Mission in the Future that Turns Up When You Get There

“You Don’t Get to New Places by Following Established Tracks”
Carlo Rovelli

At talks or seminars given on the ‘Unbounded Church’ concept there are regularly the same questions asked or issues raised. One of these is the issue of ‘Models’. Nearly always someone will say something like “Well give me some models so that I can understand how this thing works” and often this has the sub-text of “Give me a model that I can copy and use in my ministry context”. This request is understandable to some extent because we all find concrete examples easier to grasp than abstract principles. However, this highlights a problem, one which I think contributes to the general missional malaise. The problem is the difference between Managers and Missionaries.

Most parish leaders, as I was for many years, whether they are called Pastors, Senior Ministers, Rectors or whatever, go to theological college to be trained, most often the training being slanted towards the particular ‘Model’ of church of the denomination they belong to. That model is usually defined by a particular set of rules, ordinances and expectations in accordance with which the minister is required to run his/her particular local church. So what actually tends to happen is that the leader in fact becomes a Manager managing a particular model of church, even if in some cases only because the ‘system’ forces them to be. The problem is that at a time when Missionaries to today’s culture are desperately needed, a ‘Manager doesn’t always a Missionary make’. This is because they are very different roles requiring very different mindsets.


Imagine a spectrum at one end of which is the ‘Manager’ and at the other end the ‘Missionary’. While I acknowledge that there are Managers who could, in the right circumstances, be Missionaries, for the purpose of making my point clear, let us concentrate on the two ends of the spectrum.

In regard to Managers, let me first say I think most local church leaders are Managers. Yes, most are godly and faithful and want to see people coming to Christ and growing in spiritual maturity. Nevertheless, they are mostly Managers, or at least functioning as such, because that is what they are conditioned to be by their training, often their skill set, and what is to an extent forced on them by the general expectations of their denomination and often very significantly by their congregation.

I do wish to emphasise however an important point here. This is that we most certainly need Managers to oversee the existing local churches which will continue to provide spiritual nurture to those who are members of that model.


As argued above, most church leaders are, or at least function as, managers. Such have various characteristics that are not always helpful to mission such as-

  • Managers largely operate models, usually the existing denominational church model they have been trained and appointed for.
  • The aim of a good church Manager is to make the Model run well, so they may seek to work harder and tweak the Model to make it work ‘Better’. However, as the statistics show, this is not producing much missional fruit.
  • A good Manager will generally try to grow their particular congregation, generally using standard (often imported) models of evangelism. Again, as the statistics show, not very fruitful.
  • Managers, because they are ‘model-focussed’ will frequently look for ‘off the shelf’ models which they can copy and apply in their context. This despite the fact that many years of evidence show that this approach, whatever the imported model’s success elsewhere, is rarely a great success.
  • Managers tend to be ‘risk-averse’ but rather focus on maintaining the status quo.
  • The managerial approach in terms of planning for the future, tends to assume (perhaps subconsciously) a future not too different from the present. So they make plans for such a future using the ways of thinking that for decades have conditioned church leadership and also they assume the use of currently available ‘mission’ tools.

The Future That’s Gone Missing When We Arrive!

The problem with the ‘managerial’ way of viewing future mission is that is assumes a future that was there when we planned it but actually probably won’t be when we arrive. That is because of the truly unique characteristic of our times- the rapidly revolving socio-religious cultural kaleidoscope. Any ‘future’ we plan for at the start of a missional journey is unlikely to be there when we arrive. Put another way we cannot plan with any certainty for the future until we get there!

We are actually in what has come to be known, after Frank Knight an American economist, as a Knightean Uncertainty’ environment as we seek to do mission. ‘Knightean Uncertainty’ applies to situations where we cannot know all the information we need in order to make firm plans for the future. The reality is in fact that the future is a moving target which will be somewhere different from where we thought it would be when we started out. This is the challenge of mission to our own culture.


So turning to the ‘Missionary’ end of our spectrum we see a great contrast, for the characteristics and mindset required of a missionary are very different from that of the ‘Manager’. This ought to be obvious when we consider the challenge of the ‘moving future’ that the missionary faces.
The fact is that the contemporary missionary cannot start out with any preconceived model in mind because of the rapidly morphing culture which will shape the future they experience when they arrive. This means that the missionary will have to construct an appropriate model for the particular socio-cultural universe in which they seek to embed a gospel community – When they get there!

When todays ‘missionary’ to Australia penetrates a particular ‘Live, work and play’ universe he or she needs to create an appropriate ‘model’ for that particular time and place. Because any future we might plan for before we start on our missional journey will have changed before we arrive at it. The need is for the missionary to be able to create a Missional Community using the first principles for Christian Community given to us by the New Testament, not a model copied from another time, place or culture. On the basis of the above analysis, the characteristics of a ‘Missionary’, as against those of a ‘Manager’ will need to be that they-

  • Are Entrepreneurial and are prepared to take risks. This must include a willingness to fail and to learn from those failures.
  • Are focused on building the Kingdom not the church.
  • Are able to not just think outside of the box but get outside the box.
  • Are flexible and innovative.
  • Have an Organic Emergence rather than a rigidly planned’ approach to mission.
  • Can live on the Edge of Chaos. i.e. Are willing to go to the Edge of what is permitted by the principles for Christian Community given to us by the New Testament, by allowing the Spirit blow where He wills (is likely to be uncomfortable), yet not allowing the missional effort to tip over into disorder.
  • Have over the horizon radar-i.e. Is able to see, the church as it must become before it is.
  • Prayerfully submit their imagination to the guidance of the Holy Spirit and the voice of the New Testament, while daring to imagine ‘what is not’ for the glory of God.
  • Have a Star Trek’ vision, i.e. a preparedness to go where “no man (or church) has gone before”, that is into the ever-morphing multiple socio-spiritual universes of the lost.

Managers are important as they seek to operate and grow existing traditional church models. However, the dire and chronic lack of missional fruit generally, demands that what is urgently needed are more Missionaries who need to be capable of constructing models of Missional Community from ‘First (Biblical) Principles’ when they arrive at the ‘future’ that wasn’t there when they started out.

One way forward here would be to ‘release’ those existing Managers who actually have ‘Missional’ capability from managing to become ‘Missionaries. But that’s another article!



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