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.

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.

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.)

Visiting with Jesus

I first caught a glimpse of him through the doorbell camera at church. He looked cold and a little scraggly, and when I went to open the door, he was shorter than I expected. But there he was: the Son of God in human flesh. We talked for a while, as anyone might when they have the chance to speak with someone so important and famous. We talked about theology, about the church, about the state of our world. Unsurprisingly, I thought about our conversation for the rest of the day and much of the following week.

I guess that’s what happens when you visit with Jesus. Continue reading

Did God Command Genocide?

In Joshua 8:2, Yahweh seems to command the indiscriminate killing of the inhabitants of the city of Ai: “And you shall do to Ai and its king as you did to Jericho and its king. Only its spoil and its livestock you shall take as plunder for yourselves. Lay an ambush against the city, behind it.” If this were said today, it would widely be regarded as a command to commit genocide.[1] The severity of the command seems validated by what Joshua records about the battle (vv. 24-25):

24 When Israel had finished killing all the inhabitants of Ai in the open wilderness where they pursued them, and all of them to the very last had fallen by the edge of the sword, all Israel returned to Ai and struck it down with the edge of the sword. 25 And all who fell that day, both men and women, were 12,000, all the people of Ai.

This account—and others like it in the Old Testament[2]—are often viewed as problematic for contemporary Christians. How can a God of love command murder? How can the God who says “love your enemies” have ordered their destruction? These are, in my estimation, entirely legitimate questions worth wrestling with.

In what follows, I hope to breakdown some of the key aspects of thinking through the question of whether or not God commanded genocide and (some of) what that means for Christians today. Continue reading

The Next Chapter: Rooftop Church

I am excited to announce that I am joining the staff at Rooftop Church as Pastor of Church-Planting, effective today!

Rooftop on a Sunday morning

Rooftop is a non-denominational, Bible-centered church committed to “making followers of Christ who make followers of Christ who make followers of Christ….” Located in Affton (a community in the St. Louis County metro area), Rooftop is a vibrant, growing church that’s devoted to reaching St. Louis with the Gospel. One unique thing about Rooftop is their commitment to “mere Christianity,” a big-tent approach to faith that focuses on essentials and living as disciples rather than dividing over nuanced doctrinal points.

Friends and regular readers of Pursuing Veritas will be familiar with our ministry at The Rock Church of Saint Louis the past three-and-a-half years, as well as our two year “church search” before that.[1] Hayley and I have learned so much over the past several years of ministry, life, and education. We have grown and benefited from so many friendships and experiences.

After many years of praying, discussing, and inquiring into church-planting, this Rooftop position came to our attention right as we were facing some uncertainty about our future plans. We firmly believe that God has whispered into our lives for such a time as this, and we are extremely excited to start this new chapter of our lives and faith journeys.

I am honored and humbled to be beginning this vocational work for the Kingdom, and I look forward to all that God will be doing in and through Rooftop in the future. And I look forward to sharing here about our experiences and adventures during this journey.

Best and Blessings, Jacob Prahlow Continue reading

The Non-Denominational Reformation

Every 500 years or so in the history of the Christian church, a significant restructuring seems to take place.

Around the year 500, a church council at Chalcedon published what most of Christendom calls the clearest explanation of orthodox Christology: Christ is one person with two natures. However, large swaths of Christians—the Oriental Orthodox (such as the Coptic, Syrian, and Ethiopian churches) and the Church of the East—found the Chalcedon Definition lacking. And so the first major division in Christianity occurred.

About 500 years later, a hot-headed Bishop of Rome (or at least his hot-headed legates) and an angry Bishop of Constantinople mutually excommunicated each other,1 leading to nearly 1000 years of division between the western Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches.

Some 500 years after that, a tempermental Augustinian monk in Germany posted some theses for academic disputation that started a firestorm of theological controversy, reformation, and church divisions—resulting in the proliferation of thousands of Protestant denominations.2

Historically Speaking

Now, the historian in me is obligated to note that using a clean, round number (500 years) to delineate these dates is somewhat artificial. There’s nothing inherently special about the passage of 500 years that leads Christians to say to one another, “I don’t like how you do church anymore.” But humans enjoy describing the past in easy-to-remember terms that serve as useful baselines for historical knowledge, whether or not they encompass the totality of historical truth (476, 1492, or July 4th, anyone?). Even so, given Christianity’s track record so far, you might expect another monumental moment to occur any year now, since it’s been about 500 years since the last major shakeup in Christendom.

The argument I wish to make in this article, is that we’ve already begun to see the next great restructuring of Christianity: the rise of non-denominational Christianity. Continue reading

Church Search Update

Assumption Greek Orthodox Church, Long BeachIt’s been a while since our last Church Search post and people have been inquiring about where we stand in our search, so I thought I would take some time to offer e brief update this morning.

First, I want to thank everyone for your prayers as we wrestle with various issues, for your interest in our search, and for the stream of suggested books/blogs/churches to consider/places to visit. From the start of this process, we have sought “accountability” through sharing our experiences online, and it’s been very encouraging to have people checking in with us, especially on those days when we’re really not sure what the next step is going to be. Continue reading

Church Search: Beginning the Second Phase

This post is part of our ongoing Church Search. For more information, please click here or visit the Church Search tab above.

PENTAX ImageFor the past year (with some interruptions), Hayley and I have been visiting different churches, some for only a week and others for more extended periods of time, as part of the “First Exposure” phase of our Church Search. These visits have been to a purposefully broad range of churches, both to denominations we thought we might seriously consider, as well as several visits which were primarily aimed toward experiencing other forms of Christianity and gaining an appreciated for our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. As a result of this “First Exposure” phase, we have learned lots and gained some insights into where we should investigate further as part of our “Serious Considerations Phase.”

In this second phase, we intend to engage several churches/denominations more intensely as we seek to understand where we will best fit in the People of God. This investigation will involve two primary steps: First, extensive research on the churches we are considering. This means engaging additional written works theologians, pastors, and teachers within each respective denomination that we are considering, as well as seeking in-depth conversations with pastors and members of the local churches that we are visiting. A second step will be multiple visits to the churches/denominations we are considering. Here we intend to visit not only specific churches multiple times, but also to visit multiple churches within the denominations that we are considering. Where possible, we hope to visit at least three different churches in each denomination, at least one of which we will visit three or four times.

After much thought, prayer, and conversation, we have narrowed down the churches we are considering into three broad categories: Orthodox, Lutheran, and Episcopal/Anglican. We have come to recognize the internal diversity within each of these labels, and thus again emphasize that these are the broad denominational categories which we are considering. That said, the central theme that we have found to be important in our faith lives is the balance of ancient truth and tradition with contemporary applicability and service. That is, by-and-large these churches (or certain parts of these churches) seek to balance scripture, liturgy, tradition, worship, and living Christian love. It is for this reason that we have decided to focus our search on these three groups of churches.

Through our experiences with each of these churches already, we have already experienced that no church is a perfect church, primarily because we are there. Yet we are excited to learn and experience more fully how God and His people are learning, living, and loving in these churches. Though we have learned much already, we recognize that God is but beginning His work in our lives, and eagerly await this next phase in our journeys, including the part where we leave Winston-Salem (NC) and move to St. Louis (MO) in a few weeks time. We ask for your prayers and guidance as we continue this search, and look forward to sharing more with you in the months to come.