I have been drawn into various conversations this past month about pioneer ministry. I want precision about what it is, because otherwise it just becomes a sexy moniker for anything creative, alternative and generally involving young people. Someone's suggested to me, for example, that helping set up a monthly service in a village hall is “pioneer ministry,” or running a youth group, or recruiting a new missional community of 20-somethings and resourcing them for ministry. That last one obviously is — but what about the others? What is pioneer ministry?
Inspired by Vincent Donovan’s book Christianity Rediscovered, I’ve had an idea. Fr Donovan was a 1960’s RC missionary in Kenya who went out to sell the locals his faith, and experienced some degree of honest frustration and discomfort before he realised he could more fruitfully work from the other end. In other words if he got under the skin of Masai Culture, taking its sociology and culture as a gift of God not an obstruction to the gospel, people would find their own way of being authentically Masai Catholic Christians instead of copies of Liverpuddlian RC’s. The result of this was to fulfil his original mission brief, but from the other end to the one he had anticipted, and to produce a new and authentic strand in Catholic faith, to enrich it from a new culture.
So, the essential distinctive for a pioneer minister, I reckon, is:
a willingness and ability to go live in another sociology, listen to it and struggle to understand what it is about and how Christ is reflected in it, then work from within it to develop a community of discipleship that is authentic to it, but also to the Way of Christ.
Imagine I was 95, and discovered that the other residents of my sheltered housing scheme were brought up in a pattern of Christendom Christiantiy which had not worked for them and rendered them deeply unable to access what was good in it because they were so blocked by what had broken down and changes int he context. I work out what, positively their culture is, and what it tells me of Christ who is greater than any culture but reflected in all. I then work out a way of life that does justice to both historic Christianity, as an authentic development, and also their culture. I’m 95, but I’m a pioneer...
So the qualities required of a pioneer minisuter would be profound rootedness in the substance but not necessarily the form of historic Christianity, plus a willingness and activity to live within another sociology, plus discernment, plus the willingness to build community, plus an ability to articulate what has been learnt and interpret it back tot he rest of the Church. It’s a tall order — very much more than just being a real trendy geezer. The joy and strength of Christianity has been its capacity to enculturate and adapt whilst retaining its golden heart. “Stop the World I want to get off” is an expression of fear not faith. We need more than that. As cultures interface, develop and fracture only to re-form, the Church needs real pioneers!