A few days ago I went to a supper at Wolvesey in Winchester with a focus on pioneering. You may have heard of ‘pioneer ministry’ or ‘fresh expressions of church’. They’ve been around for quite a few years now and have grown hugely. Recent research has identified 1109 fresh expressions in 21 Dioceses (Church of England only) with 50,600 people attending. One of the most popular fresh expressions to take off – perhaps the most popular – has been Messy Church. But it’s grown so much, now on several continents, that it seems ‘normal’ – to me, at any rate!
What is a pioneer? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, ‘an initiator of a new enterprise, an inventor’ and ‘an explorer or settler; a colonist’. I’m not sure we like all of those words – some of them carry a bit of baggage! But the emphasis is on doing something new or going somewhere new. Many of the people we remember from history were pioneers. Many of the greatest figures in the Bible and Christian history are remembered because they went somewhere new or did something new.
We might think of Abraham, called to a new land by God, but not knowing where he was going. We might think of Moses, leading the people of Israel out of Egypt and eventually back to that land. We might think of people in the early church – Peter, John, Philip, Paul… A huge ‘new thing’ for them was the inclusion of Gentiles into the church, which to start with was totally Jewish. But, interestingly, the word ‘pioneer ‘ is only used four times in the New Testament, and each time to describe Jesus (e.g. ‘the pioneer and perfecter of our faith – Hebrews 12.2). He is THE Pioneer, making all other Christian pioneering possible through his life, death and resurrection.
Pioneers take risks. What they do is often an experiment. It may or may not ‘work’. And whilst they feel guided by God and act in faith, there’s no guarantee that something will work or continue for a long time. Sometimes something is discovered, paving the way for the next project. The Church of England’s working definition is ‘Pioneers are people called by God who are the first to see and creatively respond to the Holy Spirit’s initiatives with those outside the church; gathering others around them as they seek to establish new contextual Christian community.’
Jono Harvey, known to many of us from taking services in Bishopstoke, has been a pioneer curate for the past four years on the Nightingale Estate in Eastleigh. There, he’s been developing Body and Soul – ‘a community that's exploring how friendship, fitness and faith work together to help us live happy and healthy lives.’ Jono’s curacy comes to an end in July, but he’s moving just over the border into Southampton to be a pioneer minister on the new North Stoneham estate – not even built yet!
Jono will be coming to some of our services on Sunday 8 July to say a ‘goodbye’, but I’ve also asked him if he’d say something about pioneering – what he’s done, what he’s going to do, but also give us some of the bigger picture. It struck me at the evening in Winchester that it would be so good for us to hear some of this – and it’s far better coming from a pioneer himself than me! It’s so easy for some of us to sit in church wondering what the future holds when ‘people don’t come to church anymore’. It’s so easy simply to believe the press that the church is in decline. The fact is that there is growth in places; there is growth in certain sorts of things; and it can’t all be measured by counting ‘bums on seats’. Ou
r job isn’t to fill every ‘normal church’, but to discover relevant ways to pass on the love of Jesus to others and grow the kingdom of God.
With every blessing