Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

5/25 2017

Post-Christendom and Bi-vocational Ministry

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 associate 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.


7/18 2014

Bivocational Ministry: Barista, MDiv


Chris Brown and Mike Gehrling, Church Planters for The Upper Room in Pittsburgh

I came to Pittsburgh from Colorado to get a Master of Divinity. I wanted to be a pastor. But three months after graduation, I was serving espresso in a local café. For the next five years, the 61C Café in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh would be my employer, my community, and my mission field. This wasn’t a mistake. It was exactly where God had called me to be.

Thus I was baptized into the world of bivocational ministry and church planting. Bivocational ministry is often called “tentmaking,” following the example of the Apostle Paul at times supported his ministry through the trade of making tents (Acts 18:3). Paul’s trade provided an income for him, but it also put him in touch with a diverse group of travelers and traders every day, giving him many opportunities to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

When my friend and fellow alum Mike Gehrling and I answered God’s call to plant a new church in Squirrel Hill, we chose to follow Paul’s example and pursue bivocational ministry for the same reasons. We wanted not only to lighten the financial burden on a newly emerging congregation, but also to work in places that put us in relationship with the people to whom God was sending us.

So Mike took a part-time job with InterVarsity doing campus ministry at Carnegie Mellon University, building community with graduate students and faculty. And I took a job at a neighborhood café, where I became intimately acquainted with Squirrel Hill’s eclectic and eccentric population.

I didn’t need an MDiv to serve espresso or bake muffins, but I did need theological education to prepare me for the conversations that took place every day at the café. What was I to say when a regular customer told me about her struggles to care for her aging mother? Or when another customer asked for help fighting an addiction? Or when a college student plopped a book about Wicca on the counter while I make her drink? Or when coworker told me he couldn’t accept the idea that there is only one Truth?

These were real people, with real struggles, in need of real Gospel. And that’s precisely why I wanted to be there, rather than inside the walls of a church office. Over five years, our congregation, The Upper Room, has grown slowly from a small group to a house church to a chartered congregation, but I know without a doubt that some of the most important ministry I’ve done was in the café.

In February of 2014, I left the café to serve at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary as the coordinator of our Church Planting Initiative. Here I have the joy of supporting students in our Church Planting Emphasis MDiv. I’m still bivocational – serving part-time at PTS and part-time at The Upper Room – but now I have the joy of encouraging and supporting church planters as they embark on similar journeys.

In fact, two of our Church Planting Emphasis students now work at the same café where I served. There they encounter real people, with real struggles, in need of real Gospel. As students, they’re engaged in bivocational education, practicing ministry both in and outside the Church. In so doing, they’re both being formed for the future of the Church and following in ancient apostolic footsteps.

Written by the Rev. Christopher Brown (MDiv, 2008), Church Planting Initiative coordinator at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and co-pastor of The Upper Room Presbyterian Church.