Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

6/7 2016

When Church Plants Die

failure in church planting can still be a success“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.

It’s okay to fail.

“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?

Death becomes a launching point.

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 can be as much success as it is failure.

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.

The Rev. Christopher Brown moved to Pittsburgh from Colorado to pursue a master of divinity (MDiv) degree at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. He currently serves as the coordinator of the Church Planting Initiative at the Seminary along with pursuing his master’s in sacred theology. Chris is the organizing co-pastor of The Upper Room Presbyterian Church, a church plant of the PC (U.S.A.) in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood. Chris regularly blogs at https://christopherbrown.wordpress.com and tweets at @brwnchrstpher.

[1] Mark Scandrette, “Pilgrimage Landscapes” in A Community of Kindness by Steve Sjogren & Rob Lewin (Ventura, CA: Regal 2003) p. 216

[2] Ibid.

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2/25 2015

Why My MDiv/MSW Joint Degree Created Clarity

mdiv-msw-joint-degree-pittsburghI began my graduate studies as a student of the University of Pittsburgh working to receive my masters of social work (MSW). The course work was practical problem solving for those with mental health, social, and justice issues. It was exciting to be learning about how government programs work and how to best serve those with mental illness.

I was fascinated by my classes in cognitive-behavioral therapy and dialectical behavioral therapy. I could not get enough. In my second semester I was required to do my first internship. I began working as an in-home family therapist. It was wonderful work, coming alongside a child, and therefore a family, to offer services to better the life of the family and child.

In this work I got to travel all around the city of Pittsburgh. I worked with families that were very affluent and some that were the poorest of the poor. In all of it, my education, matched with outstanding supervisors, gave me the confidence to enter any situation, face it, and do my best to improve the lives of those I was working with and for.

As I entered my second year of graduate school, a more intense internship was required. I began working at a step-down program for children and youth exiting the psychiatric hospital and slowly transitioning back to school. There I had to apply what I was learning in a completely different way.

Suddenly, I was faced with children and families who were experiencing trauma that I could not imagine in my worst nightmares. During a therapy session with one such child he asked me, “Does Jesus want me to forgive my auntie who hurt me? My pastor said on Sunday that we should forgive everyone. Is God mad at me?”

And with that one therapy session I realized I needed way more than the training I was receiving in my MSW. Clinically, I could answer that question with a question, “What do you think Jesus would say to someone like you?”

Theologically, I was not ready to proceed. And I could not proceed. Working in a large conglomerate system does not allow for personal religious beliefs and frankly, neither does therapy. It is about working out the problems of the client and helping the client achieve mental health. For this young man, I can say that I did the best I possibly could. We worked on his problems and my hope is that he is a well-adjusted man today.

But personally, I knew I had to go back to the drawing board. My MSW was not enough. I needed a theological education that would provide a foundation for all of my practical and theoretical knowledge. And that is why I then began attending Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, earning my MDiv through the PTS/Pitt joint degree program. I graduated with both degrees in 2005 and have found the mixture of practical and theoretical knowledge perfectly supported by my theological education.

Being able to see the world and the great, tragic problems of the world, through the lens of my theological education gives me great eschatological hope. And great practical hope. The lens through which I understand God and our human interactions with God does not get clearer every day, if anything it gets foggier. But having both an MSW and an MDiv allows me a clarity that one alone did not.

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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9/3 2014

Reformed Church Symbolism: Five Examples

Church Symbolism in Pennsylvania“What’s your favorite church building?”

I was recently asked this question by a couple that I will be marrying this fall. We were talking about the impact that a building can have on a wedding and the importance of church symbolism. Then they asked me about other buildings that stood out to me, and then my mind started racing. Here are just five of the many churches that came to my mind.

Aspinwall Presbyterian Church in the Aspinwall neighborhood of Pittsburgh has gorgeous stained glass windows that follow the liturgical calendar. It also has wide clear glass windows reminiscent of puritan architecture. It’s high church liturgy and puritan windows – the best of both worlds. This also happens to be the building in which we were standing when I had that conversation so it gets the first spot.

Harbison Chapel at Grove City College Harbison is a massive, imposing stone building that displays an American take on European architecture. The beautiful stained glass windows feature scenes from church history, including events from the United States like the founding of the college itself. Before pursuing my MDiv degree at Pittsburgh Seminary, I attended Grove City College and sat in those pews. Now that I occasionally serve as guest speaker in the chapel, it has become a permanent fixture in my memory.

Third Presbyterian in New Castle, Pa. In addition to permanent symbolism like stained glass windows, Third has cloth banners of the attributes of the disciples. Those symbols are largely unknown and appear strange and mysterious if you don’t know your church symbolism. They also present a great way to teach and remember the stories of the disciples.

Memorial Presbyterian in St. Augustine Memorial is unmistakably inspired by St. Mark’s Roman Catholic Cathedral in Venice. Even after living in Florida for years, I only worshiped there once. Nonetheless, it’s hard to forget a Presbyterian Church modeled after a Roman Catholic Cathedral.

Grace Covenant in Orlando, Fla. My fascination with church imagery really began while I was serving as a pastor at Grace Covenant. The stained glass windows were designed by the congregation and in the center of the four buildings is a beautiful courtyard with memorial gardens. While the sanctuary does not have a central cross in the chancel, it has (if I remember correctly) more than 80 crosses throughout – on pews and chandeliers and in windows. It was during my ministry there that I started researching church art and symbolism.

These kinds of buildings, all of them Presbyterian, fascinate me. If you’ve read my thoughts on theology and superheroes that should come as no surprise. It’s also interesting because the rich imagery in Presbyterian architecture stands in contrast to its tradition. John Calvin wrote that “…whatever men learn of God from images is futile, indeed false.” Yet despite Calvin’s objections, we use powerful visual imagery in our worship spaces. If you need evidence, just look at the five churches above.

What do you think? Should your church be on this list? Send me an e-mail at ddavenport@pts.edu and you might find your church in my next post!

Written by the Rev. Derek Davenport ’05, director of enrollment and program co-director of the Miller Summer Youth Institute at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Derek is also an alumnus of the Master of Divinity (MDiv) Program. Derek has covered images like those listed above in greater detail on his website www.preachingsymbols.com

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