P I O N E E R
It’s a word that keeps popping up for me, with great personal significance over the past few years.
By nature, I’ve always been a starter, an explorer. But lately I’ve learned more intimately about and become more acquainted with this identity and taken on this definition:
noun – a person who is among the first to explore or settle a new country or area.
verb – develop or be the first to use or apply (a new method, area of knowledge, or activity).
Maybe you identify? Maybe you don’t. You may be called upon at some point to pioneer, or to help others pioneer something. Or perhaps you could benefit to better understand the pioneers in your life and world. There are pioneers of many types and in many arenas of society. My experience and arena may be different than yours, but perhaps there are some similarities in our journey.
First, a couple stories to give context.
During the first few days of 2013, Paul and I had been leading a local church in South Africa for one year. During that first year we had taken care to know and be known by the people we had been invited to lead. We had sought to bring little change and were rather tending to the “soil” of the congregation, seeking to bring spiritual and relational health, from which good things can grow. As we were traveling in the car from the Cape region of South Africa back to our city of Johannesburg, I spent a few moments journaling my thoughts for the new year and quietly turned my heart to prayer to ask God if there was anything He wanted to communicate with me. I believe God speaks and communicates with us, with people, all the time. I believe in the prophetic (prophetic happenings, etc.) – but that’s perhaps for another post. In my heart I immediately “heard” the word “pioneer”. So I wrote it in my journal. That night we stopped over in a little town called Graaff Reinet in the Karoo, a semi-desert region. In the early evening we were walking the quaint streets of the old town in 100 + degree (F) heat and agreed we would get something to eat and drink at the next place we came to. We rounded a corner and at the end of a short street was a restaurant with a big sign above it, “Pioneer”. Hmmmm, my attention was definitely grabbed that night as we went to sleep in a town that had been founded by pioneers more than 200 years earlier.
That word “pioneer” became a directive to us and changed the way we led for the next couple of years. We no longer reached back for the familiar and didn’t just stick to what we were comfortable with and knew well as leaders; and weren’t as afraid to encourage others to come into new “territory”, beyond what they had known in their church experience thus far. There was more that we were pushing into, leaving what was known, for the promise of something we believed was beyond the horizon.
Then, in 2016, we moved to Detroit, a city that is calling pioneers to come and make something of the “New Detroit” together. As Bono said a couple weeks ago at the U2 concert here, “…city of invention… city of reinvention.” The air is thick here with a spirit of pioneering.
We began gathering with people here in November and launched a church in January. Again, our approach has been to know and be known. To give vision of where we believe we’re headed and what the unique identity of this particular expression of local church will be, but before anyone or any group can go anywhere, you first need to know where you are. Like the maps at the mall. “You are here. X”
This summer, we gathered in Los Angeles with some of the churches in our partnerships in the USA. At the close of that week, we had remained in the city for a few days and decided to visit a church led by some good friends of ours in East L.A. On the way to the Sunday gathering, Paul and I were chatting in the car about what we were “taking away” in our hearts from the week. I told him that I felt we were in a time, similar to that time period in South Africa when we began to lead in a more pioneering way. Literally as I finished my sentence, I looked across to the opposite side of the freeway and saw a caravan (the kind you take on a cross-country trip), traveling the other way. Painted on the side of it, the word, “Pioneer”. I said to Paul, with wide eyes, “Did you see that?!” He had. We arrived at the church and during the morning’s worship our friend, the pastor, invited us to come up to the front and share with the congregation about the church being planted in Detroit. He then invited the church to take a moment with him and his wife and some of their leaders team to pray for us. After our friend prayed, his wife (also our dear friend) said that as we prayed a picture of wagons came to her and she “heard” the word “pioneer”. We had received the message loud and clear, again.
So, what does that MEAN?… to “pioneer”?
To pioneer something, you’ve got to be willing to let go of the old. For us, it has meant letting go literally and physically, of belongings, of our greater family at times, of our dearest friends, of nations. Pioneering is leaving some thing or some place for another, for the promise of something you can’t see yet, but something you are convinced is out there for the taking, something you can bring into your reality and into the reality of others. Pioneers are on a journey, and possibly, above all else, they
go first, and they
Even when they need to rethink how they’re going to get there, they go first and they just. keep. going.
Whether your pioneering causes you to physically move or not, pioneering always involves leaving something. So, because you are leaving, you will feel the cost of that, the sacrifice of that. You will feel the emptiness and void that pioneering creates in your life for a season because of leaving people, or leaving an idea that was comfortable, or leaving a place that was familiar, or leaving familiar routines. It’s felt in small ways and in big ways. For example, for a while we have very few birthday parties, baby showers and weddings to go to. Until we carve out our new life in the place where we’re pioneering, even those activities that fill our lives (sometimes to overflowing) in established times of our lives, are missed.
Pioneering is hard. It just is. It’s uncomfortable in every way. It’s exciting, yes, but there’s nothing comfortable about it. I find myself often thinking of the frontierswomen who pioneered west with their families in America during the 1800s. (I love definitions, so here you go: Frontierswoman – a woman living in the region of a frontier, especially that between settled and unsettled country.) Pioneering is about living in that in-between space. Often for these women it was only them and their nuclear families for a while. Why were they going? For the promise of great open spaces, freedom and a future for their families. What did they achieve? They opened up trails and created spacious places for others to follow behind them and enjoy the benefits of. This is why we pioneer anything. I’ve identified with these women and embraced the sacrifice and the loneliness that goes along with pioneering. It’s not forever. Others eventually come. The flourishing community eventually comes for so many others too, pioneers or not, to enjoy and benefit from.
In the loneliness and difficulty and hardship that comes with pioneering, there’s no value in wallowing. Yes, take a moment and acknowledge the sacrifice, but then keep moving.
As a pioneer, you’re going to have to put your personal demands aside. What you’re doing is for others, not for you. You may get to enjoy some of the benefits of what you’re pioneering, but first, it’s gonna cost you a lot getting there, and in the end, it will have mainly been for the benefits that others will enjoy.
My husband has a wonderful ability to not need people in an unhealthy way. It’s in my nature, on the other hand, to want to do life with everyone. I want EVERYONE to come along. He’s helped me to learn / I am learning – that there’s a delicate balance between caring very much FOR others and investing in others in a genuine way, and yet not needing anything FROM those same people in order for me to keep pioneering.
As a pioneer, you should make it abundantly clear over and over again, that anyone is welcome to come along where you’re going, but as a pioneer, you can’t wait for people to come along. You have to get going. At ANY POINT folks can join the journey and help you pioneer and find THEIR place. The reason we pioneer is to make it easier for others to come after us. So, push on, and more and more WILL eventually come after you. And whenever they come, however they come, we celebrate that. It’s what we’re all about, actually. It’s all FOR OTHERS.
Some amazing pioneers have joined with us as we groundbreak for a new church community here in Detroit. It’s not easy for any of us, their sacrifices are great and each of their difficulties unique. As much as you can, pioneer with others. Good company makes any journey lighter. It’s a beautiful thing. The joys and memories from these times forge friendships that last a lifetime and are carried with you as fuel into each pioneering season.
To all the pioneers out there… Keep going! To all who are journeying with us here in Detroit, let’s do this, together!