Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

10/17 2019

What does church planting have to do with the refugee crisis?

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church planting refugee crisis responseEven hundreds of miles from the coasts, here in Pittsburgh, we are hearing a lot about borders and walls, citizenship and belonging, laws and trespasses. There is anxiety in the air—who are we as a country, and what is our relationship to those who come across our borders? Who are “we” and who are “they” and how will we meet each other?

 

Respectable Sheep and Unruly Goats

Anxiety is something that faith communities know a lot about—particularly this question of who is in and who is out and what it means for our communities. In fact, unfortunately the church is famous for it. Misuse of Matthew 25:31-34 results in the (now vintage) Cake song’s poetic simplification, “Sheep go to heaven, goats go to hell.” Somehow that simple statement comes with a clear imagination of who are the respectable sheep and who are the unruly goats. This misses, of course, that the distinction the text makes between sheep and goats is how they live, not where they were born or to whom they were born (see verse 35-41).

 

Church Planting and the Refugee Crisis

Church planting—that is gathering communities in newly imagined ways of Christian living—offers an interesting response to this tension. What if, instead of gathering as those who are “already” sheep, we gather around the “sheep-like” practices: giving food to the hungry, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, and visiting the imprisoned? Can we become sheep in those practices? What will this mean for the space where we meet each other? Well, it may be that we become the hungry in our sharing. We may gather together as strangers and share life with the underclad. We may get sick with germs from the sick, and we may even become imprisoned or count the incarcerated as our members.

In short, mixing it up with the world by starting outside of an established group of Christians, there are ways in which we might start to look like the world outside our boundaries. We might begin to resemble those we might feed or cloth or welcome or visit in prison. Which can feel pretty scary. But if you look back—that needy and scary world outside from Matthew 25—that world we might loathe to become is finally concluded to house the presence of the Christ we claim to serve. The same Christ we say we are trying to imitate.

 

The Rev. Karen Rohrer, M.Div. is the director of the Church Planting Initiative at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, founding co-pastor of Beacon Church in Philadelphia, Pa., and, as it turns out, a real Cake fan ever since they were cool 20 years ago.

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11/30 2018

Planting a Church is Whole Body Work

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integrative learning space at Pittsburgh SeminaryThe world seems to be increasingly comfortable with most of our embodied lives being reduced to the digital, and for some things that is perhaps neutral—but life together is something that is hard to do outside one’s body.

When I lived in Philadelphia, there was a neighborhood bar where I would somewhat regularly get dinner, sometimes with my husband, Andy, sometimes with others while he was still at a church meeting. I noticed over time that I bonded pretty deeply with the servers and the bartenders. They became a bit like family to us. As I tried to articulate why that was, I found myself saying, “The other person in my life who regularly made sure I was fed is my mother.” There was muscle memory, it turned out, between being fed and feeling loved. Sure, we liked the staff at the bar—we got on well and laughed together, but the bond that was formed was one of provision. They looked after us, and we began to see the bar as a safe space and a sort of second home. That kind of bond is part of what it means to do life together, and it is hard to get that bond when you don’t bring bodies into account.

 

Church Planting as Whole Body Work

When I think of church planting as a whole body work, I think of provision more generally. People often say, “Church isn’t the building, it’s the people,” and while that isn’t untrue, what we miss is that people gathered inhabit space and time. If we are to care for each other, to nourish each other, or offer rest to each other, real physical space is needed. Real physical elements are needed.

And part of pastoring, part of church planting, is making a space that is prepared. This can’t be done by solely putting our theological education into words and reading it out loud. We can’t do this as dis-embodied, talking heads, beamed into a blank holding space of chairs all facing one direction. Church life together—the sacraments—is embodied and inconvenient. They require the whole body—the moving of chairs, the setting of tables, the baking of bread. They require the sitting with and the listening to, the working alongside and the wading through with.

For me, at my little church in Philadelphia, it required the shoveling of snow in winter and the schlepping of electric fans in summer. It required paying attention and bearing witness, cleaning up scraped knees, and painting building signs.

 

Church Planting at Pittsburgh Seminary

At PTS, we are looking to do life together. We are training leaders up to make and convene space for folks to live life together. We have made a significant step toward this with our Barbour Library renovation. Not only does the Library make space for all manner of neighbors, groups, and friends to gather (You can bring snacks! You don’t even have to be quiet!), there is a dedicated space in the Library, called the Integrative Learning Space (pictured above).

This space invites students, small groups, and community members to think about how we make space and set the table for folks to do life together. The space is indestructible and stocked with supplies to make communal art and liturgical aids, banners for the seasons, Bible time lines, signs for orienting guests, materials for stained glass mosaics, paints for re-visioning pastor thrones, and all manner of other things that might make space for people to enter in and find a way to share life together. We hope you’ll use this space to make your own welcoming spaces, spaces where God can enter in and make us known to each other in the breaking of bread and the hearing of the Word.

 

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.

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9/18 2017

Seeing God in the World through Short-term Mission

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short-term mission trip participants, The Netherlands

WMI Netherlands 2017 mission trip participants at the community of Nijkleaster

WMI Brazil 2016 mission trip participants learn from church planters in Sao Paulo

In the fall of 2014, my wife, TJ, encouraged me to look into going on a mission trip through Pittsburgh Seminary’s World Mission Initiative. I was apprehensive in the beginning because this was my first year in seminary and I had never been outside the United States or Canada. After looking at the different trips offered in the spring, I joined a group that regularly met over lunch to share about their relationships with folks that they met while in Southeast Asia on previous WMI mission trips. Through the stories I heard and the learned reality of God’s people in this land, I had to go for myself and witness what God was doing in that place.

After receiving financial help from the World Mission Initiative, the Shortridge Fund, and many generous friends and family members, I was headed across the Pacific to meet these people and hear their stories and be with them in worship, study, and prayer. On a cold February day in 2015, a group of us departed from Pittsburgh and flew 12 time zones to experience life as a Christian in a completely different culture than our own. Through this one trip I was able to explain to others back home that the world is not at all what we have been conditioned to believe but instead the world is full of beautiful people that are made in the image of God.

Fruitful Ministries Around the World

My first trip to Southeast Asia also allowed me to see what it is like to have fruitful ministries in places that we would least expect. Most churches that we visited were either additions to someone’s home or simply someone’s living room. But the Holy Spirit was present in these places and God was moving through the church leaders that we met, and the Christian faith was growing.

In the following months as I grew spiritually, I was able to see that God was really pointing me in the direction of church planting. My experience that I had in the spring showed me that God does not need walls and a hymnal to show up; but God needs people connecting with other people. So I began to connect with others and listen to stories and hear how the Spirit was moving in communities and in relationships. Once again, I was able to travel with WMI to Brazil and continue my listening journey. As we traveled around the state of Sao Paulo, we met with innovators in church planting that were wrestling with their faith, listening to others, and finding a place to welcome their neighbors. That was what God was calling me to hear and I heard it—loud and clear.

God in the 21st Century U.S.

Just a couple months after our Brazil trip, my wife traveled with WMI to Kenya and was too introduced to a new culture and a new way of defining church. This experience sparked in her what I had been unraveling since I first started traveling. We talked about culture and faith and this helped us to better discern our future together in church planting. But for me, there was still a burning question: what is God up to in the 21st century U.S.? To discover this, I journeyed again with WMI to the Netherlands to see what God was up to in a secular society.

In the cold, windy, rainy countryside known as Friesland, our group met with a gathering of people that have called themselves Nijkleaster (translated: New Monastery). This project was based out of a nearly 1,000-year-old church and included folks from all walks of life and faith traditions. They gathered on Wednesday mornings and occasionally on Sundays to dive into Scripture, pray for each other and the world, and to experience God through one another and through contemplative practices. The most profound experience occurred Wednesday morning when we took a pilgrimage walk with the folks of the monastery. This was a time of reflection and prayer and allowed people to walk around the farmlands and be totally blessed by the presence of others. What I heard God say on that walk was that people desire to be accepted and loved. They do not want fancy solutions to their simple problems; people want to be loved, just as Jesus commands.

If there is one theme that goes throughout my journey of international travels with WMI it would be that God wants to show us something, and to see it we have to be attentive to the Spirit working through others in this world. Are you unsure about whether you should go on a WMI trip? I encourage you to go and see and hear what God has in store for you.

The World Mission Initiative is now accepting applications for the 2018 spring break trips to Egypt (Church Planting in Context), Colombia (Cultures of Violence, Culture of Peace), and Israel/Palestine (Listening to Palestinian Voices). Learn more about these trips!

Ryan Lucas is a senior M.Div. student at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. He and his wife, TJ, are raising their daughters while both attending seminary and serving the churches and communities they love.

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