Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

2/14 2017

The Parables of Church

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church baptismIn 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.

As I came to this forum and to the Church Planting Initiative at Pittsburgh Seminary from a small, new church in Philadelphia—Beacon—I thought I might tell you about one such parable.

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.



2/13 2017

Reinhold Niebuhr’s Challenge to His Context and Ours

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Reinhold Niebuhr is considered one of the towering theologians and public intellectuals of the 20th century. His books are still widely read, he is frequently quoted, he has often served as an important point of reference for leaders of all sorts (including many recent U.S. presidents)—and most recently he has become the subject of a newly released film, An American Conscience: The Reinhold Niebuhr Story.

Niebuhr’s Relevance for Today

Niebuhr remains relevant for a 21st century American and international context that is increasingly assertive in its diversities and aggressive in its divisions. Two dimensions of his leadership stand out in particular: his intellectual emphasis on moral approximation (rather than rigid dogmas) as both ends and means for public square participation and leadership; and his pastoral engagement on matters bearing upon severe economic inequalities (as experienced in his early 20th century Detroit pastorate).

More than one recent president has cited Niebuhr’s influence, particularly Niebuhr’s reinforcement of the idea that “politics is the art of compromise.” Most recently, Barack Obama’s presidency strongly embraced core tenets  of Niebuhr’s realism about the political importance of  policy approaches guided by approximate goals rather than absolutist objectives, and about the willingness to take required actions (even when inconsistent with deeper purposes and preferences) in pursuit of those goals.

Compromise in Politics

For Niebuhr, compromise was not something pursued simply for the sake of compromise or merely as a strategy for achieving or retaining positions of leadership. Compromise was a means for achieving a common good. Moreover, Niebuhr understood that in politics and public affairs you rarely get everything you want, and in order to set some of what you want and to lead on behalf of all of the people you may have to swallow some things you find unpleasant. Within the current American context of political polarization and zero-sum decision making, Niebuhr’s theological and political inclinations in the direction of broader, more consensual leadership are quite instructive.

Niebuhr was troubled by the ideological impasses of his day, but he was also concerned about the growing economic inequalities within his context and the systematic denials and obfuscations relating to causes and consequences of those inequalities.

Niebuhr as Pastor

Niebuhr served as pastor of a congregation in Detroit from 1915 to 1928, at a time when the auto industry’s influence was far-reaching. In Niebuhr’s public theological praxis during his Detroit pastorate as explicitly outlined in an unpublished essay on Detroit written about the same time, Niebuhr challenged social imbalances of power and divergences of perspective between “aristocratic” auto industry executives and Detroit’s laboring classes. He juxtaposed the political, economic, and moral self-certainties of auto industry movers and shakers with the day-to-day uncertainties and increasing misgivings of underpaid semi-skilled laborers.

Niebuhr objected to the indifference demonstrated toward the struggles of workers by persons in the power structure and by community constituencies actively or passively aligned with persons in power (including clergy) and made clear in his unpublished essay and in his public leadership within Detroit that an appropriate response to these community-threatening dichotomizations and imbalances was unionism. For Niebuhr, unionism was the best available strategy at the time and deserved broad support among community leaders entrusted with community interests. He applauded the handful of clergy leaders in Detroit who supported unionization, even in the face of the Detroit power structure’s systematic capacity for reprisal against pro-union community leaders, and he strongly criticized clergy “who talked endlessly about love and brotherhood but [whose] preachments had little relevance to the problems . . . of adjudicating interests and balancing power.”

Niebuhr addressed similar concerns in a published collection of reflections on his Detroit pastorate, entitled Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic. In Leaves, Niebuhr assails the social inequalities, economic disparities, and racism evident within the Detroit context, he rejects prevailing rationalizations of Detroit’s growing inequalities as inevitable and acceptable costs of economic progress, and he challenges church conformity to these rationales and the failure of church leaders to draw connections between the spiritual and social aspects of their faith.

In these various Detroit reflections and involvements, Niebuhr’s intersecting theological and sociological positioning allowed him to bring into view essential contradictions between economically-defined panaceas of human fulfillment and the realities of social disparity and inequality characteristic of industrializing Detroit—while also disabusing the church sector of notions of neutrality on these issues. Given the enormous economic inequalities within our current national and global context, Niebuhr is instructive here as well.

Niebuhr Documentary: An American Conscience

A film reminding us of Niebuhr’s important contributions and extending his voice to a viewership perhaps as wide or wider than his readership is indeed a valuable contribution. Join Pittsburgh Theological Seminary Fri., Feb. 17, 2017, from 7:00-9:30 p.m. for a special screening of the new PBS documentary film An American Conscience: The Reinhold Niebuhr Story. The movie details the life and influence of Niebuhr as a 20th-century American Protestant theologian, ethicist, and commentator on politics and public affairs. Following the film will be a panel discussion with community leaders reflecting on the relevance of Niebuhr’s work to current issues. Panelists include: Dana Gold, chief operating officer, Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Pittsburgh; Tony Norman, journalist, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette; Dave Swanson, pastor, Pittsburgh Mennonite Church; and John Welch, vice president for student services and community engagement and dean of students, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.

The Rev. Dr. R. Drew Smith serves Pittsburgh Theological Seminary as professor urban ministry. He’s also involved in the work of the Seminary’s Metro-Urban Institute which combines the theory and practice of collaborative community ministry into a program of urban theological education. Both a political scientist and a clergyman, he has initiated and directed a number of projects related to religion and public life which have collected research data on political involvements, community development activities, and outreach ministries of churches, especially African-American churches. 


2/6 2017

Why I Start New Churches

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Church planting happens when visionaries see a community in the middle of nothingWhile Presbyterians as a whole have become more adept at closing churches than opening them, there are a few of us crazy people who are absolutely passionate about giving birth to new churches. I am convinced that planting new churches is the best way of reaching new people for Christ. After all, if my beloved congregation has been ministering its head off for 200 years on the same street corner without reaching its neighbors, it probably isn’t going to start reaching them next week. However, something brand new in the community just might stand a chance. And I believe it’s a chance worth taking.

Planting New Churches is Hard Work

Anyone who has any experience with starting a new church knows the endless hours spent knocking on doors, writing sermons, creating PowerPoint presentations, practicing music, leading small groups, communicating a vision, drinking coffee with community leaders, starting prayer groups, setting up chairs in the local elementary school, creating a budget when you have no idea where the money will come from next year, serving spaghetti, putting up signs, training leaders, designing web sites . . . well, you know all the things that really should go on this list. As I said, it’s hard work.

One new worshiping community leader once said to me in a moment of total frustration, “There’s just so much nothing”—no building, no Sunday school teachers, no job descriptions, no Bibles, no chairs, no elders, no coffee pot, no one to buy the coffee pot or make the coffee, no musical instruments, or bulletins, or computer, or members. Sure, it’s exciting to start from scratch, build something from the ground up, create a brand new culture, but still – “there’s so much nothing.” It takes special people to start new churches. It takes people with vision and imagination to see a vital worshiping community in the midst of so much nothing. It takes people with perseverance to keep knocking on doors and drinking coffee with the right people when the nothingness threatens to overwhelm.

It also takes presbyteries and partner congregations and a denomination who share the commitment to a brand new kind of ministry. Faithful pastors and members of existing churches may look with suspicion on the idea of new churches in their back yards. After all, the suggestion of a new church means to some that what they are doing is unsuccessful or inadequate. It plants the seeds of misgiving that established churches will suffer in attendance and income when a newcomer invades the neighborhood. And don’t forget that planting new churches is an expensive form of ministry. At a time when presbyteries feel the pinch of declining resources, some spendthrift suggests squandering scarce resources on a risky business. Most presbyteries have a story of an expensive new church plant that failed to thrive. No wonder “we tried that once and it didn’t work” is a familiar refrain. Going into an existing church with the news that a new church is on the drawing board doesn’t always bring cheers of enthusiasm.

Why, then, do church planting pastors and leaders and presbytery staff people continue to do this hard and faithful work of planting new churches? First, I believe we are faithful to the Gospel when we are absolutely passionate about making new disciples. New churches are evangelistic at their very core. Their purpose is to engage people who are not presently involved in any worshiping community. Planting new churches is one very powerful response to the Great Commission.

New churches provide a unique opportunity of taking the unchanging gospel to an ever-changing culture. Unburdened by traditions and history, new churches are able to pare ministry down to its essential components and work on making the Gospel accessible to a new generation of believer that doesn’t know the words to the old hymns. New worshiping communities are always contextual. They are at their best when they align their ministry to the needs and gifts of a particular community.

Planting Churches is Teamwork

New church development is certainly not for everyone. Many faithful people find meaning and nurture in the traditions and rituals of the established church. But, there are a few courageous entrepreneurs who rise to the challenge of discovering a brand new way of worshiping God, relating to unchurched people, engaging the surrounding culture, and singing a new song. We do this best when we work together—presbyteries, congregations, and new worshiping community leaders. Unfortunately, we succumb too easily to the sins of distrust and blame and self-centeredness. We tend to forget that we are on the same team. We succeed when we love and trust and care for and challenge each other to new levels of faithfulness. There is no more exciting and challenging and important ministry than starting new worshiping communities. The work that happens in new worshiping communities infuses the whole church with new Holy Spirit energy. Both old and new churches are enriched when they follow Christ outside the church doors and into the neighborhoods around them.

Vera K. White is the coordinator for 1001 New Worshiping Communities of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and has an office at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.

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