Two experienced pioneers, Tina Hodgetts and Paul Bradbury, have developed this brilliant diagram and accompanying explanation in the link above, mapping the different areas of pioneering and the nuanced types of pioneer ministry going on in different kinds of work. It’s very helpful as to the broad sweep of pioneering.
Our work at The Upper Room probably fits across the two circles on the right – building relationship & discipleship, and allowing the gospel response to emerge and shape a church community. We also enter into the Activism/social enterprise area slightly, working to meet social need and address social injustice in our town, albeit in small ways.
This diagram brings a moment to reflect on how much has been done, to feel we are in a place to map all the different strands of pioneer activity. However there is much still to do, and some feel that the kind of pioneering that emerges from long listening at the grassroots has fallen out of favour with the church hierarchy, as being too slow and too costly, and also perhaps not being doctrinally-controllable enough.
There is an increasing enthusiasm for church planting – which can be done in a pioneering way if there is a period of listening – but is often just a ‘one size fits all your city or town doesn’t have a hipster guitar based church for students gasp how shocking lets rectify that in a very expensive fashion.’ A report circulating, which I have heard spoken of by 3 or 4 different people in different dioceses now, apparently shows that these plants create almost no new growth at all, after all the people who flock to them from other churches are taken into account, and they cost into the millions to start and run, requiring many paid staff who come from the planting church.
I think the problem is the huge power of the headline decline figures, which make stark reading of course. But the decline has taken place over several generations, over which time the cultural gap has widened between the ways in which culture/ society and church explore ideas, come to conclusions, debate, question, reject formal authority and hierarchy. I don’t see us as the church doing very much to address this yet – if we church plant, are we merely replicating these old models where ‘we’ behave as though we have all the truth and we will give it to ‘you’ if you behave, believe and belong, packaged up in a warehouse with guitars, beards, check shirts and good coffee?
I take heart from Archbishop Justin Welby’s comments about hierarchy, deference, power and clericalism following the sorrowful IICSA enquiry in recent days. And I recall that when Archbishop Rowan Williams launched the Mission Shaped Church / fresh expressions agenda in 2004 he spoke about a “principled loosening of structures,” of which we have barely yet seen a glimmer. This needs to relate to liturgy, to where authority is held and to where resources are deployed.
One of the things pioneers need above all else is to be trusted. Another is to be listened to. We are your science lab. We are working on the ground with people who have either never been near the church in generations (the majority of people we see) or those who were sent to Sunday school as children but drifted away before 11. We hear what they tell us about the church, the reasons they don’t think of going, the things that make them deeply uncomfortable – and the good news – the things they have responded to, the things that helped draw them into new ways of being and doing church, the things that help them understand the love of God in Christ.
The problem is the clash of cultures. The way things are currently done very rarely reach those who do not come. But we also have swathes of people who have grown up with and love the old ways. They want the new people to come in and help them maintain that way of being and doing, but they can’t. The cultural gap is simply too big.
One of the main places this shows itself is in regard to authority. In established church congregations, there is a clear hierarchy of authority and power. Everyone knows their job and their name is on a list held in the Bishops Office. No-one preaches unless they are licensed, no-one prays unless they are on a list, no-one offers the chalice unless… The Anecdote to Evidence report on church growth listed this as a practical problem – how can new people coming in begin to engage and get to know people, find a way of joining in and exploring life if they are never allowed to do anything in the life of the church? There will likely be no space in which they can share thoughts, ask questions about the sermon and what it meant, how people are living that out in their lives, explore any of the stages of faith that we all need to travel in order to mature as disciples. The steps that we take to ‘appropri-ate’ the faith, trying it on for size as humans must with a new belief system, are absent. They are basically asked to get on a train that goes on the same journey each week, with no option to get off or explore the route. It is fixed, based on a set of assumptions that may never be made explicit, but that show we have this sorted, we know what we believe and we will tell you in complex ways if you can accommodate the cultural hurdles for long enough.
Aswell as a practical issue, It’s also a doctrinal problem around identity – do we really reflect the belief that all are made in the image of God, that Christ died for all, when we only allow a small regulated number of people to participate in what we hold most dear? Do we really show that this life of faith is about life in all its fullness, that there is enough blessing and grace to go around, if we tightly control access, creating inner circles and outsiders, based on social class prejudices as much as anything else?
The difference with pioneering could not be more stark. We are not positing any central authority, or any fixed ways and means of worshipping. Usually the work of putting worship together is shared and people are encouraged to join in as much as possible, to work together to create something that may reflect something of the journey of the group’s members, but also leaves many open ends. There is a sense that the Spirit is working among all of us, from the more recent to the longest attender – grace is expected to be present to us equally. None of us have earned any hats or badges. We are asking together what this Bible passage means, listening to the wisdom in the room and pondering the ideas that are offered gently. We are also usually very engaged in how this helps us, how this affects how we live, what does this passage ask of us? We are engaged in the work of practical theology. This is not an issue of academic or intellectual interest to us, nor is it an irrelevance.
People leading these kinds of church are usually leading from the middle, from being present to the people, available to them, able to listen to them and help them reflect back what they said as they think on their lives and God’s story. We have learned to be acute listeners and sleuths, spotting glimmers of the transcendent an holy in people’s lives, spotting gifts of discernment and wisdom and encouraging those to be developed and shared. It is a forensic process, like picking through a crime scene; working on the ground. We are not people who sit in offices, in the main, but are in among the culture we serve, aware of its messes and contradictions, its sins and injustices, its hopes and dreams. We are participant observers and in the main we live the joys and pains of our patch very personally – it is costly and almost unbearably joyful.
I was reminded last week by a monastic spiritual guide of the phrase Jesus said in Luke 22:27: “I come among you as one who serves.” Firstly, it is important to note he comes among us. That speaks of an immersive action, not as one who stands to the side or comes above people. Pioneers primarily come among the people they serve – they are as anthropologists at first, living among people in an open way, being available to them in normal relationships that are rarely mediated by authority. In fact I would say one of the marks of pioneering is this approach to authority – the only authority we have is that of being trusted by the people we journey with, such that over time they open up their lives, hearts, homes to us, invite us to their wedding anniversary parties, ask us to pray for their children. These relationships are mutual – we love and are loved, we know and are known. We come among people as those who serve. And we cannot serve usefully until this work of being among is done, and continues to be done. It is long and slow.
People and books tell me that this is no different than the relationships that parish priests have with their parishioners. From my own experience sadly I don’t find this to be true very often, in this day and age at least. (And in days gone by, when the social status of priests was much higher and often supported by connections to the landowning gentry, I don’t think it was the case in the idyllic era of Herbertism either.) There are the worker priests and some current examples of that such as Servants Asia. The modern notion of grouping parishes up into benefices has killed off (again see Anecdote to Evidence report) what small day to day interactions a priest could have had with her parishioners – now dashing from place to place in a car, only stopping for pre-arranged meetings in recognised places that rule out the sort of casual conversations about life and its struggles that we have when we come among people.
Time is the powerful energy that propels pioneering. And, to be honest, all ministry. Time and presence enable listening, followed by reflection, then moving / thinking / acting together with others. To accompany others as they journey to see Jesus is a long and complex work, given that people are starting from places that are a long way off, and they may have no framework of trust or belief for what is being explored. The church culture around us at this point doesn’t always have the time, patience or anxiety-free-strategic-view to give permission for this, or be interested enough to hear what are seeing and learning. Perhaps that is because it isn’t providing efficient, instant, packaged, marketable, useable solutions to the issues of the day? Perhaps the cultural gap we are speaking into is growing greater, with clergy so stretched in maintaining so that existing system is sustained, that they are exhausted and even outraged by the apparent idiocy of our small projects – some of my recent interactions would suggest this.
I ask the church to persevere with pioneers – we come among you as those who serve.