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.