Trusting the missio Dei in the midst of mission innovation education | Mark Johnston [ANVIL vol 36 issue 2]


Mark Johnston

Te Taurahere Whatumanawa, the Taneatua Garden Project, is a story of mission innovation in one of our poorest small towns in New Zealand.

A husband-and-wife team, Maori non-stipendiary Presbyterian pastors, spent years directing their energies to traditional pastoral ministry in their tribal hinterland, a few kilometres from their small home town. The expectations of their indigenous synod were that they would serve a faithful ministry as others before them, keeping people turning up to services of worship in the small rural chapel, conducting tangihanga (funerals) and providing Sunday school for local children. However, like so many of these traditionally shaped tribal parishes, the only people in the pews were the elderly, with a few mokopuna (grandchildren) from time to time. Meanwhile the statistics for poverty, youth suicide, domestic violence, drug and alcohol addiction and rates of incarceration for their community continued to tell the story of the blight of New Zealand’s colonial past and contemporary neglect.

Several years ago a growing sense of unease that their ministry was not tackling the real issues facing their people prompted them to listen to the street and the community in which they lived and ask this question: What is God up to? What is the Spirit calling us to? In collegial partnership with another local Presbyterian European pastor, they began to midwife the birth of the Hughes Place Garden project in Taneatua.

From one perspective this was a community development ministry. By drawing on their own indigenous practices and values, they activated local assets and participative community building and mobilised their street to invest in the project. They focused on horticulturally skilling young people, reintroducing indigenous garden practices and herbal medicines, and developing sustainable and healthy sources of food production for struggling households.

Yet in the hands of these leaders, infused with Christian Maori spirituality, they began curating a spiritual place of hospitality (manaakitanga). “The gates are always open to the garden” (Rev. 21:25). “People can come and take what they need.” It is meant for connecting people (whanaungatanga) and to rekindle stewardship of the natural environment (kaitiakitanga). It is a place of wairua, a place of Spirit where people can come and pray and be prayed for every Tuesday morning. Moreover, when planting seeds and seedlings and at harvest, there is always prayer. It is also a place to celebrate with the “living ancestor” – Jesus. People from the street have requested baptisms in the garden. It is a place to eat; a pizza oven is in place and they are working out with their synod how to lead Eucharists in the garden. It is a place to play, with a children’s playground and street library, and it is a place to sing: waiata (spiritual songs) often ring out around the street when people gather for events.

They have experimented. They have prayed. They have recast their ministry as pastors and taken church into the street: a church without walls, a garden in the community. It has not been easy. A flood swept through the town six months into the project and washed away many of their early efforts in the garden. They now look back on this as a cleansing act, since the land and those living on some of this land has had to battle with historic and modern curses. They have listened again and again as people have been drawn to the garden, some to look, some to give, and some to take. People in the neighbourhood are coming out from behind closed curtains; domestic violence levels in the streets around the garden have begun to abate. Children and youths are finding new pleasures and meaning in sinking their hands into soil, weeding and watering and reaping the harvest.

Where I work from in mission education

At the time of writing, I am a practical theologian and educator on the staff of a small theological college. We are responsible for ministry formation and equipping for the NZ Presbyterian denomination. A central theological frame to our work is the missio Dei. Like so many mainline denominations, marginality in a post-Christian, secular and pluralist society has required us to recast our ecclesiology and sense of mission. However, when it comes to landing this in the midst of 140 years of local church practice and a much longer Reformed tradition, we have our work cut out. All too easily the practice and imagination for mission succumbs to church-centric anxieties. How do we mobilise outreach to reverse decline and irrelevance, how do we restructure our church systems to release resources for mission, how do we create dynamic and compelling expressions of church and how do we re-tool our clergy?

When we deploy mission education, we run the risk of preloading these concerns and anxieties without even a pause to consider the consequences: inflating human agency in mission, mission as production, trusting in our power to strategise, innovate, control and deliver. We are churches shaped and formed in modernity whose central wager is that we can do life well without God. [1]

Yet one of the key learning challenges for Reformed and European churches is to pay attention to God’s agency and integrate a sense of the Spirit across the whole of life. If this is the mission of God then the first act of mission is listening and then learning to walk (not run) with what we are discovering. This means cultivating mission discernment as practice, posture and theological reflection within particular contexts. So for us, mission education means developing mission discernment as practice, posture and theological reflection in our leaders, pioneers and faith communities. In the last three years we have taken a more intentional path by experimenting with some educational tools and then learning from early results.

Action learning

One of our first steps was to design action learning tools in mission discernment for those training for ordination, and then offer this also to existing ministry leaders. We developed two processes for learning in the midst of action.

“Listening in the Neighbourhood” and “Mission Action Experimenting” became synchronous courses online that required participants to lead action projects in their own communities. Participants formed their own discernment groups and undertook a coached series of spiritual and practical discernment practices. This was then reflected on and processed in their online cohort. This allowed for highly situated learning, so skill acquisition and reflection occurred in the midst of action and learning could be diffused quickly, applied and amplified. Such is the weight of inherited church-centric mission practices that supporting people to inhabit challenging new practices meant “you don’t get it until you are doing it”.

North-east Christchurch project

These tools were deployed in new start work. Christchurch sadly is infamous for an earthquake and a massacre of Muslim worshippers. It is also a city that has seen rapid housing development as people have relocated westwards to avoid the areas devastated by the 2011 earthquake.

In 2017, the Christchurch Presbytery and our college placed an ordinand into a greenfield housing area to experiment with a “new mission seedling”. She recruited a team from neighbouring churches and began a Listening in the Neighbourhood process, and then moved into the Mission Action Experimenting mode over two years while supported within an action learning cohort with her fellow ordinands.

Over time the team began convening new kinds of community and gathering spaces for young families, building relationships, identifying cultural and geographical challenges, and discovering on-the-ground interests among unchurched people. Postures of listening and discernment still characterise the core team’s language and actions even as the project evolves and new forms of action and a fledgling church community emerges.

St Andrews, Hastings

A recent graduate of our ministry programme who participated in these action processes in training has also deployed these approaches in a traditional church that is weighted to middle-class elderly retirees and small-business holders, along with a Cook Island Pacific congregation. Listening in the Neighbourhood invited people who had been faithfully turning up to church on Sunday for years to meet with God and with each other, across some of the old social and cultural divides, to begin listening for the Spirit in their neighbourhoods and city.

New discoveries were made, including the heightened realisation that a much-troubled suburb with high social need on the edge of the parish was calling to them. A number of their Cook Island families resided there. A renewed sense that God could be in the neighbourhood as well as the church on Sunday sparked new conversations on what the Spirit might be stirring them to. Yet church and social good programmes had often drawn a blank in the past; benevolent programmes and a few revivalist churches had attempted various interventions but addressing intergenerational and structural poverty is an economic, social and spiritual long and costly end game.

Listening in the Neighbourhood was an invitation to dwell in this dilemma, not knowing what could be done, and not wanting to recolonise with social action intentions – however well-meaning. Ideas would come from the Spirit’s prompting as they walked and mixed in relationships across old divides. For an engineer in the parish, cycling one day in this community, in one of the brightest sunshine areas of NZ, the realisation dawned. Energy poverty was a key factor in cashstrapped households and a health hazard with so many downstream implications – in winter in particular; do you feed the kids, or turn on the heaters? What would it take to energise this community literally, and to give them back control of their own destiny?

Last year, he and a couple of the local church members turned up to another of our college’s mission education experiments, “The Lighthouse”. The year before, members of the Taneatua garden project and the northeast Christchurch project had been in attendance.

The Lighthouse – an innovation incubator and education weekend

A theological ministry college that is serious about forming missional leaders needs to educate in innovation. So we tapped a dynamic associate professor of entrepreneurship at the University of Auckland who specialises in innovation education on the shoulder and asked her if we could learn to do this. She went one better and said, how about I join you?

For the last three years we have invited teams of church leaders to a weekend, bringing a new mission challenge they are working on and working that into creative opportunity. Over the weekend, the teams learn tools for mission discernment, workshop and test their ideas, and learn about innovation tools and postures they can apply when returning to their mission context.

Following last year’s Lighthouse, – the St Andrews team returned to Hastings and Power to the People Tamanui-te-ra: Great Son of the Sun was conceived. The idea is a solar farm and community empowerment project owned and administered by a local church-sponsored trust, Te Ra Power Ltd. More than just a utility project, this is to become a missional expression working among households accessing the power, who are invited to share in community relationships of social and spiritual empowerment: a holistic approach to create a new kind of family (whanau) who share in this power. An educational partnership with the local polytechnic for local youth skills development in solar energy is planned. Te Ra Power Ltd will also fund a community chaplain and community organiser. A business plan has received the green light, and local authority backing to raise five million dollars from external, civic and church sources is on track.

Educating in theological reflection within the missio Dei

Figure 1

What we have attempted in experimenting with mission education finds a pedagogical home in theological reflection methods. What is often situated as a theoretical model of pastoral reflection in clergy formation is given a new lease of life in action-learning processes with people in a mission context. Mark Lau Branson’s practical theology cycle in discerning God’s initiative is particularly pertinent to our endeavours to develop mission discernment as practice, posture and theological reflection, as illustrated in figure 1. [2]


The mission educators’ journey for us is one of testing ourselves within the missio Dei, as we, a theological college, learn from local innovation and steps in mission discernment. We have resourced local initiatives and built tools and processes to assist in mission discernment and innovation. But this has always been and continues to be a co-learning process, as we research and listen to local stories and leaders, who show us how they are being led by the Spirit and entering into where God invites them to dwell and initiate Jesus-patterned responses.

Mark Johnston is an educator and reflective mission theologian. Until 2020 he was a theological field and ministry educator with the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand. He recently took up a position as pastoral studies tutor with theology and religious studies at the University of Glasgow. He is an ordained minister, neighbour, parent and friend and enjoys the particularities of place and people as a way of learning to walk with God through life.

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[1] Alan J. Roxburgh and Martin Robinson, Practices for the Refounding of God’s People: The Missional Challenge of the West (New York: Church
Publishing, 2018), 12–13.
[2] Mark Lau Branson, “Disruptions Meet Practical Theology,” Disruption, The Fuller Magazine, 12 (2018), accessed 30 April 2020, https://

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