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29 August 2012

Is there a theology for pioneering?

Is there a theology for pioneering?

I chair the Church of England’s Pioneer Panel, which interviews potential candidates for Ordained Pioneer Ministry. The language of pioneering is in frequent use in some parts of the Church, but has it any theological justification? 

Unless we are to believe that our context, and so our mission field, never changes, it is more difficult to justify non-pioneering activity than pioneering. Helmut Thielike, a German theologian of the 1950s, said: “The gospel must be constantly forwarded to a new address because its recipient is repeatedly changing his place of residence.” We live at a time when our culture has changed radically from the one for which most traditional churches were designed so a capacity for pioneering is indispensable today. 

One of its main theological roots lies in the incarnation. In his final public sermon, on Christlikeness, John Stott said: “As Christ had entered our world, so we are to enter other people’s worlds. We are to be like Christ in his mission.” Entering other people’s worlds’ involves pioneering.

It is the Holy Spirit who is foundational for any theology of pioneering. The gift of Pentecost was a pioneering gift. According to Acts, the primary gift at Pentecost is not just ‘empowered witness’ but empowered witness for cross-cultural mission. The disciples would be empowered to faithfully bear the gospel across cultural barriers, and from context to context – “Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” This promise is not theoretical. It is fulfilled as the story of Acts unfolds, culminating in Rome, which for any Jew, who knew that Jerusalem was the centre of the world, was indeed ‘the ends of the earth’. 

Pioneering is also about being a sign and agent of God’s future kingdom as it breaks into the present. Pentecost was a harvest festival, the ‘feast of weeks’. It was the first day when the ‘first fruits’ of the harvest could be presented in the Temple. This was in anticipation of the full harvest celebrated at the Feast of Tabernacles. In the same way the gift of the Spirit is the first fruits (Romans 8:23) and the taste of “the powers of the age to come” (Hebrews 6:5). In the gift of the Holy Spirit, the future secured by Christ breaks into the  present. 

Christians are not just stewards of the gifts of God from the past; they are ‘future in advance’ people – pioneers whose ministry is an anticipation of the great age to come. We live towards the future in the power of the Holy Spirit. As Bishop Lesslie Newbigin wrote: “The Church is the pilgrim (pioneering!) people of God. It is on the move – hastening to the ends of the earth to beseech all to be reconciled to God, and hastening to the end of time to meet its Lord who will gather all into one.” This is made possible by the power of the Spirit.

This empowering is no longer just for special leaders or special times but for the whole people of God regardless of age, gender or status. “In the last days,” God says, “I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.” (Acts 2:17-18) The gift was not merely one of power to be a witness, but of revelation, of wisdom as to the form that witness should take. As they moved (reluctantly at first) from church as they knew it in Jerusalem, to Judea, then Samaria and to the Gentile ends of the earth, they needed the revelation of the Spirit through the dreams, visions and prophecies promised by Joel, and fulfilled at Pentecost. 

Through the Holy Spirit, the Church is a pioneering missionary community but within the Spirit’s gifts there is a particular calling to a ‘boundary crossing’ or apostolic ministry. Certain people in Acts, some named (e.g. Peter and Paul) and some anonymous (Acts 11:20), pioneered the way for others to follow. A pioneering Church needs its pioneers and needs them today. Bishop Graham Cray

Bishop Graham Cray is Archbishops’ missioner and leader of the Fresh Expressions team 


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