Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

4/6 2017

3 Ways Seminary Prepared Me for Church Planting

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church planting seminaryChurch planting is a pioneering ministry. Blazing trails. Cutting new paths. Exiting the box of institutional restraints and “the way things are done” to reach new people in new ways with the Gospel. The idealized, going-rogue vision of starting a new worshiping community lends itself to the assumption that institutional structures of the established church have little to add and a lot to get in the way.

The general sentiment at gatherings of church planters tends to be, “Institutions . . . ugh.” I often track with this. I celebrate the ways that church is being done outside the confines of large budgets, buildings, and bureaucracies. In my less than Christ-like moments, I have had little patience for time spent mourning the decline of many of those institutions.

But for those of us in pioneering ministries, theological education is a great gift. Here are three ways seminary prepared me for the work of church planting:

“You don’t make God relevant; God makes you relevant!”

On an almost weekly basis these words, spoken by one of my favorite professors my second year of seminary, still bounce around in my head. At the time, I had almost no idea what he meant. I assumed that making God relevant was part and parcel of a call to ministry. This, however, is not the work of the church— established or just beginning to gather.

God is always relevant. This whole thing—life, the universe, everything— is held together by God. We are the ones so often irrelevant because we miss what God is doing by being too busy trying to do what we’ve deemed, “the work of God.” God is on a mission to reconcile the whole world to Godself. We just need to discern the Spirit’s movement and join in. This missional theology calls us to trust God, rather than peddle God.

Context is Everything

I once wrote a paper that spent close to five pages discussing the meaning of the word, “know.” While even at the time this felt a little absurd, the skill of exegeting a text—critically interpreting by reading “out of” Scripture, rather than “into” it—has been important for me in preaching, teaching, talking over beers, and thinking theologically about the way our new worshiping community is forming. Outside of Scripture and theology, I’ve used the skills for neighborhood exegesis. To critically and prayerfully interpret anything—whether Scripture or a worship gathering or a neighborhood block—context is everything. I spent five pages on the word, “know,” because what “know” means to me sans context is very different than what it meant in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. In its particular letter, to a particular group, at a particular time, it has a particular meaning. My interpretation for what God might be up to here and now through the lens of that Scripture is impacted by its original context and by my current context.

In the same way, gathering a new community depends on context. The history of the place and people, the symbols, the stories—these are all important if we are to discern what God is up to here and now so we can join in.

 You Are Not in This Alone

Perhaps the greatest gift of theological education has been community. This gift manifested in a couple ways for me: First, the community of my learning cohorts. I walked through seminary with classmates, who have become friends and colleagues, who challenged me, opened my eyes to new perspectives, prayed with and for me, frustrated me, and gave me hope. At Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, I was also a part of a smaller cohort of those in the Church Planting Emphasis. This group taught me the importance of communal discernment, and God used them again and again to call me into this work. Second, the community of theologians who taught me. Professors, staff, pastors I connected with as a student, and the many, many authors I read. This community brought me into a diverse and dynamic conversation—and taught me how to actually participate in it. Though I am doing “new” and “pioneering” work, I know that I am actually located within this great cloud of witnesses. And though my church doesn’t look very churchy, we are within the big, eclectic tradition of the Church. We are a part of the family.

Laura Bentley ’16 is the organizing pastor of Sanctuary Missional Fellowship, a new worshiping community in the Lawrenceville neighborhood of Pittsburgh. She earned her MDiv with an emphasis in Church Planting from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.



3/31 2017

The Shack: A Movie Review

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A while back, my covenant group at church read William P. Young’s novel, The Shack. Honestly, I do not believe I even finished it—although I remember being gratified that this book, then making the rounds in conservative Evangelical circles, depicted God as an African American woman! Still, my wife, Wendy, reminds me that I was dismissive of The Shack, scornful of what I saw as its naïveté and theological shortcomings.

Then, I went to see the film version with my father and my sister—and I wept. It wasn’t that the movie was that different from the print version—both Dad and my sister agreed that it was very faithful to the book. The film is visually beautiful, and, I thought, very well acted: especially by the lead Sam Worthington, and by the luminous Octavia Spencer as the First Person of the Trinity. I will freely allow, too, that I was emotionally open and vulnerable, seeing this film with my father and sister on my late mother’s birthday, just a week before the first anniversary of her death. But mainly, I think, I was moved by the film’s potent portrayal of the boundless love of God, and the power of forgiveness.

The Shack Plot

In the movie as in the book, Mack Phillips has suffered a terrible tragedy. The loss of a child has plunged him, and his family, into darkness and despair. Led by a mysterious note to the eponymous shack, the place where his child had died, Mack is met by two women—a motherly African American cook and an Asian gardener—and a young man, a Middle Eastern carpenter. The three strangers reveal themselves as the triune Godhead, who teaches Mack about forgiveness, the major theme of this film: both the joy of being forgiven, and the freedom from anger and bitterness that comes when we forgive others.

The Shack Movie Reviews

The film, like the book, is already being harshly critiqued. Blogger Grayson Gilbert writes, “The Shack panders to the sensationalism brought on by emotional appeal and subjective relativism. . . . If you want to hear from God, open up the scriptures and read. Drink deeply of a brook that never runs dry; fill yourself with waters free from the bitter gall of heretical teaching.” Pastor Jack Wellman concludes, “Even though The Shack is fiction, I believe it is dangerous, particularly for new Christians, because they don’t have enough knowledge of the Bible and of God, and so they might confuse these fictional characters with the way God really is. . . . I don’t need another fictional book to tell me what God is like. We have the best source on earth for that and its call [sic.] the Bible. We don’t have to guess about the nature of God or His attributes, because we can know.” Yet on the other hand, scholar Allan R. Bevere writes, “I love reading theology. I enjoy parsing terminology and honing the sharp edges of doctrine into something finely tuned and precise. But I also enjoy reading the imaginative narratives that help me think theologically about life and faith in ways I had never considered. I am an unapologetic Nicene-Chalcedonian Trinitarian theologian; and I applaud Paul Young for his portrayal of the Trinity and his narrative display of some of our most significant beliefs and convictions in The Shack.”

The Shack and the Bible

I wonder how much of the fury directed at The Shack is really about mistaken notions of the Trinity or the Incarnation, and how much of it boils down to Wellman’s angry assertion: “the Father is not an African American woman and the Holy Spirit is not a mysterious Asian woman named Sarayu.” Reading this retort, I found myself thinking, “No, but neither is God an unjust judge (Luke 18:1-8), nor is the Holy Spirit a dove (Luke 3:22).” Scripture is filled with metaphors; indeed all of our language about God, without exception, is metaphorical. How could it possibly be otherwise, God being GOD, after all, and not an object in the world of space and time? I wonder how many of those who object to the fiction of The Shack also object to C. S. Lewis’ wonderful Narnia books, or for that matter, to the Left Behind novels of Jerry B. Jenkins and Tim LeHaye? But mostly, I wonder how winsome our faith can possibly be if it is so rigid, pedantic, pedestrian, and rule-bound? What room can there be in such confining doctrinal boxes for a vibrant relationship with the living Lord?

In a recent column on faith in the 21st century West, David Brooks argues for a “friendship with complexity” that engages the world, rather than an ideological purity that rejects it. Brooks concludes that the real enemy of faith is “a form of purism that can’t tolerate difference because it can’t humbly accept the mystery of truth.” To my astonishment and delight, I encountered that mystery of truth in The Shack. I am glad that I saw it. I believe that you will be, too.

The Rev. Dr. Steve Tuell serves as the James A. Kelso Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. He regularly blogs at The Bible Guy and tweets at @Tuellbibleguy.


3/16 2017

[Mis]managing Risk

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managing risk in church planting programs

I didn’t recognize the risk when I first strolled out of Home Depot with several eight-foot cedar boards and posts over my shoulder. I neglected to consider the possibility of failure when I started digging up my front yard. But when the cedar boards had been cut and built into an 8’x4’ box, and made into a raised garden bed in my front yard, my wife and I suddenly realized the public nature of our experiment in gardening. A neighbor watched us work all morning. After the box was put together and the front lawn dug up, he strolled across the street to wonder out loud why we would put a garden where everyone can see it, from which children can steal produce, and perfect strangers can pass judgment.

Gardening with an Audience

To be honest, we had not considered these possibilities when we began. We previously lived in a condo on the West coast, where yards were the luxury of the wealthy. The narrow strip of sun-bathed lawn out our front door looked like an ideal place for a garden. But our neighbor was right. The plants could be damaged by neighborhood kids looking for trouble. We might, in the end, only display our dismal gardening skills for the entire neighborhood. Perhaps we could have started smaller, in pots on our back porch. But we tried that for years living in a condo in Vancouver. And, living in a temperate rain forest, we managed to kill everything we ever planted. Our enthusiasm carried the day. We plunged ahead, our first foray in urban gardening.

As we filled the raised bed with soil, other neighbors and several strangers – on their way to grab coffee or walk their dogs in the park – stopped to reflect with us on our new venture. Several people offered advice; a few neighbors and strangers gave us seeds and starter plants. Over the course of the summer, a number of elderly folks made weekly trips to our front yard to offer advice, critique, and dispense decades of hard-earned gardening wisdom. We listened, asked questions, sometimes nodded without understanding what people said to us . . . but we continued to work the soil expectantly. Some crops were failures and some seeds didn’t take. But others grew so abundantly that we gave away produce for weeks: collard greens and kale, anyone? Seriously. Anyone?

Planting Safely

It seems to me that participation in God’s mission in post-Christendom North America looks a lot like our garden experiment. While many in our congregations recognize the need to engage new initiatives—participate in church planting or discover new ways to build community in their neighborhood—we tend to minimize risk, protect our reputation, and plant little safe experiments in our back yard. We tweak an existing program. We get crazy and serve coffee before Sunday worship. And, like gardening on our condo balcony in Vancouver, we tend to reap minimal benefits from playing it safe and saving our reputations.

Encountering God

I think the reason these safe experiments fail is because they keep our knowledge in-house, they simply work with what we already know and what we already believe to be true. They are an attempt to participate in God’s mission without the risk and disruption that comes from unexpected learning. But what if we decided to make our ignorance and uncertainty about mission in post-Christendom public? What if we decided to cultivate intentional spaces within our neighborhoods where we —the congregation or the church planter or the missional community leader—invite our neighbors to instruct us, to dispense wisdom, to share their gifts with us? Is it possible that God might lead and shape us through the gifts, wisdom, and concerns of our neighbors? Is it possible that we might be surprised where we encounter God?

In the book of Acts, the Spirit puts strangers together for the sake of mutual discovery. Cornelius discovers God’s grace in Jesus Christ, and Peter discovers God’s acceptance of Gentiles. An Ethiopian official discovers new depths to Isaiah’s prophecies and Philip discovers the boundary-breaking grace of God. Perhaps it is time we dig up the dirt in our front yards without a full consideration of the risks it entails. Seriously . . . collards . . . anyone?

Dr. Scott Hagley is assistant professor of missiology and also works with the Seminary’s Church Planting Initiative and teaches in the MDiv Church Planting Emphasis program as well as the new Church Planting and Revitalization certificate program. He previously served as director of education at Forge Canada in Surrey, British Columbia, where he worked to develop curriculum for the formation of missional leaders in hubs across Canada.

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