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Adventurer Ministry: Origins and Theological Underpinnings

Updated: Jul 5, 2023

Part 4 of the Fresh Expressions 101 series by Michael Adam Beck

So perhaps you have heard the terms “adventurer,” or “adventurer ministry” used in connection with the missional church movement. In this fourth installment of the Fresh Expressions 101 series, I will define adventurer ministry and its theological underpinnings. In the next installment, I will do a deep dive into who adventurers are (psychology) and how institutions can avoid ruining or exiling them (sociology).

I want to first acknowledge that the term that was used previously for this kind of ministry, “pioneer,” is problematic for some in the U.S. context. While originally Middle French in origin (pionnier: a foot soldier, or trench digger), from the same root as peon or pawn. This term can connote the violence, manipulation, and oppression of early European settlers. This term is the primary language of the Church of England and the Fresh Expressions movement, but in America we have chosen to change this terminology, for in no way do we want to perpetuate the cycle of racism embedded in that conquering narrative of the Eurotribal church.

Learn more about the shift toward this new language of "adventuring" in this article with Leonard Sweet.

Perhaps the most helpful exercise in our task of unleashing adventurer ministry comes from understanding the adventuring of Jesus. God the Son is the author and instigator of our faith. His incarnation, death, resurrection, and re-embodiment as the church is a sequence of innovation that transforms the cosmos.

God bestows the adventurer upon the church for nurture, upbuilding, and expansion. Paul the Apostle is perhaps a textbook example of an adventurer. Adventurers seek to embody this initiator, starter ministry of Jesus in the world. In the same way, we embody the ministry roles of apostle, prophet, evangelist, shepherd, and teacher (Eph 4: 11).

The Church of England defines adventurers (pioneers) as “people called by God who are the first to see and creatively respond to the Holy Spirit’s initiatives with those outside the church; gathering others around them as they seek to establish a new contextual Christian community.”

The Church of England also identifies two “types” of adventurer, largely based on “from where” the adventuring happens:

Fresh-start Adventurers (or edge adventurers): These are classic adventuring types who start new things, love firsts, and enjoy working from a blank canvas. If ordained, they need to be released from expectations of an incumbent parish role and allowed to adventure in places where the Church is not present while remaining closely connected with the diocese.

Parish-based Adventurers (or mixed-economy adventurers): These adventurers want to work from a parish base but from there develop fresh expressions of church in a mixed economy by expanding the growth and reach of the local church.

As illustrated below, edge adventurers are already out in our communities and we need to join and learn with them. Mixed-economy adventurers are already sitting in our pews and we need to identify and release them.

Three essential roles thrive in the fresh expressions movement: adventurers, supporters, and permission givers. This provides a way for every participant (including not-yet-believers) to be involved in mission. When these roles work together in alignment, congregations that have been sedentary for a period can rejoin a movement again.

Adventurers are passionate about mission on the edges.

Advocates are passionate about supporting and releasing adventurers.

Authorizers Givers are people who use their role to foster release of adventurers and to influence the system to be more willing to experiment.

In the United Kingdom, fresh-expression leaders reorganized the ecclesial system to make room for adventurer ministry. Persons called by God and gifted by the Spirit for adventurer ministry can do so in a lay, licensed, or ordained capacity.

The theological underpinnings of adventurer ministry are rooted deeply in the Trinity. God is an adventuring God; thus, there are adventurers. The church is to be one and diverse, in the way the Trinity is one and diverse—distinct persons, living relationally in a mysterious interdependence, full of creative diversity. The relational interpenetration of the Trinity, always making room for the other, is the embodiment of sending, seeking love.

Each person of the Trinity is a “adventurer.” God the Father creates the universe. God the Spirit breathes forth all life and re-news life. God the Son is the pioneer, adventurer, author, innovator of our faith. The Trinity is an adventurer team!

A clear correlation is observed between adventuring ministers and business or social entrepreneurs. They share essential characteristics: they start new initiatives, organize relational networks, innovate, and create fresh things out of existing pieces. They do so in the power of the Spirit.

Jonny Baker has famously said that adventurers have “the gift of not fitting in.” Adventurers are those who have the uncanny gift to see and imagine different possibilities than the accepted ways of doing business as usual, and then build a path to make real this possibility. This can certainly make them unpopular in more conventional circles. Particularly in denominational iterations of the church where stabilizers and institutional guardians are prized and advanced. Adventurers are disruptive of the status quo and often stereotyped as destabilizers and even deviants because of their innovative gifting.

In Refounding the Church, social anthropologist Gerald Arbuckle was the first to identify innovators, and “refounding types” as adventurers who he described as “dreamers who do.” While all of us have our dreams, adventurers have an uncanny ability to turn them into reality. This makes them dangerous in an institutional and hierarchical church, where many in the organization look to the top of an episcopal hierarchy for direction. Adventurers dream up new realities and bring them to fruition. Thus, adventurers are often either domesticated or exiled from denominational systems.

I will explore these realities more deeply in the next post.


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