The image of the frontier has always appealed to Americans. In part this is due to the sense of manifest destiny, the belief that America was the great vanguard of democracy and civilization.
It was linked to the post-millennialism that was popular during the 19th century, wherein it was believed that we were living in the millennial age already, and it was just a matter of spreading the word and expanding the borders.
Alexander Campbell, one of the founders of the Disciples, imbibed this view.
But the point was – for Americans there was always the frontier. As for the church, the churches that did best on the frontier were those least encumbered by tradition (and the need for an “educated” ministry).
Baptists had their farmer preachers, Methodists their circuit riders, and Disciples had lay preachers (though both Campbell and Barton Stone believed in an educated laity).
But, ministry on the frontier was not without its difficulties. Let me share a paraphrase of Gil Rendle, which I heard in our missional learning track at the Disciples General Assembly: “People don’t so much fear or resist change as they fear loss.”
We cannot pretend that movement to frontier ministry doesn’t imply loss of something. It might be a loss of security or a loss of deeply held traditions.
I pastor a church that has deeply rooted traditions, some of which are difficult to let go of.
Many churches “go out of business” because they are so committed to maintaining traditions that no longer speak to anyone beyond the walls.
They are, alas, the last ones living in what has become a ghost town. The fear of loss prevents one from seeing new vistas.
As we move out into the frontier, we will continually have to reinvent ourselves. Even as Americans moved west out onto the frontier, many of the towns and cities they started would become in time ghost towns because the thing that drew them in the first place no longer mattered or existed (e.g., gold).
If we embrace a call to ministry on the “frontier,” what will we have to let go of? What will be lost? And what does that mean for us?
Bob Cornwall is Senior Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Troy, Michigan.