Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

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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7/21 2017

What a Church Planter Needs

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church planting for new communities

This morning I had breakfast with a church-planter. Starting a new worshiping community is a different beast from pastoring an established congregation. To quote The Wizard of Oz, “Now that’s a horse of a different color.”

“There has been vocational confusion, dark times,” my church-planting friend told me, now four years into this endeavor.

Of course, I thought, there has to be vocational confusion and dark times.

After all this pastor has had to wear more hats than I can imagine: visionary leader, construction foreman, preacher, worship leader, volunteer organizer, community developer, grant writer, meal planner, non-profit director, fundraiser, coffee-shop barista, spiritual director, cheerleader, landlord, entrepreneur, marketer, community events organizer, theologian, evangelist, custodian, ad exhaustium.

And all that to help birth a community the vision for which is still taking shape.

One wonders how pastors of new church plants survive the beginning years. What allows those who sustain this kind of ministry to do it? What keeps them from hanging up their stoles and dawning the barista’s apron full time?

I suspect that though this work is a horse of a different color, the practices that have sustained pastors throughout the centuries in the widest variety of ministry settings haven’t changed. They are the practices that keep us most open and available to God, the practices that help us discover and honor our truest selves, the practices that help us stay true to the voice of vocation speaking to us from deep within.

There are many, but three strike me as particularly relevant: having a soul friend, keeping a sabbath, and practicing silence.

Have a Soul Friend

I pastored churches for eight years, and I don’t think I would have survived without my soul friend—a spiritual director. My spiritual director created the space once a month for me to do nothing but look at my life to discern how the Holy Spirit might be at work. His office was a space where I could cry, yell, laugh, and think. His office was a space where I could do the work of remembering who I truly am and why I was in this work.

When the demands of ministry begin to overwhelm us, our soul friends can create the space for us to remember our deepest center in the heart of God.

These friendships can take different shapes. A pastor can see a trained spiritual director, have a mutual friendship with another clergy person, or meet with a group of clergy friends to practice soul friendship for one another. (One warning about clergy groups: The minute they begin to become gripe sessions or mutual advice-giving sessions, run away fast. That’s not what soul friendship is about.)

Keep a Sabbath

Second, a church-planter should consider keeping a sabbath. Sociologist Judy Wajcam has argued that we live in an era of “temporal disorganization.” Because of technology, there are fewer boundaries on our time. Work spills into family and play in a way it never has before. And this is truer, I suspect, for church-planters than for other pastors. Church-planters often have no office to go to, no staff to meet with—they lack the structures of an institution to order their time. And without those structures, the work of ministry bleeds in to every second of every day.

We then can forget that it’s not our frantic agency that brings in the tides and holds the stars in the sky. There is Another at work.

And that’s why God gave us a day of rest, so that we could cease from work long enough, not just to rejuvenate (a good day off can do that), but remember that it’s not our initiative that matters in ministry, but it’s discerning and joining God’s initiative that makes the difference.

The work of getting things started is so close to the heart of church planting there’s all the more reason to stop once a week to remember: it doesn’t all depend on us.

Practice Silence

Finally, practice silence. In silence we get to know the voices that drive us—and often they are not the voice of God. We are driven by the need to succeed, to prove ourselves, to “get this ship off the ground” or “turn this ship around.” Many of those voices aren’t the gentle, wooing spirit of God, but are the voices of our own frail egos (and of our judicatory leaders). In silence, we can see them for what they are: smoke screens, concealing the real voice we need to listen to—the voice of God and the voice or own vocations, which, if we listen carefully enough, we might discover are one and the same.

We chatted for an hour, then my friend had to hurry away. He had another appointment at nine o’clock. And I knew he had another meeting that afternoon, because it was with a friend of mine to talk about small group ministry. Then back to the worship space tonight for the weekly community meal. Such is the life of the church-planter.

A life that can be sustained—and even flourish—when soul friends, sabbath rest, and silence give us the space to discern the voice of God, remember who we are, and rest in a Love that will not let us go.

The Rev. Dr. L. Roger Owens is associate professor of Christian spirituality and ministry at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and teaches courses in the MDiv, Doctor of Ministry, and Continuing Education programs. Before coming to PTS he served urban and rural churches for eight years in North Carolina as co-pastor with his wife, Ginger. He has written multiple books including The Shape of Participation: A Theology of Church Practices which was called “this decades best work in ecclesiology” by The Christian Century.

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6/9 2017

An Unusual Church Planting Journey

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Dave Lettrich, Mdiv and church planting program student I’ll be 47 years old in July. Like most second career seminarians I’ve met, I had little if any idea why I was there, and to be honest, I had little idea of what seminary was supposed to be. My life to that point had been driven by a lot of things, none of which were God. I grew up 30 miles east of the city in a small town at the foothills of the Laurel Mountains, where I continue to live. I have an undergraduate degree in business and an MBA. Most of my life, and my identity, were wrapped up in my entrepreneurial endeavors. My new found focus on God came only after the destruction of everything I thought I knew about my life and what it was supposed to be. Three years ago when I first toured the Seminary, I found myself wandering through the halls of PTS with Director of Enrollment Derek Davenport and I clearly remember meeting then Church Planting Director Chris Brown that day. When Derek introduced Chris as the director of the Church Planting Initiative that was the first time I heard the words “church” and “planting” used together. For all I knew it might as well have been an initiative intended to restore the landscaping around aging church buildings.

Fast forward a few years and the creative, entrepreneurial spirit found in church planting and innovative ministry has been the easiest transition for me from self-driven endeavors to a God-driven life. I should think most everyone who knows me even a little would say it’s hard to see me in traditional church leadership/pastor rolls. Systems theorists might say I’m self-differentiated to an extreme, almost detrimental degree (extreme, almost detrimental is my default setting in life). As I have followed God through this strange blurry trip they call discernment, I’ve found myself most drawn to atypical pastoral leaders—community starters like PTS alums Chris Brown, Keith Kaufold, and Jeff Eddings[1]. I’ve been encouraged by their determination to follow God on the terms they hear God calling, regardless of the established church world around them.

Ministry on the streets of Pittsburgh

church planting on the streetsThrough this discernment process, I have heard God call me to the streets, to minister to Pittsburgh’s homeless population. Almost by accident, I found myself building deep personal relationships with people from the street. I’m drawn to those struggling with addiction and mental illness, those who reject society first, out of fear that given the chance society would reject them. It is in these heavy circumstances that I hear Christ calling me to those who have lost him, or those who have yet to know him. They are drawn to me, and I to them, so I minister to them on their terms and their turf, under the bridges, along the tracks, in the middle of the street. As I do, I’ve recognized how hard it is to convince someone that there is hope in a God greater than anything in this world, when their world view is constricted by the eminent need to survive the next day, the next hour, the next minute.

Bridge to the Mountains

church planters Dave Lettrich and Keith KauffoldTwo years ago, Keith Kaufold and I were rafting down the whitewater of the lower Youghiogheny River with 20 teenage summer campers when I turned to Keith and said, “can you imagine what it would be like to bring people from streets here?” That was the seed that eventually would grow into Bridge to the Mountains.  It started with a few trips bringing a few homeless individuals at a time up to the mountains to ride bikes along the river trail, ride the natural water slides, and just enjoy God’s wonder for a few hours. Eventually I raised some money and brought a group of 20 homeless, and homeless care providers white water rafting. That was a year ago. Today Bridge to the Mountains is a Pennsylvania nonprofit corporation, and we are awaiting our 501 (C)(3) status. We are a Pittsburgh based Christian faith mission dedicated to developing relationships with, and providing a bridge of hope, to those experiencing homelessness, addiction, mental illness, and otherwise challenging life situations. By combining street outreach and the coordination of services with other providers throughout the city with mountain excursions of hiking, whitewater rafting, trail biking, rock climbing, and adventure courses, we believe we can create the best environment to allow an inbreaking of Christ’s peace and hope to those who so desperately need it.

For more information on our ministry visit our website at http://www.bridgetothemountains.org/ or find us on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/bridgetothemountains.

Dave Lettrich is a senior Master of Divinity student at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary who is also pursuing his graduate certificate in church planting through the Seminary’s Church Planting Initiative.

[1] The Rev Chris Brown (PC USA) is the former head of the Church Planting Initiative at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and a founding co-pastor of the Upper Room Church Community in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh. The Rev Keith Kaufold (UMC) created Eighth Avenue Place in Homestead, Pa. And the Rev Jeff Eddings (PC USA) is a founding co-pastor of Hot Metal Bridge Faith Community in Pittsburgh’s South Side neighborhood.

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