Handling Rejection

Jesus gave his followers an expansive mission: Go to every people group, make disciples, and bring them into the church.

In a preview of this worldwide mission, Jesus sent out his disciples to the people of Israel. For the first time, the twelve were called apostles, or “sent ones.” It was the first time they’d be going out without him, so he gave them detailed instructions. He was sure they would encounter rejection, so he told them how to handle that too. When people are receptive to you, bless them, and peace will rest on them. If they’re not receptive, go to someone who is.

And your peace will come back to you.

Sounds strange, doesn’t it? We say things like “Bless you” or “Peace to you,” but when we say those things on his behalf, we’re doing more than being polite.  When we speak the good news of Jesus Christ, we actually convey peace. Peace literally rests on those willing to receive it.

And if our message is rejected, that peace comes right back to us.

What’s even more amazing is that Jesus says this is “your” peace, not just his.

We’ve been imbued with supernatural power.

Jesus was rejected all the time, so there’s no reason to expect we’ll be treated any better. And so, Jesus has let us know it’s OK, move on.

He’s chosen us to bring in his kingdom.


I just finished six years on the board of the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership. My term ended with the PDP’s annual meeting, where civic leaders describe the state of downtown. There are many good things going on downtown, but there are also many hurting people. This means there are many, many ways for the church to care for the city and share the faith.

When I started at the church ten years ago, I’d see an occasional article with predictions of a resurgent downtown. At last it’s true. There’s been $8.5 billion in new construction within a half mile of the church over the last ten years. $300 million worth of projects are underway right now. There are condos, apartments, restaurants, and all kinds of new businesses. One signature project, Lumière, with 86 new residences, is half a block away.

The challenge for us is that a resurgent downtown no longer thinks it needs the church. So how do we reach it?


My understanding of this started with my classes and experiences in mission. Missionaries must do at least two things—care for people and share the Gospel. They must get to know the people they hope to reach, learn their language, live and work with them, and make a difference in their community. And after all that, hopefully they’ve built a relationship out of which they can share the Gospel.

Ten years ago, I imagined that the beauty of the church building, the church’s programs, or even my preaching would bring people to faith. But slowly I’ve learned to repent of those ideas.

It’s relationships.

Paradigm shift

After 18 years of service in the Air Force, I got my dream job to command a flying unit. It was the only flying command for folks in my career field, and I was fortunate to get it.

And then Congress voted to close the base.

Instead of making the squadron the best it could be (my dream) my role was to keep the mission going while the unit got smaller and smaller as people moved on to new assignments. Best I can tell, nobody ever dreamed of doing that.

Now I have another dream job. I’m the pastor of an amazing church in the heart of a transforming city. “Where would you put a church?” I ask. The answer is, right here, where ours has been for 245 years. I am truly blessed.

But there’s a challenge, and it seems to me it’s not unlike the one I had a long time ago.

For most of my time on the planet, it was normal for people to attend church. Attending church would lead people to serve and grow in faith. The church in North America worked on this paradigm for most of the 20th century.

Attendance led to engagement.

Now it’s just the opposite. Now the church has to engage people where they are and give them ways to serve. When people see the church making a difference, maybe they’ll attend, and some will grow in faith.

Engagement leads to attendance.

Churches everywhere are missing this paradigm shift, and when they do, they’re effectively voting to close.

The early church never built buildings and expected people to attend. It went to its neighbors and engaged them. People came to faith after seeing the church make a difference in their lives.

It turned out that my dreams for an Air Force career were too small. I was blessed to have more great jobs I’d never even dreamed about. I think it can be true for the church too, if we engage the folks to whom God is calling us.

35 million

That’s the number of young people who were raised in Christian households who will walk away from the Christian faith by 2050. So reports Vincent Burens, President and CEO of the Coalition for Christian Outreach. The US is “currently experiencing the fastest decline in religious affiliation in the history of this country.” The majority didn’t have a crisis of faith or reject church teachings. “They left because they just weren’t interested in the Christian life they saw.”

And remember, Burens is talking about young people who were raised in the Christian faith. The 35 million does not include those who have no Christian experience or reference point.

Burens calls this, “The largest mission opportunity in the history of America.”

This really isn’t new. It was documented in the 1970s by the Rev. Lesslie Newbigin, a Presbyterian minister from England who served for 27 years in the mission field in India. Returning to England in 1974, he discovered that the churches of Europe were mostly empty. Europe, once the source of missionaries, had become the mission field.

Another study, published in 1982 in the Christian Encyclopedia, estimated that 29,000 Christians in Europe and North America were leaving the faith every week.

It’s possible for individual churches to experience this decline (85 percent are either declining or stagnant; only 15 percent are growing.) and miss the mission opportunity this paradigm shift represents. The reason is that declining churches become more intimate, more comfortable, more homogeneous.

Our ancestors at First Presbyterian Church crossed an ocean and a wilderness to plant this church on the frontier.

When paradigms shifted, and needs changed downtown, they dug up the cemetery where their own saints were buried to build new church buildings.

If any church in America can meet the great mission opportunity of our day, it’s us.

Humble visitor

Thirty-three years ago, a young man from China visited the small farm town of Muscatine, Iowa on an agricultural research trip. He stayed with Eleanor and Thomas Dvorchak, a farm family whose sons had gone off to college. He slept in the boys’ room, still filled with the memories of childhood. Eleanor said he didn’t complain. “Everything, no matter what, was very acceptable to him. He was humble.”

Four years ago, that same man, no longer young, came back to see his old friends. This time he came with an entourage. The man was Xi Jinping, then China’s vice president, and on his way to being president of the most populous nation on the planet.

Chinese officials explained that Mr. Xi wanted to relive a pleasant experience from his past and reconnect with old friends. Some thought it might be propaganda for the Chinese government at a time when tensions between the US and China were high. But no one in Muscatine cared. The New York Times said, “What was in 1985 just ordinary Iowa niceness came boomeranging back.”

This week in our church, we renew our relationship with PRISM, Pittsburgh Region International Student Ministries. Pittsburgh is host to thousands of international students, many of them the best and brightest from their respective countries. PRISM wants to welcome them all and share with them the love of Jesus Christ. We have the opportunity to be part of it. It’s not only rewarding and fun, but it’s got to be one of the most effective types of mission there is.

What if our international guests went home with more than happy memories of their time in Pittsburgh. What if they went home as ambassadors for Jesus Christ?

Mission and rest

This Sunday after worship, Jana and I start a three-and-a-half month time of rest called a sabbatical. We have been blessed to help lead a church which allowed us this time of rest. The church is blessed with a wonderful associate pastor, staff, and lay leaders, and so we know things are in good hands while we’re away. We have also been blessed with a significant grant from the Lilly Endowment National Clergy Renewal Program, which will allow us to travel with our family. The Lilly folks believe that pastoral rest and renewal is so important that they have made over $6 million in grants to churches and pastors since the year 2000. Many of the church’s costs associated with our being away are also covered by the grant.

The grant application asks pastors, “What makes your heart sing?” It actually took months of reflection for me to answer that. If I had to answer, I would have said, “The mission.” I realized I’ve always been wired for “mission.” Whatever I set out to do became my mission. There’s always been something in my head screaming: “Never forget, the mission comes first!” And what could be more important than being on a mission for God? There are people all around who are hungry, a downtown growing with people who don’t know Jesus, members who need pastoral care, calls to make, emails to answer.

But when you turn a job into your “mission” it can be exhausting, for you and those around you.

What kind of mission are you on?

Are you wearing out yourself and those around you?

Let’s take a break.

For the next few months, my “mission” is to learn to rest. To remind myself that Jesus doesn’t actually need me for anything. To let Jesus teach my heart to sing: “I’m all you need.”

What’s your mission?

Last fall I spent quite of bit of time with Jana crafting a “rule of life.” A rule of life is a description of the life God is calling you to lead. It means a life guided, nourished, and sustained by God’s Spirit, to the glory of God.

The kind of self-examination required in writing a rule of life doesn’t come easy. You have to be honest in assessing your strengths and weaknesses. What are the things which give you life? What are the things that suck the life out of you?

Out of all the people on the planet, what has God uniquely equipped and called you to do?

And so for the last several months I’ve been trying to learn to live into this rule. Get more sleep. Spend more time with Jana. Spend more time with the grandkids. Spend more time with God. Keep the Sabbath.

I thought I would share at least part of my rule of life here because I need help in living it out.

My call:

  • To be a city-center minister
  • To move people to hear, understand, and accept the Gospel of Jesus Christ into their hearts


  • Build a dynamic, transforming church where all are welcome, lives are changed, and where the Gospel is proclaimed and lived out
  • Create a culture of experimentation and discernment
  • To preach the Gospel to a full church
  • To see thousands in the city come to faith, and be part of a movement of faith across the region and the world
  • To be a source of inspiration for city-center churches everywhere

I’m pleased to share my rule of life with anyone who’s interested. Here’s a wonderful resource I found most helpful: http://ruleoflife.com/myrule/


Canoeing the mountains

Canoeing the Mountains is the title of a new book by Tod Bolsinger. After serving for many years as senior pastor of San Clemente Presbyterian Church, Tod is now vice-president for vocation and formation at Fuller Seminary. He’s also one of the most thoughtful leaders in the church today focusing on church transformation and change. I’m pleased to say Tod was my coach for a year after our church did strategic planning a few years ago.

Canoeing the Mountains gets its inspiration from the Lewis and Clark Expedition (also known as the Corps of Discovery) from 1804 to 1806. Lewis and Clark were charged by Thomas Jefferson with exploring and mapping the Louisiana Purchase, and for discovering a long-sought after water route to the Pacific.

But Lewis and Clark set out with false expectations. They believed, like everyone before them, that the geography ahead of them was like the geography behind them. When at long last the Corps of Discovery reached the headwaters of the Missouri, they expected that just over the next hill they would find the Columbia River that would lead them down to the ocean. Instead what lay before them was the Rocky Mountains.

Their canoes weren’t going to be of any more use.

Tod Bolsinger says that churches today find themselves in a similar position to Lewis and Clark. What’s ahead is not what’s behind, so the maps aren’t any good. And yet Lewis and Clark didn’t turn back. In coming so far, they had bonded together as a team. They’d developed trust. Instead of turning back, they redefined their mission and pressed on.

Canoeing the Mountains asks leaders to consider these key questions:

  • How do we lead a congregation to be faithful to the mission God has put before us when the world has changed so radically?
  • What are the tools, the mental models, the wise actions and competing commitments that require navigation?
  • And mostly, what transformation does it demand of those of us who have been called to lead?