We’re All Pioneers Now: Skills for the Unchartered Landscape of the 21st-Century Church

We’re All Pioneers Now: Skills for the Unchartered Landscape of the 21st-Century Church

They triumphed . . . by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony.
(Revelation 12:11)

[Our] basic frameworks were formed by the socio-cultural paradigms coming primarily from the social sciences, psychology, and the business world. . . . [We] have all been formed, whether in church or seminary or other social structures to be blind to God’s agency. . . . [What we need are] leaders whose imagination and practices are shaped far less by the existent models of human agency and far more by discerning the ways in which God is present as agent in the process of calling into being the kingdom. . . . God is active [and] we are invited to participate, to join with God. (Branson and Roxburgh)

Outside my window there’s a man treating for termites. He’s whistling. I’m envious. I imagine that whistling while working is possible when you know what you’re doing. I’ve rarely felt that way in ministry. A termite guy is given tools, chemicals, and a uniform, and he appears to be good to go. The tools I’ve been given as a Christian leader often no longer apply to my work.

There was a time when the role of church leader was a pretty stable one, when the shape of a congregation or worship service felt preset. There was a time when the textbooks that Christian leaders read in seminary still were pretty applicable by the time they retired. After all, we’re part of an ancient tradition, interpreting a timeless text. Traditionally, this vocational calling to local church leadership has attracted the settlers among us, the personalities who love history, who know how to plant themselves in a place and invest for a long time. If we’d wanted constant change and adventure, we might have instead become traveling evangelists or cross-cultural missionaries.

Now, whether or not we like it, we’re all pioneers. And it doesn’t look like things are going to stabilise any time soon.

In our post-Christian world, shaped by climate crisis and technology, disrupted by pandemic and war, very little is stable, including the shape of ministry. Pain, confusion, and exhaustion are constant themes in ministry conversations as Christian leaders burn out and walk away from ministry or from faith entirely.

For years we’ve prayed for change; but this is too much at once. It feels like God has thrown us into the deep end. But by God’s grace, this opportunity to swim in chaotic waters can become our invitation to learn the very skill we most need in this moment. The desperation of this current disruption holds the potential to teach us the very posture the world most needs to see from us—actual dependence on the power of a transcendent God.

We’ve prayed for change; but this is too much. The desperation of this current disruption holds the potential to teach us the very posture the world most needs to see from us—actual dependence on the power of a transcendent God.

As we find ourselves suddenly working on the frontier, I find great courage in stories from the global church in places where Christians have long had to be pioneers. One such example is in Iran, where the church has been exploding in growth, largely with no buildings, resources, or denominational structure exercising overt influence. Predominantly, lay leaders—who are majority women—spread the gospel organically by sharing their own testimonies. In places that are not open to overt Christian evangelism (which could increasingly describe Western cultures across the globe), the Disciple Making Movements (DMM) model of ministry is bringing true change.

Here are some of the foundational practices of DMM:

  1. Inviting non-Christians into daily discipleship.

Instead of talking about “Christianity” or “Church,” DMM leaders speak about Jesus, giving neighbors and workmates daily opportunities to see an ordinary human choosing once more to trust that there is a powerful God at work. These pioneering Christians don’t convert to disciple; they disciple to convert. Learning from Jesus’ way of discipling from the first interaction, DMM teaches Christians to naturally share Bible stories in their own words, inviting people to join them in Christian practices.

Instead of talking about “Christianity” or “Church,” speak about Jesus, giving neighbors and workmates daily opportunities to see an ordinary human choosing once more to trust that there is a powerful God at work.

  1. Trusting that God goes ahead of us.

In DMM, Christians trust that God is already working in the lives of all people and that our part is to pay attention to join God’s work. One leader describes it in this way: “When we do DMM, Jesus has gone faster than us. He has come in their dreams, or he’s come miraculously in their lives. When we hear this, we know that Jesus has gone ahead of us.”

  1. Praying as actual, serious ministry strategy.

As one DMM leader describes it: “Everything is [founded] on prayer. We start with prayer; we find people of peace through prayer. We even find locations through prayer. When we have prayed and found a person of peace, we start speaking to that person. And that person is free to tell anyone in his social circle (about our conversation), but usually they start with their family . . . and if two others join them, we consider this the beginning formation of a church. This is all in the first week. In that first week that we began the DMM process, we find out their needs and share the first story with them. Quickly, we could have the formation of a church. For us it’s not important how many people it is or how small it is.”

  1. Setting aside perfectionism and welcoming the leadership of ordinary people.

Christians in these pioneering places share their experiences: “It’s not important to us if we don’t have a pastor overseeing, or an evangelist evangelizing. From week one, the church that is forming is under the power and reign of the Holy Spirit from the start. It’s so interesting to watch the process because the people in this budding, infantile church don’t even understand what’s happening to them every week. They don’t realize God has been discipling them from week one.”

“The way that God calls us to respond is always the same. He raises up weak, broken individuals who are willing to say yes, who are willing to go. And then he does the work by the power of the Holy Spirit.”[8]

“The way that God calls us to respond is always the same. He raises up weak, broken individuals who are willing to say yes, who are willing to go. And then he does the work by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

  1. Being unsurprised that our faith may cost us (comfort, jobs, relationships, safety, life).

Sounding very much like the first-century followers, and like Jesus himself, one DMM pioneer put it, “Persecution is part of the Christian life.” The choice to embrace what it costs us continues to teach Christians the very faith that they’re sharing. In everything they lose for the gospel, they have one more opportunity to learn their need for God. And so what threatens to crush them, instead gives them more to share.

The message of Iranian Christians to the church in the West is this: “To see the harvest come, it’s not going to be clean. . . . there’s going to be mess. It often doesn’t come in the form we think it will come.”

Most of the things we think are necessary for success, these church leaders don’t have. But they’re succeeding in mission in the truest sense of the word, in lives given to Jesus. What they have in spades is faith. And apparently, faith is what actually grows the church, as faith begets faith. We’ve tried sharing Jesus through our own ideas, doctrines, rules, and programs. Some of it has worked; but much of it has not lived up to scriptural promises that God transforms human lives.

We’ve tried sharing Jesus through our own ideas, doctrines, rules, and programs. Much of it has not lived up to scriptural promises that God transforms human lives. Apparently, faith is what actually grows the church.

When so much about contemporary Christian leadership feels impossible, this way of leading by faith is hopeful. It’s hopeful because it’s not just for the most charismatic, educated, or driven. When we no longer can cruise on “the way it’s always been done,” when the old language and ways of understanding Scripture begin to lose their meaning, we have little more than to ask once more where the Spirit is leading and say yes, over and over again.

When faith becomes the greatest impetus of our leadership, we suddenly have a more numerous and diverse array of leaders available in every congregation. Regardless of how much certainty or closeness to God we feel, if faith is an act of will, it’s always in our control. We can choose to say, “I don’t know what God has in store (and sometimes I wonder if he’s listening), but Scripture says God is powerful and His Spirit is active in us and the world. So we choose to live as if that’s still true.”

When faith becomes the greatest impetus of our leadership, we suddenly have a more numerous and diverse array of leaders available in every congregation.

This faith-led way of leadership is naturally humble and collaborative, growing from a deep awareness of our need for God and for one another. It makes us less ashamed that we don’t bring all that’s needed here and more ready to welcome the gifts of all. It creates a capacity for risk and grace. And underneath it all, this way of leading has a deep integrity, no longer based on the unspoken assumption that it’s all up to us. When we approach the work of leading by following God, the hard parts of the work actually train us in that skill all the more.

It takes faith to pray blessing when you want to curse.

It takes faith to keep reading (and teaching) a Bible that says hard and confusing things.

It takes faith to stop to pray in the middle of a tense business meeting when you want to look like the leader who can fix the problem.

It takes faith to send out enthusiastic invitations for events that may or may not be a success.

It takes faith to draw a line for the sake of the community when you know it will step on someone’s toes.

It takes faith to lead the singing just because someone has to do it, even though you hate the sound of your own voice.

It takes faith to preach your conviction when you know you’ll lose the offerings that pay your salary.

It takes faith to model how to wait on God’s direction when people want answers from you right now.

It takes faith to cast a vision of something you haven’t yet seen, so that the vision might become a reality for all to see, including yourself.

It takes faith to say “God is good” when you feel like giving up.

It takes faith to rest when you want to look (and feel) productive and efficient.

It takes faith to stay when your survival instincts say, “Get me out of here!”

It takes faith not to take things personally when they feel so personal.

It takes faith to proclaim that God can heal when all you see is brokenness.

It takes faith to proclaim provision when all you see is scarcity.

It takes faith to pay attention to the still, small voice within more than the clamoring calls for clarity around you (some of which are the noise within your own mind).

Whether or not we like it, we find ourselves pioneers, at a crucial time. It may feel like disruption, but future generations will look back on this as a time that shaped their present. The church they know will be possible in part because of our courage, our perseverance, and our daily watching for God—in short, our faith (small though it may seem).

The church that future generations know will be possible in part because of our courage, our perseverance, and our daily watching for God—in short, our faith (small though it may seem).

God is out ahead of us. Are we still looking for him?

This piece was originally published on the Missio Alliance website. You can view the original post here.

Mandy Smith is a pastor and author of The Vulnerable Pastor: How Human Limitations Empower Our Ministry (IVP).

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