In the church planting program we talk about theory. The Church Planting Initiative cohort at Pittsburgh Seminary was recently discussing liturgy and the fact that it forms us. We were naming the ways people respond unexpectedly and how people handle being in community with those who are different from them. We talked a lot about the work and possibility of the church. And we came to realize that one of the most important things we do is tell church stories.
To plant a church you have to know what a church is. And a church as it works to be a foretaste of the kingdom of God can sometimes only really be known in snapshot stories—parables if you will. The upside of this is, if you spend any kind of time in a church, these parables start to find you.
The Parable of Baptism
At the beginning of each worship service at my old church, we would pour water into the baptismal bowl and talk about what it meant to be welcomed into God’s family and how the water of baptism bore witness to the love God has for us. Every week since we started worshiping together five years ago, we would pour the water and talk about how, whether we had yet been baptized or not, the water meant we belonged to God, that God claimed us, that we belonged to each other, that we were clean and forgiven, and that God would bring us through all the water and bring us home.
Because the church welcomed people who had never been to church and people who had been hurt by the church and people who had been to church their whole lives, we explained the concept of baptism every single week. As a pastor, though, when you practice something like that, there does come a time when you wonder if anyone is still listening to your weekly best of re-runs marathon.
But, of course, you always find out after the fact. When I had been gone from the church for about two weeks, I got a text from my former co-pastor. At Beacon there is a young woman in the congregation who is differently abled and has been there since we started. She has participated wholeheartedly in worship and worship leadership. She has loved the church and the church has loved her for as long as I have known the church and known her. Apparently, though, after five years of preacher repetition, a light bulb went on for her about baptism on this given Sunday. My colleague said she went right up to the baptismal bowl during passing of the peace and began to splash her fellow worshipers and declare them part of the family of God.
Perhaps the best part of the whole story is that our children’s minister—a young woman who two years ago didn’t go to church and didn’t want to, a young revolutionary who is working on a curriculum for children’s ministry, a young woman who is in seminary and who teaches the children of the church the story of Jesus with all the freshness of one on whom they have not lost their brilliance—gently tried to toe the establishment line and remind Sarah that generally pastors are the ones who do baptism.
Apparently, Sarah responded—“Yes, yes, I know! But this is what we do here!”
That is pretty much the clearest picture of church I’ve seen to date—church is when we get together, and a voice that people ignore everywhere else, tells us again that we are a part of God’s family. This is what we do here. Every single week.
The Rev. Karen Rohrer is director of the Church Planting Initiative at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Before joining the CPI team, Karen was co-pastor and co-founder of Beacon, a Presbyterian Church in the Kensington section of Philadelphia. The saints of Beacon taught her contextual ministry, the joy of being church, and the unique grace of being a lady pastor and boss in a neighborhood of matriarchs. The building of Beacon taught her amateur handy-woman and moisture remediation skills, and that a particular space really can be a reminder that you are loved. As director of the Church Planting Initiative, she is excited to vision new ways the church can bear good news to the world, and to support and resource the leaders God is calling forth to make it so.