Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

1/19 2017

On Symbols, Taking Down the Decorations, and Church Planting as a Way to Say What We Mean

church planting as a way to say what we meanWhen I was a kid, probably seven or eight, somewhere around Christmas time my family volunteered with a program that offered winter housing in our church for people experiencing homelessness. I remember helping to pour the cereal for breakfast, chatting with some of the people, and experiencing a somewhat confusing set of instructions about both politeness to our guests and safety from them. Whatever some of their struggles may have been, as a child, after spending a bit of time with the guests, I had no sense of their being different from me in any fundamental way. I walked away grateful for the experience, but somewhat unsettled about the way we as a church related to our guests. I couldn’t quite put it into words, but it didn’t totally make sense.

Not long after, my father, a Presbyterian elder and a deep believer in Christmas decorations, was explaining the different Christmas decorations we put up and their origins, no doubt in response to a question from me regarding why we couldn’t have a tree up all year. He was, as dads often do, answering the question with an extended monologue about Christmas decorations generally and particularly, their internal logic, diverse origins, and varied manifestations. I was tuning out—until he arrived at the lights in the windows.

“The candles in the windows are a symbol of welcome. In the cold of winter, they show that our house offers welcome to those in need and welcome to Jesus coming into the world.”

I latched on immediately. This was the disconnection I had felt at our church program. “Daddy, that is great! But . . . do the people in need know that that is what the lights mean? Because I know they are probably cold. So, if they see the lights, are they just supposed to knock? Is this what everyone means by the candles in the windows? I’ve never known anyone who actually had someone come and stay with them because of the candles. If they aren’t working, perhaps a sign makes more sense . . . ”

To this day, I don’t know whether my Dad was consciously teaching me a lesson about double speak, the world and the church, or simply back-peddling from a moment of regretted honesty with his kid. Generally regretted honesty wasn’t his style. “No,” he said, “that isn’t really how it works. We can’t really invite just anyone into our house. The window candles are a symbol. They remind us to welcome Jesus and each other, particularly around Christmas.”

Then, as now, I have real questions about symbols that symbolize something we don’t mean. If symbols are as fluid as I think they are, it seems like it won’t take long for our symbols to mean something different to those who see them than what we keep saying that they mean. Do the candles mean welcome? If we are forced to be honest, we have to say, no—not in any concrete sense. Is there such a thing as a theoretical welcome?

The same is true for all the church symbolizes—the Kingdom of God, loving ones neighbor (regardless of faith affiliation—see Luke 10:30-37), offering a cup of cold water to the thirsty, visiting people in prison, feeding the hungry, binding up the broken hearted. If all of that is theoretical, I have real questions about whether it exists at all. Do the people who are in need of love, water, hospitality, food, and binding up have any reason to hope that the church might be the place to go?

Indeed the reasons these symbols have held such power is that the story they tell—one of life out of death, one of repairing the breach and restoring streets to live in—that story is powerful and moving and even revolutionary. But does the capital “C” Church still practice those acts often enough to symbolize those things to a watching world?

Perhaps it does to some—but what about the others? What about those who experience church as intimidating, isolating, or baffling? For those who see church as for some other sort of person than they are? Those who don’t know that in this church we don’t wear hats in worship and that sweat pants wouldn’t be accepted as appropriate worship wear? Those who can’t read music or those who don’t know you never sit in the fourth row because that is Bessie’s seat and has been since 1973? What about those who can’t read?

Could starting new churches be a way to recommit to being a part of the Gospel, the Good News that is, as the angel tells us, for all the people? Could it be a way to broaden the bridge that the body of Christ has already built to bring us insiders the good news?

If the church is ever to be a symbol of the Kingdom of God on earth—if we are ever to signify the body of Christ at work on earth—then for our sake, I pray so.

This is the first blog post of the Rev. Karen Rohrer, the new 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.



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.


2/19 2015

From Declining Worship Attendance to Transformative Community

Fresh-Expressions-2New research on the Fresh Expressions movement in the Church of England was released this month, suggesting that new forms of church will not solve the problem of declining church attendance. In a small-scale study, the Rev. Dr. John Walker compared five fresh expressions – creative, highly-contextual ministries like pub churches or child-friendly “messy” churches – with five traditional parishes, observing that both the traditional and innovative churches seemed equally successful at “attracting the non-churched.” Translation: changing your worship style isn’t the way to bring unchurched people sitting in your pews.

On one level, this isn’t news. In Fresh Expressions’ language, we need a “mixed economy” of traditional and innovative ministries to faithfully proclaim the Gospel to diverse peoples. Though Walker’s observations could sound antagonistic toward pioneers of new forms of ministry, Walker writes in support of the mixed economy, arguing that the Church needs both traditional and new models of mission. Again, new worship styles aren’t the solution to declining church attendance.

But the reaction to this news reveals the anxiety latent in our shrinking churches. In a world where the Church is experiencing declining worship attendance and waning public influence, the Church fretfully waits for news of any way we can draw. The anxiety is captured well by Canon Kerry Thorpe, a leader of a fresh expression who was studied by Walker, who opened a review of Walker’s book by saying “Well, do they pass or don’t they?” People want to know: will new worshiping communities save our denominations?

Thorpe summarizes Walker’s findings, saying the answer is both “Yes, and no.” But Thorpe helpfully notes a constructive finding in Walker’s work, the finding that new Christians in these communities shared a common journey which Walker called the “Transformative Cycle.”

In the Transformative Cycle, these women and men had experienced significant life-events which, when processed in relationship with a Christian community, led them to come to a new self-understanding that included a deepened Christian identity. For example, a recent divorcee is invited to a small group where she experiences loving community. That community, in turn, responds to her questions about faith and journeys alongside her. Over time, the love of the community and the Gospel communicated to her through them leads the woman to make a new commitment to follow Christ. An earlier version of Walker’s study noted that the Transformative Cycle happened most often in congregations with a strong “culture of care” and an ability to communicate the tradition of the Church through that care (p. 117). Translation: Relationships with committed Christians lead to personal transformation.

Walker’s work on the Transformative Cycle is much more detailed and nuanced, but churches where the Transformative Cycle takes place share a culture of hospitality and deep relationships. This should inform the questions we’re asking about our churches, whether they were planted one year ago or one hundred years ago.

First, we should begin with relationships. With whom has God already put us in relationship? Are we hospitable to our neighbors? Do we habitually invite new people deeper into our circles? Then we ought to ask ourselves about what gospel is communicated through those relationships. Do we speak naturally about what God has done and is doing in our lives? Do we preach ourselves, or do we speak and act as loving servants of Christ the Lord (2 Cor 4:5)? Regardless of the outward form or worship style of our churches, are we a people who communicate Gospel in community?

Starting with these questions reframes the earlier question about Fresh Expressions: “Well, do they lead to transformed lives or don’t they?” Many do, and we should pray for the grace to become part of transformative Christian communities ourselves. May the Holy Spirit lead us forward in faithful mission, to the glory of the One who underwent the transformative cycle of death and resurrection for us and our salvation.

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

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