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A Review of
Embrace: A Church Plant that Broke All the Rules
Paperback: Resource Pubs., 2014
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Reviewed by Christopher Brown
Rosario Picardo’s thin book Embrace tells the story of his call to ministry and the planting of Embrace Church in Lexington, KY. With refreshing honesty and candor, Picardo gives an account of his church’s life which should embolden other leaders of new worshiping communities both to venture into uncharted territory and to persevere when they encounter unexpected challenges.
The beauty of Picardo’s story in Embrace lies in its messiness, which in turn reveals the wisdom which can be gained from Picardo’s example. To write a book which so openly shares not the successes but the apparent missteps of a new church requires a level of humility that is rare among church planters.
The book’s subtitle, though, reveals both the gift of Picardo’s story and the problems with the very terms he uses to tell that story. According to the subtitle, Embrace is “a church plant that broke all the rules.” There are no hard and fast rules for church-planting, as Picardo knows and seems to want to demonstrate. He writes correctly that too often “books on church planting are about growth gimmicks, models, and an overall sense of how great someone was a starting a new faith community. A cookie cutter methodology gets passed along as a one-size-fits-all method without considering context and the way the individuals involved are uniquely gifted and wired by God” (2)
In contrast to cookie cutter methods, I think churches are birthed when their leaders listen attentively to the Holy Spirit and practice communal discernment in figuring out how to bear witness to Christ in particular contexts. This means that every new church and the story of its birth will be different from the stories of other congregations. And that sort of uniqueness is what we find in Embrace. It’s the story of a pastor who didn’t follow an instruction book. Instead he says “Prayer was my first strategy, plain and simple” (12).
This means that any wisdom and authority Picardo has comes not from being “wise according to worldly standards” (1 Cor 1:26), but from first-hand experience. Thus Picardo can sincerely say, “My skills were developed while working at the church in every role from custodian to pastor, where it was instilled in me to serve whether I was cleaning toilets in the bathroom or preaching the Scriptures in the sanctuary” (6-7). Accordingly, the story of Picardo and Embrace demonstrates how pastors can rely not on pre-packaged programs, but instead embrace the messiness of a new congregation’s pilgrimage. This is wonderful.
The book’s tone is at times so humble that Picardo even seems apologetic for not following the very models he rejects. For example, he says “I think Embrace’s slow start was initially due to the mistake I made of not having preview services” (43). But what if a slow start and Embrace’s choice not to have preview services weren’t actually mistakes? Perhaps the unexpected twists and turns Picardo’s ministry took were really just the necessary steps toward growth in the ability to discern where God was leading him?
Picardo displays just how his ability to discern grew when he recounts how Embrace Church decided not to move its worship location out of urban Lexington to a suburban area. About his wrestling with the question, Picardo writes, “The most important thing I learned probably sounds like the most trivial: I learned to listen and wait” (63). Through “prayer, fasting, thinking, searching the Scriptures, and talking to mentors” Picardo and his community discerned they were called to remain in urban Lexington.
Listen and wait. Make prayer your first strategy. Fast, think, search the Scriptures, talk to mentors. These all sound like the habits, practices, and postures that lead to the cultivation of new churches with stories as unique as their contexts. From what I read of Embrace Church’s story, this confirms that there aren’t many other rules for church planting, and it was never a mistake for Embrace to break them.
Christopher Brown is Coordinator of the Church Planting Initiative at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and Co-Pastor of The Upper Room Presbyterian Church. He also blogs at http://christopherbrown.wordpress.com.