The church in America was built by men (and some women) who were itinerant preachers. Some followed the example of John Wesley and were circuit riders, traveling from church to church or gathering to gathering on horseback or foot to preach and teach. Others were settlers who moved into a new area, began working the land, and preached on the weekends. They had a pioneering spirit, willing to face the unknown with faith and determination.
I thought about these pioneer preachers when I read this quote from Elizabeth O’Connor, chronicler of the Church of the Saviour and author of Call to Commitment:
When the church starts to be the church it will constantly be adventuring out into places where there are no tried and tested ways. If the church in our day has few prophetic voices to sound above the noises of the street, perhaps in large part it is because the pioneering spirit has become foreign to it. It shows little willingness to explore new ways. Where it does it has often been called an experiment. We would say that the church of Christ is never an experiment, but wherever that church is true to its mission it will be experimenting, pioneering, blazing new paths, seeking how to speak the reconciling Word of God to its own age.
Do we still have this pioneer spirit? If not, what will it take to nurture that type of spirit again? Let me suggest several ideas and you can add your own.
First, we must believe that what we have to share with the world is important. There are many competitors to the Gospel message today—self-help gurus, therapeutic approaches, successful living philosophies, etc.—but this has always been true. In order to be motivated pioneers, we must live as if what we have to share is transformative and unique. This may be the biggest challenge the church faces in a postmodern age.
Second, we must be willing to take risks and to make mistakes. Experiments don’t always work, but they always teach us something. We will never learn what works until we try it. In order to pursue this path, the church needs more permission-givers and fewer gatekeepers.
Third, we need the encouragement of other believers. We extol the tales of pathfinders like Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett, but the pioneers of westward expansion who made a lasting difference were those who traveled together and established communities. They helped each other to overcome the challenges they met in a dangerous land. Even a lone entrepreneur must gather others who provide complementary skills in order to accomplish his or her vision.
Fourth, we must believe that the unknown territory holds the promise of better future. The primary reason that one embarks out into new land is to find something that will enrich his or her life or the lives of others. If we want the church to be growing and healthy, we must have the courage to face the unknown and the unknowable in order to assure its future.
Most of all, we can be thankful that the Spirit of God goes with us as we step out into the unknown.