Encouraging pioneers

The cultural landscape in the West, alongside our increasingly globalised world, has created a situation where I believe we need to move beyond our over-reliance on past church growth formulae and algorithms, and instead move to explore and pioneer different approaches to missional engagement. I would argue that the rural church in particular needs pioneers; so how might we go about encouraging an environment which is both supportive of those who have a pioneering spirit, but also assist the church to see new ideas as not so much a threat to the status quo? How could we view this as an opportunity to have a ‘mixed economy’ of both old and new?

One of the early steps I would want to suggest, which would be of help to both church and pioneer, is the ability to see the past without destroying it. Pioneers can be very good at critiquing all that has gone before as no longer fit for purpose. However, many of the things that we see as perhaps old and traditional once had pioneers to initiate them — Sunday school, church organ, hymns, seating and service times, to name but a few. The identifying and valuing of the past can also be helpful for existing congregations to see that things were not always as they are now and pioneering new ventures to share the gospel is within the DNA of the church.

For pioneers to be encouraged and truly utilised, we have to give room for failure. I have written before on this topic, so I don't wish to labour the point here other than to say, could we learn to equally celebrate “Let’s try it” as well as “we did it”? Someone once said, “If you get a bullseye every time, you’re standing too close to the target.” If we are not failing every now and again, we’re not trying anything innovative or stepping out in faith.

Isolation can be one of the most significant issues faced by pioneers, especially those within a rural context. Helping pioneers feel accepted as part of the church is so important, even if the initiative or idea will not be outworked in the local church. Some can see pioneers as eccentrics, people who don't fit in. What might it mean for us to create the space for pioneers to experiment whilst at the same time being valued, supported and prayed for as part of a worshipping community?

Pioneers, as well as those who are part of the established church, can be in danger of looking for the quick fix; the sticking plaster to place on the wound. I am becoming convinced that discerning what God is already up to, and how we respond to this as Christians, takes time. The church and pioneers can both have unrealistic expectations of how quickly results might be achieved, perhaps all to used to living in a microwave society where everything is ready at the sound of a ‘ping’. The rural context has so much to teach us in terms of the right conditions for growth, how it takes time, and how there is often a seasonality to this too.

Teamwork and encouragement go hand in hand. This is a simple, but a profound lesson contained within the epistle to the Hebrews:

Let's keep a firm grip on the promises that keep us going. [God] always keeps his word. Let's see how inventive we can be in encouraging love and helping out, not avoiding worshipping together as some do but spurring each other on, especially as we see the big Day approaching. [Hebrews 10:23-25 The Message]

Let’s seek to be encouragers of pioneers within our churches over the coming months.

Simon

Making disciples of all nations

We all have moments or events in our lives that we look back on and realise they were significant, life-changing even. Occasionally we are aware of their significance at the time. A few years ago on a visit to Barcelona with friends, I went to La Sagrada Familia, a Roman Catholic Basilica still under construction. It was our last morning in the city, and I'd have been happier to have simply enjoyed the cafe culture in the October sunshine. Being far more cultured than me (and less lazy), my non-church going companions dragged me along with them.

As I stood outside with other tourists looking up at the intricately carved Nativity Facade, I was struck by the solemn happiness in the faces of the carved statues representing the people involved in the story of the Incarnation. They seemed more like real people who might step down and walk away at any moment than mere stone reminders of ancient history. There was a welcome on the door of all faiths and none, of all people from any background and tradition. There was a sense we were being invited into the family home.

Then I walked through the Door of Christian Love, from the early morning warmth and sunshine into the lightness of a stone forest of magnificent trees with branches curving high above, their pale grey trunks dappled in jewelled dancing lights from the sunlight streaming through the stained glass windows. I stopped in awe to try and take it in.

It felt as if I'd walked into a part of heaven and, judging by the reactions of people who'd walked in with me, it seemed as if I wasn't the only person who felt this way. Those feelings of wonder and awe have not faded for me even though this experience is a few years old.

I have never been made so aware of how beautiful and magnificent and approachable God is.

Yet all this astonishing structure does is to tell the story of Jesus and his purpose in coming among us using visual imagery and text as well as telling the story of his disciples who responded to the commission given to them by Jesus in Matthew 28: 19 - 20: 'Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Moving around La Sagrada Familia, you couldn't help but be aware of how vital the disciples were to God's involvement in His world and that this includes ALL disciples, ancient and modern, from all church traditions and none. The story of Jesus includes all those who are part of God's family and the story hasn't ended but continues to be written as we walk it and tell it.

This unexpected experience remains alive in my memory, providing me with an anchor when I grieve the ugliness of life, a visual aid when I need to picture a God of wonder and inspiration when I need reminding of the greatness of God. Above all, this is a place I am not ashamed to take people who do not believe. There was no coercion to believe, no guilt trip laid on anyone, no judgement proclaimed. It was quite gloriously and unashamedly a proclamation of the love of God for all that was so compelling it's the only church my friends want to return to. I don't know how to tell the story of Jesus as well as the architect Gaudi has managed to but just knowing it can be done, inspires me to keep trying.

Revd Alison Griffiths
Director Pastoral Care: South

Disciple-making disciples

It is amazing how God can use the most mundane of activities to bring something to your attention. Very recently I was collecting the waste material from some of our horses, and I got talking to a dog walker as they passed. They are local to our village. Our brief conversation turned quickly to the topic of prayer, and the church and this dog walker (who I previously knew only on a nodding basis) recommended a book to me called ‘Spent matches’ by Roy Moran. I was intrigued by the title, and their brief synopsis of the book, which in short was all about disciple-making, something that God has been placing on my radar.

The author has hope for 'the church’, as indeed I have, but critiques its current state in terms of the complexity that we have placed on what essentially is a straightforward task Jesus left us with - to make disciples. Jesus didn’t say, ‘Go plant churches’. In fact, I seem to recall that when it came to the topic of churches, Jesus suggests that he would be the builder, not us. You and I, as followers of Jesus, are called to 'go and make disciples', or perhaps a better understanding is to ‘go and make disciple-making disciples.’

I need to be clear; I trained as a church planter, and I do believe in church planting. Our country needs vibrant communities of Jesus followers and, in some places, these do not exist, so we need to either regenerate what is there or begin something new, perhaps alongside the existing. My question is about how we go about assessing the effectiveness of these communities. For too long we have used the metrics of who is attending, who is part of a group, who is in and who is out, rather than asking the question, who is journeying towards and becoming more like Jesus, i.e. discipleship.

We can be good at talking about disciple-making, and we even plan for it, but as Roy Moran helpfully challenges through his book, the energies we often invest in disciple-making follows a knowledge-based approach; whereby Sunday by Sunday, or house group by house group, we download knowledge into those attending, and perhaps do little to ask about what is now changing in us, what new posture we might take because of what we have heard. It seems to me that we are in danger of calling ourselves Christians without applying our faith to every aspect of life.

One of the features of the rural context is that learning tends to be less book centred and more experiential; people want to see it in action before they will necessarily take it on board. I wonder if this perhaps offers us an opportunity in terms of disciple-making disciples? The emerging culture is yearning for authenticity, and I am yet to be convinced that authenticity is best demonstrated by being a passive audience member at a weekly event.

The book sights seven basic questions that could be used in groups, and I have slightly adapted these (below) and offer them to you as a basis for your home groups or community gatherings. I would be fascinated to hear how these work out for you, so do please get in contact and let me know!

  1. What did you do with what you learned last week?

  2. What are you thankful for? What can you celebrate?

  3. What is causing you stress at this time? What is keeping you awake at night?

  4. Do you have a need, or does someone you know have a need, that this group could meet?

  5. What does God have to say today? (This will be in response to a passage of scripture)

  6. If this is God speaking, what are you going to do about it? What are we going to do about it?

  7. Who could you share with this week what God is doing in your life?

This is not the final word in disciple-making, nor will this automatically create loads of disciples where you are; you may already be using a similar approach which is far more effective than these questions. Nevertheless, for many, this could well be a first much needed step to making disciple-making disciples.

Taking them with you

The King James translation of Proverbs declares, ‘Without vision, the people perish’ which is a verse that has sometimes been used out of context by leaders to highlight the importance of vision in the church; invariably to justify a particular direction of travel that they feel others are slow to sign up to. Certainly, much has been written about the importance of vision over the years; however, some are now beginning to wonder if vision is, in fact, overrated and questioning if it has a place in God’s church. I am not sure that the problem lies solely with vision; too often I have observed leaders who have spent time and energy on communicating the vision to a passive congregation and a sea of blank faces. The problem is perhaps that the very same leaders while passionate about the vision, have invested little time on taking others with them on the journey or implementation of the vision; it has simply been “here’s the vision, let’s do it.” If our vision remains just a compelling idea or an alluring dream, we have failed. Vision is about creating a preferable future and taking people with you.

Collaboration

Perhaps one of the problems with implementing vision is when we as leaders think, “If I didn't invent it, it's not worth considering”, so we rule it out. I would advise that we should never pretend that we have it all worked out already; one of the best ways to get others on board is to collaborate with them, ask for their advice, perhaps beginning with something like, “this is what I see, these are the challenges, and these are the benefits, what do you see and what have I missed?”

Less is more

Sometimes we can use too many words; if we speak for an extended period, we may find that the vision gets lost. People won’t get on board unless they understand. I still remember a presentation of a visionary budget by a church treasurer back in the 1990s, who offered a very brief vision coupled with the largest chocolate cake I had seen for a while. While he spoke, he cut up slices and began to hand them around. There was not enough for everyone, which was his point. Unless we as a church gave more, we could not give to all the different initiatives that we were planning to support.

Deal with their concerns

When we as leaders begin to share a vision, we need to prepare ourselves for four areas of concerns that people often have. The first is ‘can I ask questions?’, in other words, is this a fait accompli or do you want to hear from me? The second concern is ‘will I fit with this, and what am I going to lose?’ People are invariably bothered about the potential loss, so we may need to spend time reassuring them that they still matter. The third concern is ‘How is this going to be done?’ People might need to see some form of an action plan so that they can begin to understand how the dream might become a reality. The fourth concern is, ‘what is the benefit?’ Invariably it is not until the first three concerns are answered do people care about the benefits. That means a leader cannot announce a change and explain its advantages and expect people to support the change. When we ask people to do something different, they regularly focus on what they have to give up, not on what they are going to gain.

Have an action plan

Finally, a well communicated, and widely owned vision statement is a ‘bridge to nowhere’ without an action plan. An action plan converts dreams into decisions and reallocates the resources of your church to undergird the new vision. A key pitfall to avoid is creating a bold vision and then continuing with the church the same as always. A fresh vision calls for new activity. Consider putting together an action team. Ideally, the same people that helped develop the vision in the first place is an excellent place to start, but consider adding to it with key volunteers who will help live out the vision action plan.

If you would like to learn more on the topic shaping and sharing a vision, then do book into our Leadership development conference in April. We think that vision is such a crucial topic in church leadership, that we have extended the early bird discount until the end of February, which offers you a saving of £25 per person. Why not join the many who have already signed up, and let's learn together how to be people of vision who take others with us?