I am an Ordinand (read trainee vicar) in the Church of England (evangelical branch). I also happen to be training to be a Pioneer Minister. As I come to the end of my training, I am starting to wonder just how compatible these three characteristics actually are. Can you be an evangelical pioneer and hold a coherent theology? This question has been an irritant for a while, like a stone in my shoe, and I just have to let it breathe. The following is as much a space for that, as it is a cry for insight, advice and challenge. If you make it to the bottom of this piece then great, if you have some thoughts then even better, I would love to hear from you.
The Church of England defines Pioneers as those “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”. The origin of pioneering is Christological; the author of the book of Hebrews refers to Christ as the “the pioneer and perfecter of faith”. Christ’s pioneering is multi-faceted. Soteriologically he pioneered a new way of relating to God. Ecclesiologically he pioneered a new way of being with others, centred on the last supper. Anthropologically he pioneered a new humanity, for whom the triune life opens up to be a part of his end. Christ is the pioneer of God’s promise through the prophet Isaiah; “See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?”. Pioneering then is firmly rooted in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
Pioneering is distinctively missional and often located far from the established church. Pioneers obsess about new things and are driven by questions, such as what if? How could we? We are a perceptive bunch too, always observing, reading and interpreting culture and looking for an opportunity or an edge to begin to work with, like when you come across an old roll of tape in the loft. Fundamentally, though, Pioneers adopt a posture of humility when it comes to culture. We go empty handed, believing that God is always at work before we arrive and if we listen and wait long enough, we will hear the still small voice of the Holy Spirit and join with his ongoing work.
In Models of Contextual Theology, Bevans surveys six models of mission and the theology behind them. Pioneering sits closely aligned to two of these models, the anthropological and the transcendental model. The anthropological model is one in which the practitioner is to listen to the culture, in order to identify the gospel which is already present and at work in that culture. They then point to God, already present and at work. This model is one in which gospel and culture form a partnership and God works in and through human experience to draw people to him. To use a farming model, the seed (gospel) is in the ground (culture); the practitioner’s job is to identify it and point to it. A good example of this model is “Christianity Rediscovered” by the great Vincent Donovan.
The transcendental model, is closely related. This model assumes that God is implicitly at work in human experience, and it is through the discovery of our own individual subjectivity that we can begin to discuss and discover any dogmatic belief. Theology is less about learning doctrine, but more a process in which we grapple with our own existence and the existence of God in tandem. Revelation is happening all around us and the practitioner seeks to “bring to speech” the ongoing encounter with God. Returning to the farming analogy, in this model the seed (gospel) is in the ground (culture) and the practitioner is to cultivate it through the turning of the soil. This approach has much to offer us in the post-modern world in which individuals express that “they are spiritual but not religious”. Where propositional evangelism may be resisted, discursive evangelism may well be welcomed.
So what is the problem? The Evangelical tradition can be traced back to the reformation and their cry “Sola Gratia” (Grace alone). Salvation is granted by grace alone, not by the word or work of a Priest or any other man, and is solely dependent on God actions and work. This resulted in a shift in emphasis from the sacrament to the word. Berkof describes how “Luther gave great prominence to the Word of God as the primary means of grace. He pointed out that the sacraments have no significance apart rom the Word and are in fact merely the visible Word”.. It is from this source that evangelicalism emerged, through the Puritan and Pietist movements, and the emphasis on scripture alone persisted. Two of the greatest influencers on the movement in the 20th Century were John Stott and Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Stott famously described the movement as “Bible people, Gospel people”. Lloyd-Jones held the same sentiments, arguing that one must begin and submit only to scripture. Consequently, “the evangelical distrusts reason, and particularly reason in the form of philosophy”. As a result, evangelicals in the era of Stott and Lloyd-Jones were cautious when it comes to art and culture, with a reluctance at times, to see creation, ecology and social issues as Christian priorities.
The scripture alone principle naturally influences the missional model adopted by evangelicals. Bevans calls this the translation model. The gospel has a never changing core, though coming to us wrapped in the culture of first century Judaism under the influence of the Greco-Roman culture. The method is to unwrap the gospel from the culture, identify it and then rewrap it with the culture that you are in. To return to the farming narrative, the church has the seed, the culture is the soil, and the church must plant it in the soil. This is why evangelical evangelism is often largely propositional, offering “something new” to the culture.
Evangelicalism has reached a more nuanced position on culture since Lloyd-Jones gave this address at the IFES conference in the 1970s. In a piece on the evangelical response to the arts, Lundin argues that evangelicalism rejected the arts and popular culture because of a lack of a coherent theology. As evangelicalism has softened to culture, there is still a reluctance to engage at the cutting edge and “evangelicals have often responded to innovations with fear and then waiting for the bizarre to become, through time, domesticated… the pattern has been for new theories to surface and circulate for a decade or more before evangelical scholars begin to appropriate them”. I have seen this at work in my lifetime; as a child, I had a Christian friend whose evangelical parents refused to let him watch the Simpsons. After a while evangelicals warmed to the show. Later still, evangelical youth workers were using clips to teach Christianity to their young people about the faith.
Here we reach the root of the issue – the stone in my shoe. Can I be an evangelical and a pioneer? Pioneers make assumptions about the creation and culture (and have a methodology that follows) that seem incompatible with evangelical theology. Pioneers operate at the forefront of cultural change and innovation, yet evangelicals situate themselves a way back from the frontline. While it seems Pioneers want to affirm culture and get in the mix of cultural change, evangelicals have historically wanted to deny it as a theological source and call it to account, but in modern times are more cautious and reactive. As Pioneering establishes itself in the Church of England, the challenge to develop a coherent theology and methodology is the challenge set before evangelical pioneers.
 Hebrews 12:2, NIV
 Isaiah 43:19, NIV
 Stephen B. Bevans, Models of Contextual Theology, 2002
 For more on this, see the research report by Haye and Hunt entitled “Understanding the Spirituality of People who don’t go to Church” http://www.churchofscotland.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0006/3678/understanding_spirituality_report.pdf
 Martin Luther, God's grace received must be bestowed, (https://www.blueletterbible.org/Comm/luther_martin/Incarnation/Gods_Grace_Received_Must_Be_Bestowed.cfm), 31.
 Louis Berkof, Systematic Theology, 607.
 Martin Lloyd-Jones, What is an Evangelical?, 44.
 Lundin, Roger, The Arts, in McDermott, Gerald R, The Oxford Handbook of Evangelical Theology, 427.