Pioneer Ministry: Origins and Theological Underpinnings

So perhaps you have heard the terms “pioneer,” or “pioneer ministry” used in connection with the missional church movement. In this fourth installment of the Fresh Expressions 101 series, I will define pioneer ministry and the theological underpinnings. In the next installment I will do a deep dive into who pioneers are (psychology) and how institutions can avoid ruining or exiling them (sociology).

 I want to first acknowledge that the term “pioneer” is problematic for some in the U.S. context. While originally Middle French in origin (pionnier: a foot soldier, or trench digger), from the same root as peon or pawn. This term can connote the violence, manipulation, and oppression of early European settlers. Perhaps we need to change this terminology, for in no way do we want to perpetuate the cycle of racism embedded in that conquering narrative of the Eurotribal church.

However, for emerging generations, the connotations of pioneer evoke images of past and current innovators like Marie Curie, Madame C.J. Walker, Walt Disney, Steve Jobs, Alberto Villarreal, Maya Penn, or Elon Musk. All these people are called “pioneers” in their fields.

This term is the primary language of the Church of England and the Fresh Expressions movement, and it has found life in the United States.

The strongest argument for its continued use is in its biblical origins. It is a biblical word, with rich theological roots. Hebrews 12:2 (NRSV) reads, “looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (italics mine). Here Jesus is identified as the ἀρχηγός (pronounced är-khā-gos), which means “pioneer” or “author” and conversely “instigator” (the latter being my personal favorite). This term is the closest we get in Koiné Greek to “innovator” or “entrepreneur.”

Perhaps the most helpful exercise in our task of unleashing pioneer ministry comes from understanding the pioneering of Jesus. God the Son is a pioneer: he is the author and instigator of our faith. His incarnation, death, resurrection, and re-embodiment as the church is a sequence of innovation that transforms the cosmos.

God bestows the pioneer upon the church for nurture, upbuilding, and expansion. Paul the Apostle is perhaps a textbook example of a pioneer. Pioneers seek to embody this initiator, starter ministry of Jesus in the world. In the same way, we embody the ministry roles of apostle, prophet, evangelist, shepherd, and teacher (Eph 4: 11).

The Church of England defines pioneers as “people called by God who are the first to see and creatively respond to the Holy Spirit’s initiatives with those outside the church; gathering others around them as they seek to establish a new contextual Christian community.”

The Church of England also identifies two “types” of pioneers, largely based on “from where” the pioneering happens:

Fresh-start Pioneers (or edge pioneers): These are classic pioneering types who start new things, love firsts, and enjoy working from a blank canvas. If ordained, they need to be released from expectations of an incumbent parish role and allowed to pioneer in places where the Church is not present while remaining closely connected with the diocese.

Parish-based Pioneers (or mixed-economy pioneers): These pioneers want to work from a parish base but from there develop fresh expressions of church in a mixed economy by expanding the growth and reach of the local church.

As illustrated below, edge pioneers are already out in our communities and we need to join and learn with them. Mixed-economy pioneers are already sitting in our pews and we need to identify and release them.

Three essential roles thrive in the fresh expressions movement: pioneers, supporters, and permission givers. This provides a way for every participant (including not-yet-believers) to be involved in mission. When these roles work together in alignment, congregations that have been sedentary for a period can rejoin a movement again.

Pioneers are passionate about mission on the edges.

Supporters are passionate about supporting and releasing pioneers.

Permission Givers are people who use their role to foster release of pioneers and to influence the system to be more willing to experiment.

In the United Kingdom, fresh-expression leaders reorganized the ecclesial system to make room for pioneer ministry. Persons called by God and gifted by the Spirit for pioneer ministry can do so in a lay, licensed, or ordained capacity.

The theological underpinnings of pioneer ministry are rooted deeply in the Trinity. God is a pioneering God; thus, there are pioneers. The church is to be one and diverse, in the way the Trinity is one and diverse—distinct persons, living relationally in a mysterious interdependence, full of creative diversity. The relational interpenetration of the Trinity, always making room for the other, is the embodiment of sending, seeking love.

Each person of the Trinity is a “pioneer.” God the Father creates the universe. God the Spirit breathes forth all life and re-news life. God the Son is the pioneer of our faith. The Trinity is a pioneer team!

A clear correlation is observed between pioneer ministers and business or social entrepreneurs. They share essential characteristics: they start new initiatives, organize relational networks, innovate, and create fresh things out of existing pieces. They do so in the power of the Spirit.

Jonny Baker has famously said that pioneers have “the gift of not fitting in.” Pioneers are those who have the uncanny gift to see and imagine different possibilities than the accepted ways of doing business as usual, and then build a path to make real this possibility. This can certainly make them unpopular in more conventional circles. Particularly in denominational iterations of the church where stabilizers and institutional guardians are prized and advanced. Pioneers are disruptive of the status quo and often stereotyped as destabilizers and even deviants because of the their innovation gifting.

In Refounding the Church, social anthropologist Gerald Arbuckle was the first to identify innovators, and “refounding types” as pioneers who he described as “dreamers who do.” While all of us have our dreams, pioneers have an uncanny ability to turn them into reality. This makes them dangerous in an institutional and hierarchical church, where many in the organization look to the top of an episcopal hierarchy for direction. Pioneers dream up new realities and bring them to fruition. Thus, pioneers are often either domesticated or exiled from denominational systems.

I will explore these realities more deeply in the next post.

(for more see my latest book: Beck, Michael with Jorge Acevedo, A Field Guide to Methodist Fresh Expressions (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2020).

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