Michael Beck

Pioneers: The Gift of Living on the Edge?

In Makoto Fujimura’s Culture Care: Reconnecting with Beauty for Our Common Life I was introduced to a mysterious group called the mearcstapas… the “border-stalkers.”

The mearcstapas (an Old English term from Beowulf) aptly describes the kind of adaptive disposition we need in the church today. These border-stalkers of the ancient tribes lived on the edges of their groups, moved in and out, and brought back news.[1] Living on the edge, enabled them to become instruments of reconciliation amidst the fragmentation.

In the fresh expressions movement, we call mearcstapas… pioneers.

Like the mearcstapas, pioneers inhabit the liminal space, and incarnate the role of helping fragmented tribes find hope and reconciliation.

As border-stalkers we live in the gap between Jerusalem and Antioch, holding those ways together in creative tension. We are just enough part of inherited congregations that we can provide direction, protection, and order, while also moving freely in the larger communal ecosystems among not-yet-Christians.

In that sense, border-stalkers must live in multiple habitats at once, journeying between the relational networks. We are mobile and sent, living in a state of motion. Along the journey we build significant relational connections in the various tribes, but our identity is not limited to any single tribe.

Pioneers

Jonny Baker says that pioneers “have the gift of not fitting in.” I have trained, coached, and collaborated with pioneers throughout the US and across the pond, and I’ve found this sentiment to be true of most pioneers.

This resonates deeply with me as a person who always feels a bit out of place in a denomination infamously known for its post-movemental, institutional, nature. I particularly have never been comfortable identifying myself in one of the three dominant social/political/theological camps perpetuating fragmentation of the larger body: traditionalist, centrist, or progressive. I have friends in each of these “tribes” and move among them quite freely.

I suppose I have always been a mearcstapa “border-stalker” kind of guy. I’ve never fit in easily to any group or organization. I was an orphan and a street kid. In middle school, I remember having friends in each of the various “cliques.” In the early 90’s this was the hip-hop’ers, preps, jocks, rockers, skaters, and nerds… respectively. I could move in and out of each of those groups. I resonated with each in some way. Further, I had a supernatural encounter with Jesus while incarcerated in a jail cell, so particularly among clergy persons, I don’t quite fit in.

However, I’m never more fully aware of what it’s like to live in the space of “not fitting in” than among my own annual conference and in my own denomination. I’m not particularly fond of the politics, or for much of what passes for “church.”

If you’ve ever had these feelings, you’re not alone.

The research from the UK demonstrates that typical pioneers do not fit neatly into the dominant theological pigeonholes. Their activity and effectiveness challenge the assumptions of our rigid institutionalism. Beth Keith writes that pioneers do not easily conform to the “closely defined liberal, evangelical, or catholic theologies and churchmanship” they move us “towards something unknown and developmental, with an emphasis on mission, diversity, dialogue and evolving belief and practice.”[2]

Pioneers seem to have a keen sense of their missional environments and practice a form of “contextual theology.” Being contextual theologians is not about making it up as we go along, letting the context dictate our defining truths. It’s about contextualizing those defining truths in faithful and meaningful ways within real communities.

Being contextual theologians is not about making it up as we go along, letting the context dictate our defining truths. It’s about contextualizing those defining truths in faithful and meaningful ways within real communities. Click To Tweet

Contextualization starts with the Biblical text. It requires first a faithful exegesis (interpretation) of Scripture. It’s noteworthy to say there is no non-contextualized version of interpreting Scripture. As you read it, you are reading it through a contextual frame. You are bringing your language, experiences, education, formation, and assumptions to the text. The idea that one can have a pure unadulterated interpretation is patently false.

Next, contextualization requires an accurate exegesis of context. Then, through a process of code-switching, metaphor creation, and building bridges of meaning, the Gospel can be communicated and embodied afresh in each unique context.

The Gift of the Edge

Amidst the fragmentation of a very divided ecclesial landscape, pioneers should not throw up our hands and move on from our denominations or networks. Nor should we become so consumed in the melee that we lose our selves in the machine.

In the fragmentation of a divided ecclesial landscape, pioneers should not throw up our hands & move on from our denominations or networks. Nor should we become so consumed in the melee that we lose our selves in the machine. Click To Tweet

In fact, our unique position on the edge, “in but not of” opens many profound opportunities. Denominations continue to employ the same kind of thinking and strategies that created the problems of decline and irrelevance to begin with. This is the so-called “Einstellung effect,” a psychological term that describes the tendency of problem solvers to employ only familiar methods to the neglect of new ones.

In this scenario, pioneers become “positive deviants” in the larger systems. Positive Deviants are people whose uncommon but successful behaviors or strategies enable them to find better solutions to a problem, despite facing similar challenges and having no extra resources or knowledge than their peers. The Positive Deviance Approach refers to the process of spreading these positive deviations throughout a whole system, therefore transforming it from within.

For instance, four years ago I became the Cultivator of Fresh Expressions for the North Central District, I’ve attempted to spread key learnings from the Wildwood revitalization throughout the North Central District. Last year, I became a cultivator of fresh expressions for the whole Florida Conference of the UMC. My approach has been the same, locating fellow deviants, spreading out “positive deviance” on larger scales.

Some amazing things are starting to happen through this work. Fresh expressions is able to bring people together from diverse theological perspectives and unify them around the mission of Jesus Christ. Further, most of the churches experimenting with fresh expressions are experiencing forms of revitalization.

Fresh expressions is able to bring people together from diverse theological perspectives & unify them around the mission of Jesus Christ. Most of the churches experimenting with fresh expressions are experiencing revitalization. Click To Tweet

What if pioneers were to take 2 Corinthians 5: 14-19 as a kind of personal mission statement?

“For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them. From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us” (italics mine).

What does it mean that the ministry of reconciliation has been entrusted to us? What if pioneers were to own our place living on the edges, as the mearcstapas, the positive deviants who dance between the tribes bringing good news, healing, and reconciliation? What if we were to stand in the tragic gaps of fragmentation, radically focused on the mission of Jesus, and show the world a new way to be?

From our perspective, on the outside looking in, “in our denominations but not of them” as people who don’t belong fully to any of these social/political camps, we have incredible opportunity. We find ourselves where Jesus was, a positive deviant, on the edge of the religious system of his day. Perhaps where Jesus still is today.

Jesus is the ultimate mearcstapa. He danced between the borders of heaven and earth in the incarnation. He moved among the people, both at the synagogues and on the hillsides. He not only extended love to the children of Israel, but to Samaritans, Roman centurions, Syrophoenician women, sinners, tax-collectors, priests, and prostitutes. He moved in and out of the tribes, bringing hope and reconciliation. He was the enfleshment of both temple and tabernacle.

All our pioneering is always in pursuit of the ἀρχηγός (archēgos) the first one, the author, the pioneer of all pioneers. We are a community of followership, following relentlessly after Jesus. We are always in his slipstream…

 “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God (Heb. 12:1-2 italics mine).

A final note, the religious and political systems didn’t appreciate this “deviant” named Jesus of Nazareth. As we follow the “pioneer” of our faith, we can expect to also joyfully face enduring the shame of the cross. This is another mark of living on the edge. Some people’s livelihood depends on the system not changing. We can expect that most of our wounds will be from friendly fire. Nevertheless, we press on through the tragic gaps, bringing hope and good news between the tribes.

Let the border-stalkers arise. Let us seek to be instruments of reconciliation, in a body that is broken. Keep living on the edge my mearcstapa friends.  

 

 

[1] Fujimura Makoto, Culture Care: Reconnecting with Beauty for Our Common Life (New York: Fujimura Institute, 2014), 39.

[2] Beth Keith, “The Gift of Troublesome Questioning” from Male, David. Pioneers 4 Life: Explorations in Theology and Wisdom for Pioneering Leaders. Abingdon: Bible Reading Fellowship, 2011. P. 56

Michael Beck

Michael Beck

Rev. Michael Beck is South Atlantic Coordinator Fresh Expressions US and North Central District Cultivator of Fresh Expressions for the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church. Michael serves as senior pastor of Wildwood UMC where he directs addiction recovery programs, a jail ministry, a food pantry, and a network of fresh expressions that meet in places like tattoo parlors and burrito joints. He currently lives in Wildwood with his wife, Jill, and their blended family of 8 children.

LEAVE A COMMENT

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *