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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3/20 2014

Go. Just Go.

As the seminary community rounds the corner into finals, spring break, and the last term of the year, the Juniors are finally getting adjusted to this crazy life that we call seminary, the Middlers just want this year to be over so they can be Seniors, and Seniors like myself become flooded with very conflicting emotions. On the one hand, if we have to write one more paper, take one more test, read one more interesting but extremely dry book, or sit for another three hour lecture on subjects that we are supposed to understand by now but really just make our brains hurt, we might just run away screaming. On the other, graduation is exciting, but it means that we are going to have to leave this place soon. We don’t want to say goodbye to all of our friends and move out of our campus housing, and go to… go to… well, we have really no idea where we are headed because we have circulated our PIFs and resumes and done a few interviews but have no offers so far, or our bishop hasn’t appointed us anywhere yet.

But while my own internal monologue has been in a similar panic, I am reminded of Abraham: “Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.’… So Abram went.” (Genesis 12:1, 4a). Did Abram know where he was going, or why, or what he was going to do when he got there? No. Did he relish the idea of leaving the familiar things behind? Probably not. Still, “Abram went.” Now nearing the end of our journey, Seniors are called to go from this campus community and go to the land that God hasn’t yet shown to us. So we will go. It will not be easy.

When I was preparing to graduate from undergrad, I had very specific plans. I was going to go to seminary (a different one) right away (it was 5 years later), and graduate in 3 years (I’m doing it in 4) finish the ordination process (I’m staying lay), and be in full-time ministry before I turned 30 (I’ll be 31 in March). As you can see, NONE of those plans came true exactly the way I wanted them to! This time around, things are much different. I have no plans, trusting this promise: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9). I just know I have to go.

I hope that Seniors know that somewhere out there, there is a call for us. There is a congregation, a home, and new friends ready for us there. God is preparing places for us, even as God is preparing us for those places. So until then, Lord, keep our hope alive and faith strong!

Written by: Heather Runser, recent MDiv graduate at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.

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