Book Review: New Girl at Church

Questions. We all have them. About life, about our world, about why things are the way that they are. Asking questions is an important part of life and an integral part of learning about something new or unfamiliar. This is especially true when it comes to questions about faith. There are a lot of truth claims out there about God, the world, and where we’re all headed. How do we know which claims are right? And what does it mean to follow this Jesus guy?

In New Girl at Church, Stacey Martin offers a questions-based explanation of Christianity from the perspective of a new believer. This is not your standard-fare work of apologetics determined to overwhelm questions with philosophical answers, nor is it a fluffy account of how someone very different than you had a crazy Jesus experience that miraculously transformed their life. No, New Girl at Church is a story how someone with real questions found real answers in Jesus. It’s a story that’s happening all around us—a story that can happen to you too.

Short, accessible, funny, and engaging, New Girl at Church speaks from the perspective of someone who was a skeptic of organized religion for over 30 years. Most chapters center around a specific question that those unfamiliar with Christianity or new to the whole following Jesus thing often ask. It’s a refreshingly honest approach to speaking about faith, an honest articulation of questions, struggles, ups and downs, and the realities that face anyone hoping to find answers to their questions.

One of the best parts about New Girl at Church is how Stacey largely avoids Christianese or delving into secondary issues that might distract from the core of faith. She poses and addresses real questions asked by real people. Throughout the book, she weaves in her own story of God’s grace and transformation, making this more than just an explanation of faith—it’s a personal story of God’s faithfulness and pursuit too.

The first half of the book is probably best suited for those who are not currently following Jesus, as it addresses questions like “who is Jesus?” and “how does following Jesus change your life?” It’s a real, sometimes raw account of how Stacey asked these questions and came to answers. The second half of New Girl at Church is best intended for those who’ve made the decision to give Jesus a try. These chapters focus on connecting to a church community, the importance of baptism, how family life changes when you follow Jesus, the centrality of forgiveness, and the importance of digging in and living our faith.

I highly recommend New Girl at Church for anyone asking about Jesus or what it means to follow Him. Especially if you’ve tried more formal apologetics books and found yourself looking for a more real and authentic perspective, give New Girl at Church a try. One final thought is that this book would make a particularly valuable tool for churches who are looking to provide relational resources for those exploring faith.

Canoeing the Mountains

This post originally appeared at Conciliar Post.

After fifteen difficult months of travel, they had made it. Lewis and Clark had reached the spring that began the Missouri River, that great river they had been following since they crossed the Mississippi and began their exploration of the Louisiana Purchase.

For over three hundred years before Lewis and Clark arrived at this spot, explorers from numerous nations had assumed that just beyond the headwaters of the Missouri were the headwaters to the Columbia River, and with it, a route to the Pacific. Indeed, this was the entire purpose of the Lewis and Clark expedition—to determine the best way to connect the Missouri and the Columbia, thus connecting east and west, Atlantic and Pacific. To accomplish this goal, the expedition had invested heavily in their canoes—big, sturdy things that could carry all the supplies and people needed to make their trek from the Mississippi to the Pacific as manageable as possible.

Meriwether Lewis himself had written about his belief that when they reached the springs that fed the Missouri, he and his men would walk up a hill, look down across perhaps a half-day portage, and then simply set their canoes in the Columbia and set off for the Pacific Ocean. All they needed to do was crest the hill, find the steam, and coast to the finish line.

Lewis and Clark could not have been more disappointed.

What they actually discovered was that three hundred years of geographical assumptions were completely and utterly wrong. For when they reached the top of the hill and looked out, they saw not the Columbia River, but the Rocky Mountains. Stretching out for miles and miles, as far as the eye could see, one set of peaks after another: tall, dangerous, and imposing. In other words, Lewis and Clark didn’t see anything like what they expected to see—and not at all what they were trained or prepared for.

And in that moment, Lewis and Clark were faced with a choice: should they turn back, or should they press on? They were equipped with canoes; before them lay mountains. And in the words of one of their companions, “the most terrible mountains I ever beheld.” No one would blame them if they turned back; no one would think less of them if they needed to regroup and try again later. Should they take the safe bet? Or should they venture into the unknown, into uncharted territory that was even more dangerous and uncertain than they had originally thought?

Of course, there are museums dedicated to Lewis and Clark across the United States precisely because they didn’t turn back. We know the names Meriwether Lewis and William Clark because they embraced the path before them and forged ahead, into the unknown, even though the path was very different than they originally expected. In the words of Tod Bolsinger, Lewis and Clark canoed the mountains: they adapted, they learned new skills, and they completed their mission, even though the circumstances of that mission changed. It’s a fitting description for many aspects of reality right now. But it’s particularly fitting for planting a church during a pandemic.

Planting During a Pandemic

I’ve written previously about church planting at Conciliar Post, what it is and why it’s important, and even shared some of my church plant’s working projects on things like leadership in the church. But, as I’ve taken to saying, that was “before the dark times.” Church planting, like exploring, is difficult under the best of circumstances and 2020 is not the best of circumstances. With the arrival of COVID, much of life was thrown into chaos. The seemingly inevitable became problematic and dangerous. The best-laid plans were disrupted, and “uncertainty” became the watchword for “these unprecedented times.”1

Like so many other ventures, COVID forced us to consider the wisdom and viability of trying to launch a startup church at a time when nothing seems to be starting up. In the spring and summer, we wrestled with all manner of questions about the uncertainty of the future, the realities of the virus, social perceptions, and logistics. How does one build community, reach the lost, and pay the bills while under quarantine? What would happen if a staff member or key volunteer gets sick (or worse)? What might happen if church becomes a super-spreader event? Would pressing on distract people from the gospel? Would being open drive people away rather than inviting them in? With so many gathering spaces closed, where will we meet? Without the benefit of face-to-face team building, will anyone still plant with us? These are but some of the questions we faced and wrestled with.

The Shift

As we sought to answer these questions for our plant (or, at least get as close to answering them as possible), we relied on a number of voices. Foremost were conversations with our leadership team and the leadership team from our planting church. We also were in consistent communication with our church planting network, which helped give us insights into how different leaders and churches were creatively tackling some of the concerns we were facing. Finally, there was the value of experience. From late May until August, I was serving as an associate pastor at our planting church, where I was on the frontlines of doing church during a pandemic. In combination with lots of prayer, these conversations and experiences gave us the grounding to make some critical decisions.

Most significantly, we made the decision to move our plant from a movie theater to a storefront. Rather than leaving the week-to-week fate of church meetings in the hands of a distant corporation, we moved to lease some local space in a local shopping center. This enabled us to work directly with St. Louis County on adhering to COVID restrictions, rather than some intermediary who may or may not include additional restrictions. Such a space would also allow us to host other meetings throughout the week, including the filming of online services in the event of another shutdown. Of course, this shift of venue resulted in a cascade of other changes.

No longer could we need to plan for a portable church that would pack into our trailer every Sunday morning. Instead, we needed to sell our trailer, find chairs, and acquire all the other accoutrements necessary for a semi-permanent church space. This required plenty of adjustments to our preparations. As one example, when you’re meeting temporarily in a movie theater, you don’t have to worry about where your toilet paper comes from and if you have enough trash cans; but when you’re the tenant in a space, those mundane things are a little more important. We also had to make some changes to our service schedule (we have two services instead of one in order to facilitate space-friendly seating arrangements) and our launch timeline. We had hoped to launch on September 13. But because of all these COVID-induced changes, we were forced to move our launch all the way back to September 20.

But, Why?

At this point, it’s natural to ask why. Why are we planting in a pandemic? Why have we jumped through so many hoops in order to launch this Fall? It would have been far safer organizationally, financially, and personally to remain in our comfortable and well-resourced planting church until things settle down. So why did we press on toward planting?

Because people still need Jesus.

Studies have consistently shown that church plants are one of the best ways to reach people who don’t know Jesus with the good news of the kingdom of God. The fact that people still need to encounter and be transformed by Jesus hasn’t changed because of this pandemic (or any other obstacle). The Church still has a mandate to “make disciples of every nation” (Matthew 28:19-20). Our mission has not changed—only the circumstances in which we work.

All of the reasons that we needed church plants in 2019 also apply in 2020; only the need for churches to reach their communities is greater. More innovation is required to survive and thrive. More churches have plateaued or are in decline. People are still hurting and in need of safe communities, perhaps now more than any other time in recent history. Loneliness, anxiety, depression, isolation, and self-harm were epidemics before COVID and they’re only getting worse. People crave authentic connection and community—even more so after they’ve been in social isolation for long periods of time. The world is decidedly not normal—but the Church can still be a place of relative normalcy, a place where we can be reminded of the goodness and hope of the Gospel that we so desperately need when things are not normal.

Canoeing the Mountains

Fear, sickness, hatred, racism, division, malice, and anxiety may seem to guide much of our world right now, but that’s not the whole story. What better time to bring people the hope of light and life eternal in Jesus Christ than in the midst of this present darkness?

God has given us the task of planting a church. And God has provided an amazing team and the resources to carry that task out. We can be confident that God will be faithful to carry through to completion what He has started. Yes, things have changed. No, things are decidedly not easy. But the world needs Jesus. Our nation needs Jesus. Our city needs Jesus. That’s always true. But it’s especially true right now.

And so, we move forward. The future is yet uncertain; there’s still much that’s up in the air. We’re only in our seventh official week right now. All signs have been promising so far, but only God knows the future. All we can do is trust and hope in Him. Well, that—and we can continue to canoe the mountains.


Notes

1 I say this tongue-in-cheek: the only things truly unprecedented about this global pandemic is that we can dissect it on social media faster than it can spread and that modern medicine continues to perform miracles right before our eyes to save perhaps millions of human lives from our fragility and stubbornness.

Seizing Moments of Transition

“Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men.” — Col 3.23

Everyone experiences transitions from one thing to another. We put down the old (or have it wrenched from us) and pick up the things. No one can live a completely sedentary life (nor would that be good for us). Whether it involves our jobs, homes, cars, stages of life, churches, or geography, we all encounter moments of transition.

While many transitions result in joy, not all are. Some transitions are sad, uncomfortable, or even depressing. Changing jobs, for instance, could indicate a step forward in a person’s career; it could also represent a changing career field that is now fraught with uncertainty. Other transitions are bittersweet; you are excited to move forward with a new opportunity, but recognize that somethings (and perhaps some people) will be left behind.

In fact, even the best transitions are often accompanied by feelings of anxiety and loss. Right now, as we transition from life and work at Rooftop Church to life and work at our church plant, Arise, my wife and I are reflecting on the bittersweet-nature of this transition. We are extremely excited for what stands ahead of us; but we also see some coming changes and know that things will not ever be quite the same moving forward.

But even in their discomfort or bittersweet-ness, moments of transition can stretch us, helping us grow and learn. It’s critical, therefore, that we seize the opportunities afforded us by these transitions.

Carpe Diem

How do we make the most of every opportunity? How do we seize moments of transition and use them to help us grow into the people God has made us to be? I don’t have any hard and fast answers. But I do have five practices that I have used in times of transition that may be beneficial for you as you tackle the changes ahead of you.

Begin with Prayer. Begin each day—or each moment, if necessary—in prayer to God. He will bring you grounding and peace amidst what may be a tumultuous time. Consistently communing with the Almighty through prayer, Scripture, and devotional reflection will help you begin each day with the most important part of your journey in mind.

Keep a Journal. Write down what you are thinking and experiencing. Journaling functions both as a means of processing what is going on in the moment and as a way to remember those experiences later on. Personally, some of the most valuable time I spent in moments of transition have turned out to be the reflective journaling that I have undertaken. Journaling helps process and it helps you remember for the future the lessons you learn through the transition.

Form Positive Habits. Use the transition to foster positive habits. This can be general lifestyle changes—eating better, exercising more, not spending as much time on your phone—or changes specific to your  situation—for instance, beginning each week at your new job with an evaluation of your weekly, monthly, and yearly goals. One of the families at our church, for example, uses the new school year as a time to take a close look at their calendar and family goals, adjusting things as necessary. This is also the thinking behind New Year’s Resolutions (which might serve as a reminder that all of these suggestions only help if you put them into practice).

Push Yourself. Moments of change and new experiences may be hard. But they may also be the perfect opportunity to test your limits. Muscle only builds when you push it to the limit and stretch the bounds of what you can do. Do not use the newness of things as an excuse to take things easy—aim high and capitalize on the new as an opportunity to become even better. Transition is tough–but that toughness is accompanied by the chance to do things otherwise.

Learn What You Can. Not every transition is to something complete unknown; but most of the time, transitions involve something beyond the realm of our experience. It’s useful, then, to use times of transition to learn. If you are in a new city, go exploring. If you have a new job, see what new skills or competencies you can acquire. If you find yourself experiencing new (or long-dormant) emotions, devote some time to prayer and self-reflection. Do not simply try to conform your new to your old; rather, lean into the discomfort of your transition and learn what it has to teach you.

Transition can be hard. But as we adapt to our new environments and situations, do not forget all the good that can result. As Sons and Daughters of the King, after all, we belong to the one who will says that He will make “all things new” during the final transition of creation into its restored state (Rev 21:5). Whatever our anxieties and insecurities, we can celebrate new things in our life in the light of the One who made all things and will make all things new.

Why I’ve Been Absent

Longtime friends and readers of this blog will have noticed a general decline in the frequency of posts over the past several years. There are numerous reasons for this: grad school, work, kids, life in general, etc. But the primary reason has been that much of my time has been devoted to pastoral work. After launching Pursuing Veritas as a grad student, I’m now attempting to maintain it as an associate pastor at Rooftop Church in St. Louis. But I’m not only serving as a pastor at Rooftop–I’m also serving as lead planting pastor for Arise Church.

Arise is a church plant coming to the greater Fenton area (a southwest suburb of St. Louis) this September. For much of the past 18 months and steadily increasing over that time, I’ve been working with Rooftop, an advisory team, the Church Multiplication Network, and a launch team to prepare to launch Arise. As we move closer and closer to launch, my hope is to use this platform to share a bit of what we’re doing and experiencing. Obviously, the COVID-crisis looms large for all of us right now, but as of right now, we’re moving ahead with planting.

So check us out, follow us on social media (Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube at least), and if your stimulus check has you feeling extremely generous, consider donating to support our work.

O God Our Refuge

Some more prayers for this morning:

“O God, who has been the refuge of my fathers through many generations, be my refuge today in every time and circumstance of need. Be my guide through all that is dark and doubtful. Be my guard against all that threatens my spirit’s welfare. Be my strength in time of testing. Gladden my heart with your peace, through Jesus Christ my Lord.”

–Originally by John Baillie

 

“Blessed Lord, who was tempted in all things as we are, have mercy upon our frailty. Out of weakness give us strength. Grant to us your fear, that we may only fear you. Support us in our time of temptation. Embolden us in the time of danger. Help us to do your work with good courage, and to continue as your faithful soldiers and servants until our life’s end. We ask all these things in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

–Originally by Bishop Brooke Foss Westcott

Job Opening: Pastor of Connections and Outreach

Our current church, Rooftop in St. Louis, is getting ready to hire a new pastor. Check out the job description below and learn more here!

Rooftop Church

Rooftop is an inter-denominational, energetic, growing, medium-sized, 20-year-old Christian church reaching a diversity of people in an inner suburb of St. Louis. More than your typical post-modern church, Rooftop maintains a commitment to big-tent Biblical orthodoxy while also embracing authenticity, humor and even a bit of irreverence for the sake of reaching all kinds of people with the love and truth of Jesus. After moving into a larger, renovated building in November 2016 and getting ready to successfully launch a daughter-church in the summer of 2020, we are ready to consider our next steps as a congregation. These next steps include hiring an associate-level pastor to lead our outreach efforts (which include building an online presence), oversee connections ministries, and also assist with the general teaching and pastoral responsibilities. (Check us out at http://www.rooftop.org.)

Rules and Roles for Women

I’m excited to share that my article, “Rules and Roles for Women: Vocation and Order in the Apostolic Fathers,” was recently published in the Southern Baptist Journal of Theology. This research was originally undertaken as part of a doctoral seminar at St. Louis University led by Dr. Carolyn Osiek, and I presented my findings at the Evangelical Theological Society’s regional conference in 2017.

Click here to view a PDF of my article. And click here to view the contents of the entire journal.

Thanks to the SBJT for publishing the research!

Does Church Planting Overly Innovate?

This post is part of an ongoing series looking at church planting.

As commonly framed, Christianity often has problems with new things. Whether it’s new ways of thinking about Jesus (as during those pesky Christological controversies in the early Church), framing theology (like during the Reformation), using academic scholarship to inform faith (as in the modernist-fundamentalist debates), or thinking about human sexuality (like in many contemporary churches), Christianity and newness don’t always get along. Continue reading