Why community gardens and co-working spaces are cop outs

Last week I approvingly quoted Andrew Forrest from an interview on Duke’s Faith & Leadership blog:

“Every dying church in America has a community garden. Every dying church in America has a co-working space. What do I mean by that? I have no problem with community gardens; a garden is a beautiful thing. And I don’t have any problem with co-working spaces. But Jesus didn’t tell us to start a community garden, and he didn’t tell us to start co-working spaces; he told us to make disciples. That’s literally the mission of the church.

The problem is not the gardens. I’m being provocative to make a point. The problem is that we often want to substitute secondary and tertiary concerns for the primary concern of discipleship.”

I quoted him because I agree with this “provocative” assessment. And it’s provocative nature proved to be true in conversations I’ve had since posting the quote.

Community gardens and co-working spaces are frequently (although not always) symptoms of a church’s inability to confront organizational reality. A church that has no unifying, God-centered vision for gospel ministry in its context will always turn to the easiest and most concrete ways of justifying its existence. Vision-less churches are always infatuated with their buildings and grounds. So they turn to those assets and look to them to provide a way forward.

In a case I’m familiar with, a presbytery is proposing that a group of less than 100 people be given a church property that can accommodate close to eight hundred in worship. There is no way that such a minuscule group of people could ever fund the operation of such a large physical plant. [Google: “hail Mary pass”]. Yet what is the reason given to justify such an inequitable decision: “we can rent out office space.”

Sure. There are legitimate businesses that are just lining up to pay commercial real estate market rates for leases on office space in your nursery. 

In reality, this is a form of magical thinking that is driven by the need to survive rather than by any affirmative vision of missional presence in a community. It’s the ministry equivalent of the widow who takes in boarders to try and keep her house.

Even if it does work, the results are underwhelming.

I understand most of the reactions to the interview. One response I don’t get is the almost perennial vehemence against large churches. Especially in the mainline, there is a near-religious loathing of large churches–an almost pathological anger towards them.

It’s crazy.

Now, let me be clear, I have served large congregations and I am under no illusion that large churches are perfect churches. In fact, I’m not even sure that a 2,600 member church is the ideal size–it’s certainly not my ideal size. Yes, large churches can be pushy and sometimes frightfully ignorant of the struggles of normal churches. I get that. There are a lot of things of which large church leaders need to repent. The desire for numerical growth, however, isn’t necessarily one of those things.

In the instant case what you have is a large church giving its resources to a small church. Not all instances need look like the one in the article. One of the models I personally find the most attractive is practiced by the Piedmont Triad Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church in America. Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Winston-Salem (NC) has planted churches that have begun as campuses, sharing the resources of the larger congregation. Eventually, those sites become particularized churches with their own sessions, but they continue to use the resources (now they are able to pay for them) of the larger church as a way to create an economy of scale for administrative services.

Here’s what it comes down to, at least in my mind. We’re all in this together. As long as we are united around a common confessional expression (in my mind subscription to the Westminster Standards) then large or small, we’re all working toward the glory of God and the salvation of men and women. Big or small is not as important as healthy and strong.




Making a life or making a living?

News reports regularly give statistics about the rise or decline in new applications for unemployment benefits. Each of us probably knows at least one person who has been unemployed for more than a year. We likely know many more who have been without work for a shorter period of time. Our society has generally embraced the model of work for wages–we exchange our knowledge and/or manpower for cash. Most of us can’t think of any other way in which to order our lives. The question is, however, does this arrangement really work all that well? Does making a living require us to sacrifice our lives?


Frederick Buechner has written:

We must be careful with our lives, because it would seem that they are the only lives we are going to have in this puzzling and perilous world, and so they are very precious and what we do with them matters enormously.

Given the premium our culture puts on comfort (the ‘good life’), it’s ironic how little we intentionally our lives to see if we are treating them as precious or as simply a means to an end. Are we simply doing more and more meaningless things with ever greater efficiency?

What does making a life really look like? In a recent post Scott Martin notes:

Those focusing on making a living see wealth solely in the context of the cash nexus: the opportunities, possessions, luxuries and leisure that money affords. Those focusing on making a life see wealth in terms of the depth and quality of their relationships, the strength of their home, the memories they make, the moments they share, the lives they touch. In fact, the people I most respect who have made lives worth emulating rarely focus on money at all. There have been times when they have had plenty and times when they have struggled, but the constant is in how deeply they have loved.

Imagine sitting down with a financial planner and in addition to totaling your bank accounts and mapping your investments, you also mapped your significant relationships and explored your relationship to your home.

Martin continues quoting Buechner:

Buechner writes that the world is full of people who “seem to have listened to the wrong voice” and are doing work that “seems simply irrelevant not only to the great human needs and issues of our time but also to their own need to grow and develop as humans.”

It’s ironic that some of the vocations that directly seek to meet the greatest human needs are the least esteemed (and rewarded) in our culture: teacher, care-giver, social worker, priest. Could it be that our value system is inverted?

Ask yourself: am I making a living or making a life? What two things could I most easily change in order to improve the quality of my life (in terms of relationships)? Resolve to start making those changes.

What is a pastor (cont’d)?

I’m on something of an intellectual journey to understand the essence of ordained ministry (the presbyterate and deaconate). I’m doing this for a couple of reasons. The first is that, by nature, I’m an inquisitive person and the challenge of exploring this sort of topic is really exciting to me. Second, there seem to be as many models or understandings of ordained ministry out there as there are ministries and individuals in ministry. Was there ever consensus about the pastoral office? Third, I have a suspicion that we evangelicals are missing something in the way we understand and communicate about ordained ministry. I wonder, frankly, whether we’re losing something of the soul of our leadership. In short, are we putting the cart before the horse by talking about leadership in isolation from discipleship. Leaders who aren’t disciples are, at least in spiritual leadership terms, not effective leaders.


Let me state my concerns about the evangelical theology of ministry that marks so many churches today in four theses. I hope I’m wrong about this or that, at least, I’m going too far:

Thesis 1: In our desire to affirm the gifts of non-ordained Christians, we have unnecessarily degraded our understanding of the ordained offices of the church.

Thesis 2: We evangelicals–as a people inclined to value experience in the first instance–have unwittingly accepted the claim that religious knowledge is not a legitimate form of knowledge that has bearing beyond first person experience. As a result we are increasingly incredulous of any claim by clergy or the church to interpret religious experiences.

Thesis 3: Since the interpretation and understanding of religious knowledge/experience has become privatized, clergy are increasingly understood as professionals who facilitate religious experiences.

Thesis 4: We typically understand religious experience being precipitated by events. As a result, clergy are increasingly understood to be people who facilitate, arrange, and provide religious events that serve as conduits for religious experiences to take place.

Thesis 5: Since clergy have a greater degree of control and can plausibly reach a greater proficiency in event planning, clergy are drawn to this elements of ministry. Events are concrete, demonstrable evidence of religious accomplishment. They validate the leadership of a minister.

Am I going too far? Do you worry about this too?

Can we see beyond the faith and science impasse?

James K. A. Smith has an interesting article in Christianity Today, “What Galileo’s Telescope Can’t See.” Read it here. Our present historical moment is marked by significant turbulence around the issue of creation/origins (specifically), and the relationship of science and faith (generally).

In the midst of what Charles Taylor refers to as “cross-pressures” we can be tempted toward either/or responses that can quickly lose any sense of nuance or deliberation.

One such response is conjuring the image of Galileo with all the popular baggage this entails. Smith argues that we do well to avoid applying the Galileo analogy to our current moment claiming that it is detrimental to productive inquiry.

Ours, we are told, is a “Galilean” moment: a critical time in history when new findings in the natural sciences threaten to topple fundamental Christian beliefs, just as Galileo’s proposed heliocentrism rocked the ecclesiastical establishment of his day. This parallel is usually invoked in the context of genetic, evolutionary, and archaeological evidence about human origins that challenges traditional Christian understandings.

Smith rightly points out that using this analogy loads the discussion against faith in the same way as using the analogy of “crusader” loads the discussion of American foreign policy. To some degree this technique is used both by those who decry creation science as well as those who reject anything other than a literal six-day creation as consistent with the Genesis account(s). One is either a prophet/martyr for declaring the truth of the progressive development of organisms over time or for proclaiming God as the sole actor who brought creation into being.

Smith, however, levels his sharpest remarks at those who doff their hat to science. This isn’t surprising given that those of us in and around the academy are quite familiar with natural science’s ascendancy to the throne once occupied by theology as “Queen of the Sciences.”

He continues:

Just as Galileo’s telescope taught us to give up on what wrongly seemed “essential” to the faith [the heliocentric universe], so today’s fossil record and genetic evidences press us to give up clinging to a historical couple or a historical Fall. Apart from any assessment of the evidence or consideration of alternatives, the analogy does its own persuasive work. Do you really want to be the Cardinal Bellarmine of the future? Does anyone really want to be that guy—the one who committed himself to an “orthodoxy” that not a single Christian would later believe?

Clearly, no one wants to be that guy. Beyond the obvious charge of intellectual laziness (“I believe because I do not wish to seem a rube”), Smith also points out that central problem of the Galileo analogy is how it displaces theology and enthrones science as the ultimate describer of reality.

…it treats theology as a kind of bias–an inherently conservative take on the world that has to face up to the cold, hard realities disclosed by the natural sciences and historical research.

In other words, theology needs to be emboldened to step beyond it’s “false humility” (in the words of John Milbank) and reclaim it’s right to purvey true knowledge.It ought to avoid perennial deference to the social and natural sciences.

Is there a way to move beyond this impasse? Smith says yes, and the way forward is in a return to the methodology of the ancient church. The Council of Chalcedon (451 CE) consensus provides us one of the earliest windows on the church interacting with science in making theological sense of how Jesus could simultaneously be fully human and fully God.

Early Christians mined the mysteries of the faith to grapple with the challenge of the day rather than whittling down what’s scandalous to fit the expectations of the day. Guided by the Chalcedonian consensus, church leaders did not have to settle for a merely defensive or conciliatory posture. They were not reduced to looking for nooks and crannies in the reigning scientific paradigms that left room to make religious claims. Instead, their central conviction of the lordship of Christ over all creation gave them a courage and confidence to theorize imaginatively and creatively. They didn’t look for ways to blunt or downplay the particularities of the gospel. Animated by the conviction that all things hold together in Christ, early Christian theologians forged new models and paradigms which we now receive as magisterial statements of the faith—the heart and soul of the “Great Tradition.”

In order to the imaginative and constructive work of faithfully engaging in theological reflection that helps make sense of those tentative revelations we receive from science, the Christian scholar needs to be grounded in worship.

…The Christian intellectual tradition is uniquely “carried” in the practices of Christian liturgy, worship, and prayer. It is in the prayers and worship of the church that we are immersed in the Word and our imaginations are located in God’s story. It is in worship that we are constantly invited to inhabit the conviction that all things hold together in Christ. Intentional liturgical formation must be the foundation for rigorous, imaginative, and faithful Christian scholarship.

I love that paragraph. It reminds us that worship is more than simply the experience of God in the present moment. Of course, it is supremely the encounter of a company of people with their God through song, Word, and sacrament. However, worship has a custodial element–it carries, preserves, and communicates theology to the congregation (at a subliminal level). That theology can, of course, be good or bad. Worship can be many things, but what it cannot be is a-theological. And the extent that we forget this we’re in danger of creating worship experiences that are not healthy.

What it also reminds us is that our first and chief faculty is not reason and rationality, it is the imagination. That’s not to say that rationality is unimportant, but it to say that the imaginative connects with us in a different and (perhaps) deeper way–ask an artist.

As we move further into postmodern culture, the church will need to return to it’s ancient past to communicate the timeless Gospel of the Kingdom to a new generation who have never encountered it as a story that counteracts the our culture’s story of individualism, consumerism, and nihilism. In this sense, we can answer the question posed in the title by stating: “theology stands beyond the faith and science impasse.”

This is a profound opportunity!


What is the place of the Eucharist in Reformed worship?

I was in conversation with several other pastors today discussing Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind. It’s a popular introduction to moral psychology. I hope to review it here once I read the entire book.


As we were discussing the book, we started to talk about how worship forms us to live the good life.
Shortly thereafter, someone noted that the highlight of reformed worship is the preaching of the word and contrasted this with Anglican worship where the celebration of the eucharist is central. This may be descriptively true, but I’m not sure that it’s the best way to describe Reformed worship (not to mention that there is a difference between the ways different parts of the Reformed family worship).

In reality, Word and sacrament are interdependent. Scripture is the context in which we learn the significance of the sacraments. Without Scripture (and, I would add, the church’s reflection on Scripture expressed in our Confessions) the sacraments can become an empty vessel into which we are free to pour whatever meaning we wish.

On the other hand, the sacraments are one of the contexts in which we receive the Word of God. It just so happens to be Scripture in a visible representation. For example, in the Lord’s Supper we see that the God has made a covenant with us and he pledges to be faithful to that covenant with us despite our infirmities, our weakness, and our sin. Your pastor can tell you that in the Gospel we receive the forgiveness of sin, the Confessions can assure you of this, Scripture can proclaim it, but the purpose of the Lord’s Supper is to participate in the renewal of this covenant and experience through taste and smell the reality of the Gospel.

Scripture helps us to understand the sacraments and the sacraments help us to understand and apply the Word of God in the life of the community of faith. They are interdependent. That’s why I contend that the practice of reformed churches should be the weekly celebration of the Lord’s Supper.

Can you understand Scripture without faith?

I’m continuing my way through James K. A. Smith’s book Radical Orthodoxy: Mapping a Post-Secular Theology and continuing to think through the relationship of faith and reason especially in our post-modern and post-Christendom context.

As Smith continues to discuss the relationship of faith and reason, he turn his attention to the Reformed theo-philosophical tradition. As an exemplar he cites John Owen’s treatise The Holy Spirit (155), which captures nicely (preachers are often kinder to their readers than philosophers, but often less precise) the Reformed understanding of the relationship of faith to reason.


That Jesus Christ was crucified, is a proposition that any natural [i.e., unregenerate] man may understand and assent to, and be said to receive: and all the doctrines of the gospel may be taught in propositions and discourses, the sense and meaning of which a natural man may understand; but it is denied that he chan receive the things themselves. For there is a wide difference between the mind’s receiving doctrines notionally, and receiving the things taught in them really.

As Smith notes there are necessary conditions for proper reception: “regeneration…coupled with the lens of scriptural revelation…” (166). Smith argues that while critiquing the notion of secular (or neutral) reason, radical orthodoxy actually continues to appeal to it in a way that is reminiscent of what it finds fault with in the thought of Aquinas.

Questions: I’d love to hear your thoughts on these questions…

Which comes first: faith or understanding?
What role does the biblical revelation have in this?
To what extend can God’s revelation of Himself be comprehended by the unregenerate (or unconverted) person?

Don’t forget the Ascension

Christian discipleship has a lot to do with locating yourself in the story of God. One of the ways that the Church has done this is through the Church calendar–taking time to place ourselves in the narrative of God’s redemptive work in Christ. There are other stories of which we are a part, but none is deeper or more important than the story of God’s reconciling the world to himself.

For low church evangelical protestants the temptation is to reduce this redemptive story to two movements, or even one as we’re pressured by the culture in which we live to mark time according to a different calendar–one where some of the holidays have the same name, but have very different meanings poured into them.

The Christian calendar (outside of strictly liturgical churches) often gets reduced to Christmas and Easter. If we’re honest, Christmas edges Easter out. Easter itself is often reduced to Maundy Thursday (if you’re lucky) and Easter Sunday, rather than the Triduum that the Church has historically celebrated (Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday). True reflection on the work of Christ on the cross seems quite difficult absent three days to consider in community.

We rarely pause moreover to consider the significance of the Ascension to the story of God. In the Gospel of John, Jesus tells his disciples that unless He leaves them the “comforter” (“counselor,” “advocate”) cannot come to them. He is speaking, of course, of the Holy Spirit.

Were it not for the Ascension, we would be without help and without a deep and living connection to the Godhead through the Holy Spirit.

Christine Sine offers a reflection on the Ascension by guiding us through the words of several liturgies used to celebrate this important day in the life of the faith.

Consider preparing for Ascension Day by reading and reflecting on the word of God.

From the Acts of the Apostles (9.11f., Phillips):

When he had said these words he was lifted up before their eyes till a cloud hid him from their sight. While they were still gazing up into the sky as he went, suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them and said, “Men of Galilee, why are you standing here looking up into the sky? This very Jesus who has been taken up from you into Heaven will come back in just the same way as you have seen him go.

And Jesus’ own words in the Gospel of John (16.7):

Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send Him to you.

Consider this liturgy from the Reformed tradition:

Our God goes up with shouts of joy!

Our Lord ascends to the sound of trumpets!
All: Sing praises to our God, sing praises!
Sing praises, sing praises to our King!
The Almighty rides in triumph.
The Almighty leads captivity captive.
Who shouts for joy? Who blows the trumpet?
The hosts of heaven sing the honor of his name;
they praise him with an endless alleluia.

-David Diephouse, Calvin College

Thanks be to God! Amen.

The beauty of hymns

First Presbyterian Church hosted Matthew Smith and Indelible Grace in concert last week. I’ve appreciated their music for quite a while finding in it a healthy reformed spirituality that makes my heart sing.

Over the length of my sojourn with Christ, I have found that the lyrics of many contemporary expressions of Christian devotion leave me feeling unmoved since their view of God seems to be both shallow and rooted in the first person experience of the writer/singer. In other words, we sing about how we are feeling about God in the moment. The problem for me comes when (every week) the words being used to describe my experience of God in the moment actually fail to capture my experience of God in the moment. Perhaps it’s an inadequate analogy, but I it seems to me that the healthiest expressions of my love for my wife come not in my finding words for the experience of my in-love-ness, but in describing those attributes and characteristics of her that cause me to love her and to have committed myself to her for life. The focus ought to be the object of affection rather than the experience of affection itself.

To be sure, not all contemporary songs fall into this trap. Many, however, do. I have found that the words of the hymn writers of yesteryear often capture more of God’s character and His attributes, the very things that cause me to love Him. These works often also focus on the saving works of God both in the life of individuals and in the life of the invisible church.

Consider the first two stanzas of Charitie Lees Smith’s 1863 hymn (as rendered in C. H. Spurgeon’s Our Own Hymn Book):

Before the throne of God above

I have a strong and perfect plea;

a great high priest whose name is Love,

Who ever lives and pleads for me.


My name is graven on His hands,

My name is written on His heart;

I know that, while in heaven He stands,

No tongue can bid me thence depart.


My point isn’t to create a battle between contemporary expressions of devotion to God and older expressions. I simply want to point out that in my own experience there is something deeply comforting about finding a connection with the saints who have gone before, who have experienced God’s covenant faithfulness in a world where their lived experience was significantly more difficult than my own. For this reason, I’m grateful for artists like Matthew Smith and Brian Moss who have given new expression to timeless truth!



Church as a pub?

I have been reading several books on missional theology lately including Hirsch and Frost’s, The Shaping of Things to Come. The book came to mind when I read this article about a new church development (PCUSA-eze for a church plant) in Oregon.

For those who didn’t read the article, let me give you an overview of Common Table Public House in Bend, Oregon. Here’s a section from the article:

That call [to reach 18-35 year olds in a highly secular city], in the case of Bend, has taken the form of the Common Table Public House. Its mission: ‘Feed all people, cherish the earth and pursue awareness.’ Hospitality, welcome and action are at the heart of this ministry experiment that serves people daily, in the form of food and drink, and monthly with a shared meal and faith gathering.

‘We are trying to be a place, to use the cliché, that earns the right to be heard — more than that, that earns the right to have the privilege of people joining you and trusting you that you are a safe place where they can be authentic, tell their story and participate.’

The traditional north American model for church planting usually involves getting a core group of people from a sending church, funding and permission from a presbytery, a place to meet, an organizing pastor, and setting out to hold worship services and attract people from the community to the new church.

There are places in the country where this model still works in the sense that is produces a sustainable congregation. However, it’s uncertain as to whether this model works terribly well for people in the 18-35 age range.

A presupposition in this model is that people in the community see a need for being part of a congregation that is centered on regular public worship. This presupposition is largely not shared by the emerging post-Christian generation of Americans.

According to Frost and Hirsch (The Shaping of Things to Come) this new reality requires a new response. Instead of planting churches in the traditional sense, they call for new ways of being church that involve being sent into the community to interact with the folk we’re called to serve.

Common Table is an example of the model they’re arguing for. It creates a space in which Christ followers can authentically interact with those who are not yet Christians. It is in the community rather than seeking to extract from the community.

Many would look at Common Table and not see anything that vaguely resembles a church. I look at it and see something fundamentally healthy and biblical about a gathering of people, many of whom are Christians, into a relational matrix centered in table fellowship. If Common Table is a centered-set group–focused and centered on following Jesus and drawing others closer to Him, then it’s a church. And its something we will likely see more of as our culture gradually becomes alienated from the traditional practice of church since the 19th century.

For an overview of missional church see Columbia Seminary President Steve Hayner’s article, “The Shaping of Things to Come” here.

Review: Eugene Peterson, The Pastor [1 of 2]

Eugene H. Peterson, The Pastor: A Memoir. New York: HarperCollins, 2011. 320pp.

I just returned from a three day retreat on which I read Eugene Peterson’s memoir, The Pastor. I first encountered Peterson while in seminary. He had something of a cult following amongst certain students who seemed read everything he’d ever written and who, at the time, struck me as little odd in the extent of their devotion.
I have since come to find in Peterson’s writing a sanity that is helpful at the times I most despair of my vocation. In fact, it was The Contemplative Pastor that called me out of law school and back into the church, actually the parachurch, having almost abandoned pastoring before I even began.
I appreciate Peterson, but I don’t consider myself a fanboy. To this day, The Contemplative Pastor is his only book that really has connected with me in any significant way. I appreciate the magnitude of the task, but I’ve never really liked The Message. Peterson’s is a unique prose style, which can at times be laborious. I suppose he’s much like his pastor-theologian mentor Karl Barth. Enough of the dialectic already.
Nowhere is this more evident than in The Pastor. At the end of the book, Peterson admits that memoir is not a genre that comes naturally to him. I agree. In many ways this book feels unnatural, forced. After all, I’d say that each of his books is a memoir (something that can be observed in the pages of The Pastor where we meet the circumstances of life and ministry that brought each work into being).
The book at times gets a little preachy. Ironic, perhaps, since Peterson has such an aversion to the God talk that he claims marks many of his fellow clergy. It’s almost as if he’s trying just a little too hard to convince his contemporary pastor-readers of the folly of their ways. Would that they (we) would hear and heed him! However, at times I found myself thinking: “Easy Eugene. I got it: you don’t like numbers…people are souls. Yep, let’s move on.”
There is, however, pure gold in The Pastor. Writing about his “company of pastors,” fellow clergy he met with weekly for more than twenty years:
…we were tired of letting people who were not pastors tell us what we should or should not be doing as pastors. The sociologists and the academics, the psychologists and business executives, the talk-show gurus and religious entrepreneurs had all had their say about us long enough.
I remember reading the LinkedIn profile of a former pastor. It read, “non-profit management professional.” My heart sank. Perhaps this man was seeking a way to exit pastoral ministry, I don’t know. It may be that he thought that this was the closest “secular” description of his work. He might have a point.
There are so many things about the work of a pastor that are secondary that we make primary. Peterson excels in calling pastors to the heart of their vocation: living life with their congregations and guiding them in the Jesus-shaped life. That’s pastoring. Not every pastor will be as fortunate as Peterson in shaping their life and work. It takes a lot of discipline to emulate Peterson’s “unbusy pastor.” I’m not even sure the extent to which Peterson himself succeeded. Where he succeeds, and I suppose it has been the mark of his ministry, is in helping us imagine what it could look like and that is no small thing.
More on that later.