Pioneering species – a way of seeing in faith          

31 Aug 2021

By Nathan Marshall

In a season of displacement, the word ‘pioneering’ may seem jarring. Living in lockdown is experienced differently for many, but I have heard many leaders share their frustration. My experience is a mixture of fatigue and mundanity coupled with moments of contentment and simple joy. What does it mean to be people of ‘the Way’ in our present reality, and how do we imagine pioneering when we are so restricted?

Captive Israel, through 70 years of displacement, wept as they wondered, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in exile?” (Psalm 137:4) How long, O Lord? How long indeed?! Yet I was reminded today, while on my daily walk, that Christ spoke the Sermon on the Mount to a people under Roman oppression and religious collusion. The Israelites slaved for 430 years under Egyptian bondage. The story of their liberation begot a 40-year wandering in the wilderness. My spirit quickened as I once again remembered we live in a larger story. When we live without memory, we become ‘captives to the present moment’[1]; its own form of enslavement. But God speaks to us from within our captivity. God calls us out while we remain under the groaning of creation, crying out to be liberated. Christ reaches out his pierced hand, invites us to place our hand into the wound of his side, and proclaims, “Don’t be faithless any longer. Believe!” (John 20:27)

‘Faith’ is the Kingdom’s reframing of a different way of seeing, “… the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). Faith is the courageous hope beyond our present circumstances, not for a wishful ‘best is yet to come’ rhetoric, but like Abraham, the willingness to “… set out, not knowing where he was going … confidently looking forward to a city with eternal foundations” (Hebrews 11:8b,10). This is our ‘telos’, our goal. We are a people, whether gathered or scattered, whether captive to foreign nations or pandemics, who live by faith. Perhaps faith is the ‘angle’ we need as we pioneer “… to see and creatively respond to the Holy Spirit’s initiatives with those outside the Church”.[2] This is a beautiful reminder; we do not exist for ourselves. We live for something much bigger as ‘called out’ ones, and we long for others to discover their story in redemption. “The purpose of the Church is not to accumulate attendees. The Church is a school for developing agents of the new creation.”[3]

In your own displacement, in your own season of liminality, where a ‘restless loneliness’ may have set in, I offer to you an image: the humble dandelion. A weed, a tare amongst the wheat, but with a hidden identity. Dandelions are part of the ‘pioneering species’. If faith is our lens, then the “… things that are not” (1 Corinthians 1:28) become our wisdom. Pioneering plants are the ones that take root in disturbed or disrupted ground. Think of moss on a rock. It not only lives without soil, it can convert rock (something inanimate) into soil (something alive!) The pioneering species ability to acclimate with bare soil, respond vigorously in the poorest conditions and be regenerative offers us a clue. Pioneering is the work of ‘restoration’, the work that our movement is acclimatised. Here are four ways pioneering species can inform our movement to pioneer, “… not bothered by the heat or worried by long months of drought” (Jeremiah 17:8b).

Pioneers are called to the hard places. Like the recolonising of an ecosystem that has suffered from bushfires, pioneers don’t look for the easy option. Like our pioneering archetype, Abraham, setting out, leaving the known and comfortable place to follow a promise, we are called to move in, while others are trying to move out! We are called to communities, people groups, neighbours and work, that from the wisdom of the world, seems risky or ridiculous. For some, it’s the hard places of poverty and social challenge; for others, it’s ploughing up the hard ground of hearts (Hosea 10:12). It was pioneer tent missioner, ‘Harry’ Harward, who in 1906 at the Churches of Christ Conference, even after a season of seeing rapid conversions to faith, expressed that “What was required was a campaign of spirituality to arouse members from their lethargy.”[4] His rallying call was the awareness that as an evangelist, “… there was no one to follow him up after breaking new ground.”[5] This requires deep reflection. Pioneering is a Kingdom work in the least likely places, but a pioneer isolated and missing the five-fold, and other gifts can become discouraged or unfruitful over time. Certain pioneering ‘types’ might activate or catalyse, but Christ calls us His body for a reason. This might be ‘micro’ in a pioneering season but being called into hard places takes prayer and community.

Pioneers attend to the recovery of the environment …

The Gospel has the power to affect the whole ecosystem, and Christ, who made the ultimate displacement from heaven to humanity, embodies this living and transforming ‘good news’. Just as pioneering species recover environments that have been disrupted or destroyed, pioneers are people of redemptive purpose. They know that something has been lost, stolen or dislocated, and they go about to restore and recover the Gospel that makes them whole. This recovery is always contextual. Like Nehemiah, the work of being a repairer of walls is a calling to the hard and forgotten places and to discern what the work of recovery might be. A pioneer recently told me that he lives in an inner-city community that is excellent at creative and inclusive spaces and engagement. His response: “Maybe the innovation this community needs is actually a Church!” A place of prayer, a body in the apprenticeship to Jesus, recovering the Corpus Christi to a world that doesn’t realise its hunger for such nourishment! This is the pioneer spirit, not to try and implement edgy enterprise that may not be listening to the cry of the community, but to have ears to hear what the Spirit might be beckoning.

Pioneers cultivate a hostile environment into a hospitable one …

Pioneers “… work for the peace and prosperity of the city” (Jeremiah 29:7). They find themselves in or have been exiled too! The welfare of the city will determine your own welfare. After living and working many years in a hard place, I can testify to this truth. As we convert places of hostility, futility and despair, the environment begins to flourish through love and grace and belonging, albeit imperfect. Flourishing is the result of investment, of a preferred future cultivated in the present. As we respond to our vocational call to hard places and enact the recovery of the environment, conversion of people to Christ is often experienced through hospitality to those who have often experienced exclusion. “Hospitality, therefore, means primarily the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy.”[6] Conversion is put on its head. “Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place.”[7] Converting enemies and strangers into friends, learning to be both guest and host, and taking the lowest seat as we serve, is the posture of a pioneer. As we do this work, we, of course, are also calling people to consider Christ and follow Him. “We have been given this task of reconciling people to him” (2 Corinthians 5:18). If people have only ever experienced dead or corrupted religion, the work of reconciliation takes patience, and if God through Christ is reconciling the world to himself, we have a wonderful message to share and live out!

Pioneers are people of shalom … and of self-sacrifice

This is the paradox. As pioneering species are life-giving in their work to recover and rejuvenate environments that have experienced disruption, they simultaneously trail-blaze and therefore sacrifice themselves for a more sustainable colonising of habitat to emerge – as is often the case with pioneers. Whether working in places of violence and brokenness, trauma and grief, the work of the recovery and the breaking up of compacted ground are both life-giving to the community that experiences it, and a sacrifice of a life poured out for the sake of others in the process. Pioneering should come with a warning: not for the sake of self-aggrandisement! This is a work of the Lord who calls us to be people of shalom in a broken world and requires us to act justly, love mercifully and walk humbly in the way of Christ (Micah 6:8). Pioneering is an act of faith and obedience, but what a privilege for the Lord to, “Establish the work of our hands upon us, yes establish the work of our hands!” (Psalm 90:17).

We live in the present moment of smallness. This is good for us to accept. Yet, we are embodied creatures who long to be in community and engaged and alive together. Restrictions are present and difficult, and we perhaps wonder, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in exile?” (Psalm 137:4). I leave you with two thoughts. How might this time create a longing in our souls. What if we just had permission to let go of performing or over-functioning, and we could begin to dream again. In the longing for God to “pour out his Spirit upon all people” (Joel 2:28), vision is given to the young and dreaming dreams to the old. Men and women will prophesy, “We are prophets of a future that is not our own.” What might be the dreams and visions that enlarge your faith and inspire your hope for the renewal of all things? And, secondly, what if pioneering is ‘right where you are’. As the paradox of life-giving and sacrificial holds, what does it mean to be in a season of longing while at work right where we find ourselves. Right where we live, in ordinary and familiar places. In the supermarket lines and the dog parks. In our virtual workplaces or amongst family at home. “Lord help us not to atrophy, but to be longing for your Kingdom come as we pray and fumble our way in doing your will in this season. Allow us to know that all is grace and if you can speak through donkeys or stones, that could be raised up as children of Abraham! We exhale, we know you are at work despite us, and we pray for faith to see, not only see through this but to be present and kind within it, singing the Lord’s song in small and humble ways.” Amen

Join us on 21 September for A Conversation with Friends We invite you to gather with those cultivating the soil where they are and wonder together about how pioneering might be right where you are. This free event will run from 7.30pm-9pm. Register your attendance HERE.


[1] Williams, Spirituality of Time (lecture 2018, Regent College)

[2] Hodgett & Bradbury, ‘Pioneering is a Spectrum (Anvil Journal)

[3] Steinke, A Door Set Open (Alban, Herndon, 2010)

[4] Nutt and Hayward, The Age of Special Evangelism (ACOM, Rhodes, 2020)

[5] Ibid

[6] Nouwen, Reaching Out (Fount, Britain, 1975)

[7] Ibid