The Pioneer Gift: Explorations in Mission

Look at the picture of the book cover. A shower of spent arrows point downwards, about to end their flight. But one arrow, upward bound, has just taken flight. Some see things as they are and say “Why?” Others dream things that never were and say, “Why not?” This superb book admires the few who want to change the world. They have a “Pioneering Gift.”[1] Pioneers do not like to hear “No, you can’t.” Pioneers start risky ventures, then ask permission to do what they are already doing. “Pioneers,” writes Johnny Baker, “bring an amazing gift . . . They see and imagine different possibilities to the way things are now, to business as usual. They build a pathway to make real what they see or imagine.”[2]

Protestant Church administrators may perceive pioneers as troubling and disorderly. (We should envy the Roman Catholics and Anglicans, whose hierarchies are more ready to accept the initiatives of their unruly members).

A pioneer is like a pawn on a chessboard (pioneer and pawn and peon derive from the same Latin root). The pawn is the weakest of all the pieces in the game, but it has one crucial role; the pawn makes the first move. The work of the Holy Spirit is set afoot by the least likely persons. Baker and Ross and the other contributors to this book have given us a gift that will inspire other pioneers to initiate much needed mission efforts at such a time as this.

Administrators have to make allowances for the dissenters. Baker: “By dissent I mean simply the proposing of alternatives. A system that is not [open to] alternatives is not likely to evolve creatively.”[3] “Jesus and all the prophets who were before him were dissenters who made the world new through their dissent.”[4] Dissenters must have space, that is, room to move. Baker: “They need to broker space” with reluctant administrators.[5] It is in the best interest of administrators to grant the requests, because renewal in the church often begins at the edges by people who dream things that never were.

Aidan was a pioneer. Aidan (d. 651) was sent to evangelize the massive swath of northern England that lay in Oswald’s kingdom and which had proved very resistant to the gospel. Aidan’s missionary strategy was simple—it was to walk. Bede tells us that ‘whether in town or country, he always travelled on foot unless compelled by necessity to ride; and whatever people he met on his walks, whether high or low, he stopped and talked to them about Jesus. “Do you know about Jesus?”, he would ask. If the reply was “no,” Aidan would say, “Then let me tell you about the love of God in Jesus.” If it was “yes” (for some of those he met were already Christians, at least by background), he would say, “Then let me show you how to love him more.”[6] We marvel at the strangeness of the story, and we admire the man. King Oswald would walk with Aidan in the early days, the two of them being utterly different from each other. The authors make this into an analogy of the power of the state church (represented by the king) legitimizing the mission of the strange man, Aidan. “My hope,” writes Christopher Cocksworth, “is that those of us who in some way oversee—see over—the Church’s life and witness will look to the example of Oswald and find inspiration in the way he saw the need to reach out to his culture in new ways.”[8]

Baker: People who are pioneers bring an amazing gift. One of the ways I have come to think of it is as the gift of not fitting in. This is not to suggest for a moment that the pioneers are the awkward squad. It is that they see and imagine different possibilities to the way things are now, to business as usual. They are then able to build a pathway to make real what they see or imagine.[9]

Ross: They are often with people on the edge of church or society, people who may not easily fit in.”[10] Ross: “Perhaps a certain amount of theological discomfort is a good thing.”[11]

It is an interesting exercise to go through the list of saints commemorated by the Church and feel one’s faith renewed. The vast majority of these saints were pioneers, though once their pioneering endeavors become accepted, we forget the initial prophetic challenge and difficulty of what they brought.[12]

“CMS was founded by pioneers.”[13] “One of their endeavors was to send people in mission to share the good news of Jesus Christ cross-culturally in places, countries, and cultures beyond the reach of the Church. Two hundred years later those places have become the heartlands of Christianity worldwide.”[14] “Where there is no pioneering gift, there is no mission.”[15] It is hard to make room for the strangeness of the people who say to those who are in charge, “Another world is possible.”[16]

Doug Gay writes:

What has been less than encouraging was the coolness of my own denomination, and in Scotland more generally, towards what we now tend to call fresh expressions or mission-shaped church.” The Church of England and the Methodist Church have allowed a permission-giving moment . . . but the Church of Scotland has been much cooler about the same themes and, arguably, the permission-giving has still not happened.[17]

Gay: We were a threat because we wanted to plant rather than assimilate . . . Without the patronage of a parish minister we were basically stymied. There was no equivalent of a Bishop’s Mission Order for us to turn to.[18]

Bob Blincoe: History teaches us that when the Church is tired, when it has almost no pulse, new life begins with the renewal of sodalities. For example, Bernard, whose greatness was as yet unproven, arrived at the monastery at Citeaux in 1112, where a Benedictine named Stephen Harding was abbot. The number of monks was in steep decline. Sickness had struck down most of the residents. Bernard was a young man of twenty-two when he knocked on the door. With him were 30 companions, five of them his own brothers. Renewal was afoot; Workman writes:

That youth was the great medieval prophet and preacher, St. Bernard, for many years the uncrowned pope of the Church, almost the dictator of Europe—by whose influence and enthusiasm the order so grew that within forty years it had founded one hundred and sixty daughter-houses, sixty-eight of which were filiations of the most illustrious offshoot of Bernard’s own foundation at Clairvaux.[19]

The outpouring of renewal has to be cupped with two hands, one being liberality in governmental licensing of citizen-sector groups [sodalities of like-minded people], the other the sodalities themselves. This is the advantage enjoyed by the Catholic Church; by licensing the monastic associations to organize themselves and to hive off new mission efforts, the Catholic Church has achieved a desirable symbiosis. But “by cutting off the orders, “Winter suggested, “the Protestant body virtually put . . . renewal . . . out of reach.”[20] Thus, Mark Noll could begin his essay “The Monastic Rescue of the Church” with a sweeping statement, “The rise of monasticism was, after Christ’s commission, to his disciples, the most important—and in many ways, the most beneficial—institutional event in the history of Christianity.”[21]

References Cited
Baker, Johnny, and Cathy Ross, eds. The Pioneer Gift: Explorations in Mission: Canterbury Press, 2014.

Noll, Mark A. “The Monastic Rescue of the Church: Benedict’s Rule.” In Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997.

Winter, Ralph D. “Protestant Mission Societies and the ‘Other Protestant Schism’.” In American Denominational Organization Pasadena: William Carey Library, 1980.

Workman, Herbert B. The Evolution of the Monastic Ideal from the Earliest Times Down to the Coming of the Friars. London: C. H. Kelly., 1913.

[1] Johnny Baker and Cathy Ross, eds., The Pioneer Gift: Explorations in Mission (Canterbury Press, 2014). 17
[2] Ibid. 1
[3] Ibid. 11
[4] Ibid. 11
[5] Ibid. 11
[6] Ibid. xi
[7] Ibid. xii
[8] Ibid. xiii
[9] Ibid. 1
[10] Ibid. 31
[11] Ibid. 32
[12] Ibid. 2
[13] Ibid. 13
[14] Ibid. 14
[15] Ibid. 17
[16] Ibid. 24
[17] Ibid. 40
[18] Ibid. 41
[19] Herbert B. Workman, The Evolution of the Monastic Ideal from the Earliest Times Down to the Coming of the Friars (London: C. H. Kelly., 1913). p. 239-240
[20] Ralph D. Winter, “Protestant Mission Societies and the ‘Other Protestant Schism’,” in American Denominational Organization (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 1980). 198
[21] Mark A. Noll, “The Monastic Rescue of the Church: Benedict’s Rule,” in Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997); ibid. 84