What is pioneering?

Smiling Ash and Anj Barker

Ash and Anj Barker host the Newbigin Pioneering Hub

As the idea of ‘Pioneering Ministry’ has begun to be explored by church and denominational leaders around the world, many definitions have been attempted. Here Ash Barker of Seedbeds, who leads the boxfresh Newbigin Pioneering Hub in Birmingham, offers a clear and fresh take.

At Seedbeds we are forming a new partnership with Church Mission Society and United Reformed Church to host and run the Newbigin Pioneering Hub and we see real potential for this new faith venture.

But what does pioneering mean? Why is it so important today?

I’d love you to take some time to connect with the calling, challenge, ministry and hope of pioneering. Could this be describing you?

Calling: ‘A God-given sense of responsibility…’

God is the initiator of pioneering. It’s often a mystical experience connected to God choosing us for a mission and we can’t let it go. Like Isaiah we can only respond “Here I am Lord, send me” even if all that will be left is a small shoot from a blackened stump (Isaiah 6).

Bonhoeffer, the great German theologian and Nazi resistor put it this way: “Action springs not from thought, but a readiness for responsibility.” In so many ways this is at the heart of all good leadership. Brene Brown says, “A leader is anyone who takes responsibility for finding the potential in people and processes, and who has the courage to develop that potential.”

My own callings to pioneer over the last 30 years were more detected than invented. In so many ways Springvale, Melbourne (1990 to 2002), Klong Toey, Bangkok (2002 to 2014) and now Winson Green, Birmingham (2014 to the present) were places that chose us more than us choosing them. We begin to love these local communities, see potential and, deep within, want them to thrive.

Though it may look different, all Christians need to have that deep sense of God given responsibility for people and place.

Challenge: ‘…to cross barriers…’

Pioneers experience real obstacles to see their call realised. If it was easy it would have been done already and so the willingness to take initiative and cross cultural, relational, class and/or geographical barriers are therefore a hallmark of pioneering.

God did not just zap us from a distance, but “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighbourhood” (John 1:18, The Message). Pioneers need to take context seriously, as the connections between culture, theology and methods need to be explored if local people are to have authentic encounters and follow Jesus together in ways that are most natural to them.

Who is missing out on encountering and following Jesus together today? The rapid decline of UK church involvement, for example, especially in Urban Priority Areas, raises many questions that require us to connect in new ways. Should working class people, for example, have to become middle class in style and culture to meet Jesus and ‘fit in’ to the life of congregations? Pioneers say “No!”

“We don’t have a compassion problem,” says Shane Claiborne, “as much as a proximity problem.” What barriers can we overcome to help local communities be authentically themselves and experience Christian faith together? How can local churches be both relevant and faithful?

Ministry: ‘…creating new opportunities with local communities…’

Pioneers see differently. They see potential, ready to be released in new ways. Local communities don’t need things done to them. Pioneering today is working ‘with’ local people, joining in with God’s work there.

‘The Great Commission’ in John’s Gospel is simply: “Shalom be with you. As the Father sent me. So I am sending you” (John 20:21). This speaks of entering into the suffering of local people as Jesus did with humans and seeking well-being from the inside out.

Las Tzu in 6BC put it this way: “Go to the people, live with them, love them. Start with what they know. Build with what they have. But with the best leaders, when the work is done, the task accomplished, the people will say ‘we’ve done it ourselves.’”

At the heart of the Newbigin Pioneering Hub with CMS and URC is recognising and resourcing pioneers as in their calling as catalytic Christian ministers. We aim to discover, nurture, empower and release a new generation of pioneers. This will include helping pioneers connect with new mission contexts, pathways, retreats and coaching. We believe we can go further and deeper in our calling as pioneers if we connect together well. We will form this ‘Community of Pioneers’ out of those who currently identify as pioneers as well as those coming through the Certificate in Pioneer Mission, which we will offer based in Winson Green starting in September 2022.

Hope: ‘…to see flourishing in God’s love and shalom.’

The purpose of the pioneer isn’t just to get more people attending church services. It’s no less than helping realise the promises of God on earth as in heaven, as Jesus prayed. We can anticipate now the promises of new heavens and new earth in our local places which includes all our life together (Isaiah 65).

This promised ‘shalom’ happens when God, people and place lives in harmony together. This purpose is what Jesus began and is now the core work of the local church.

As Lesslie Newbigin says the aim of the local church is: “To be a sign, instrument and foretaste of God’s coming reign in the place for which it is responsible.” We long for every local community to flourish in God’s love and shalom, but know so many neighbourhoods are missing out right now.

I believe this new venture can unearth a new generation of pioneers, ready to be planted personally in local places and able to grow people into new communities of hope, faith and compassion wherever Jesus has called them to serve. We have hard-won insights from experienced pioneers that can help form, guide and inspire a new generation from here. We would love you to join us.

Could God be calling you to step out in faith with us to see your God-given dreams in your local community flourish in faith, hope and love?

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