Pioneer Ministry (?)

As I’ve been thinking about Packard and Hope’s Church Refugees, I’ve wondered if the category I heard so much about when I worked in England–that of “pioneer ministry”–might be an applicable category.To make sure I really understood what is meant when people say it, I went and looked up “pioneer ministry” on the Fresh Expressions website so I’d be using the term correctly.

It turns out to be impossible to use the term “pioneer ministry” correctly, as there is no definition given by Fresh Expressions, the Church of England, or any other affiliated entity.  There is much talk about what a “pioneer minister” must be/have/do, but the actual activity of pioneer ministry is left vague.  It is, perhaps, any ministry primarily within a “fresh expression” of church, which might mean handing out flip-flops with little crosses on the soles to drunk female revelers who would be endangered if they had to totter home on high heels, convening a Sunday evening group of skateboarders in a converted church who pray for each other as they attempt stupidly dangerous tricks (and what is the theology if someone is seriously injured or killed?).  Or a host of other things.

Other than being “entrepreneurial” or having a “vision”, there is little here to help identify who is to be selected (or who might feel a “vocation”, or how that vocation is to be discerned).  Fresh Expressions, along with the Church of England, make great efforts (or at least use a lot of words) to describe what kind of training a “pioneer minister” should have, and further delineate between whether the person in question should be lay or ordained.

Unless you know what you are training for, how do you know whether the training is appropriate?  Maybe that’s an odd question, but I think it’s one worth asking.  “Education” might be about generalized learning and personal development, the formation of character and preparation for broad participation in society. That’s really a pretty traditional way to describe “education”.  Training for a particular kind of work is often a subset of education, but the two terms are not interchangeable. Before one begins training, one ought to have a pretty good idea of the tasks s/he will be performing, how performance will be measured, and how readiness to undertake the work will be assessed.

The thin descriptions of “pioneer ministry” fail to do this, and it’s hard to guess what “training” might look like.  A particular type of person is imagined as being good for this, but without being somewhat specific about the form(s) “pioneer ministry” might take, it is difficult to imagine, let alone design and deliver, appropriate training.

I’d like to add an idea to “pioneer ministry”:  ministry to those whom the church has historically and consistently failed to engage, using people uniquely suited to relate to those populations, even if that means selecting and recruting people who might not be found suitable for “traditional” ministries. Such a definition would make ministry to–and perhaps even ministry by–the de-churched a “pioneer ministry”. Further, it provides a fairly good basis for discerning who might be suitable, what they might be doing in this ministry, what skills need to be developed to exercise it, and how performance might be measured.

The best people to pioneer ministry to the de-churched are almost certainly people with the experience of being de-churched. If a “minister” has never had a period in his or her life as an adult Christian (I’d set aside adolescent rebellion against organized religion as an extension of parental authority), that person is unlikely to be sympathetic to or knowledgeable about the reasons a committed Christian might need time away from the church.  Without that understanding, ministry to the de-churched is unlikely to happen.

Ministry to the de-churched may not be a matter of making them the re-churched. It may be less about getting them back into regular Sunday worship and serving on half a dozen committees, and more about helping them to have a positive relationship with the institution even though formal, traditional contact is minimal.  It may be that the pioneer minister to the de-churched is mostly a liaison between Christians who are through with being preached at and made guilty for not making the church the center of their lives, and an institution that can still in other ways connect them to the things that will matter to them spiritually:  feeding the hungry, sustaining them spiritually as they serve God through their “secular” employment, or involvements in causes that the churches support but over which they do not have a monopoly.

Listening–not to formulate “correct” responses, but to really learn–will be a key element in training pioneer ministers to work with the de-churched.  This should be fairly easy, because one of the biggest reasons for leaving that Packard and Hope heard was that people who left felt they had not been listened to adequately or appropriately.  I would incorporate training in action learning sets to the training for pioneer ministers. I undertook a nine-month training in Action Learning Sets at University College London from 2009 to 2010.  Even though it is not a specifically “religious” technique, I found that my classmates listened to me more thoughtfully than almost any person trained in a Christian ministry program.  It is about listening, and asking questions of the speaker–not so the inquirer can gain more information, but so the speaker can hear his or her own truth.  It is more difficult than it seems:  questions cannot have “hidden judgments” or “advise” (“Have you thought of therapy?” is advice phrased in the form of a question). It treats the speaker as an adult, and respects the speaker’s autonomy.  Too many of Packard and Hope’s respondents found church a difficult place because these things were lacking.

Pioneer ministry to the de-churched may mean building Christian community–but not primarily with the people who attend on Sundays.  Many of the de-churched still crave community (although there are some who find that they need a break from Christian community).  Helping them find and connect with Chrsitians from places other than the congregation may be a significant part of pioneer ministry to those who have left church but haven’t left being Christian.

Pioneer ministry does not have to mean Christians being together doing things having nothing to do with Christianity, like skateboarding or going to pubs.  (I’d probably leave a pub if I saw a group of people worshipping in it). At least in part, it might mean a different way of being with a group of people with whom the churches have traditionally not related to in healthy ways.  A serious, thoughtful way of relating to the de-churched would be exactly that.

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