Gannon Sims

Five Signs of the Spirit Working in Pioneering Leaders

What’s so different about these people?

For the last few weeks, I have had the privilege to travel throughout the UK, a sort of pilgrimage to the birthplace of the International Fresh Expressions movement. Throughout the trip, and as I process back at home, I keep asking “what’s so different about these people?”

We met with pioneering leaders in both rural villages and on urban housing estates. We met people leading new forms of church among the poor and people leading new forms of church among creative young professionals.

Some of these leaders were ordained, some were not. All had received some sort of training whether through Mission-Shaped Ministry or through seminary coursework.

So what is it that is so different about these people?

The training might have something to do with it, there was something deeper still: There was a steady confidence, an infectious hope.

Post-Christian or Pre-Christian?

These pioneering leaders have been shaped by a lifetime in a post—or as our friend Ray Simpson is prone to say—a pre-Christian Britain. For instance, it is not at all uncommon for a village of nearly 2000 to have regular church attendance of 21 people.

The siren song of Christendom has long ceased to offer a compelling tune in the UK. They are, however, clearly compelled by something very personal. They were more likely to share encounters they had with Jesus or lives they had seen transformed by the power of the Gospel than recount doctrine or theories of church growth. As Bishop Graham Cray has said of the leaders and the movement: “We’ve caught a wave of the Spirit, and we’re trying hard not to fall off.”

Maybe this is the difference, “a wave of the Spirit.” By looking at their lives and their movement, we can learn what it would be like if we caught the wave, too.

Five Signs of the Spirit in Pioneers

The pioneers we met in the UK showed many signs of being led by the Spirit to create fresh expressions of church. As I look back over our trip, I can clearly see five signs.

1. Patience with hard questions.

The pioneers we met aren’t afraid of hard questions. In fact, they recognize as Henri Nouwen has said that just “giving answers without questions does damage to the soul.” This can take time, some said, up to six years to build significant trusting relationships.

The “inherited church,” that is, established forms of churches that provide guidance and support for pioneers must give them time and space to formulate the necessary questions needed to do the work. One of the pioneers, Ric Stott, pointed out that saying “I don’t know” is important because it strips away and allows God to take over.

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2. Compassion is the key to community.

As Bonhoeffer pointed out, “The person who loves their dream of community will destroy community, but the person who loves those around them will create community.”

Christian community is not modeled after our daydreams, but, as our friends in the UK pointed out, the result of God’s compassionate work through us. In Ephesians 3, the Apostle Paul describes the compassionate “grace” given to him, and it’s results.

I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God’s grace given me through the working of his power. Although I am less than the least of all the Lord’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the boundless riches of Christ, and to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God, who created all things. His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.

We will know we are on our own mission if our attempts at building community look like our daydreams. We will know that we are riding the wave of the Spirit, when our weaknesses and shortcomings open opportunities for God’s manifold wisdom to be revealed.

3. The way of Jesus is a way of life

As Christendom took over the Roman Empire, many of the faithful fled to the desert and began to cultivate different ways of life. Over the centuries and even today, monastic movements have experimented with and modeled how following Jesus becomes an all-encompassing way of life.

Counter-intuitively, this life comes from choosing death. As Jesus said, “…unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.”

The pioneering leaders we met in the UK had, in many ways, already experienced a sort of death–a death to Christendom. An early draft of what became the Mission-Shaped Church Report was called Dying to Live. The wave of the Spirit can be seen in the new seeds of life being scattered today. We will know we are joining this wave when we happily die to our approach–no matter how brilliant it may seem–so that these new seeds may be brought to life.

4. Deliver Good News and do it well.

Shannon Hopkins, the founder of Matroyshka Haus and one of the creative minds behind a course on missional entrepreneurship says that “The Church should be the chief deliverer of good news for society.” Good news is what we exist for. If pioneering Christian leaders start and fund projects for the benefit all of society. People who far from God might take notice. Christians used to start hospitals and universities. What might we start today? Some of the leaders we met started an organization called “Street Pastors.” They’ve received grants from the local police because police could count on the deployment of Christians to police the area, making the streets more safe for less than it would cost to deploy the police.

5. Whole-Life Discipleship

Bob Hopkins shared his personal story of coming to faith at a Billy Graham crusade. However, there was no follow-up, no clear path to a faith community. He spent many years as an avowed atheist before renewing his faith in Christ.

It’s not enough to make a decision or try to “plug people in” somewhere. Taking on a new life in Christ comes with what Bex Roberts, a youth minister at St. Thomas Philadelphia in Sheffield calls “the slow unraveling of the former life on the way to faith.” It comes with reading the scripture with the expectation that following it will result in life change. It means helping Christ-followers reimagine their very homes at places where discipleship takes place.

We’ll know we’ve caught the wave of the Spirit when we begin to see our old lives unravel and new practices formed by Jesus’ example.

There and Back Again

These are just a few of the thoughts filling my heart and mind after this trip. The challenge after a pilgrimage like this is to keep wrestling, and to keep asking what difference these relationships and experiences will make as we translate all of this for our own cultural context.

Our group is off to a good start. In light of our learnings, we agreed to take up a 30-day rhythm of morning and evening prayer.

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The day after arriving back home, I was back in the thick of life and ministry. We had a ribbon-cutting ceremony at our local farmer’s market for a new soil composting business started by my wife and a couple of friends we’ve made through a group of start-up entrepreneurs. My wife and her business partners were joined by the mayor, the city economic development people and the minister from one of the downtown churches. The mayor spoke of learning to compost on her husband’s family farm. The economic development officer spoke of business that supports the common good, and the minister spoke of the web of relationships at work in creation.

The business is not inherently Christian, but the web of relationships required for composting to work is inherently theological.

After the event, I took a nap. I was rustled from my slumber by a series of text message alerts in rapid succession. I thought the alerts were nothing more than interruption of my well-deserved rest. When I glanced at my phone, I discovered the messages were in fact a sort of neo-monastic call to evening prayer.

“Don’t want to bother you on a Saturday night, but do want to hold us accountable” the message read.

The little web of relationships fostered by our common experiences was taking root. The people we met had caught a wave of the Spirit and there was something different about them. And there’s something different about us too.

With gratitude to Bishop Ken Carter, the Rev. Audrey Warren and the Florida Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church for making the journey.

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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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