Gannon Sims

Don’t Fit in at Church? Maybe You’re “R and D”

When we use the term pioneer, we mean someone who will pave a different way forward. Pioneers can’t help it. It’s in their DNA.

Jonny Baker, a leader of pioneer mission training in the UK, says pioneers “have the gift of not fitting in.” He insists that they’re not “the awkward squad.” They just look around at the conventional ways of doing ministry and can’t help but ask, “This is great, but what else can we do?”

A Different kind of College Ministry

When I joined the Fresh Expressions team five years ago, my wife and I also signed up to pioneer a local expression of ministry on a college campus. We were given the keys to the denominational collegiate ministry building and a simple mandate. Try something different. So we took the risk. We couldn’t help ourselves.

The millennial generation is less religious than the rest of the population. According to the 2015 Pew Religious Landscape Survey, 35% of American millennials are unaffiliated with any religious tradition. An earlier study by Thom Rainer puts the involvement of young adults in a Christian church at just 4%.

So yes, we had to try something different. Over the past five years, we’ve bumbled and stumbled and we’ve prayed. Slowly, that new thing is being brought into existence. On the best days it looks less like ‘campus ministry’ and more like a research and development department for the future church.

Today, the denominational collegiate ministry building is a place of experimentation and evaluation. The hallway is an art gallery. The kitchen is a food business incubator. On a couple of afternoons a week, local middle schoolers do their homework alongside university students. Creativity thrives best in this sort of environment. All because the denominational leadership gave us the permission to try something different.

Baker says that if

innovators . . . are put in an environment with guardians of the status quo, the chances are they will put a lot of their energies into justifying themselves. . . that energy, would be better served in mission. So the smart thing is to create space for the new to grow elsewhere alongside the old, away from the status quo.

That’s how we see this ministry. It’s created space. An equipping and sending place. The Christians on campus know us as a place where they can grow deeper in the Lord.

The students and young adults who come around are accustomed to questions that spark innovation and mission. Every week in our Amore Community we ask “What has Jesus done for you this week?” Then we ask: “How have you been an agent of his self-giving love?” They’re learning to hear from God and how to put it into practice.

Creating Beautiful Things

During one particularly formative time of listening with a group of students and community stakeholders, someone brought up the plight of homeless kids in our public schools and asked what we might do to help. So we linked up with churches and community organizations and created a food drive. But we didn’t stop there. We kept innovating, asking what else we could do. We started an after school program for some of the kids as a collaborative venture with university students, city schools and a local ecumenical ministry.

If you’re pioneering in any capacity—ministry or otherwise—it doesn’t take long to meet other pioneers. Frustration and longing for change breeds good company.  One particular R and D experiment—an intentional Christian community housing idea that got overruled by the city zoning board—got us involved with a group of local entrepreneurs and community leaders working to create a thriving economic ecosystem for the region.

It wasn’t long before we offered up our collegiate ministry space for the group’s weekly meetings.  This gathering became a place where people dreamed about how to make our city a better place to live and work.  Within months, several people came together to pool their resources and used the space to feed over 100 people for Thanksgiving. They did the same thing at Christmas, setting up family style meals for transient families at local motels.

All of these R and D projects are out on the edge. In every case, they involve people of faith working alongside people of little or no faith. And that’s one of the most important things we’ve learned along the way. It’s about ministry with, rather than ministry ‘to’.

While the ideas I had for pioneering were often different from how they actually worked out on the ground, the Fresh Expressions process of discernment remains a helpful point of reference along the way.

  • Listening to God and to the community around helps us meet actual needs.
  • Loving and Serving brings groups of people together across racial, educational and socioeconomic lines.
  • Building Community: Projects and initiatives—particularly those initiated by others in the group and not just the leaders—build community. For us, in the midst of our excitement about moving into a new community pioneering ministry, my wife and I overlooked our own need for community. It’s been humbling to admit that we nearly burned ourselves out by not having that piece in place from the start.
  • Exploring Discipleship: These moments of vulnerability are pathways for exploring discipleship. Most of the time, discipleship happens precisely because the relationship isn’t about discipleship but rather, a mutual friendship. If someone’s my friend, they’re going to know that yielding control of my life to Jesus is the most important thing I ever did.
  • Church taking shape: In our little research and development projects expressions of church might come in time, but it’s still early. As we wait and discern, I’m reminded of encouragement from Mike Moynagh who says in his book Being Church, Doing Life that “any one of these steps along the journey is important in its own right.”

Tables and Dishes

Undergirding all of this is our calling to union with Christ and one another. Marriage is the embodied ideal of self-giving love and for us, it is the root of our calling.

The primary way Carey, my wife, and I share our love with others is though acts of hospitality. We set lots of tables and do lots of dishes. We’re intentional about the dishes though, because when we’re faithful with that, we find a measure of faithfulness in lots of other small moments as well. In every moment, whether surrounded by loads of people in a moment of impassioned worship, or in a quiet moment of reflection with one or two friends, we always want to live with the expectation that God’s gift to us is his willingness to be present among us in powerful ways when we allow for room in our lives for breakthrough.

So while it may be that the gift of pioneering is one of not always fitting the status quo, it might also be said that pioneering is the gift that keeps on giving; researching and developing as permission is given and space is created for something different. And that’s a place where God’s Kingdom is the only aim worth fitting into.

Does your church or denomination give permission for R and D? Is it able to function separate from the status quo? If so, are the pioneers doing the work supported in their life of mission with healthy Christian rhythms of friendship, spiritual direction and prayer? 

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Gannon Sims

Gannon Sims

Gannon is the Director of Ministry Formation for Fresh Expressions US and leads the Fresh Expressions efforts of the Baptist General Association of Virginia. He earned the Bachelor of Arts Degree from Baylor University and the Master of Divinity degree from Duke University. Prior to entering seminary, Gannon worked as a legislative aide in the U.S. Senate and as a public affairs officer in the anti-human trafficking office at the U.S. State Department. He enjoys forging partnerships between followers of Jesus from different traditions and has served in various roles at several churches, Baptist, Presbyterian, and Anglican. Gannon is married to Carey, who also is a graduate of Duke Divinity School. Together they work to bring fresh expressions of church to the collegiate community at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

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