Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

7/21 2017

Only Love Will Save the World

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*SPOILER ALERT: Don’t read on if you don’t want to know plot points of Wonder Woman (2017 Film)

Last Saturday evening, my mother and I went to see Wonder Woman. I was glad I saw it while on vacation. Otherwise I would have been up half the night re-writing my sermon. Wonder Woman asks the same theological question I ask my congregation most Sunday mornings: Why must we love those who don’t deserve it?

Wonder Woman begins on the island of Themyscira. Home to Amazon warrior women created by the gods to protect humankind. Long ago Ares, god of war, killed all the other gods, including his father, Zeus. Before Zeus died, he and Queen Hipplyta (ruler of Themyscira) had a daughter, Dianna, aka Wonder Woman. Though she doesn’t know it, Dianna is the only one capable of defeating Ares.

One-day General Steve Trevor’s plane crashes in the waters near Themyscira. He tells Dianna that he is an Allied spy. He stole a notebook from Isabel Maru, a German chemist, who’s trying to create a deadly gas. Dianna believes that her superior, General Ludendorff, is Ares, and she thinks killing him will end “The War to End All Wars.”

Except it doesn’t.

Dianna realizes that General Ludendorff isn’t Ares. And the real Ares creates war by manipulating people’s free wills. He doesn’t make anyone create poisonous gases. He merely tells them the recipe. It’s up to them what they decide to do with it. And they constantly chose war over peace. He invites Dianna to join him. Because why save the despicable human race?

As a preacher, I ask some variation of this question most Sunday mornings. Why must we love those who don’t deserve it? Dianna believes we should love because “only love will save the world.” As Christians, we believe that Jesus’ love saved the world. It was love that sent Jesus to the cross on our behalf. And it is love that sends us out into the world to heal the sick, welcome the stranger, and protect the widow.

Wonder Woman ends with Dianna recommitting herself to her mission to save the world. She recognizes that there is light and darkness in every human being. Her mission isn’t to eradicate the darkness, but to love in the midst of darkness. I think that’s a mission all Christians can get behind. We can’t eradicate the darkness. Only God can do that. But we can participate in the inbreaking of the kingdom of God here on earth by acting justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with our God.

The Rev. Rebecca DePoe ’16 is the pastor of Mt. Nebo United Presbyterian Church in Sewickley, Pa. She earned her MDiv degree from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. A member of Pittsburgh Presbytery, she served on the Administrative Commission for Transformation (ACT). Rebecca blogs at mtneboupc.com/pastor-s-corner and tweets @RebeccaDePoe.

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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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5/25 2017

Post-Christendom and Bi-vocational Ministry

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bi-vocational ministry and church plants can help communities in a post Christian era

Post-Christendom Ministry

Standing in the middle of a field in Burnaby, British Columbia, I could not help but smile. Hundreds of people from our neighborhood—new immigrants, families, elderly, young professionals— streamed into a park for the second annual “Inclusion Festival.” A youth band from a local music school played on a stage and a Peruvian dance troupe was the next act. Across the field, children worked on art projects, waited in line to jump in an inflatable castle, played games with the city parks staff, and tested their soccer skills against some coaches from a local camp. Increasingly, this is what pastoral ministry looks like in North America: finding a way to be present in the middle of one’s neighborhood in love and hope.

The Inclusion Festival grew from the vision of a refugee claimant named Sofia. A married mother of two from Peru, she found government-sponsored housing in my neighborhood and began to make herself a vital part of the community. Occasionally, Sofia came to church functions. After a bullying incident in her daughter’s school, Sofia decided that our neighborhood needed a public event focused on the message of inclusion, hospitality, and acceptance.

The surprising success of the first Inclusion Festival drew public attention. City officials approached Sofia and offered a grant to establish the Inclusion Festival annually, with one catch: she needed to find a registered nonprofit to receive the funds and claim responsibility. Suddenly our church became the sponsoring organization for a community event that we did not plan or initiate, and one run by a non-member whose status in the country remained (at that time) uncertain. It was a mess. I like to lead. I have experience running and planning such events. But instead of leading, I found myself in a supportive role alongside Sofia.

She pulled together neighbors and created an experience that we (the church) could not. She blessed the neighborhood. And so did we . . . by supporting her. This, at least in part, is what post-Christendom ministry looks like.

Decline of Christianity in North America

We are all aware of surveys that report ambivalence toward religion generally and declining interest in Christianity specifically across North America. American Grace, by Robert Putnam and David Campbell, reports the rise of those claiming “none” for religious affiliation, while Christian Smith (Soul Searching) describes the Christian commitment of our young people as “moral therapeutic deism.” Sociology aside, we all likely know of a congregation that has closed, a church plant that has failed, or a church building turned into a beer hall. Post-Christendom describes (albeit imperfectly) this reality.

The Christian church in North America has lost significant power and influence. The fairly recent interest in “bivocational” ministry emerges as one solution. The reasoning usually follows: congregations have less money available for ministry staff and less energy for fundraising; congregations will survive if they have more financial flexibility; therefore we need pastors who are not solely dependent upon the church for income. It argues for bi-vocational ministry as a strategic element for congregational survival. But that argument misses the opportunity that bi-vocational ministry places within the congregation.

The North American church is not the only casualty of changing cultural meanings and social upheaval. Since (at least) the 1980s, observers have prophesied the loss of public life in America—declining civil society institutions, voluntarism, and civic practices crucial for democracy. We face a slate of social problems that seem intractable. Institutions as basic as government, school, law, and family are in various stages of upheaval. As Barbara Kellerman suggests, we seem to be facing a crisis in leadership (The End of Leadership); we have lost a collective faith not only in the pastoral leader, but also authorities in general. We must not lose sight of the fact that our congregational malaise participates in a broader cultural uncertainty.

Bi-vocational Ministry as an Opportunity

Here bi-vocational ministry becomes a Spirit-given opportunity for the church to discover the shape of mission and ministry in our dynamic era. Recently John McKnight and Peter Block have made the principles of Asset Based Community Development practically accessible in their book The Abundant Community. McKnight and Block suggest a gift-based localism, arguing that we will not build community and social trust/capital by consulting experts to solve societal problems. Rather, we will address a variety of social ills by focusing on the gifts already present in a neighborhood in order to cultivate local communities of shared gifts. Cities across North America have begun experimenting with this thesis.

The cry for abundant communities invites us to reconsider the ways that pastoral ministry might be gifted to the broader community. Bi-vocational ministry presents a distinct adaptive challenge to the church. It invites us to think more publicly about pastoral ministry, to imagine different possibilities for sharing life and funds. It is not simply “tentmaking” for the sake of making ends meet, but rather the practice of ministry for the well-being of the neighborhood.

Sofia’s invitation did not fit within the usual bounds of pastoral leadership. Her event was not one organized by the church, it did not promise to grow the church as “outreach,” and Sofia was not a member or in frequent attendance at the church. My work with the Inclusion Festival gave me the opportunity to be present in and with my neighborhood in an entirely different way. Consequently, our church community received an opportunity to participate in the sharing of gifts—Sofia’s vision, our volunteer base, city funds, a host of neighborhood organizations, and the sharing of a collective and public neighborhood event.

In a place described by several polls as Canada’s loneliest city, such an event and the sharing of such gifts certainly reflects some of God’s trustworthy character and work in the world. Perhaps, just perhaps, so-called bivocational ministry provides the push that we need to live in and with our neighborhoods in such a way that folks like Sofia and the gifts of our neighbors might be given fresh expression in the name and hope of Christ.

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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