For the final part of my series of posts in preparation for ministry selection, looking at a film, an exhibition, a non-theological book and a theological text, I’ve decided to look at a collection of essays edited by Jonny Baker and Cathy Ross, called ‘The Pioneer Gift: Explorations in Mission’. This contains twelve contributions from a range of practitioners, lay and ordained, some of whom are publishing their first such piece. I found it an interesting and thought-provoking book as someone going through a process of selection to become a minister in what’s often referred to as ‘inherited’ church, though I cannot deny I felt a sense of frustration growing inside me as I journeyed through it, alongside much useful food for thought.
I’ve explored material on fresh expressions of church and pioneer ministry before, and I struggle with the way that, for all the talk of a genuine mixed-economy church, the reality often means people like me keeping the ‘old way’ going, while others get on with the ‘creative stuff’, like we’ve created two parallel strands that don’t connect very often. While this book is much better than much of what I’ve previously read at avoiding this trap, my burning question at the end of it was, essentially, about where people like me fit into the picture. I want to and can reach out to those for whom a transformative relationship with Jesus Christ isn’t yet there, and there’s no way I’m giving up a well-paid and enjoyable job to be a professional manager of institutional decline. Yet, given I think God’s calling me to work predominantly in ‘traditional’ church, I was left wondering how that fits with a desire to move beyond its boundaries.
I’m not going to give a blow-by-blow account of each chapter, as much as anything else because Sally’s already done this extremely well in her review. Rather, I want to draw out the aspects that most interested and grabbed me, as well as pondering the above question.
So that brings me to Jonny Baker’s opening chapter, looking at the nature of the pioneer gift, which in his words is “the gift of not fitting in”. Pioneers are those who have the vision to see new possibilities and then to work to bring them to life, which he argues is something every church needs “if it is to have a future and not get stuck … if it is to be missional and move out of its comfort zone”. The church has needed such people in every age, yet the term still retains ambiguity and complexity, allowing for diversity in both its expression and the range of people called to walk its path. Consequently, it flourishes through authentic expression of what it means for each pioneer to be thus in their context, as opposed to trying to conform to predefined expectations. At its core is mission; pioneering is about orientating to the true North of the missio dei, in traversing a rapidly changing cultural landscape while learning from the Bible and history, and developing a “mission spirituality” to sustain the journey.
Baker goes on to discuss some of the difficulties encountered by pioneers and those seeking to support, train and authorise them within existing denominational structures. He argues that it needs “imagination, courage, tenacity and resilience (and indeed velocity)” to resist being sucked back into a “business as usual” framework, and that the journey of change the church needs to go on to make this smoother will not be easy. Moreover, one of the dangers in trying to share the Gospel in new contexts is that the culture of those doing so gets unwittingly imposed on the recipients, so deep engagement with those cultural contexts and a willingness on the part of pioneers to let go of some of their own preconceptions is necessary. It’s thus a gift that takes time to grow and to flourish, and requires being what he calls “path-finding dissenters”; that is, people able to “bridge the gap between the Gospel and culture, imagining and implementing new strategies”.
A good deal of the rest of the essays flow from Baker’s, and pick up on the ideas and challenges outlined above. Cathy Ross talks about her experience as part of the Church Mission Society (CMS), and outlines various aspects of what mission means in practice: sight means reading culture and context, properly seeing and therefore respecting and valuing others, and being able to imagine a different way to be that goes against the grain. Emptiness and hiddenness mean self-emptying love (with a note of caution about ignoring our own needs) and an emphasis on the aspects of discipleship that aren’t always seen and recognised, rather than focusing on headline-grabbing quantitative (numerical) growth as the end point of everything. Hospitality means mutually enriching relationship, echoing Ann Morisy’s argument about the transformative power of meeting others on equal terms, and homelessness involves stepping out into alien theological territory, into the wilderness, and letting go of current thinking to receive new insights from God.
I found this a very helpful chapter, in that while her focus is on pioneers, much of what Ross says is more widely applicable. After all, discipleship is by its nature relational, rather than something that happens in isolation. Consequently, there’s a need in every context to learn how to see anew, to catch glimpses of the unexpected and transformative things the Holy Spirit is doing in our communities, and to properly care for the marginalised and easily overlooked people that we encounter. We follow a God who took human form, was often to be found teaching, healing, challenging and receiving at the dining table, and who became the servant of all, so it’s natural that diakonia and hospitality should be central to mission. Additionally, like it or lump it, the church will need to change drastically in the coming years due to declining resources (people and financial), so we’ll all need to risk theological (and ecclesiological) homelessness in order to discover where God’s leading us next.
This idea of theological homelessness is further developed in three chapters that illustrate the need for existing doctrinal ideas to be challenged and reformed. Anna Ruddick talks about her work with the Eden Network in troubled communities, with the language of transformation being far more natural for the young people she encountered than traditional terms like salvation and redemption. Andrea Campanale works in South West London, and talks about her experience of shame being at the root of the difficulty many have trusting that God loves them, rather than a sense of sinfulness. This pushed her to explore the stories and thinking in our tradition that can speak to this and bring about healing, to help people integrate their actual and ideal selves (her ‘Screen Eucharist’ liturgy is a very powerful example of this in practice).
On a related theme, Emma Nash talks about her research on the language of sin, arguing that “we need to present sin as a profoundly relational dysfunction” that causes us to be estranged from others and God, and not simply about “guilty thoughts, words and deeds”. This also means acknowledging systematic injustices far more prominently than is often the case. Moreover, she wonders if we need to find words that don’t “require people to acknowledge wrong in their lives in the first instance” but instead “invite them to spend time with a person and experience a friendship like no other”. All this stems from findings that suggest that sin and atonement formed very little part in becoming a Christian among many of her interviewees. Additionally, the conception of sin as relating to ‘naughty thoughts’, particularly of the sexual variety, didn’t connect with people in a society where there’s more freedom than ever to construct one’s own moral code and understanding.
I found these three chapters fascinating; the question of finding language to express Christian faith that connects with people outside the church is crucial for all Christians. As a local preacher working in secular employment, predominantly with people around my own age (late 20s and early 30s), my experience has been that much of the language we take for granted simply doesn’t resonate beyond the church walls, or indeed the concepts we think are most important aren’t always those occupying others. 1 Peter talks about being able to give an account one’s faith, in that case to a bunch of Christians derided for being different and not fitting in with the world around them. If we’re going to carry on that fine tradition of not fitting in as a gift, pointing to an exciting and life-giving different way to be, as a core part of discipleship, we need to take this challenge seriously.
As an example, shame is something that experience tells me resonates with a lot of people who believe themselves unlovable for a whole variety of reasons, often connecting with deep hurts and or a sense of not living up to social expectations in some way. Lecturing people about sin in these circumstances can be not just unhelpful, but actively harmful, as Nash recognises. I once took part in research looking at the impact on transgender people of shame, in a society that is more open than many but where negative and hostile attitudes to gender nonconformity can lead to people struggling with self-hatred or profound embarrassment. In that situation, being able to speak of God’s loving acceptance and always having known and delighted in us exactly as we really are, has the potential to bring about healing and help people towards wholeness. Placing too much emphasis on sin, on the other hand, risks further alienating a group generally wary of Christianity, for good reason.
Moving from some of the gifts pioneers can offer the wider church to some of the difficulties they experience living with it, Doug Gay and Gerald Arbuckle talk about some of the frustrations of dealing with existing institutions, and obstacles to bringing about change, respectively. Gay (who I met on Iona once upon a time…) is a lecturer in practical theology at the University of Glasgow. He discusses not being able to get permission to start up a new project from the local incumbent, and the issues caused by not having ‘permission-givers’ enabled to make things happen in his denomination, the Church of Scotland. Arbuckle, an anthropologist now working in Australia, explores the nature of myth. He reflects on the hope for reform present at the time of Vatican II, and what went wrong as cultures and structures did not change enough to prevent conservatism regaining the upper hand.
These two chapters point to one of the challenges I guess pioneers face: how to carve out the space to enable them to take risks and start something new. Feeling threatened by new people rocking up, or worrying about Christianity being dumbed down in some sense, are probably common reasons for hostility towards pioneers arising. It also takes time and concerted effort to bring about cultural change. However, I do wonder if this is a two-way problem, and that actually pioneers may not notice some of the gifts and resources that inherited church has to offer. Perhaps they sometimes fail to recognise that although starting from a different base, there are those of us looking to straddle the two worlds, to connect with the surrounding culture and context in ways that engage those on the edges of or outside the church, alongside refusing to give up on what’s there already. There’s also an issue that pervades church life generally, of cliques forming and those on the outside not being taken seriously, on both ‘sides’.
With that backdrop, Karlie Allaway’s contribution was a breath of fresh air. It gave me hope that the false dichotomy between inherited church and fresh expressions/pioneer ministry is gradually being broken down, at least in some contexts. Allaway is a Roman Catholic, and she reflects on the challenges and joys of living together in community and the central role for her of sacramentality. Coming from that tradition myself (I’m a recovering Anglo-Catholic!), it makes a great deal of sense that a sacramental worldview “does something profound to your imagination. When you can see how beautiful everything is meant to be, or rather actually is, this makes you look differently”. Making the connection with Walter Brueggemann’s ‘The Prophetic Imagination’, she argues that sacramental communities could be surprisingly prophetic through the experience of being marginalised, and thus learning to see things differently. From this base, her community engaged meaningfully in mission and made a difference to others. I also appreciated her vulnerability, and her prayer of becoming is beautiful.
Overall, this is an interesting book that made me think, has influenced my preaching and worship leading, and challenged my understanding of mission. It has a good range of material, and while full of thoughtful reflection on experience, isn’t light on theological exploration. However, I did also feel somewhat irritated that, although better than most at not succumbing to the temptation to pit inherited church and pioneer ministry against one another, this was still there, implicitly if not explicitly, in many of the essays. I can’t help but wonder where someone like me fits into the picture. I’m attracted to the Methodist Diaconal Order because I like the idea of working on the margins and with those outside church, though the importance for me of the sacraments means presbyteral ministry makes more sense. I also feel a desire to step out, take risks and try new things, but to do so from a base in inherited church, rather than as a pioneer minister. So where do I fit in? Or is the real value in not fitting in anywhere?