What has always fascinated me about the church is way that the Holy Spirit weaves a network of relationships between people who, apart for their devotion to Jesus Christ might have little to nothing in common. Take for example the church in Philippi: an unemployed jailer, a merchant woman, a former slave-psychic, and a handful of newly baptized townsfolk. This little church, certainly no organizational powerhouse, is held up as an example of generosity when Paul writes to the much wealthier Corinthians during his collection for the poor in Jerusalem. When he writes to the Philippians from his prison cell in Rome, these same misfits win Paul’s unfettered praise as he encourages them to pattern their life together after the humility of Jesus Christ. In both cases we see healthy patterns of relationship within a community: Christ-like patterns of relating to one another and Christ-like patterns of generous community extension.

What if these relational patterns were to form our starting point for understanding the effectiveness of a local congregation?

This is where I start to get excited. You see, I grew up in the 80s in a mainline denominational church. When I was a kid, our church seemed to me to be a pretty movin’ place. We weren’t as hip as Calvary Chapel or as big as our city’s various “First” churches, but we had a core group of faithful believers committed to God, to one another and to living out the gospel in our city-center neighborhood. As time went on though, things got tough. What used to be the city-center in the 50s became inner-city in the 90s and many of our core members were driving 30 minutes into town to attend services or events. On a macro level, the wider culture had long since shifted away from a trusting relationship with religion and those that continued to attend church started were increasingly shopping for churches the way they chose their favorite TV shows. About the same time, new forms of church started to emerge that were specifically adapted to these emerging cultural patterns: cell churches, mega-churches, organic house churches. In this newly competitive environment it became harder and harder for this formerly effective community church to translate its communal realities into ‘industry standard’ organizational success. And yet somehow, they have pulled it off.

What internal realities allow some churches to adapt when their environment shifts while others fall apart?

My sense of calling in the church has been to find ways to help congregations adapt to the challenges they face without compromising their soul. This has largely meant focussing my attention on small and rural churches from mainline denominations who sincerely want to be missional, but don’t have the wherewithal to follow the modern consumerist church growth dogmas.

But as I’ve worked with these churches and their partners, I’ve discovered that this isn’t just a challenge for the small or the rural. Churches who are motivated to re-orient themselves toward an embodied, missional expression of the gospel are facing an identity crisis. Thankfully, there is a new wave of attention being turned toward the identity and function of the local church and this is where I want to locate my study of the Body.

What about your congregation?

I have no intention of leaving my congregation in Rapla. On the contrary, I am committed to continuing on here as pastor until the end of my current term and hope to continue making pastoral contributions in the area afterward. My conviction is that theological study needs to be intimately tied to congregational realities so that both can mutually feed and be fed. My mission in Rapla is far from complete and my hope is that my part-time studies and investigations into the relational nature of fellowship will help me to more effectively equip the Rapla church for a sustainably effective future.

Why a European PhD?

The simplest answer is pragmatic: a European PhD is close to home and astonishingly affordable. Without these realities, advanced study wouldn’t even be on the map for me. But another very important reason is that European PhDs are oriented toward independent research. The European approach allows me to focus in on my research goals so long as I can find or create the means to do so. And why a PhD? I want the research I am doing to meet the highest academic standards and I want to develop research skills that will help me to continue making contributions at that same level, while keeping my feet firmly planted in congregational realities.

What is the IBTS Centre?

“The International Baptist Theological Study Centre (IBTSC) Amsterdam [owned by members of the European Baptist Federation] … aspires to stand in the tradition of its predecessors and to deliver high quality theological education and research from a baptistic perspective in an international context. In this way it aims to provide research, researchers, educators, and leaders who can serve the mission and ministry of churches in Europe, the Middle East and beyond.”

Though I am ordained a presbyterian minister, my service in Estonia has been with churches belonging to the Estonian Evangelical and Baptist Church Union. Their association with the EBF and IBTSC puts Amsterdam VU (founded by Abraham Kuyper) on the map for me. The IBTSC focuses particular on missiology and practical theology so my interests and my study population line up naturally.

Why Amsterdam Vrij University?

Amsterdam Vrij University has a terrific theology faculty which has a particular emphasis on the practical theology and mission of the local church. The university also has an active emphasis in the sociology department on social network analysis. This is just the unique combination I’m looking to develop.