Pioneers or Innovators?

There is now a growing body of experience of engaging in mission which leads to fresh expressions of church in all sorts of contexts and taking all sorts of styles, shapes and sizes.

There is now also a growing body of literature describing, analysing and even defining this activity and the pioneers and innovators who are leading the way in this vital mission work for our context of decaying Christendom.  And this is our point, the descriptive terms pioneer/pioneering and innovator/innovation tend to be used interchangeably.  Further, the literature tends to imply that the gifts and challenges of pioneering and innovating are similar and all part of one gift-mix and calling.  Although there is emerging some consensus around a spectrum of pioneering from ‘pioneer starters’ – those who initiate “from scratch”, to ‘pioneer sustainers’ – who take forward an initiated work, to ‘pioneer enablers’ – who spot opportunities and recognise pioneers and release innovation. Another spectrum goes from out and out pioneers to ‘non-pioneers’ – as illustrated here (and see literature from Lings; Male & Bolton).

pioneer-starter – – – > pioneer sustainer – – – > sustainer-innovator – – – > sustainer-developer

However, just for the purpose of this paper, we shall define these terms more narrowly and distinguish pioneering and innovation … one from the other.

This is because it is our proposition here, to ask whether there are not two important but distinct elements to this mission, with distinct gift sets for each.  And we shall use the words pioneer and innovator in this article to distinguish the two apart. And to clarify further and to be more specific than our title, we would identify church innovators/innovation and cross-cultural pioneers/pioneering.

Using these terms pioneer/pioneering and innovator/innovation in these specific ways we can set them alongside one another in a matrix, as shown.

Innovation v frontier crossing

Cross-cultural pioneers are gifted at responding to cultures different to their own and able to discern gospel connect.  The church that emerges may or may not represent significant innovation.  For example, some have pioneered messy church way beyond the professional middle class white context in which Lucy Moore developed it (top left quadrant). Church innovators on the other hand apply creative skills to re-imagine the church in a way that more truly reflects the culture into which their mission engages. To stick with our example, Lucy Moore’s original development of the first Messy Church in Portsmouth, stayed within the professional middle class white culture of the church from which she first planted it, but quite significantly reimagined church (bottom right quadrant).

Again, Henry Cavender and Kris Lannen both keen surfers themselves, did not have to cross culture to plant ‘Tubestation’, it was their own milieu, but they did significantly re-imagine church in the redesigned Methodist chapel (bottom right quadrant).

Taking yet another example, Richard Passmore engaged deprived estate youth, not his generation or culture, and lived alongside them discerning gospel connections and re-telling key scriptural texts to reflect their values and language. In this he engaged radically in what we are calling cross-cultural pioneering.  And the church that emerged under his oversight called ‘Streetspace’, also involved innovation as it was significantly re-imagined from inherited models. So, this illustrates that some engagements involve both cross-cultural pioneering and church innovation (top right quadrant). More on this below.

Another example would be illustrated by those who have discerned that there is real gospel openness among Farsi speakers.  As they have followed God’s leading new congregations have been planted, particularly among Iranians, but also Kurds and Afghans. Significant cross-cultural pioneering has been involved but many of the new churches, apart from using Farsi, are similar to inherited church with little innovation of patterns of gathering and worship. These are examples that would illustrate top left quadrant.

As we have illustrated, of course some leading on the mission journey display both qualities.

Exotic Originals or Multipliable Models                                                                      

An insight that emerges as we work with this nature of pioneering and innovation, is the spectrum of resulting fresh expressions of church.  Often the outcome of the work of those who bring together both cross-cultural mission and church innovation is something novel that catches the attention by its originality and ground-breaking character. These would typically be in the top right quadrant of our matrix.

These fresh expressions are great to open the way into new cultures and contexts. They brilliantly illustrate a new possibility and inspire others to pioneer and innovate. However, as what I sometimes term ‘exotic originals’, although they encourage, inspire and point the way, they may not always enable other less gifted folk to follow.

The importance of enabling others to multiply

By contrast, some who initiate a ‘first of its kind’ fresh expression, have recognised that this opens a doorway into a very commonly occurring sub-culture or milieu.  They have then been motivated to do the next stage of the hard work. This involves the task of identifying the key principles and aspects of the resulting novel fresh expression of church and then developing resources to inspire and equip so that others might follow the pathway of the breakthrough these pioneer/innovators have been led to make.

Ironically, in part of the constituency of missionary people, this replication of an initial successful “model’’ is looked down upon, can be disparaged, even called ‘cloning’!  However again our Matrix helps us here and opens up a completely different insight and perspective.  Namely that those particularly gifted as pioneers and/or innovators are rather rare, but if they can enable others less uniquely gifted then a whole army of missionary engagement can be released and mobilised.

Multiply innovation and pioneering.png

With this understanding, the role of enabling a breakthrough fresh expression in a new sub-culture or milieu to be released with facilitation for others to multiply … far from a negative development, can be one of the most important initiatives for the re-evangelisation of a nation!

Examples help us see this most important potential for reaching the 90% plus of the population not actively involved in gospel and church.

Examples – “Messy Church”

Coming back to Messy Church we have a classic example here. We have suggested that Lucy’s original development sits bottom right in the matrix. Then we can see that in her subsequent work with her role in BRF she was able to go on and inspire and resource literally thousands of other applications and adaptions of the principles and ideas in this ‘mass culture’ or milieu of young families. Those replicating her insights would not need such gifts of innovation. This has nonetheless enabled a most fruitful mission movement by the resulting multiplication. Most of the multiplication sits in the bottom left quadrant, involving low pioneering or innovation, but some have taken Messy Church values and principles and engaged in mission to families from different sub-cultures/milieus from Lucy’s original context, in deprives urban estates. This endeavour moves more towards to top left quadrant.

Examples 2.png

The possibility opened by this analysis and visualised in the matrix, is to see that unique originals developed in one of the three quadrants; top right or left and bottom right, all involving invaluable pioneering or innovation or both, can release a movement which ‘enable almost anyone to play’. But this requires the highly important entrepreneurial instinct to see the opportunity for multiplication by rolling out the model, which should not be despised.

We repeat, that although among some pioneer circles, this Messy Church movement can be referred to somewhat disparagingly, this has had immense missional fruit.  Although we, and Lucy, acknowledge the critique/challenge that many examples of Messy Church may be weak on delivering life changing discipleship. But this is a challenge of any novel engagement that attracts new folk.

Examples – “Streetspace”

Another example we already referenced, of a missionary who exemplified both cross-cultural pioneering and church innovation is Richard Passmore. As we said, when working with Frontier Youth Trust (FYT) in Chard, he ‘hung out with’ (incarnated himself) ‘on the edge’ street kids.  He was not himself from their marginal culture, so in this regard he was working with cross-cultural pioneer gifts and instincts. On this journey he built relationships, listened to them, their language, values, ideas (culture) and explored gospel connections with them (cross-cultural pioneering in our terms).

The gifts and skills he employed included recasting biblical passages and stories in the idioms, ideas and key concepts of these street kids and some of their skate boarders. The result was that significant gospel connections were made and grasped by the kids. As they began to respond to the Jesus they understood on their own terms, Richard was able to step free from inherited expressions of church familiar to him and explore innovative patterns of discipleship and worship among the youth. And so, church was innovated and the whole journey Richard names ‘Streetspace’.

At this stage his breakthrough had led him to develop a ‘unique original’. But, as true entrepreneurs tend to, he could see the potential of the principles multiplying among youth on the edge across countless more urban deprived estates in the UK. With his role and connections in FYT, he set about inspiring and equipping others to plant similar fresh expressions and something of a movement of ‘street space’ missional communities were born. Using our matrix, Richard’s original work, combining pioneering and church innovation, sits in the top right quadrant. But the multiplication released others to see missional fruitfulness. Certainly, many may sit in the top left quadrant continuing to show cross-cultural pioneering but drawing on Richard’s ‘Street space’ expression of church. Others may be more akin to bottom left practice.

Examples 3

Examples – “Café Church Network”

Another well-known example is the entrepreneurial work of Cid Latte, Baptist pastor in Welwyn. He was aware that many from the town who never connected with his Sunday morning service seemed to regularly hang out in local cafes. This led him to explore possibilities with the local Costa outlet. As their normal opening wasn’t in the evenings, they offered to open for him and provide discount coffee if he guaranteed a minimum number. This led to his ‘Café Church’ which proved really successful. Being an entrepreneur, Cid recognised the wider potential for multiplication and he reached agreement with Costa management for any outlet to consider a Café Church and prepared resources for others to adopt and adapt the model. The website was born and it was soon part of Costa national corporate strategy to have one in every outlet!

cafe church networkCafe church network

Examples – “Dream” & “Natter”

There are other important examples that illustrate this principle of an innovator then taking their breakthrough and enabling multiplication within the specific sub-culture/milieu. Two others to cite here would be first, the ‘Dream Cell’ network. Initiated by Malcolm Chamberlain in Liverpool this took principles of ‘Alternative3 worship Services’ which required large venues with high-tech facilities and invented how these could be re-imagined for small cell-sized gathering with intimacy and interaction.  This breakthrough was then multiplied by Richard White across the diocese.

Dream logo


Lastly, though not exhausting these most important examples of multiplication, is “Natter”. Originally developed by John Marsh in St Thomas Crookes in Sheffield, he again has multiplied this mission model. This fresh expression was initiated to reach lonely elderly folk. Having observed its fruitfulness, the Sheffield diocese allocated a grant of £5,000 to John to develop resources to enable others to ‘copy’ his innovation. There are now some 11 other examples of “Natter”, 9 across the diocese and two beyond.

natternatter example

We are of course, aware that there is over-simplification here in some of our analysis of examples. Some we classify as only involving innovation or only cross-cultural pioneering, no doubt did have a measure of the other aspect in that most mission in the UK now has cross-cultural aspects.

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