Wednesday 12 August 2020

Some Thoughts On The Pioneer Spectrum


I’ve been reflecting on the Pioneer Spectrum for as long as it has been around. And I’ve been meaning to write a blog post about it for a good while. In fact I’ve written three separate 1000 word pieces about it. While it’s been on my mind for some time, there have been some prompts on social media that have got me thinking and wanting to write about the subject again. What follows is a half-hearted, ranty, mumbling bunch of words as I try to articulate something quite quickly.

Also, it’s worth noting that this post has lots of links to other things, if you click the links and your computer is eaten up by a virus, oops, don’t blame me, I can neither confirm nor deny the safety of links used below!

So firstly, what is the Pioneer Spectrum? You can read about it here:

It’s been formulated by two folk in the pioneering world whose work I have found really helpful, Tina Hodgett and Paul Bradbury. Basically, for me, the pioneer spectrum enables a deeper and more focused approach to defining what we mean when we say, ‘pioneer ministry’. The spectrum identifies / articulates the range of pioneering from pioneer replicators to pioneer activists. To find out more you should just read the article from CMS.

I really like the pioneer spectrum but I have one concern about it that articulates itself, as a pragmatic thing and a philosophical thing and both these aspects have bubbled up in social media lately which has prompted me to spend sixty minutes hashing out some thoughts here.



But first, what I really like about the pioneer spectrum, is that as a pioneer, who has worked in different pioneer contexts I have found the spectrum really helpful in enabling me to put a name to the type of pioneering or pioneer context I’ve been working in. I think the pioneer spectrum offers a solid foundation on which to build some really solid theological work and I look forward to seeing what responses emerge from it in the future.

In a previous pioneer post I was working in the fringier fringe of things and when held up against the pioneer spectrum I could see that my role was very firmly a pioneer innovator role / context and that my work was very much at the periphery and pushing further and further into the liminal. The idea of cultural distance used by Hodgett and Bradbury in this way was a lightning rod for me.

My current pioneer role, whilst still being a ‘pioneer innovator’ role is probably more connected to a ‘pioneer adaptor’ role/context.

I’ve rushed my explanation here, but basically, the previous pioneer role I mentioned would (on the diagram) firmly sit within the third and fourth (from left) circles. Whereas my current role sits more closely with the second and third circles (from left). Again, while to the observer (especially given the brevity of my explanation) that might not mean much, but to me, recognising this was a really helpful thing for me to work through some of the ways my two separate roles compared and to reflect on my own way of working.



Okay, so my question about the pioneer spectrum is the inclusion of the first circle on the left, church planting / church replicators. I see such differences between church planting and pioneering that I find them utterly other to each other. And I suppose this is where my current impetus for hurriedly writing this has come from. There has been a whole blog/twitter/facebook thing going on, prompted by some tweets and a Giles Fraser blog post: In response Paul Bradbury wrote a responding blog post

There have been some great facebook and twitter threads/what-nots about this, Pete Ward, Paul Bradbury, Heather Cracknell in particular.

The reason the Fraser piece has led me to finally put a blog post up about this is the way he very loosely holds pioneering, FX and church planting together as some kind of gluttonous blob of neo-liberalism where for me, his critique/diatribe stands up better in response to church planting and not well at all with contextual, grassroots, ground-up, fresh expressions and pioneering. On a facebook thread somewhere Rev Edward Green wrote something along the lines of his parish context having more in common and working with same principles as a grassroots fx very much unlike a finance heavy church plant.

So, to my two specific concerns about the pioneer spectrum containing churchplanting. As I’ve said, other versions of this blog, drafted however long ago mention a few more concerns, but over my extended reflections I’ve found that my two key concerns have risen up above the rest. And they were there long before the recent soc med blog hum-dingers but both concerns seem to have currency in the current conversation.



The first, the PRAGMATIC one: I have seen the pioneer spectrum weaponised to direct funding for pioneering into church planting. I won’t say more than that about it. Though Giles Fraser’s concerns about asset-stripping make an interesting companion piece to this concern.

But it’s not just the funding. I’ve seen the pioneer spectrum used to legitimise church planting as a form of pioneering. I’ve been in meetings with hierarchy where the pioneer spectrum has basically been used to justify a way of looking at church planting and pioneering as basically the same thing. And you might read this and say, “so what”? I’ve always held church planting and pioneering separately due to methodology etc.

Now, if you take a look the jobs section of the church Times it is always interesting. You sometimes see jobs for pioneer ministers that are actually more like jobs for associate ministers. Very rarely do you see jobs for “church planters”. Often it feels like the words get used interchangeably. The New Wine Network used to link church planting and pioneering, they may still do.

I’m conscious of the potential tensions for people working in these posts and the interchanging vocab being unhelpful. If you were a grassroots pioneer and you went for a pioneer role but that role turned out to be more of an associate minister role there may well be tensions. I’ve seen this played out with friends. If you went into a pioneer role but what the church really wanted was a church replicator there could be tensions if you came in with a contextual, ground-up methodology/approach.

In this rush my pragmatic concern is really a pragmatic concern about the methodologies of church planting and pioneering. For me, they are different, one is primarily shaped by the context and the outcome is not yet known, one is primarily shaped by an existing ecclesiology and while elements of the thing that emerges may look different to suit the context, the primary, central shape of it will hold to particular patterns of ecclesiology, working and methodology.

If I establish a grassroots, ground up, contextual, shaped by listening ecclesial community I won’t know what the thing will look like.

If I establish a top-down replicating church plant there are many things that will perhaps be a given, a style of worship shaped by the planting church/organisation, the use of particular Christian basics courses. While there may well be contextual responses that emerge to engage with local issues.

There could be all sorts to add about the driving mentality of both church planting and pioneering. We could talk about the idea of emerging, of organic, of slow, of neighbourhood, of colonialism, lots of stuff I’m not getting into here.

My hope is that what is clear is that I see them as different beings working in different ways. Now as it happens, I like the grass roots, ground up fx model more than the top-down church plant model (yes simplified). In fact I have some real concerns about the church planting model, but that’s not for here.



All this leads me to my second concern about the inclusion of church planting in the pioneer spectrum. This is more of a PHILOSOPHICAL concern and it resonates with the current soc-med blog post stuff. This concern is a teleological one so it has some overlap with what I’ve written in the bit up there, specifically with methodology. But it’s the crux of the matter.

Church planting and pioneering are teleologically different. Here’s a fun little video about teleology

Here’s what the google dictionary thingy (with definitions from Oxford Languages) says about teleology: ‘the explanation of phenomena in terms of the purpose they serve rather than of the cause by which they arise.’

What is it for? What is its end? What is its finality?

Well, we could say that church planting and pioneering end with new churches. So, straight forward…

Yet the pioneer spectrum has as its fifth from the left circle, Pioneer activists might never start a church community, and yet their pioneering work is distinct and important. As the CMS article points out (and I think it’s Paul Bradbury writing):

‘There are also those we call ‘pioneer activists’, whose gift and vocation is to shape place in ways that seek to align a community, network or industry with the values of the Kingdom. Seeing themselves as missionaries, but without the express intention of planting a church, these pioneers are nevertheless creating highly innovative Kingdom responses to the pressing issues of our communities. Theirs is an important vocation which deserves recognition and support.’

I’ve added the bold type to the extract from

Pioneer activists might never have ‘the express intention of planting a church’, yet this work is pioneering. This might seem a pedantic point but I think teleology is a really important aspect of this. If there is a clear understanding of what is expected “it is known” (church planting) or “who knows” (pioneering) then at least there’s a working methodology and some expectations to hold on to.

Now, I recognise that if my concern is teleological I could have drawn a line here and said, church planting to pioneer innovators is one thing, pioneer activists is another.

But instead, if there is a line to be drawn, I’m splitting the first circle on the left - church replicators up from the rest.

And the reason I do, is teleological and methodological: if the questions are, What is it for? What is its end? What is its finality? With church replicators it feels like there is a clear answer.

Teleologically church planting is there to replicate churches (recognising different models do this differently and that each model may make space for contextual ministries within a wider replicated ecclesiology).

The rest of the pioneer spectrum, pioneer adaptors, pioneer innovators, pioneer activists, don’t (or at least shouldn’t) know what the outcome will be, what it will look like. Because what the thing will look like will be shaped by context, listening, the journey of formation, perhaps even the fresh expressions journey!

Now some ‘pioneer jobs’ do say what they think the thing will look like, though thankfully we see less of those.

What might be helpful to think about is the image of mineral formation stalactites and stalagmites (though there is a flaw in the analogy – but hey it’s my blog, so I’ll use it anyway)

Here’s a website that talks about stalactites and stalagmites.

According to Britannica, Stalactites hang down like icicles. Whereas stalagmites rise up from the floor.

The flaw in the analogy being that the drips all come from the top down no matter what forms, though perhaps the drips could represent the church resources / or inclination for something to happen.

I see church planting as the formation of stalactites, they are top down, shaped from above. Pioneering is more like stalagmites rising up from the ground.

Yes, as I’ve said, the analogy doesn’t really work. Maybe think of the drips as the agency of the Spirit?

Going back to teleology –  and the Google dictionary definition: ‘the explanation of phenomena in terms of the purpose they serve rather than of the cause by which they arise.’

Church planting and pioneering may have drastically different purposes to serve and the finality may well be very different. Our understanding of the finality of each is interesting.

With a replicating church plant the end for which it exists is replication. Bradbury and Hodgett do recognise the risk of this:

“There are also contexts in which replication is applicable, where a context is seen to be sufficiently comparable so that a successful model of church can simply be repeated. There is a risk in replication without sufficient reflection on context, or openness to the innovative influence of local culture. Some models by their very nature leave little room for adaptation. They are freighted heavily with the culture of those leading it and may struggle to engage deeply in cultures disconnected from inherited forms of church. We term the leaders of such initiatives ‘church replicators’.”

It’s ‘end’ is to replicate what exists elsewhere.

Whereas with pioneering the ‘end’ will very much be shaped by the process of listening, discerning, of letting the context speak…

Going back to teleology –  and the Google dictionary definition: ‘the explanation of phenomena in terms of the purpose they serve rather than of the cause by which they arise.’

The teleological ‘end’ of pioneering is unknowable by a clearly defined outcome. If there is to be a clearly identified teleological outcome for pioneering, perhaps it would be something more like this grab from the CMS post: ‘a broader range of ways of being church than those we have already imagined and begun to see emerging.’ Or a ground-up, grassroots movement.

Perhaps pioneering itself is more shaped by the (according to Google dictionary thing again) ‘the cause by which they arise’ rather than the, ‘purpose they serve.’ There is definitely more to explore here.

So, after 2000+ words of mumbly rants, in summary:

·         I find the pioneer spectrum helpful

·         I’m not sure of the inclusion of church planting in the pioneer spectrum for pragmatic reasons

·         I’m not sure of the inclusion of church planting in the pioneer spectrum for philosophical reasons.

·         The conversation feels current given Giles Fraser’s writings about a ‘Neo-Liberal Revolution’ in the Church

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