and wise friend Jen Pelling recently wrote in her post “Walking While White”. Given these experiences, both Mike and I both thought we had a passion for cross-cultural ministry and a calling to lead a multi-ethnic church.

I did, and still do, believe that planting new, intentionally multi-ethnic churches is one of the best ways to combat racism in America. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is often quoted as having said that “eleven o’clock on Sunday morning” is “the most segregated hour of Christian America.” But as Aaron Howard, the pastor of As One Fellowship says and shows in this video, “We’re working to change that through the love of Jesus Christ.” New congregations have the potential to break down the walls that divide us by committing from their inception to pursue cross-cultural relationships and to speak explicitly against racism and injustice. That is what we wanted to do.

When Mike and I shared our plan with the leader of one prominent multicultural church several years ago, he bluntly stated what I’m sure many others were thinking: “But you’re two white men. And you think you can plant a multi-ethnic church?” We were naïve, but we were confident of the calling God gave us. But confidence doesn’t make fulfilling a calling easy.

Two years into that journey, we changed the way we spoke about the congregation. By claiming to be multi-cultural, we were (at that time) shining a spotlight on our Korean member. What we thought was well-intentioned felt like tokenism. So we began to speak of being a cross-cultural church, a community that believes God calls us into relationships that cross cultural, ethnic, and economic barriers. Changing the language we used was easy, but our newer adjective carries an even weightier calling. A cross-cultural church will not only cross cultural barriers, it will be cruciform, shaped by the cross of Christ. To truly be a multicultural church we have to both take up our crosses and actively live counter-culturally. Those who claim to have a passion for reconciliation should expect to bear in their own bodies the passion of Christ.

According to our denomination’s low bar, we now barely meet the standard for being multi-cultural: having one-fifth our worshiping congregation representing “non-majority” people groups. It’s still an uphill battle, and thanks to the honesty and vulnerability of a few current members of the congregation, we’re beginning again to intentionally press toward becoming a more authentically cross-cultural church.

We’re not giving up because the Church is called to be a community where the “mystery of Christ” is proclaimed and embodied. The Apostle Paul wrote, “This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members of one body, and sharers together in the promise of Jesus Christ” (Eph 3:6 NIV). The Gospel has from the very beginning included a calling to unite people groups who once excluded each other. The Father’s purpose in sending the Son was “to create in himself one new humanity out of [Israel and the Gentiles] . . . to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility” (Eph 2:15-16).

That means that this Advent, as we confess our need for Christ and our hope in his return, we wait upon the One who comes to put to death our hostilities. We are not capable of achieving reconciliation or peace or justice alone. Only the Christ, who from the cross could have cried “I can’t breathe,” can tear down our dividing walls. Only his Holy Spirit can inspire the creation of counter-culturally integrated churches. And I believe that such reconciliation is the Father’s cross-cultural purpose for us in Christ. Come Lord Jesus.

Last Monday, our seminary community was shocked by the sudden death of professor Jannie Swart. Despite having only served on the faculty at PTS for a year, his loving and enthusiastic faith had transformed the culture of the entire campus. The Lord used Jannie in such powerful ways that even people he never met were compelled to come to Friday’s memorial service.

My first encounter with Jannie was the day he approached me at the New Wilmington Mission Conference in 2013 and said, “We have to teach a church planting class together.” Jannie drew people into relationships in such a way that we couldn’t help but be implicated in whatever he was doing. Soon three other friends and colleagues had joined us and we planned the course I wrote about here.

Anyone who met Jannie felt as though they had made a new close friend. For me, Jannie was a friend, but also a colleague. We co-led the Church Planting Initiative at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and served on Pittsburgh Presbytery’s New Church Development Commission together. We only worked with each other formally for less than a year, but I am forever thankful for the time I spent laboring under his guidance.

On Thursday, my co-pastor and I attended the memorial service at the church which Jannie had pastored in Oil City, PA, before coming to teach in Pittsburgh. Friends, parishioners, and colleagues all shared testimonies about the love, joy, and zeal which marked Jannie’s ministry. One person recalled having once asked Jannie why he gave himself with such devotion to his ministry. Jannie’s response: “I really believe this stuff!”

He really believed this stuff. That Christ’s death and resurrection had conquered sin and death. That the Gospel called us to be reconciled not just to God, but also to one another. That the two greatest commandments truly and simply are to love the Lord your God and love your neighbor as yourself.  He really believed this stuff.

And he didn’t just believe it in sermons or books. Jannie believed it in ordinary conversation and daily life. That’s what set Jannie apart. Many of us in the Church believe this stuff when we’re preaching or writing or counseling. But Jannie believed it every minute of every day. Every word he spoke radiated confidence that God was alive and active in the present moment. He spoke and lived with an awareness of the reality of God, not just when he was teaching, but when he was sharing a beer with you, or receiving your hospitality, or spontaneously stopping by your office to say hello and share his joy.

It was this spirit of true belief that Jannie called us to when he preached at the PC(USA)’s Evangelism and Church Growth Conference one month ago. His sermon there has been recalled many times in the past week because of his exhortation to laugh at death. I remember the very beginning of the sermon, though: He began by running up to the baptismal font and asking if we really believed that Jesus Christ is living water. If we really believed that fullness of life is to be found in relationship with Jesus, our hearts would be overflowing with desire to share that love with the world (John 7:38). This is the gift I received in Jannie Swart: a friend and colleague who knew the love of God in the depths of his being, and from whose heart flowed streams of living water. Thanks be to God for a man who really believed this stuff.

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.