Frontier Theology

Recently, in a conversation with a regular church attender, we were speaking about the challenges and opportunities facing First Pres in Boulder. I shared a bit about the two models of church in the Middle Ages, that of Celtic spirituality and mission under St. Patrick and the dominant paradigm, the Roman church. The former was all about being incarnational: enfleshing the Gospel in joyful worship, winsome outreach, and cultural relevance. Celtic spirituality was never rule-bound, never about maintaining control over its membership, never about carefully drawing distinctions between those who are "in" and those who are "out". Rather, it was about fostering permeable Christian communities that lived among the pagans of their day. Celtic mission outposts warmly welcomed their pagan neighbors, encouraging them to sample their life together. Before they knew it, pagans would find themselves eating and experiencing worship with their Celtic hosts. A worthy paradigm for a postmodern, post-Christian age, I maintained (and, truth be told, I got the idea from George Hunter at Asbury Seminary in Kentucky. See his very readable
The Celtic Way of Evangelism). Anyway, my friend sent me a very similar set of ideas framed in the metaphor of "Frontier Theology." It's a compelling analogy made by Wes Seeliger in the early 1970s and I've found many places where it's been reproduced on people's blogs. I'm joining the bandwagon here because it's that good. Hope you find it helpful. Read on!


There are two views of life and two kinds of people. Some see life as a possession to be carefully guarded. They are SETTLERS. Others see life as a fantastic, wild, explosive gift. They are PIONEERS. The visible church is an outfit with an abundance of settlers and a few pioneers. The invisible church is the fellowship of pioneers. To no one's surprise there are two kinds of theology. Settler theology and pioneer theology. Settler theology is an attempt to answer all the questions, define and housebreak some sort of "Supreme Being," establish the status quo on Golden Tablets in cinemascope. Pioneer Theology is an attempt to talk about what it means to receive the strange gift of life and live! The pioneer sees theology as a wild adventure, complete with Indians, saloon girls, and the haunting call of what is yet to be.

The Wild West offers a stage for picturing these two types of theology. Settlers and Pioneers use the same words but that is where it stops. To see what I mean--read on.


IN SETTLER THEOLOGY--the church is the courthouse. It is the center of town life. The old stone structure dominates the town square. Its windows are small. This makes the thing easy to defend, but quite dark inside. Its doors are solid oak. No one lives there except pigeons and they, of course, are most unwelcome.

Within the thick, courthouse walls, records are kept, taxes collected, trials held for bad guys. The courthouse runs the town. It is the settler's symbol of law, order, stability, and most important--security, The mayor's office is on the top floor. His eagle eye scopes out the smallest details of town life.

IN PIONEER THEOLOGY--the church is the covered wagon. It is a house on wheels--always on the move. No place is its home. The covered wagon is where the pioneers eat, sleep, fight, love, and die. It bears the marks of life and movement--it creaks, is scarred with arrows, bandaged with bailing wire. The covered wagon is always where the action is. It moves in on the future and doesn't bother to glorify its own ruts. The old wagon isn't comfortable, but the pioneers could care less. There is a new world to explore.


IN SETTLER THEOLOGY--God is the mayor. The honorable Alpha O. Mega, chief executive of Settler City. He is a sight to behold--dressed like a dude from back East, lounging in an over-stuffed chair in his courthouse office. He keeps the blinds drawn. No one sees or knows him directly, but since there is order in the town who can deny he is there? The mayor is predictable and always on schedule.

The settlers fear the mayor but look to him to clear the payroll and keep things going. The mayor controls the courthouse which in turn runs the town. To maintain peace and quiet the mayor sends the sheriff to check on pioneers who ride into town.

IN PIONEER THEOLOGY--God is the trail boss. He is rough and rugged-full of life. The trail boss lives, eats, sleeps, fights with his men. Their well being is his concern. Without him the wagon wouldn't move--the pioneers would become fat and lazy. Living as a free man would be impossible. The trail boss often gets down in the mud with the pioneers to help push the wagon which frequently gets stuck. He slugs the pioneers when they get soft and want to turn back. His fist is an expression of his concern.


IN SETTLER THEOLOGY--Jesus is the sheriff. He is the guy who is sent by the mayor to enforce the rules. He wears a white hat--drinks milk--outdraws the bad guys. He saves the settlers by offering security. The sheriff decides who is thrown in jail. There is a saying in town that goes like this--those who believe the mayor sent the sheriff and follow the rules won't stay in Boot Hill when it comes their time.

IN PIONEER THEOLOGY--Jesus is the scout. He rides out ahead to find out which way the pioneers should go. He lives all the dangers of the trail. The scout suffers every hardship, is attacked by the Indians, feared by the settlers. Through his actions and words he shows the true spirit, intent, and concern of the trail boss. By looking at the scout, those on the trail learn what it really means to be a pioneer.


IN SETTLER THEOLOGY--the Holy Spirit is a saloon girl. Her job is to comfort the settlers. They come to her when they feel lonely or when life gets dull or dangerous. She tickles them under the chin and makes everything O.K. again. The saloon girl squeals to the sheriff when someone starts disturbing the peace. (Note to settlers: the whiskey served in Settler City Saloon is the non-spiritous kind.)

IN PIONEER THEOLOGY--the Holy Spirit is the buffalo hunter. He rides along with the wagon train and furnishes fresh, raw meat for the pioneers. The buffalo hunter is a strange character--sort of a wild man. The pioneers never can tell what he will do next. He scares the hell out of the settlers. Every Sunday morning, when the settlers have their little ice cream party in the courthouse, the buffalo hunter sneaks up to one of the courthouse windows with his big black gun and fires a tremendous blast. Men jump, women scream, dogs bark. Chuckling to himself, the buffalo hunter rides back to the wagon train.


IN SETTLER THEOLOGY--the Christian is the settler. He fears the open, unknown frontier. He stays in good with the mayor and keeps out of the sheriff's way. He tends a small garden. "Safety First" is his motto. To him the courthouse is a symbol of security, peace, order, and happiness. He keeps his money in the bank. The banker is his best friend. He plays checkers in the restful shade of the oak trees lining the courthouse lawn. He never misses an ice cream party.

IN PIONEER THEOLOGY--the Christian is the pioneer. He is a man of risk and daring--hungry for adventure, new life, the challenge of being on the trail. He is tough, rides hard, knows how to use a gun when necessary. The pioneer feels sorry for the town folks and tries to tell them about the joy and fulfillment of a life following the trail. He dies with his boots on.


IN SETTLER THEOLOGY--the clergyman is the bank teller. Within his vaults are locked the values of the town. He is suspicious of strangers. And why not? Look what he has to protect! The bank teller is a highly respected man in town. He has a gun but keeps it hidden behind his desk. He feels he and the sheriff have a lot in common. After all, they both protect the bank.

IN PIONEER THEOLOGY--the clergyman is the cook. He doesn't furnish the meat--he just dishes up what the buffalo hunter provides. This is how he supports the movement of the wagon. He never confuses his job with that of the trail boss, scout or buffalo hunter. He sees himself as just another pioneer who has learned to cook. The cook's job is to help the pioneers pioneer.

[There's more in the original. Used copies of the complete book (1973) may be found through]

Now, here's the question: what are we--settlers or pioneers? What values drive each of these groups? Can we be both--at different points in our journeys or in our history as a church? What would a "pioneer church" look like? (By the way, if you go back in the history of First Pres, I do believe it was founded as a "pioneer church" by a pioneering missionary/church planter named Sheldon Jackson!)

I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Do Pets Go to Heaven?

At the end of each year of adult Christian education, I like to offer an "FAQs of Faith" invitation to students in my classes and the wider congregation. This allows people to ask me any question regarding faith, spirituality, theology, the Bible, personal investment strategies, and new techniques in male grooming.

I lied about those last two. But the rest are real. And over the last several years this has led to some lively discussion. Click on the "FAQ" link on the right margin to see for yourself! Today, I've been working on Round 4 and I like the questions! If you're reading this, you can submit your question by simply clicking on the "Comments" button below or if you're at First Pres, go to the Welcome Table in the Narthex and there are blue cards and an "FAQs" box there to stick the cards in once you've filled them out. You don't need to submit your name. I know who you are.

Anyway, for your reading pleasure, here's the lead-off question this year: "Do pets go to heaven?" Sure, smile all you want to--but you know you've asked this question, haven't you? If you've got pets and kids at home, better be prepared, because this question is coming to you faster than you can say "floating goldfish." Read on, blog peruser!

1. Do pets go to heaven?

This is such a great question! All of us who’ve ever owned pets and watched them die have asked this (or have had to respond to a child who has asked this). We humans love our pets (I know I love our Golden Retriever Hannah!). They become so much a part of our lives they’re like people, almost like dear friends and relatives.

While the Bible doesn’t address this question directly, it suggests a few things that may be helpful. For one thing, we can affirm that all God’s creation was originally deemed “good” by God (Genesis 1). This would include the animal world, both wild and later domestic animals (Genesis 1:25). As parts of God’s good creation now corrupted by sin and death, animals may well be part of God’s redemption as well. Here’s what I mean: God is in the business of redeeming and restoring all things, of renewing the originally good creation. “See, I am making all things new” God says in Revelation 21:5. We tend to forget that our future as believers holds not only a new heaven, but a new earth as well (Revelation 21:1). Presumably, this new earth will include elements of the old earth, including living creatures, which will live with us in freedom from the taint of sin and death. It will be a redeemed creation. And if in this fallen creation we enjoy closeness with our pets, would it be too much to think that the new creation would provide even better relationships in this area? I’m not saying that God will resurrect the dead bodies of our pets and reunite them with their souls (the way God will do with human beings in the general resurrection at Christ's return); but I do think a case can be made for an appropriate closeness between humans and animals in the new creation to come. I think this is the Apostle Paul’s main point in Romans 8:19-21, which states: “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”

All of this begs the bigger question: will Hannah's breath smell better in heaven?

A Winsome Humility

One of the crucial ingredients of a close relationship, it seems to me, is a certain vulnerability. You can't get close to someone if you're never weak or needy or broken in some way. If you present yourself as perpetually strong, you've got the upper hand; you have power, you call the shots. But that's not a prescription for intimacy or true connection.

We spend so much time shining our armor, putting our best foot forward, all in hopes that we'll be found acceptable, attractive, and desirable to others--and yet we wonder why we can't seem to get close to one another. Could it be because we've not allowed another to get close to us? If you're both safely ensconced in lustrous armor, it makes for an awkward embrace, doesn't it? We can hug each other without actually touching.

Intimacy--true, healthy intimacy, at least--is forged in humility and vulnerability. When we strip off our armor and allow ourselves to be seen for who we are, we create a climate that promotes real relationship. We provide permission for others to be weak and vulnerable, too. Many of us worry that if others knew our true struggles, they'd want nothing to do with us. But is this really true? When we're authentic about who we are, warts and all, it invites others in. It fosters freedom to be who we really are--and that's the soil for healthy relationship.

Our church is going through a process of stripping. It's a painful, awkward time. And yet, I'm actually encouraged: if this leads to humility and vulnerability, if it creates an environment where we can be more open about our struggles and challenges with one another, I think this could result in genuine community. In this honesty of connection, there will be room for others, too--those not yet a part of our fellowship. They'll see we're not perfect and they'll feel the freedom to join us. Conceivably, this could make us more attractive to those outside our walls, those who, like us, have very real struggles they long to share. What do you think?