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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.

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?

It’s a long story. It’s been over five years since I naïvely posted here that I was thinking and praying about church-planting. I had some clue then that this venture would stretch me, that I was stepping into a situation which God would use to refine and teach and discipline me. But I had no idea what would be the hardest disciplines to receive, or how the Sovereign Teacher would structure such lessons. Least of all did I expect patience to be something I would learn need to learn from the supposedly fast-paced work of starting a new worshiping community.

For example, in November of 2009, Upper Room moved into a storefront space in Squirrel Hill. By the middle of 2010, we were talking with our property manager about expanding into part of the vacant Squirrel Hill Theater, adjacent to our current space. This week, after nearly three years of debating, bargaining, consulting with lawyers and architects, applying for zoning variances, and no small amount of prayer, we will sign the paperwork giving us the right to expand. Three years. At times, I wondered if it would take 40 years, as though God were leading us through a wilderness before allowing us to enter some sort of Promised Land. But now it’s happening. We’re moving on to the next step.

If you want to read more about why and how we’re expanding, you can do so here, and if the Lord nudges your heart to support our expansion, an easy way to do so is by giving online here.  But, lest talk of the building distract us from the spiritual lesson here, my point is that God has used this experience to force me to grow in patience. He’s used the seeming futility of some of our past work on this to remind me to “number my days” (Psalm 90:12). I only have a short time to live, and I should use it wisely, but I should also remember that little I accomplish will outlive me on this earth. What bears fruit that lasts for eternity is the sanctification which God works in us through the ordinary trials of our days and years.

This leads me to think that patience is a matter of eternal perspective. The Apostle Peter told first-century Christians to be patient in waiting for the new heavens and the new earth Christ promised. “Regard the patience of our Lord as salvation,” Peter wrote (2 Peter 3:15 NASB). It’s as though Peter meant, “Relax, Jesus is giving us more time!”  We’re not ready for Him yet. We need more time to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (3:18). More time for us to grow in love and holiness, more time for us to submit wholly to His will, more time for us to repent. We can’t be prepared for eternity overnight.

As far as building projects go, the three years we’ve waited to move ahead with this expansion seem slow in today’s fast-paced culture of instant gratification. But the decades or centuries that it took to build some of Europe’s great cathedrals reflect the patience which grows from viewing life in light of eternity. Yesterday, while telling me of his recent trip to Spain, my co-pastor Mike suggested that the reason such cathedrals aren’t built in our age isn’t for lack of resources. It’s because we lack the patience to wait decades to see the fruit of our labor, or even worse, to spend our lives toiling for an end we may not live to see.  To labor long for an end one cannot see requires faith in something bigger than oneself, and hope that such faith will be rewarded. I’m thrilled that we’re moving forward with this expansion into the theater, but I’m much more impressed by the virtues behind the cathedrals.

Though I’m short on patience, this perspective does give me hope. Not necessarily hope that I’ll accomplish great things in my remaining years, but rather the hope that comes from knowing God’s not finished with me yet. A lot has happened in five years, but how much will happen in fifty? Thomas á Kempis  wrote in the Imitation of Christ that “If every year we would root out one vice, we should soon become perfect men” (Bk I, Ch. XI). It’s taking me much longer than a year to root out impatience, but if the Lord has used this short season to accomplish what He has, how much more more will God do in a lifetime? The Apostle Paul wrote that “He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6). God will complete the work the Holy Spirit’s doing both in and through me, and my family, and my church. And while He does, I pray for the grace to “wait patiently for the Lord” until I can say with finality that “he brought me up out of the pit of destruction, out of the miry clay” (Psalm 40:1-2).