On the edge of the old, and the new

The experience of many (if not all) pioneers is one of being on the edge. This can be an exciting but at times uncomfortable and even lonely place to be. It is part of the nature of pioneers, those who are often first to spot opportunities or challenges and venture out toward them. As George Lings puts it ‘pioneers act out the fact that mission is always at the edge of what is’.

Venturing into this liminal territory raises a challenge to the status quo. Pioneers can be seen as disturbers of the peace, since what they learning, and the news ways of being that emerge through them, pose profound questions of the established order. Pioneers by their very nature ask questions, urgent and necessary ones in terms of their mission, sometimes unwelcome ones for the more traditional church structures.

However, this effect of pioneering is part of what it means to be a healthy and growing church. Gerald Arbuckle refers to pioneers as ‘innovators’ who are by the nature of what they do ‘dissenters’ who ‘offer alternative ways of acting’. He goes on to say: ‘all cultures need dissenters who offer alternative ways of doing things if they are to continue to live.’ So, the disturbing effect of pioneers is a healthy and necessary ingredient for the church as it looks to respond and adapt to change around it.

That said it is also true that the established church culture has an inbuilt tendency to resist the alternatives presented by pioneers. As Arbuckle says: ‘cultures have an inbuilt resistance to change and will normally do everything to obstruct the fear-creating alternatives of dissenters’.

The structures both resist and yet need to embrace the innovative, disturbing, questioning presence of pioneers. And this is surely the experience of many pioneers who find the established church to be an ambiguous blend of encouragement and resistance.

Systems Change – the two-loops model

The analysis of systems change above sheds further light on this (see diagram). According to this model from Deborah Frieze of the Berkana Institute, at the peak of a dominant system’s life visionary pioneers begin to walk-out from the status quo and explore alternatives.  The emergent system is distinct from the old and there is a gap, a transition phase, between the old and the new. Into this space various actors play significant roles. There are those who support the new. There are those, within the old system, who hospice its demise, and in doing so create space for the new. And there are those who encourage the new by ‘illuminating the choice’, telling stories, showcasing good practice. There are also the protectors, those in the old system who resist the emergence of the new by working hard to protect the old. You can watch a video of Deborah Frieze explaining this model here.

I have found this analysis helpful. As a pioneer it affirms my experience of being on the edge of a dominant system. And it gives me hope as I see what I do as part of a process that is bringing about the emergence of something new. It encourages me to find my supporters (some of whom may be very much part of the established structures). It suggests to me the importance of telling our story as a way of illuminating the change that is taking place.

The space in between

The question this raises of course is – to what extent our current structures can embrace and nourish both old and new? The concept of ‘mixed economy’ has gone some way to offering a positive basis for doing that. I certainly hope that our structures are open and flexible enough to create space for both. ‘When the church engages at the fringes, it almost always brings life to the centre” (Alan Hirsch). That is of course of the centre is willing to hold on to and listen to the edge.

In the meantime as pioneers, experiencing life on the edge, in that liminal space between one system and the emergence of another, we need one another. Furthermore, the connections and networks that pioneers form amongst themselves are key to fostering the emergence of the new. ‘Networks create the conditions for emergence, which is how life changes’ (Deborah Frieze). The importance of the various networks of support and learning that pioneers are forming is not just about creating places of support and solace – these new structures are also the engine of accelerated change. Communities of practice enable learning to happen more rapidly, they spread ideas and make discoveries available to a wider audience highly effectively.

All of this ought to lend a positive perspective of the challenging experience of being on the edge. It is where pioneers are meant to be. It is part and parcel of the dynamic process of emergence that we are involved in. And whilst it can be a challenging place, it invites us to be proactive in finding our supporters and ensuring that we participate in networks and communities of practice. For in that way we are not only facilitating support for ourselves but fostering the continued emergence of the new.

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