Feel like giving up?
I used to wonder why people would say how encouraged they were that even Paul, the great missionary and pioneer, occasionally wanted to give up. That is why, they said, he wrote that ‘Since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart’ (2 Corinthians 4:1). Now, having been involved with planting churches for about 15 years in various ways, I think I understand!
Sometimes the obstacles and challenges are overwhelming; occasionally a life spent maintaining the status quo seems just more realistic; and there are times of personal and project failure which call everything into question. On the other side, I feel more convinced and committed than ever before to being on the front line of pioneering missional work in London in the UK. How can I encourage myself to keep this perspective, not least when things are challenging, when I’m exhausted or discouraged, or when there seems great resistance?
It seems to me that the big story of the Bible is of pioneering from beginning to end. Right from Genesis with its establishing of the human project for the glory of God in all the earth; through the redemption of God’s people for his praise in the promised land; into the coming of the kingdom with its prophetic call to be for God’s glory; then into the life and ministry of Jesus, understood as a gathering of loved, healed and forgiven people with a missionary calling into all the world; then the release of the church in the power of the Spirit racing to the ends of the earth and the ends of time; culminating in the great vision in Revelation of the new heavens and the new earth. All these are glimpses of the mission of God reaching into the darkness and into suffering, creating and restoring humanity, and working for a Kingdom of justice and healing, and his invitation for us to partner with him as he is on the move.
Having a sense that the work of pioneering has strong theological foundations can give us a rock-like confidence in the importance of the work we are called to do.
Not everyone is called to be a pioneer. I love Acts 11: 19-30, for instance, with its account of the church in Antioch. We read of the believers who began to speak to Greeks, as well as Jews, to tell them the good news about the Lord Jesus (the pioneers); Barnabas and Saul, who went to teach and encourage the new converts (the pastors); and then Agabus and some others who predict through the Spirit a vast famine (the prophets). Pioneers, pastors and prophets are all needed. There is no suggestion that one is any more important than the other, but each has a vital role to play.
If I’m not a pioneer, then I should not squeeze myself into some kind of pioneering mould. Self knowledge is so helpful, as is the input of friends. If I feel that I am actually made for this kind of stuff, though, it gives me a freedom and authenticity that can sustain me in more difficult times.
It seems to me that there is a prioritising of the pioneer in terms of the strategic breaking of new ground. In 1 Corinthians 12: 28, Paul talks about how ‘God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets’. Apostles and prophets are again at the head of the list in Ephesians 4:11, whilst Ephesians 2:20 describes the church as ‘built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone’.
However we understand the ministry of apostles and prophets today, it makes sense to see those who carry the apostolic word of the gospel into new places as being those who are the first wave of any new movement of God in the establishing of churches where previously there were none. When Paul speaks of wanting to ‘preach the gospel in the regions beyond’ (2 Corinthians 10: 16), he expresses both the heart of the pioneer, but also the strategy of the pioneer.
4. Apostolic bands
The way that Paul is constantly building teams who help and encourage him in his missionary journeys in the book of Acts and in his letters is very striking. Pioneering is potentially very lonely work, as well as very demanding. There are few things as encouraging and sustaining as having heart connection with like-minded people, engaged in similar work. All friendship is to be cherished, but when we have close ties with people who understand from the inside what our pioneering work is like, this can fortify us in special ways. Speaking personally, it is friendship and networking with other pioneers, which has been the most strengthening and sustaining factor for me.
There can be a restlessness to being a pioneer, which is not always healthy. There is also a good and proper sense in which God is always calling us on to new challenges. I love how Paul can write, ‘It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known’ (Romans 15: 20). Lack of spiritual ambition is the death knell for any pioneer.
It is good for pioneers to be challenged and stretched and have our horizons lifted. The more we can read of good practice, or learn through podcasts or conferences, of new models, stories which encourage us, the better. Continual interaction with people who are ahead of us in this game, whether through formal mentoring relationships or something more informal, can give us both inspiration and practical help.
That are always discouragements in any ministry, and such a key work as pioneering will face spiritual resistance, whilst the social dynamics of frequently bringing change can frequently stir strong passions. We all need all the encouragement we can get! Personally, I am so grateful to those who have guided and helped me, in their prayers, with their friendship, and by their example.
Rector, St George’s, Holborn