Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

6/9 2017

An Unusual Church Planting Journey

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.


4/6 2017

3 Ways Seminary Prepared Me for Church Planting

church planting seminaryChurch planting is a pioneering ministry. Blazing trails. Cutting new paths. Exiting the box of institutional restraints and “the way things are done” to reach new people in new ways with the Gospel. The idealized, going-rogue vision of starting a new worshiping community lends itself to the assumption that institutional structures of the established church have little to add and a lot to get in the way.

The general sentiment at gatherings of church planters tends to be, “Institutions . . . ugh.” I often track with this. I celebrate the ways that church is being done outside the confines of large budgets, buildings, and bureaucracies. In my less than Christ-like moments, I have had little patience for time spent mourning the decline of many of those institutions.

But for those of us in pioneering ministries, theological education is a great gift. Here are three ways seminary prepared me for the work of church planting:

“You don’t make God relevant; God makes you relevant!”

On an almost weekly basis these words, spoken by one of my favorite professors my second year of seminary, still bounce around in my head. At the time, I had almost no idea what he meant. I assumed that making God relevant was part and parcel of a call to ministry. This, however, is not the work of the church— established or just beginning to gather.

God is always relevant. This whole thing—life, the universe, everything— is held together by God. We are the ones so often irrelevant because we miss what God is doing by being too busy trying to do what we’ve deemed, “the work of God.” God is on a mission to reconcile the whole world to Godself. We just need to discern the Spirit’s movement and join in. This missional theology calls us to trust God, rather than peddle God.

Context is Everything

I once wrote a paper that spent close to five pages discussing the meaning of the word, “know.” While even at the time this felt a little absurd, the skill of exegeting a text—critically interpreting by reading “out of” Scripture, rather than “into” it—has been important for me in preaching, teaching, talking over beers, and thinking theologically about the way our new worshiping community is forming. Outside of Scripture and theology, I’ve used the skills for neighborhood exegesis. To critically and prayerfully interpret anything—whether Scripture or a worship gathering or a neighborhood block—context is everything. I spent five pages on the word, “know,” because what “know” means to me sans context is very different than what it meant in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. In its particular letter, to a particular group, at a particular time, it has a particular meaning. My interpretation for what God might be up to here and now through the lens of that Scripture is impacted by its original context and by my current context.

In the same way, gathering a new community depends on context. The history of the place and people, the symbols, the stories—these are all important if we are to discern what God is up to here and now so we can join in.

 You Are Not in This Alone

Perhaps the greatest gift of theological education has been community. This gift manifested in a couple ways for me: First, the community of my learning cohorts. I walked through seminary with classmates, who have become friends and colleagues, who challenged me, opened my eyes to new perspectives, prayed with and for me, frustrated me, and gave me hope. At Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, I was also a part of a smaller cohort of those in the Church Planting Emphasis. This group taught me the importance of communal discernment, and God used them again and again to call me into this work. Second, the community of theologians who taught me. Professors, staff, pastors I connected with as a student, and the many, many authors I read. This community brought me into a diverse and dynamic conversation—and taught me how to actually participate in it. Though I am doing “new” and “pioneering” work, I know that I am actually located within this great cloud of witnesses. And though my church doesn’t look very churchy, we are within the big, eclectic tradition of the Church. We are a part of the family.

Laura Bentley ’16 is the organizing pastor of Sanctuary Missional Fellowship, a new worshiping community in the Lawrenceville neighborhood of Pittsburgh. She earned her MDiv with an emphasis in Church Planting from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.