Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

11/20 2014

Church Plants and Weekly Communion

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MDiv student Rich Hanlon participates in the Seminary's weekly communion service.

MDiv student Rich Hanlon participates in the Seminary’s weekly communion service.

Review of Ronald P. Byars, Come and See: Presbyterian Congregations Celebrating Weekly Communion
This book review can also be read in the Nov. 10, 2014, issue of The Presbyterian Outlook (Vol. 196, No. 23).

Ronald Byars believes passionately in weekly communion. For him, nothing is more important to the life of the church today, especially the Presbyterian Church (USA). Byars is convinced that the Lord’s Supper is uniquely able to offer healing and reconciliation to a denomination deeply divided over moral and political issues. Moreover, the Lord’s Supper is the best way for Presbyterians to reach out to a postmodern society that longs for visible, tangible expressions of grace.

Byars, formerly professor at Union Presbyterian Seminary after many years of pastoral ministry, has made his theological, historical case for weekly Eucharist in previous books. Now he simply declares, “Come and see.” Drawing from a wide range of interviews with pastors and members of congregations, Byars argues that the best case for weekly communion is the very experience of weekly communion. Presbyterian congregations that have made the transition to weekly eucharist report blessings far beyond anything they imagined.

In the text, Byars highlights the experience of church planters and PTS alums Christopher Brown and Michael Gehrling (The Upper Room, Pittsburgh); Jeff Eddings and Jim Walker (Hot Metal Bridge Faith Community, Pittsburgh); and BJ Woodworth and John Creasy (The Open Door, Pittsburgh). Each of these church plants offer weekly eucharist.

Byars offers wise suggestions to pastors and congregations considering weekly communion. An extended process of study and discussion may be helpful. Certainly, pastoral sensitivity is essential. People may worry that weekly communion will become rote and routine, or that giving prominence to the Supper will undermine the centrality of spoken, rational words of instruction (the sermon).

As Byars notes, something else may be at the core of people’s concerns. If we experience communion as nothing more than an extended meditation on the death of Christ, a reenactment of his Last Supper with his disciples, we will associate it with Good Friday—and who wants to observe Good Friday every week? But if the eucharist promises an encounter with the risen, living Lord, it becomes a moment of joy and wonder for which we long every time we worship.

I wonder, though. Presbyterian churches often seem more attuned to the horizontal than vertical dimensions of the eucharist. What we experience at the Lord’s Supper is more often our love and care for each other than an encounter with a holy, transcendent God who comes into the world to turn it upside down.

Communion—and especially weekly communion—ought to raise painful questions: Why are Christian churches separated from each other? Why does the world, and the church itself, remain so sinful and broken, despite God’s promises of unity and new life? Are we really eating the Lord’s meal when we gather, or has it become nothing more than another community meal?

I share Byars’ commitment to weekly communion. More than once, students have asked me why no one introduced them earlier to Calvin’s beautiful vision of the Holy Spirit lifting us up to heaven when we receive the bread and cup. When they become pastors, some help their congregations discover weekly communion.

But I believe that eucharistic renewal will be incomplete unless it is accompanied by deeper commitment in the church to disciplines of self-examination and confession. The Lord’s Supper can give life only if we learn to die to all that separates us from God and each other. I’d like Byars to talk more about the fear and trembling that also belong to encountering the risen Lord.

The Rev. Dr. John P. Burgess is the James Henry Snowden Professor of Systematic Theology. An ordained Presbyterian minister, Burgess was a Fulbright Scholar to Russia in the fall of 2011, and a Luce Fellow in Theology for 2012. These awards supported his current research on the role of the Russian Orthodox Church in shaping a new national identity for post-communist Russia. Additionally, Burgess is a research fellow at the Center of Theological Inquiry during the 2014-2015 academic year.


11/18 2014

Church Planting and Fresh Expressions: What Kind of Service Comes First?

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Taken during the morning of the Fresh Expressions Event at Pittsburgh Seminary

Taken during the morning of the Fresh Expressions Event at Pittsburgh Seminary

On Nov. 14, 2014, pastors and lay-leaders came from all around our region to Pittsburgh Theological Seminary to attend a Fresh Expressions Vision Day. Having originated in the Church of England ten years ago, Fresh Expressions is a movement which encourages the formation of new Christian communities that connect with our changing culture. Though they exist alongside and are complementary to existing forms of Church, these new communities exist primarily for the benefit of people who aren’t yet members of the Church, a segment of the population that continues to grow in the United States.

As we heard leaders of Fresh Expressions US share lessons they’ve learned from Fresh Expressions in the UK, I was struck by the wisdom and simplicity of their relational approach to forming new Christian communities. In ministries like the Tobacco Trail Church and The Gaming Grotto, Christian community emerged among groups of people who gathered around common interests like running or video games. These new communities weren’t started by larger churches seeking to extend their brand or by denominations trying to strategically position themselves in growing neighborhoods. Instead, they were started by people who followed as God led them deeper into relationship with real people in their contexts. By taking postures in which they listened and obeyed, they allowed God’s desires for these new communities to emerge.

At the Vision Day, the presenters drew an explicit contrast between that posture of ministry and other models of church planting which put the worship service first. Leaders who operate within worship service first models of church planting tend to speak with terms like “launch team” and “preview service.” The effort seems to revolve around creating a worship service and then attracting people to that service. The resulting service may be a dynamic new congregation, but it is unlikely that it will attract people who have no church background. Such models extend the “come to us” posture which the Church adopted during Christendom, the days when the Church still had great cultural influence. But those days are behind us.

Fresh Expressions, by contrast, emphasizes serving the community before ever beginning a worship service. As leaders of new Christian communities (“pioneers,” in Fresh Expressions’ terms) listen to God and to the people to whom God has sent them, these leaders discover opportunities for loving service in their particular contexts. Out of those relationships of loving service, community is formed which provides a venue for evangelism and discipleship. By adopting these postures of listening and service, leaders come from a place humility, like the Son of Man who “came not to be served, but to serve” (Matthew 20:28).

The end result may or may not be a traditional congregation of the Church, but it will likely connect with people whom existing modes of the Church would never reach. For a local example, leaders of Encounter Church, in Pittsburgh’s Lawrenceville neighborhood, spent a year living in and seeking to serve the neighborhood before beginning anything like a worship service. As a result of their commitment to and service of the neighborhood, they’ve won the respect and trust of many in the community.

This is why, within the Church Planting Emphasis at PTS, we speak about of forming Christian community through processes of discernment and attentiveness. The goal of our ministry is not merely to launch new worship services, nor is it only to perform good works without our neighborhoods. Instead, we go into the world to which Christ has sent us, and there we seek to participate in what the Holy Spirit is doing in the world. As we listen to both the Lord’s guidance and to the people to whom he’s sent us, we discern in context how God is going about gathering people into new communities that make disciples of Jesus Christ. There we join Christ in forming those communities, making disciples, and developing expressions of faithful worship in those places. This is what we mean by “church planting” when we use the term here at PTS. May we indeed be found to be faithful and attentive servants of the one Master and those to whom he sends us.

Written by the Rev. Christopher Brown (MDiv, 2008), Church Planting Initiative coordinator at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and co-pastor of The Upper Room Presbyterian Church.


11/10 2014

Theology’s Role in Social Work

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theology and social work in pennsylvaniaMicah 6:8 gives the call to all Christians and all social workers: “And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”

I would argue that the values of social workers defined by the National Association of Social Workers Pennsylvania Chapter, of which I am a proud member, fit perfectly with the call of Micah 6:8. The values are:

  • Service
  • Social Justice
  • Dignity and Worth of the Person
  • Importance of Human Relationships
  • Integrity, and
  • Competence.

These values inform every action of a social worker and hopefully of all Christians. The greatest commandment of Christ found in Matthew 22:36-40 is clear: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

A result of the overflowing bounty of the love of God in Jesus Christ is our love of neighbor. Here are the Ethical Principles of Social Workers as defined by the NASW: Social workers’ primary goals are to help people in need and to address social problems, challenge social injustice, respect the inherent dignity and worth of the person, recognize the central importance of human relationships, behave in a trustworthy manner, and practice within their areas of competence and develop and enhance their professional expertise.

Certainly, all social workers would not identify themselves as Christians. But all Christians should identify themselves as social workers. Our duty, our call, our responsibility is to serve our neighbor by helping those in need, address social problems, challenge social injustice, respect everyone, emphasize human relationships, and behave with trust and competence through the love of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

The Rev. Erin Davenport is a 2005 alumna of the MDiv program. Through the Seminary’s joint degree program, she also earned her MSW from the University of Pittsburgh. A former chaplain, she now resides in Pittsburgh and serves as the Seminary’s Director of the Miller Summer Youth Institute.

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