Voyageur Mission Planters

By Mike Ruhl  |  October 1, 2016

Voyageur is a French word, meaning traveler.  The voyageurs were French Canadians who engaged in the transporting of furs by canoe during the fur trading years.  The emblematic meaning of the term applies to the places (Canada and the Upper Midwest of the U.S.) and the times (mainly in the 18th and early 19th centuries) where transportation of materials was mainly over long distances. 

This major and challenging task of the fur trading business was done by canoe and largely by French Canadians.  In its fur-trading context, the term also applied to other fur trading activities.  Being a voyageur also included being part of a licensed, organized effort – one of the distinctions that set them apart the coureurs des bois (an independent entrepreneurial French-Canadian woodsman who traveled in New France and the interior of North America). 

The voyageurs were regarded as legendary, especially in French Canada.  They were heroes celebrated in folklore and music.  For reasons of promised celebrity status and wealth, this position was exceptionally coveted.  With a powerful sense of mission, the voyageurs ventured into an environment that was culturally diverse at best – and often hostile and threatening at worst.  They turned their backs on much of the comfort and security of their home environment and ventured into many uncharted waters and sheer wilderness in order to fulfill their chosen vocation.

Without pressing the analogy too strenuously, one observes some of the same characteristics in the lives and ministries of mission planters – dedicated pastors and disciples called to 'launch out into the deep’, sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and gathering new disciples into a ‘spiritually profitable’ missional community or church – spiritual voyageurs.

In their acclaimed book, The Permanent Revolution, authors Alan Hirsch and Tim Catchim reflect on The Anatomy of a Pioneer – a Mission Leader who functions apostolically by either (1) mobilizing the community to voyage toward the edge and explore the frontier of culture or (2) themselves moving out from the center of the organization and venturing toward the edge of culture.  Hirsch and Catchim then list six essential characteristics of the Pioneer (Voyageur) Mission Leader.

1. An ability to invent the future while dealing with the pastThe pioneers of the American West sometimes took maps with them, but they were often inaccurate and outdated.  So they had to create new maps from scratch!  Pioneering and Voyaging Mission Leaders often will chart new mission paradigms and create culturally relevant strategies to move forward in a new direction.

2. A willingness to break with conventional ideas and methods - This characteristic has nothing to do with disrupting biblical and confession legacy.  But it has everything to do with the reality that what works in advancing the Missio Dei in familiar and domesticated spaces may not work well in ‘underdeveloped territory’.

3. An ability to play multiple roles at the same time - Both pioneers and voyageurs not only had to cook their own food – they had to find it and harvest it as well.  In other words, they had to be BOTH chefs and hunters.  They not only had to navigate unknown landscapes and waterways, but they had to be map-makers as well.  Obviously there was a certain degree of complexity that came with the role.  The apostle and mission planter Paul demonstrated this leadership complexity (some refer to this dynamic as “leaderplex’) in serving the multiple churches he served – as planter, architect, foundation-layer, ambassador, mentor and partner.

4. A high tolerance for risk - Both pioneering and ‘voyageuring’ require exceptional sacrifice, time and risk – often coming up against unforeseen challenges.  Yet those who ‘simply stay at home’ often have little understanding into the nature of venturing into new and unfamiliar territory.  Some of these risks may end in partial failure.  But failure is virtually a certain reality at some point in any new venture.  Note that there are two kinds of voyageurs:  Those who have already experienced failure – and those who will.  The difference of course is that the Mission Leader learns from partial failures and is able to ‘fail forward’ in mission.

5. A need to be different while supporters want the Pioneer-Voyageur to be the same - Simply put, this characteristic recognizes that those who want to support the Pioneer-Voyageur Mission Leader often expect them to use familiar and conventional processes.  Those who support a Pioneer-Voyageur Mission Leader need to develop a high tolerance for both ambiguity and delayed results.

6. An understanding that some may want the Pioneer-Voyageur to fail – Voyageur Mission Leaders will come back from their ventures with stories.  Their new maps can challenge old assumptions – and some of their innovative methods will force the ‘settlers at home’ to re-examine their own.

Hirsch and Catchim (page 174 in The Permanent Revolution) leave us with an important ‘talking point’ among leaders who are deeply concerned about bringing the Gospel of Jesus Christ to people who are far way from God – many of whom populating diverse generational, ethnic and cultural groups:  We in the church need to learn what it means to engage in dynamic apostolicity along with a high but sustainable degree of entrepreneurial intensity.

Moment Extras

Questions for Discussion

1. How does your personal ministry resemble that of a Spiritual Voyageur?

2. Why are so many Christians and congregations fearful of innovation in mission and ministry?

3. At what point can a Voyageur-Mission Leader ‘cross the line’ and become counter-productive to the Missio Dei?

4. How can you – and the disciples in your care – become more supportive of Mission Leaders who are planting new missions?

Resources You Can Use

The Permanent Revolution – Apostolic Imagination and Practice for the 21st Century by Alan Hirsch and Tim Catchim. 

Gospel DNA – Five Markers of a Flourishing Church by Michael W. Newman

Blog post on by Joe Miller, 8 Inhibitors of Innovation


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