Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

4/26 2017

Church Planting: A Rollercoaster Ride

church planting for communitiesI am 32 years old and until this year I had never been on a rollercoaster in my entire life. Scared of heights with a sensitive stomach, I never much liked the feeling of falling quickly. I never saw the appeal of being deeply aware of how close you are to death as some pieces of metal and plastic are the only things keeping you from flying out into the sky. Things just seem so much better, firmer, more steady, down here on the ground.

Changing Community

Last fall my work at Beacon Church, an agile, scrappy PCUSA church plant near Philadelphia, Pa., was rocked by an unexpected pivot: a major programmatic shift. Barely a year after chartering as a congregation, and five years after beginning afterschool arts and weekly worship programming, Beacon’s community was changing rapidly. The gentrification that was slow in 2011 had begun to accelerate, and we were feeling its effects, with attendance dips and swells, different first-time participants, and long-term participants moving away to more affordable zip codes. In many ways we were growing, but in other ways we were experiencing new challenges for which we felt unequipped. We did another neighborhood assessment and met with our local elementary school principal and discovered that after school programs of various foci had sprung up all over the neighborhood. The need for in-classroom literacy-help became clear.

The questions were endless among the staff and board of Beacon. Could we meet that need? Would our dedicated volunteer team be able to change and commit to a morning program? Could our creative writing program be adapted to complement the teachers’ curriculum? How would our supporters and participants perceive such a shift? What if it didn’t work? The name “Beacon” has become synonymous with serving kids in Kensington. If we end up stopping children’s programming altogether, who are we? What will we do?

The Broader Mission

We came back to our broader mission: “Beacon strengthens our neighborhood, its children and neighbors, through art, storytelling, and faith” and asked one final, foundational question that has been the question all along: how are we being called to live out this mission right now? The staff and session bravely decided to pivot its programming. We adapted our creative writing curriculum and brought it into all three first-grade classrooms at our closest elementary school. We shifted our art programming from weekly after school programs to quarterly evening events that allowed parents to join their kids in these creative endeavors—painting pumpkins, building gingerbread houses, and decorating Mardi Gras masks.

Enjoy the Rollercoaster Ride

In the midst of all this transition, a very wise person told me to “try and enjoy the rollercoaster.” She is a pastor and a pilot, and somehow enjoys flying planes for fun. Feeling overwhelmed, I laughed out loud and told her that was impossible.

But her words really stuck with me, and as the opportunity arose in late January when my family and I were on vacation in Orlando, I decided to try a small-ish rollercoaster at Universal Studios.

I had all kinds of expectations: that I would get sick, or fall out of the car, or scream, or even faint. I screamed—a lot—but after the first 20 seconds or so I realized, with a shock, that I wasn’t dying. I was still alive. I was firmly in a seat with strong metal bars hugging me and I was flying around like crazy, but I was okay. A few seconds later I realized I was having fun. My step kids even convinced me to go on the Hulk—the biggest rollercoaster in the park. Every ride we tried had different loops, speeds, turns, but there was something constant in the midst of it all. I was safe, I was soaring, and after every sickening swoop in my stomach, I was flying high again. Once I realized how it was possible for me to be flung all around and yet be so safe at the same time, I was able to have fun, to even delight in the experience.

If we are engaging in faithful ministry, in work that makes a difference in people’s lives, whether or not they are Christians, we are necessarily going to be taking risks. If we are doing our best to be good stewards of the resources we have—money, people, time, buildings—that means that we will need to strive for efficiency and impact. That means we need to be evaluating and re-evaluating what success looks like for any given endeavor and if we are achieving it. It also usually means we need to try new things fairly regularly. Trying new things, taking those kinds of risks, is much like riding a rollercoaster for the first time: even if you know the concepts of how it goes up and down and twists and turns at high speeds, you have no idea how it’s going to feel, when the ups or downs will come, or if it’s actually going to be okay. But in ministry, if we are committed to our mission, if we are grounded in the belief in and experience of God as our provider, as a source of enough, then we can experience both the falling and the soaring as sources of delight, learning, and meaning. We can take risks, both big and small, because we know that God is working in and through all for good. No matter how intense the figurative rollercoaster, God is with us, reminding us that we are beloved even in our failures, even in our successes.

The Rev. Rebecca Blake is pastor and co-founder or Beacon, a PCUSA church plant near Philadelphia, Pa. Trained as a visual artist, writer, theologian, and pastor, she finds work at Beacon to be a challenging and life-giving environment where she’s able to cobble together those skills to facilitate transformation in the lives of individuals and communities.

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2/23 2017

Welcoming Doubters and Disciples at The Table

The Table, church plant in Casper, Wyo.On any given Wednesday night in downtown Casper, Wyo., a group of once strangers gathers for a shared meal in a small retail shopping center. A store-front space on the upper level has been transformed into a living room-like venue. Through the large panes of glass windows you can glimpse comfortable couches, local art hanging on the walls, and hear chill music setting the ambiance. A simple wooden table near the front of the room holds the symbols of Christian communion: rough-hewn pottery make up a plate and pitcher and chalice. The circular logo in the door welcomes you to “The Table: doubters + disciples together.” Stickers in the window proclaim messages like, “Move Equality Forward” and “Refugees and Immigrants Welcome Here”. Pieces of art inside the venue declare similar sentiment, an illustration of a safety pin is adorned with the words, “All Are Welcome Here,” and a framed graphic next to the tea and coffee station reads, “All you need is Love and a Cup of Coffee”.

Acts of Hospitality

Following the shared meal, the group of now-friends gathers in a circle to reflect and dialogue on shared practices like listening, compassion, action, and hospitality. These acts of hospitality set the tone for the mission of this New Worshiping Community. The Table is a community of doubters and disciples together. This automatically means welcoming the other, the one who believes differently than we do, the one who sees the world through different lenses. We consider doubters askers of critical questions and disciples followers of good teachers.

Our story at The Table started in 2014 in Casper, Wyo. We wanted to start a new church where both doubters and disciples are welcome to share life, dreams, and action for the sake of good, love, peace, and justice.

Our primary teacher at The Table is Jesus, through the story of God’s love found in the Christian tradition. But we also have much to learn from wisdom traditions other than our own. We have a hunch that there is a little bit of doubter and disciple within each of us. And because of this we gather to practice hospitality. To include one another, to look each other in the eye over shared food and hot beverages, to hear each other’s stories and listen to the ways we’ve each been shaped to view the world.

When Tracy*[1] first walked through those glass retail doors into The Table, she recognized a place of religious inclusion unlike any she had experienced before. In July last year, after the Orlando Pulse Night Club shootings in June, The Table hosted a “Pride Reflections Dialogue” for the LGBTQ community in Casper. Tracy helped to organize the event. The purpose was to process in the safety of community the grief and fear felt after the shooting and as identifying as LGBTQ in Wyoming. When bullying and physical attacks increased on minority groups of all kinds across the country after the national elections, Tracy called Pastor Libby to inquire, “Who is next? Who needs protection and a safety zone next? When I think of taking action in this community, I call The Table.” Tracy’s questions prompted The Table to invite a Muslim Imam from a neighboring town for a “Love Thy Muslim Neighbor” evening of interfaith dialogue. So much energy was sparked that night, The Table devoted the entire month of February to asking critical questions around the practice of hospitality as we learn to love God with all our hearts, souls, and minds and love our neighbors as ourselves.

God Welcomes the Stranger

Diana Butler Bass, historian and author says that, at its roots, hospitality is salvation. God welcomes the stranger[2]. We have all been strangers because of selfishness and independence and ignorance. But God has set a new table that welcomes all back to belonging. When we deserved to be far off, God brought us in: those who were strangers are now friends. That’s it. That is salvation in a nutshell. Now, we turn around and offer this same salvation-as-hospitality to the world by offering a radically open table and inviting the stranger to come and eat with us.

Romans 12:9-18 (NLT)

“Don’t just pretend to love others. Really love them. Hate what is wrong. Hold tightly to what is good. Love each other with genuine affection and take delight in honoring each other. Never be lazy, but work hard and serve the Lord enthusiastically. Rejoice in our confident hope. Be patient in trouble, and keep on praying. When God’s people are in need, be ready to help them. Always be eager to practice hospitality.

Bless those who persecute you. Don’t curse them; pray that God will bless them. Be happy with those who are happy, and weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with each other. Don’t be too proud to enjoy the company of ordinary people. And don’t think you know it all!

Never pay back evil with more evil. Do things in such a way that everyone can see you are honorable. Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone.”

Libby Tedder Hugus, pastor of The Table Libby Tedder Hugus is pastor of The Table in Casper, Wyo., a community of doubters and disciples together. The Table is part of the 1001 New Worshiping Communities network. She lives on the wild-windy-western frontier with her hilarious husband, Jeremy, and will go to endless lengths to share a delicious cup of tea or coffee with friends. She is co-author of Marks of the Missional Church: Ecclesial Practices for the Sake of the World (Storian Press).

[1] Name changed to protect privacy

[2] Video interview of Diana Butler Bass, from The Work of the People, http://www.theworkofthepeople.com/hospitality-and-salvation, accessed 2/15/17

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2/6 2017

Why I Start New Churches

Church planting happens when visionaries see a community in the middle of nothingWhile Presbyterians as a whole have become more adept at closing churches than opening them, there are a few of us crazy people who are absolutely passionate about giving birth to new churches. I am convinced that planting new churches is the best way of reaching new people for Christ. After all, if my beloved congregation has been ministering its head off for 200 years on the same street corner without reaching its neighbors, it probably isn’t going to start reaching them next week. However, something brand new in the community just might stand a chance. And I believe it’s a chance worth taking.

Planting New Churches is Hard Work

Anyone who has any experience with starting a new church knows the endless hours spent knocking on doors, writing sermons, creating PowerPoint presentations, practicing music, leading small groups, communicating a vision, drinking coffee with community leaders, starting prayer groups, setting up chairs in the local elementary school, creating a budget when you have no idea where the money will come from next year, serving spaghetti, putting up signs, training leaders, designing web sites . . . well, you know all the things that really should go on this list. As I said, it’s hard work.

One new worshiping community leader once said to me in a moment of total frustration, “There’s just so much nothing”—no building, no Sunday school teachers, no job descriptions, no Bibles, no chairs, no elders, no coffee pot, no one to buy the coffee pot or make the coffee, no musical instruments, or bulletins, or computer, or members. Sure, it’s exciting to start from scratch, build something from the ground up, create a brand new culture, but still – “there’s so much nothing.” It takes special people to start new churches. It takes people with vision and imagination to see a vital worshiping community in the midst of so much nothing. It takes people with perseverance to keep knocking on doors and drinking coffee with the right people when the nothingness threatens to overwhelm.

It also takes presbyteries and partner congregations and a denomination who share the commitment to a brand new kind of ministry. Faithful pastors and members of existing churches may look with suspicion on the idea of new churches in their back yards. After all, the suggestion of a new church means to some that what they are doing is unsuccessful or inadequate. It plants the seeds of misgiving that established churches will suffer in attendance and income when a newcomer invades the neighborhood. And don’t forget that planting new churches is an expensive form of ministry. At a time when presbyteries feel the pinch of declining resources, some spendthrift suggests squandering scarce resources on a risky business. Most presbyteries have a story of an expensive new church plant that failed to thrive. No wonder “we tried that once and it didn’t work” is a familiar refrain. Going into an existing church with the news that a new church is on the drawing board doesn’t always bring cheers of enthusiasm.

Why, then, do church planting pastors and leaders and presbytery staff people continue to do this hard and faithful work of planting new churches? First, I believe we are faithful to the Gospel when we are absolutely passionate about making new disciples. New churches are evangelistic at their very core. Their purpose is to engage people who are not presently involved in any worshiping community. Planting new churches is one very powerful response to the Great Commission.

New churches provide a unique opportunity of taking the unchanging gospel to an ever-changing culture. Unburdened by traditions and history, new churches are able to pare ministry down to its essential components and work on making the Gospel accessible to a new generation of believer that doesn’t know the words to the old hymns. New worshiping communities are always contextual. They are at their best when they align their ministry to the needs and gifts of a particular community.

Planting Churches is Teamwork

New church development is certainly not for everyone. Many faithful people find meaning and nurture in the traditions and rituals of the established church. But, there are a few courageous entrepreneurs who rise to the challenge of discovering a brand new way of worshiping God, relating to unchurched people, engaging the surrounding culture, and singing a new song. We do this best when we work together—presbyteries, congregations, and new worshiping community leaders. Unfortunately, we succumb too easily to the sins of distrust and blame and self-centeredness. We tend to forget that we are on the same team. We succeed when we love and trust and care for and challenge each other to new levels of faithfulness. There is no more exciting and challenging and important ministry than starting new worshiping communities. The work that happens in new worshiping communities infuses the whole church with new Holy Spirit energy. Both old and new churches are enriched when they follow Christ outside the church doors and into the neighborhoods around them.

Vera K. White is the coordinator for 1001 New Worshiping Communities of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and has an office at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.

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