Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

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.


10/28 2015

Prayer in the Community

thank-you-prayerAll the preparation of an M.Div./MSW equips you for ministry in the community. Ministry and particularly prayer in the community are, at times, difficult. Often we spend more of our time in preparation for community prayer worrying about who we will offend, instead of praying to the God who unites us.

In all Christian mainline denominations communal prayer is a regular part of our worship. Some communities might offer prayers of repentance and confession, others offer prayers of the people (or supplication), and others say the Lord ’s Prayer each and every week. We are taught in church that praying together, in community, is important. Depending upon denomination, culture, or area of the country, praying together can last three minutes or one hour. Regardless, that joining together, uniting our voices, listening for God together, is critical to the life of the church and to our own personal life in Christ.

It allows us to remember that faith is not mine or yours, but a gift of God in Jesus Christ. Faith is not something that I choose, but over and over again God chooses me. I have learned that most about praying in the community by being a parent. When our son was born six years ago, we knew we wanted to pray as a family, but had no idea how. We started by praying before meals and at bedtime. The desire of my husband and I was that our son, even at age 1, would be an active part of praying, not passively wondering what mommy and daddy were doing. So we pray by saying thank you. Our prayers are simply thank you God for . . . and we list the people we saw that day, the things we did, what we ate, and at the end of each prayer we say, “thank you for ___” and our son fills in the blank. As soon as he could talk, he started filling in this blank. Some days he is most thankful for trucks, snow, Skylanders, Legos, Grandma or Grandpa, or candy! We never know what he will say. But what we all do know is that we have something to be thankful for.

Ministry and prayer in the community reflects this time of prayer in my family. When I go to write prayers for worship or offer a prayer at a gathering I start and end with thanksgiving. The great God of all has given us the opportunity to be in conversation, what more can I say than THANK YOU?

So the next time you are wondering what in the world to say during a community prayer, say Thank You. The next time you are frustrated by prayers happening in your church or you lose track of what the preacher is praying about, say Thank You. The next time you are rolling your eyes at the idea of having to pray communally again, just say Thank You. And listen for what God says back.

The Rev. Erin Davenport is a 2005 alumna of the MDiv program. Through the Seminary’s joint degree program, she also earned her MSW from the University of Pittsburgh. A former chaplain, she now resides in Pittsburgh and serves as the Seminary’s director of the Miller Summer Youth Institute


5/30 2014

Why We’re Not Interested in Your Sunday School

AndreaYoung adults seek new forms of Christian education.

This article was originally published in the May 2014 special edition “Guide to Young Adult Ministry” of Presbyterians Today magazine. To
subscribe or read more articles from this issue, go to www.pcusa.org/today.

Battered by a constant torrent of news stories, online media, and social networking feeds, millennials have grown up with a “super highway” of information. They also are on track to be the most educated generation in history.

Millennials no longer need (or believe they need) experts—including those in the church—to pass information from on high. They can listen to a TED talk for cutting-edge information on a wide variety of topics. Christian education, therefore, has to offer something that no YouTube video can: whole-life transformation.

Regrettably, many congregations continue to employ the traditional Sunday school model—designed to transmit information that millennials no longer seek. Maybe it’s not incidental that many congregations are experiencing declining participation, especially among millennials and their children.

The Sunday school model may no longer be the most effective way to reach young people in the United States. Here’s why.

Yesterday vs. Today

In many congregations, Sunday school is the main opportunity, aside from worship, to share faith with adults and children. Congregations spend a great deal of time, money, and energy on that hour, with the hope that their curriculum, volunteers, and excitement will convey all that anyone needs to know to live as a Christian.

Decades ago, there was little need to learn how to apply faith in the surrounding culture, because everyone (at least outwardly) shared the faith. So, the church set aside a time for individuals to learn more about their tradition’s understanding of the Bible and doctrine.

Today, many different values, lifestyles, and beliefs visibly pervade our culture. Christians now face having to integrate their faith in work and social environments that often bear few signs of Christian influence. One hour of Sunday school does not transform their lives; it segments their lives. Millennials wonder, “If the gospel is true, shouldn’t it saturate every area of life and not occupy our minds for only an hour each week?”

Church vs. Home

It used to be that children learned about Jesus at home and in public schools. Slowly, teaching about Jesus became less common in school and, sadly, at home.

Many millennials would like to see that latter trend reversed. They seek training to be educators in their respective contexts. They don’t just want to be taught; they want to be taught to teach. Millennials want to be empowered to learn on their own and shepherd their children.

Hearing vs. Expriencing

“The Western church has more information about Jesus and the Bible and the church than we’ve ever had,” says BJ Woodworth, pastor of the Open Door, a missional Presbyterian worshiping community in Pittsburgh that consists largely of millennials and their children. “And yet we’re not seeing deep, soul-level transformation happening in people’s lives.” Millennials do not see the value in memorizing information that is available at their fingertips. Instead, they want to know why something matters and how it affects them and the world around them.

New Models

It might be difficult for churches to break their Sunday school habit. The following examples, while not blueprints, may spark ideas for more effective models for millennials and their children.

1. All-encompassing

Nathan Van Patter, 26, attends the Upper Room, a PC(USA) church plant in Pittsburgh. Recently, he led a weekly Bible study on Mark with 8 to 10 other young adults. To put what they learned into action, the group brainstormed ways to bring Mark’s Gospel to bear in their community.

Like many millennials, the group wanted to connect the study with their everyday lives in a truly meaningful way. They wanted the group to become a place where they could be Christians together and make an impact in their community. This shows that educational endeavors within the church must convey meaning or impact. Millennials have little interest in programs that seem to have no effect on God’s kingdom.

2. Focused on everyday practices

At the Open Door, all are encouraged to adopt rhythms and practices for their everyday lives. Woodworth says congregations need to create a situation where millennials, rather than being “dependent on the church for the program to feed them, to nurture them, to transform them, . . . become self-dependent, independent, interdependent.”

In addition to keeping the Sabbath, everyone is challenged to do the following each week: set aside one time of silence to listen to God; read Scripture at least once; eat with at least two people with whom they do not live; encourage two people through words, gifts, or actions; and look for ways to give time, money, and skills to others.

The community also is committed to being intergenerational in worship and does not emphasize specialized children’s programs. “The less program-dependent we are, the more moms and dads can raise their kids in the way of the Lord,” Woodworth says.

3. Multisensory

Millennials are accustomed to educational experiences that are interactive, and they expect similar spiritual experiences.

Rodger Nishioka, associate professor of Christian education at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, says millennials connect their experiences of God with times when more than one sense is engaged.

In the past, he says, we knew God “by just having someone tell us about God. Well, I don’t think that’s how it works anymore. . . . Congregations have to be thinking about an experience.” Nishioka recalled a time when a student at Columbia preached on the potter and the clay. The student placed a pottery wheel in the chapel and threw a pot while she preached.

Congregations need not be so creative. A simple recovery of regular celebration of the sacraments may be all that millennials need to engage their senses in worship. But for those congregations looking to be creative, options abound: think about ways to incorporate tastes and scents into a lesson; invite questions after a sermon (either voiced publicly or tweeted); encourage movement in worship; incorporate ancient or cross-cultural contemplative practices or liturgies that include silence; or structure a class to be a conversation rather than a lecture.

It Shouldn’t All Change

Taking even small steps away from the traditional Sunday school model may be met with resistance. It might help to remind the congregation about what must never change.

“What shouldn’t change? Jesus Christ as the center. No question,” Nishioka says. “We are the church of Jesus Christ. That’s who we are. Christ is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow, thanks be to God.

“But that doesn’t mean that our teaching about Jesus Christ or our worship of Jesus Christ is going to be the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow,” he adds. “It’s going to be different, because we are a people who are given imagination and who are given a call by God to lead into that. And so, things change, but Christ doesn’t change. And that is the good news for us all.”

Andrea Hall ’07 is a certified Christian educator in the PC(USA) who resides in Greenville, Pa. She is a member of the PTS Board of Directors and is an independent educational ministries consultant.http://andreahallconsulting.com/

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