How Mission Has Affected My Ministry

This past Monday, I spoke at the World Mission Initiative dinner at Pittsburgh Seminary. I was asked to give a short talk on how my experience with mission through WMI while in seminary has affected my approach to ministry now that I’ve graduated. It was good to reflect on this; I don’t think I realized just how much mission has changed my sense of call and understanding of ministry. At any rate, this is what I said:

I am working half time as the organizing co-pastor of the Upper Room New Church Development in Squirrel Hill, and also as a campus minister for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship’s Graduate and Faculty Ministry at Carnegie Mellon and University of Pittsburgh.

 

I have to confess, before coming to seminary, I wanted to be a pastor who was comfortable. I wanted to be the pastor of a nice church in the suburbs that was just like the church I grew up in. Now, as a seminary graduate, I find myself not in such a comfortable position. I don’t live in the suburbs; I’m in the city. I’m pastoring a new church development that meets in a living room and looks nothing like the church I grew up in. And that call is only a half-time call, so it’s supplemented by doing ministry through InterVarsity, where I have to raise my own support.

 

Something changed in me from the time I started at PTS to the time I graduated from this place. The change is that I was exposed to the mission of God, largely made possible by WMI.

 

First, I learned that the mission of God was not about me, but about seeing all nations know and worship Jesus Christ. Through WMI, I was able to go on a short term mission trip to Southeast Asia where we worked with an unreached minority ethnic group. This has instilled in me a passion to see all ethnicities worship Christ, and so I’m now working on a new church development that we hope to be multiethnic. On the same trip, we worked with pastors from a housechurch movement, and so being a pastor there usually means giving up your living room or the top floor of your house so that it can be used as a sanctuary. We see no reason why a model like this couldn’t be used in the U.S. and so the church we’re planting is currently meeting in Chris’s living room.

 

Second, exposure to the mission of God has made prayer a more integral piece of my ministry. Once I returned from Southeast Asia, the sole extent of my involvement with mission there has been prayer, and it’s been a blessing to see how God has answered those prayers. So, I now see how prayer is deeply important for my ministry as a church planter. Our sense of call to plant a church in Squirrel Hill came out of prayer walking that neighborhood. Once we were committed to that neighborhood, the first thing we did was assemble a prayer team of people who have committed to interceding for us and for Squirrel Hill. I’ve also made it my personal goal as a pastor in Squirrel Hill to prayer walk the entire neighborhood, so that I pray over every house and business there. Exposure to the mission of God made me a more passionate pray-er.

 

Lastly, exposure to mission made me more aware of who God is, and made me to fall in love more deeply with my God. WMI allowed me to attend the Association of Presbyterian Mission Pastors conference. What I remember most about this conference is the worship. It was the most vibrant and heartfelt worship that I had ever been a part of. I realized that I was worshipping with people who were on the front lines of the Kingdom of God. Their involvement in mission meant that they had seen God at work. They weren’t just worshipping an abstract concept, but they were worshipping the real, living God who is at work in the world today. If I had gone through PTS  without having been exposed to the mission of God, I would have been very prepared to be a pastor who could talk a lot about a God whom I knew about but whom I had never seen myself. Through WMI, I saw with my own eyes the God I read about in Scriptures and learned about in the classroom. Because I’ve now seen for myself the hand of this God at work, I’m now prepared to be his witness.

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How I’ve Changed in Seminary

About 2 weeks ago, I graduated from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary with my MDiv. I’ve been thinking about the past three years, getting to know classmates and professors in class, the late night study sessions for exams (usually Dr. Gagnon’s), trips to Five Guys or Sharp Edge, the mission trip to Southeast Asia, and a multitude of other experiences, and it’s got me to thinking about the ways in which I’ve changed because of my experience at PTS. So, in no particular order, here are some of the ways in which I’m a different person than what I was 3 years ago.

1.) I no longer call myself conservative. Granted, a lot of people would probably still call me conservative, but I don’t like the label. When I started seminary, I proudly called myself “theologically conservative” and (since I also considered myself reasonably intelligent) expected to win every debate with every “theologically liberal” person I ran into. The (first) problem (among many) that I realized with this was that I had no idea who the “theologically liberal” people were. In my mind, a “liberal” was someone who consistently and across the board had the opposite views I held to. I began to realize that no such person existed. The more I learned, the more I understood that I was thinking in very two-dimensional (maybe even one-dimensional) terms. Coming out of Grove City College, a school with a considerably theologically homogeneous religion faculty, “liberal theology” was an abstract concept of which I knew no adherents. When I arrived at PTS, which is considerably more diverse theologically, I grew frustrated when I would talk with a person and learn that they had a low view of Scripture and yet still believed in the exclusive Lordship of Jesus Christ, or supported homosexual ordination and yet was pro-life. I began to realize that people were much more complicated and three dimensional than the labels “conservative” and “liberal” allowed. I also began to notice that the labels are way too polarizing to be using in the Church. So, though some may still call me conservative (though I suspect fewer would now than when I started seminary) I’m no longer one of them.

2.) I’m more capable of an original thought. When I started at seminary, I relied a lot on things I had heard before. In college, I had read and heard a lot of Christian teaching that was apologetically focused, so I thought that I was equipped with an answer to everything. Those answers lasted about 1 term. I soon found myself being challenged to think beyond the simplistic, cut-and-paste answers that I had memorized. As a result, I had to think for myself.

3.) Consequently, I’m more confident in my own abilities. I managed to get by on memorized answers for a very brief time. Once I had to move beyond that, though, I had little-to-no confidence in my ability to do so. I remember some of the early papers I wrote. I had convinced myself that the paper sucked. I remember just a couple days after turning in my Prophets and Psalms paper, I actually had a nightmare about it. In it, I got the paper back with the comment from the professor: “Why did you make me waste my time reading this?” Thankfully, I learned that I was lying to myself when I got positive feedback (and grades) from professors and I eventually learned that I actually am capable of writing a good paper.

4.) I better realize the value of friendships. I’m not certain why, but when I started seminary, I viewed the people I was meeting as future colleagues, and only that. Of course, those classmates are all colleagues in ministry with me now, but I (for reasons I’m still not sure of) failed to view people at seminary as friends also. Consequently, I found conversations with classmates usually limited to theology or ministry issues, and really didn’t open up to friends in seminary until this year. I’m really glad I noticed that I was making this mistake partway through and intentionally worked on correcting the problem. Otherwise, I suspect this blog post would be a lot more negative.

5.) I’m planting a church. Even though church planting was something that interested me before seminary, I NEVER in my wildest dreams thought I would actually be called into it. Before coming to PTS, I had considered some other seminaries. Had I gone to another one, I don’t think the church planting would be happening. So many of the puzzle-pieces that came together to form this calling fell into place because I was at PTS. Working in the Korean Church, getting to be good friends with Chris, being able to network with Don, Vera, and others in Pittsburgh Presbytery, and a bunch of experiences that aren’t immediately coming to mind have all contributed to this calling, and I thank God for it.

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.

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.