I never thought of myself as a pioneer girl, but upon moving to the West Coast from the Southeast, I began reading the literature of the West. Wallace Stegner, John Steinbeck, and Willa Cather became my companions and guides into the pioneering experience of settling in the West. As a literature-nerd, I did not think anything of my sudden affinity for pioneers; however, now that we are almost two years into church planting on the West Coast, I am beginning to connect the dots.
As we were sharing our vision for church planting in our neighborhood of California with friends, I found myself using words like kingdom outposts and homesteads. Even though Southern California has an elaborate and efficient set of highways, spiritually-speaking it feels more like the uncharted lands I had been reading about in the novels of the early settling beyond the established East. The spiritual ground in post-Christian California feels overwhelmingly hard and untilled. Abandoned, broken tools from past attempts are littered all throughout our city. People have left en masse in the past few years, longing for lower costs of living and greater political and spiritual alignment. It is hard to do ministry and raise a family centered upon Christ out here. Our spiritual climate eerily mirrors our physical climate: drought-stricken, dry, and brown. The same realities that initially compel many to come became the realities that send many packing their bags to head home.
In her classic novel, O Pioneers!, Will Cather captures the opportunity and crushing openness that come with uncharted areas:
“The roads were but faint tracks in the grass, and the fields were scarcely noticeable. The record of the plow was insignificant, like the feeble scratches on stone left by prehistoric races, so indeterminate that they may, after all, be only the markings of glaciers, and not a record of human strivings.”
Pioneering (or re-pioneering) the gospel in hard spiritual climates requires a different perspective and a different set of tools than ministering in places with an existing gospel footprint.
Outposts aren’t fancy, but they are functional
In Wallace Stegner’s novel Angle of Repose, the reader follows historian Lyman Ward’s tracing of his family’s arduous, circuitous journey as westward pioneers. Lyman’s mother who came from an old-money established family on the East Coat found herself following her husband to rustic, one-room cabins in mining towns. The pioneering adventure forced her to pare down her accoutrements to the bare minimum. After some adjusting, she began to embrace her minimalistic life on the fringes of society.
Those seeking to pioneer the gospel in spiritually-dark or ignored places could take a note or two from the pages of pioneering books. Early on in the church planting process, we realized that we were stepping away from well-oiled programs and bells and whistles. Sometimes I miss them, but we are focusing on functioning and existing as a kingdom outpost. To merely remain in such hostile or hard places is victory. To compare our little kingdom outpost to a more established church in a more suitable spiritual climate is an unfair task.
Our power points are often a few second delayed. Our music set up leaves much to be desired. We borrow spaces and tents and chairs. But we are here, and God is moving. Maybe a few generations from now, more established spiritual footprints will enable more elaborate schemes. For now, we celebrate the slow and steady growth God enables.
Pioneers link arms locally
Pioneers, different though they may be, link arms and share tools. The harsh landscape and the cutting winds erodes away differences that divide and propel pioneers toward deepening partnership. They offer tools and tricks of the trade that are nuanced to their shared soil. They show up at one another’s places ready to lend a hand and sweat beside each other. For us, this has looked like linking up with other church planting families to provide a tribe of other like-minded families for our children. Many of us left biological families and support systems when we came to plant on the West Coast. We are learning to fill that gap with one another. We combine resources and collaborate on youth and outreach events. We don’t have energy or time to waste on competition. We collaborate to survive and seek to help build pathways toward thriving.
Pioneers Know Their Need and their Supplier
Though the needs are many and obvious, so are the provisions and celebrations. The God who sent his Son to seek and save that which is lost, the one who leaves the ninety-nine to fetch the one, the one who sent emissaries out to the byways with an incredible invitation —he delights in pioneering work (Luke 19:10; Matthew 18:10-14; Luke 14:23).
In the words of J.A. Vaughan, “Man’s impotence invites and gives scope for the opportunity to display God’s omnipotence….God is strong for us just in proportion as we are helpless.” The very nature of a hard spiritual climate provides the backdrop on which God’s power and provision stand out in all their glory.
Above all things, pioneers are a people who feed on hope. And, in the words of the Apostle Paul, “Hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience” (Romans 8:24-25).