Pioneers and Settlers: Understanding Sodalic and Modalic Expressions of Church


Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ….If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. 1 Corinthians 12:12, 17-18

In the family of God, we don’t all have the same job. Does that statement surprise you at all? Yes, we’re all called to be on a mission of following Jesus and making him known in the world, but we all have different parts to play. In his wisdom, God made us different. In this system, we must depend on each other to fulfill our purpose as the Body of Christ.

Along with these different “jobs” in God’s family come different structures to help us get our unique jobs done. There are two main types of structures: local church structures (dubbed modalic by missiologists) and missional (apostolic) structures (which we refer to as sodalic). Each structure has a different focus and calling, and also a different set of strengths. And just as every part of the human body needs every other part to be strong, in the Body of Christ we need both structures to be at our best and fulfill God’s calling for us collectively!

One creative illustration CRM President Sam Metcalf uses in his book, Beyond the Local Church, to explain these unique roles of the Church is the contrast between settlers and pioneers. The parallels are uncanny and worth exploring—both to see where you fit in the big mission of the Church, and to understand the important role of those who are different. So put on your imaginary (or real) cowboy hat; we’re taking a trip into the Wild West!

Pioneers and Settlers

Oh, to be a pioneer! The new, untouched land was always calling. Pioneers forged into uncharted territory. They might stake a claim, build a cabin, and till the ground for a farm; but true pioneer spirits could never settle down. As long as there was new ground to cover, they wanted to walk that path, to forge ahead and cultivate somewhere new. Pioneers were the ones who prepared the way for settlers—those who would come and establish themselves permanently.

And settlers! They would hear of good land and dream of a home. It was settlers who established homesteads, communities, farms and cities. Through the work of settlers, a place would become fully cultivated and inhabited. They built on the work of the pioneers, who had opened the way. Settlers made the new land a home, a place of flourishing.

In the body of Christ, our settlers are the inhabitants of local church expressions (modalities). These are people who have made a “first decision,” to be disciples of Jesus and joined with others on the journey. The function and strength of modalities is to build up and fully establish the work of God in a specific place. These structures support and nurture believers to live connected to God. Settlers carry out God’s work in one place: tilling the soil, planting seeds of the gospel within each other and in the “fields” nearby, and seeking to build a strong, healthy community where people can grow and flourish.

Pioneering structures (sodalities) are groups of “second decision people,” who have made an initial decision to follow Christ and a second decision to vocationally work to carry the gospel into new territory in specific ways. This is the “scattered church” or the “church mobile.” Pioneers leave behind the security of established communities to forge into new places. Sodalities often specialize at sharing the good news of Jesus in specific niches—that could mean a specific geographic focus like post-christian or closed countries, or a specific group of people, like college students, prison inmates, trafficking victims, or unreached peoples.

Wagon Trains and Traveling Light

Here’s another helpful image that further distinguishes pioneers and settlers: pioneers travel light. Picture the famous American explorers like Daniel Boone and Lewis and Clark. They move quickly in small groups, with just a horse and a pack. Settlers, in contrast, pack their wagons with belongings, everything necessary for establishing a new home.

Like settlers carrying everything needed to build a life, local church structures carry a broad variety of tasks and focuses. They have responsibility to pour into their people and places in many ways: evangelizing, discipling, teaching, caring. They are nurturing structures that care for the spiritual needs of many different people. Pioneering structures, on the other hand, are free from the weight of so many responsibilities, free to specialize in unique skill sets, to focus on specific groups of people, and to move forward quickly.

Supporting Each Other in the Body

Are you starting to understand how these Church expressions differ and why we need each other? As CRM’s president Sam Metcalf has walked in the tension between the two, he’s identified the different tasks and our need for both. “Each function calls for different abilities and different skill sets,” he writes. “Each calls for a different structure in which such abilities and skill sets can be effectively lived out. But both are valid. Both are important. Both are necessary.”

Settlers need pioneers—their ability to move quickly, to specialize, to carry the good news of Jesus across barriers, to territories where wagon trains are not yet able to go. And pioneers need settlers—their long-lasting, deep presence that builds and deepens the work of God in a place, that maintains the work that God has started, and that turns a wilderness into a place of flourishing.

Modalities can support sodalities by doing what they do best—nurturing, discipling, and supporting. What pioneer doesn’t need to come back to the settlement from time to time to resupply, connect with community, or get care from the local doctor?

And sodalities can support modalities by carrying the good news of Jesus into those special niches, opening the way for new communities of Jesus to be formed, and personally and meaningfully connecting settlers to the ever-expanding work of God through relationship and story.

Digging Deeper

  1. After looking at this analogy, what do you see as specific strengths of sodalities and modalities?

  2. Can you identify additional ways that both need each other and can support each other?

  3. Get practical. If you identify as a settler, what is one way you can offer support to a pioneer you know? If you are a pioneer, what is one way you can be a support to settlers?


These thoughts are based on ideas from Sam Metcalf’s book,Beyond the Local Church: How Apostolic Movements Can Change the World. Order a copy today to learn more about modalities and sodalities in relationship to each other.