The Story of a New Church, part 1

As many of you already know, I’m graduating from seminary in a couple of weeks, and am planning on pursuing a call to New Church Development. Specifically, my friend, Chris, and I have been called to plant a new, multicultural church in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh. I thought it would be good to take to time to write out our story, at least from my perspective, and I’d like to start from the very beginning. So, here we go…

I remember when I first grew interested in church planting. I was in college, and taking a class called “Intro to Christian Ministry.” One of the assigned texts for the class was Purpose Driven Church by Rick Warren. Though I probably wouldn’t agree with Warren on everything if I were to reread it, at the time I found the book to be really exciting. It was the first time that the concept of church planting had been introduced to me as a possibility. Until then, I had assumed that church planting was only done in foreign countries, or if it was done in America, it must have been the work of a crazy person. (Actually, now that I think about it, I may still think that church planting is only done by crazy people…) I was immediately turned on to this ministry. I think what excited me most was the ability new churches and their pastors had to start from scratch, to form and mold a ministry without the baggage of “this is how we always do it” or “we’ve never done it that way before.” I decided that starting a new church would be a dream job. This was my sophomore year, and I held onto that dream through the rest of college and into seminary.

Fast forward to seminary. In my first year of seminary, my good friend Matt told me about his ministry as English Ministry pastor at Korean United Presbyterian Church, and encouraged me to consider for my Field Education taking his place once he leaves at the end of that school year. I looked into the position and liked everything I saw: working with young adults, preaching every week, providing leadership and pastoral care. In many regards, the position was the chance to really be a pastor, and not just an intern. So, I took it. When I started there, I also learned that the church was in the process of searching for an English-speaking Associate Pastor, who would start a new congregation for young college graduates under the umbrella of the current church. I immediately thought that this could be my dream job. I also was realistic. At that point, I still had 2 years of seminary to go. Surely they wouldn’t wait that long to fill the position. But, I prayed and trusted that if the position was for me, it would be there when I graduate.

Fast forward again about a year later to this past September. It was the weekend of the Evangelical Student Fellowship retreat. Chris and I were riding up together. At some point during the ride the conversation turned to future plans. We both talked about how we were thinking about new church development. Chris was (and still is) interning at the Open Door, a church plant in Pittsburgh. I was still thinking about the position at KUPC (which, 1 year later, was still open). The conversation didn’t progress much beyond just sharing dreams and thoughts.

Then the surprise came. I forget how long after the ESF retreat it happened, but I know it was on a Sunday afternoon. I had just dropped off KUPC students at CMU after Sunday worship. I was driving back to the seminary, thinking about the worship service I just led, the sermon I had just preached, and so on, when a thought popped into my head seemingly out of nowhere: “You and Chris Brown could plant a church together.” I almost stopped the car in the middle of the street; I had never been so surprised by my own thought before, if it was my own thought. I experienced a unique combination of surprise, confusion, and excitement. I arrived back at my seminary dorm room, and found myself pacing back and forth. I remember praying, “God, is this from you? Or is this just some wild dream out of my own imagination? What am I supposed to do with this?”

I felt the conviction to pray more about it, so I decided that for the next week, I would pray every day about whether or not Chris and I were to plant a church together. For a week, every morning, I prayed for God to make it clear if this was in fact His will, and I eagerly awaited his reply.

To be continued…


Pastors and Politics

Yesterday was the primary election here in Pennsylvania, and it got me to thinking…

I remember the 2004 election well. I was in my final semester at Grove City College, one of the most republican colleges in the country. The college administration was even kind enough to have special inter-visitation hours (normally reserved for the weekends) so you could watch the election results with friends of the opposite sex (I’m laughing as I type this sentence). People were watching the election results (probably on Fox News) with great cheers every time Bush was declared the victor in a new state. I remember talking a couple days later with a friend who happened to be Democrat. She was ridiculed by a lot of her peers, and in some cases her Christian character was questioned, because clearly a vote for ‘W’ was a vote for Jesus. This atmosphere wasn’t sitting right with me.

The Sunday following the election, I had the opportunity to preach in a small Congregationalist church outside of Mercer. It was a friendly church, and one of the few that I’ve ever preached in where members of the congregation actually referred back to points of my sermon in conversation after the service (as opposed to the cliché “nice sermon” or “thank you for that message”). I loved this church, except for one thing. During the sharing of joys and concerns, the pastor and several in the congregation agreed that we needed to thank God for putting the “right man” in office, and acknowledged how hard they had been praying that this would happen. Now, I had voted for ‘W,’  and even I felt awkward at this point. I can’t imagine how anyone who voted for Kerry would feel in the context of this church.

As the Pennsylvania primary was drawing closer over the past month, I saw the opposite side of the pendulum here at Pittsburgh Seminary. I’ve seen as many Obama pins here as I saw ‘W’ pins at Grove City. I also saw and read in the news of somewhere around 100 local pastors officially endorsing Barack Obama for president. I wonder how the republicans and the Clinton supporters in their congregations feel?

Don’t get me wrong, pastors have every legal right to participate in the political process and to express their opinions. I would also argue that they, and any Christian, ought to allow their faith to inform, even dictate, their voting and political action. The problem is twofold. Firstly, no presidential candidate is Jesus, and there are valid, Christian reasons for voting (or not voting) democrat or republican. Secondly, pastors are called to the vocation first and foremost of proclaiming the gospel. When they associate too closely with any one presidential candidate, pastors run the risk of isolating themselves from those of a different political persuasion.

Perhaps it would better, rather than pastors (and Christians in general) attempting to endorse a particular candidate, to focus their political energies on speaking to particular issues. Maybe if instead of pastors talking about Obama, Clinton and McCain, they should focus on speaking about the need to preserve the life of the unborn, to be better stewards of the planet entrusted to our care, to correct the wrongs of racism still present in our society, and so on.

This would be a counter-cultural move; it would mean Christians refusing to be put into a particular political box defined by this-worldly standards. So long as we allow ourselves to be defined politically by our endorsement of particular candidate, we’ll misrepresent the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Confession of a White Male

I recently returned with my friend, Chris, from the PC(USA) multicultural conference. Chris has already posted a good summary and reflection on the conference on his blog, so I’m not going to bother rewriting what he’s already done a fine job doing.

I do though, want to reflect on what it means to be white/Euro-American. Honestly, I’ve never really thought about until this conference when Rev. Jin Kim of Church of All Nations challenged Chris and I to do so. Something that I’ve been learning from my Asian friends over the past year or so is the importance and significance of communal identity. As Euro-Americans, our culture is so terribly individualistic that we have no understanding of corporate identity, corporate sin, or even ethnic heritage. As I’ve been reflecting on this for a few days, I’ve been feeling the need to confess and repent, and while a don’t consider a blog post to be a valid Christian form of confession, I nevertheless want to write out what I feel I need to confess as a white male:

I confess that I’ve inherited and benefited from a legacy of oppression. I’ve benefited from a history of stolen land and slave labor solely because of the color of my skin. I’ve also received unjust privilege because of my gender, and have contributed to the unjust suffering of minorities in America and the poor across the world by virtue of the food I eat, the clothes I wear, and other ways that I’m probably completely unaware of. I confess that, until recently, I either didn’t care, ignored facts, or rationalized my way into denying the sin of my people. (And I could easily go on…)

I’d like to say that I repent of this, but sadly I’m not sure if I know at this point what genuine repentance looks like in this case. How does an individual repent of corporate sin? In concrete terms, as I turn away from the above what am I turning to? How do I completely crucify my ‘white privilege’ and to what am I raised? (And I could easily go on…)

Religious Reconciliation: An Oxymoron?

This past weekend at PTS, the Metro Urban Institute held its annual Intensive Weekend. The theme this year was Race, Religion, and Reconciliation. I found a lot of what was said helpful, but I was also deeply disturbed by the theological inconsistency of what some people were saying.

When speaking about racial reconciliation, people (myself included) argued that reconciliation is achieved in Jesus Christ. People consistently quoted Galatians 3:28 – “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (NIV) and Ephesians 2:14 – “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility…” (NIV). To all of this I say “Amen.” Life in Christ leaves no room for racial division; we’re all one in Christ.

When speaking about religious reconciliation, however, most people it seemed were willing to forsake their theology. All of sudden, when speaking about reconciliation between Christians and Jews or Muslims or any other religious tradition, people were not willing to see reconciliation in Jesus Christ, since that might be found offensive. For example, one participant said, “When we’re trying to achieve reconciliation with Jews, we can’t say that Jesus is the only way, because that’s offensive.” Obviously there are all kinds of problems with this. For one, it’s theologically inconsistent with our arguments for racial reconciliation. If we don’t need Jesus (because evidently there’s some other way) then why even bother arguing for racial reconciliation on Christological grounds? Secondly, seeking religious reconciliation by forsaking Christology ignores Jesus. I’m sure I don’t even need to quote Jesus’ words in the gospel of John since most of you probably already know where I’m going with this. Suffice it to say, God has revealed himself in Jesus Christ, and that has implications for how we ought to speak of God and our relationship with God. To ignore the claims of Jesus Christ is to ignore who God is.

This leads me to wondering: Is religious reconciliation possible for Christians without forsaking the Truth revealed to us? One participant in the Intensive Weekend made reference to a Scripture passage that I think is helpful, although this person didn’t take the passage in this direction. The passage is the instructions, recorded in all three synoptics, given by Jesus to the disciples that should they be rejected by a village, they ought to shake the dust off of their feet and leave. The person sharing this text argued that we can’t deny the exclusivity of Jesus and that if we’re rejected, so be it. I appreciate this person’s commitment to Jesus, but I think they miss one important point: the disciples are still to enter the village.

Reconciliation is found only in Jesus Christ, this is just as true for religious reconciliation as it is for any other form. However, this does not mean that Christians are to reject the notion of reconciliation with our friends of other faiths. Rather, we’re to be the ones who, as it were, “enter the village.” The method of religious reconciliation, then, is evangelistic engagement. (By that, I don’t mean Christians are to be obnoxious, although our culture may perceive us as offensive.) Any rejection of religious reconciliation should not come from Christians, but rather from others who reject the gospel.


The Mischievous, Scandalous Spirit

I think God sometimes puts a passage of Scripture in our path to drive home to us something he wants us to learn. God did that with me over the course of this week, and I suspect He was doing it with others too. Three times this week, the story of Jesus in the synagogue in Nazareth from Luke 4 was read in worship. The story was first read on Wednesday in chapel. Ironically, its appearance on this day was an “accident.” Dr. Purves, the liturgist for the day, was given the order of service, which contained a typo. He was supposed to read from Luke 24, this Sunday’s lectionary reading, but thanks to the typo, we heard Luke 4. The next day was ESF chapel, and we used the same text as the basis for our drama and sermon. Then again tonight for the Metro Urban Institute’s Intensive Weekend, the preacher’s sermon was based on this text. Three days in a row the story of Jesus reading from the scroll in Isaiah in his hometown was read in worship at PTS. The leaders of the three services had no interaction with one another, and the text doesn’t appear in either the daily lectionary for this week or in the Revised Common Lectionary for this Sunday. Is this just a coincidence, or is the Holy Spirit up to some mischief?

As I’ve reflected on this passage of Scripture over the past three days, what’s struck me the most is how easy we try to make this teaching of Jesus. The people of Nazareth wanted to kill Jesus by the end of this story because they were so enraged at the thought of Syrians receiving benefits from the “year of the Lord’s favor.” In ESF chapel, no one wanted to throw us out (even if we staged a fake “mob”) when we said that this teaching of Jesus implies a concern for all the nations of the world. Tonight at the MUI worship, no one wanted to kick out the preacher who said that this teaching applied to the poor and oppressed of our cities. In fact, we gave the preacher a standing ovation. Is our lack of anger at this teaching simply because we’re so much like Jesus? Do we really get this more than the first hearers of it in Nazareth? I’m afraid not. It’s pretty easy for a bunch of mission-minded evangelicals to apply this text to global Christianity. It’s also easy for a group of urban pastors and lay leaders to apply this text to the oppressed in their own city.

This isn’t to say that the text doesn’t apply to these groups; it does. BUT, the text is just as much a call to the reader to move beyond the box of their own concerns. As an evangelical in America, I can’t help but wonder who this text is reminding me of. Illegal immigrants maybe? Terrorists? I’m not certain. All I know is that until I start to get a bit angry at what Jesus is trying to teach me here, I probably haven’t figured it out.

Presbymeme 5

OK. So Bruce Reyes-Chow started a fun chain of posts about being Presbyterian. Brian tagged me, and here we go:

The rules are pretty basic:

  1. In about 25 words each, answer the following five questions;
  2. Tag five Presbyterian bloggers and send them a note to let them know they were tagged;
  3. Be sure to link or send a trackback to this post

1. What is your earliest memory of being distinctly Presbyterian?

Freshmen year of college, when a Baptist friend questioned me on infant baptism and the ordination of women.

2. On what issue/question should the PC(USA) spend LESS energy and time?

This isn’t technically an answer to the question, since it deals w/ money rather than energy and time, but the PC(USA) wastes way too much on General Assembly meetings. There’s no reason to have them in convention centers and fancy hotels when we have Presbyterian colleges across the country that could provide meeting spaces and at least some lodging at a more affordable cost. Let’s move out of the Hilton and into the world.

3. On what issue/question should the PC(USA) spend MORE energy and time?
Being on the front lines of the Kingdom. This means placing greater focus on New Church Development domestically and also the adoption and evangelization of unreached people groups internationally. (With the latter, we’ll also need to focus more on cross-cultural partnership).

4. If you could have the PC(USA) focus on one passage of scripture for an entire year, what would it be?
I’m torn between two. Either Matthew 6:33 (“Seek first his kingdom…”) or 2 Corinthians 6:3-13 (Paul describing his life as a servant of God; we need to recover the Christian willingness to deny self, self-sacrifice, and even suffer for the sake of Jesus Christ).

5. If the PC(USA) were an animal what would it be and why?

A frog… in a pot of water that is getting warmer and warmer. Christendom is over, and we’re living in a culture growing less and less ‘Christian.’ We need to learn again how to be the church in an increasingly less-supporting, even hostile, environment and not simply accommodate ourselves to the whims of the culture.

Ok do I actually know 5 presbyterian bloggers who haven’t already received this??? Matt, Andrea, and…. no. No I don’t.