Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

4/3 2014

A Mission Reflection: The Church is Alive!!

Too often I hear people say, “The Church is dying.” I suppose what they mean to say is, “The number of active members in mainline churches in the United States is steadily declining.” In fact, the Church – even the Presbyterian Church – is growing rapidly elsewhere in the world. While traveling on a World Mission Initiative Spring Break trip this year, I had the privilege of meeting leaders of the exploding Presbyterian Church in Brazil. The Church in the United States has a great deal to learn from these brothers and sisters, who are passionately engaged in evangelism throughout their communities.

I’d hate to insolently generalize Presbyterians, so I’ll speak for myself: my efforts toward evangelism are timid, minimal, and ambivalent. I fear questions I cannot answer instead of embracing tension. I’m slow to inquire about others’ faith, and almost never invite people to church. While I believe all people need Jesus, my courage to “make disciples” has been co-opted by the individualist principle that warns me not to “force my beliefs” on others. I’d venture a guess that other Presbyterians may be in the same boat.

Brazilian Presbyterians make evangelism a huge priority. As a result, hundreds of new believers are “added to their number” each year. I initially begrudged the glamorizing numerical statistics the pastors shared with us. “Well, there’s no way to know if these crowds are ‘serious’ Christians,” I thought. “It’s a ‘narrow way’ after all.” “The numbers game is a dangerous enterprise.” Yet I soon realized that my skepticism about what the Spirit is doing in Brazil was little more than jealousy. No cleaver contention could alter the source of my incredulity: I simply wish God would bring new believers to my communities as well!

Presbyterian evangelism in Brazil doesn’t resemble the in-your-face, turn-or-burn Bible thumping street corner preacher. It doesn’t even look like an American evangelical crusade à la George Whitfield or Billy Graham. In fact, I saw many similarities with the evangelism methods I’ve seen American Presbyterians employ. The primary “strategy” is to engage relationships: If I get to know someone, I will have an opportunity to share the Gospel with him or her through friendship. Insofar as I have engaged in evangelism in my life, this has been the approach I’ve adopted.

Here’s the key difference I discovered: While I am quick to find an excuse not to share the Gospel “just yet,” the Brazilians I met actually talk about Jesus. I tend to worry about making a relationship awkward or causing people to feel as though I’ve only befriended them in order to “convert” them rather than telling them “how much the Lord has done for me.” I share with the Brazilian pastors the desire to share Christ through relationships, but while they are quick to follow through, I am slow to do so.

Our Presbyterian tradition affirms that it is the Spirit, not the disciple, who transforms those at enmity with Christ. With this theological foundation, I need not evangelize others as if their salvation depended on me, yet I can – I must! -intentionally and eagerly bear witness to the work of the Spirit in my life. Though it would be wrong to befriend others with the goal of making them Christians, I see nothing wrong with befriending others with the hope that Christ might break into their lives; surely this is the hope of evangelism! My time in Brazil brought this derelict hope to the surface of my heart, and I’m giving evangelism new consideration.

Perhaps our Presbyterian Church as a whole can come together and consider how we can approach evangelism with more passion and dynamism, not because we think the Church is dying, but because, as one Brazilian pastor put it, “You cannot do ministry if you do not love the souls of people.”

By Brian Lays, middler MDiv student at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Learn more about WMI and the work they do by liking their page on Facebook or going to their website: http://worldmissioninitiative.org/

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3/26 2014

A Mission Reflection: More Than a Building

Our group of seven students and two leaders spent the better part of two weeks in Brazil.  The first week was spent in Manaus, a city in the heart of the Amazon.  We visited numerous churches and pastors and tried to soak up as much information as possible.  These pastors are so passionate and humble about their work! They pray for numerous hours a day and dedicate their lives to doing the work of God.  Their churches thrive on small group ministry.  Held in the houses of congregation members, these small groups are used as a way to invite and minister to non-believers and show them the love and grace of God. Each person is involved in a small group Bible study, and the groups come together on Sundays to worship.

What amazed me about these people was their passion and immediacy about evangelism.  They see Christianity as a life or death situation, and therefore they find evangelism to be a crucial element of the faith.  They are certainly not ashamed of the gospel message!  It was not uncommon for grocery stores to have “Jesus is Lord” written on their signs, nor was it uncommon to see a man with a speaker strapped to the roof of his car, preaching the gospel as he drove through the crowded city streets.  Since they do not fear offending anyone, they are always willing to share the story of how God changed their lives with anyone who will listen, having full faith that God will work through them.  Their courage and passion was contagious!

After a week in Manaus, we flew to the eastern side of Brazil to the city of Sao Paulo and spent time in the surrounding cities of Campinas and Sorocaba.  We continued to visit churches, learn from the pastors and observe how they worked to expand and plant churches.  Many of the churches here seemed to be niche churches.  For instance, we went to one church that reached out to rock-n-roll fans and people with tattoos.  Another church evangelized through jiu jitsu! (and we even got to learn some moves!) After each jiu jitsu lesson, the pastor would sit the students down, read a Bible passage, share the gospel message, and close with prayer.

What struck me about Brazil is that the church building itself seems to be of little importance.  One church met in a local workout gym, another met in a jiu jitsu school and a third met in a small rented warehouse.  What matters exponentially more is the body of Christ itself.  The people in Brazil are very relationship-oriented, and their best evangelism seems to be done through real loving relationship with each other and with God.  By loving each other, they are showing each other God’s love. We asked one pastor what his biggest challenge was when it came to evangelizing to his church of rough, rock-n-roll, tattooed, motorcycle men, and his response was “changing my heart first.”  This was huge to me!  It is important, I have learned, to humble ourselves and admit our shortcomings in order to more fully share the transformative power of the grace of God.  Evangelism is not something that should be viewed as something that we do to people, but rather a dynamic experience that develops through loving relationship with another person.

This trip to Brazil allowed me to see what God is up to in other parts of the world, but also reinforced in me the importance of living a simple life.  When we schedule every hour of each day, we do not leave time for God to speak in the silent, still moments of our lives.  What would it look like if we let go of our tendencies to schedule ourselves down to the half hour, and instead created space for God to work in and through the silences of our lives?

By Stephanie Martin, first year MDiv student at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Learn more about WMI and the work they do by liking their page on Facebook or going to their website: http://worldmissioninitiative.org/

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1/30 2014

Outside the Seminary Gates

I was pretty excited when I got asked to write this week’s post for the PTS  blog. I was excited because I was asked to write about something that is very important to me and that is something that I believe needs to be talked about a lot more. I am going to write about what I do outside of this seminary.

We always talk about what is going on in classes and in the daily happenings at the Seminary but rarely do I hear what people are doing outside of these gates. I just graduated from Eastern University this past spring and every day I see more how what I learned there and what I did there have impacted me.

Eastern is very social justice oriented and it has become a part of my ministry whether I wanted it to or not. While it will take time, commitment, and more resources than I currently have to figure out how to do both clerical ministry and social justice outreach together, I figure for the time being I can start small.

Through Bellefield Presbyterian Church I have gotten connected with a homeless ministry called L.I.V.I.N.G Ministry with which I  volunteer. Unfortunately I am only able to volunteer with them once a week and with other occasional events because of time constraints and other obligations.

This ministry is a unique ministry in that they really emphasize the relational aspect of what they do. While it is important to meet the physical needs of the homeless in Pittsburgh, they want to love them and serve them through building relationships with these people and getting to know them on a very real level.

The staff members for L.I.V.I.N.G Ministry visit the homeless in shelters each and every week so that they can create authentic reciprocal relationships with the people who stay in these shelters. As well as building relationships at these shelters, they also commit to doing Bible study together and sharing meals with each other.

On Monday nights I go to Womanspace East Shelter, a shelter for women and their children. The first three Mondays of the month, while one of the volunteers watches their kids, we have a Bible study with the women who are interested. The last Monday of the month is reserved just for cooking dinner and eating together. I normally end up watching the kids so that the moms can be a part of the Bible study. At first I was kind of bummed by this because being a “seminarian” and all of course I wanted to be involved in the Bible study (I know for me it has taken awhile to realize that often times it is outside the “typical” setting of where we see God working that I see Him the most), but then I really began to see the value in the importance of something as little as watching kids. Without someone watching these kids, their mothers would not be able to partake in the Bible study. It’s just that practical. It also gives me a chance to show these kids some attention and allow them to tell me about who they are.

I will be honest and say sometimes I leave wondering if I actually portrayed God’s love at all or if my presence there made any difference. That, I found, is one of the hard things about working in ministry and in situations where change is a slow, barely visible process. This is where I come to realize that it is not anything that I am doing or saying but rather what Christ is doing through me and through this ministry that is important regardless of if I can evidently see that or not.

Written by Maggie Smith, first year M.Div. student at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.
Interested in getting involved with L.I.V.I.N.G Ministry? Contact Maggie (mtsmith@pts.edu) or visit http://livingministry.org.

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