Mission in a Future that Turns Up When You Get There

       The Future is a ‘Fuzzy Collection of Probabilities’


It’s a long time since I was at High School and a great deal about my time there I have forgotten. One thing, or rather person, I do remember however is one of my science teachers in years 11 and 12. He was a Welshman, and a good teacher generally. Mr Emmanuel was his name and I remember him for one specific reason, which annoyed me at the time, but for which I am now very grateful.

The thing I didn’t like at the time was that he nearly always insisted that we solve, what were usually mathematical, problems from ‘First Principles’ (also called ‘reasoning from first principles’). ‘FP’ requires breaking down a problem into its fundamental building blocks, its essential elements, asking powerful questions, getting down to the basic facts, separating those facts from assumptions and then constructing a solution or way forward.

The reason I didn’t like Mr Emmanuel’s insistence on the First Principles thing is because it requires much more work than just finding relevant solutions that others had worked out previously and then plugging in my own numbers!

Why am I mentioning this now on a site that is supposed to be about Mission to 21st century Australians you may ask? It is because ‘FP’ thinking is essential to our future mission, and the lack of it in the contemporary Church is a major roadblock to effective mission. This roadblock comes about because of the human preference for imitation, that is the copying the examples, methods and models of others rather than the hard work of a First Principles approach. As in my science lessons, it is always easier to copy how others have tackled a problem rather than work out your own approach.

This is particularly a problem in the context of the Church’s future mission. For it is my observation, from many years of involvement in this space, that when most church leaders envision the future (this is also true also of many church planters) they project the current Sunday-Centric, In-Drag (attractional), Christendom-form, (SIC) church ‘form’ forward, rather than projecting the function (of Mission) forward and abandoning the form. The question should be: instead of trying to fix the current broken missional bike, how can we create other, 21st century-culturally appropriate, new forms of transport? Of course, to answer that question requires FP thinking!


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 non-‘FP’ sub-text of “Give me a model that I can copy and plug into my own ministry context”.

This request is understandable to some extent because we all find concrete examples easier to grasp than abstract principles and we all like to avoid hard work if possible! However, in the Mission context this creates a problem, one which I think contributes to the general missional malaise. The problem is the difference between Managers and Missionaries.

Most local church 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 a very different mindset and skills.


The Leadership Spectrum

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 local 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, faithful, hard working 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.


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


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 what is considered to be 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 even remotely producing the amount of missional fruit that these times of catastrophic Church decline and reducing Christian influence in society demand.
  • A ‘good’ Manager will generally try to grow their particular congregation, usually by using standard (often imported) models of evangelism. Again, as the statistics show, not very fruitful.
  • Managers, because they are ‘model-focused’ 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 mission in our times, is that it plans for a future that was there when we started but actually probably won’t be when we arrive. That is because of the truly unique characteristic of our times- the rapidly changing 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! In fact, we are actually in what has come to be known, after Frank Knight an American economist, as a Knightian Uncertainty’ environment as we seek to do mission. ‘Knightian 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. In fact, the future missional landscape that the Church is required to journey through cannot be predicted with any certainty, but rather (to borrow a phrase from Quantum Physicist Max Born), it is a ‘Fuzzy collection of probabilities’. This is the challenge of mission to our own culture, a challenge the current fixed, rigid, ‘form-bound’ standard ‘church’ model is singularly ill-equipped to meet.


So now let us turn to the Missionary end of our spectrum where we see a great contrast, for the characteristics and mindset required of a local Missionary are very different from that of the Manager. This ought to be obvious when we consider the challenge of the ‘fuzzy collection’ of ever-changing futures 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 cultures which will shape the future they experience when they arrive. This means that the missionary will have to design and construct an appropriate model for the particular socio-cultural ‘future’ as they encounter it. The current mindset of church missional planners generally promotes ‘Form’ over ‘Function’, and therefore there is a great resistance to changing the ‘Form’ of an alleged Missional community to suit the required Missional ‘Function’, which is a major reason current missional efforts are such low fruit.

When today’s missionary to Australian society penetrates a particular ‘Live, work and play’ micro-culture, he or she needs to create an appropriate ‘model’ for that particular time and place: And do it when they get there! Because any future we envisage before we start on our missional journey will have changed by the time we arrive at it. Therefore the need is for the contemporary local-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, or based on past experience.

On the basis of the above analysis, the characteristics of a local 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, in the sense of ‘bums on seats’.
  • Are able to not just ‘THINK’ outside of the box but rather ‘GET’ outside of the 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 (which is likely to be uncomfortable), yet not allowing the missional effort to tip over the Edge into disorder.
  • Have over the horizon radar-i.e. Is able to see, the church as it must be 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 yet’.
  • 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 local Missionaries who are able to use ‘First Biblical Principles’ thinking. That is, to construct models of Missional Community when they arrive at the ‘future’ that wasn’t there when they started out, and so could not be planned for. Indeed, the need is to design and construct missional vehicles appropriate for –

        ‘The Future that turns up when you get there!’

This can only be done with a ‘First (Biblical) Principles’ mindset, that does not require ANY particular ‘Form’ for ‘Church’ fellowships. Yet, and I regret to have to say this, the reality is that the vast majority of missional planning is not carried out using ‘First (Biblical) Principles’, rather it is controlled by current and historic Forms. This is a recipe for ongoing decline.

2 thoughts on “Mission in a Future that Turns Up When You Get There

  1. Yesterday I saw both a positive and negative example of some things you are saying here.

    Southern Cross magazine had an article about a minister on the northern beaches who had joined the local surf club as chaplain, and who said: ”We need to know what makes people tick in our local area”. He may be working to an old paradigm, but at least he is seeing one good principle – making our mission relevant to the social context we are in.

    But in the same magazine there was an article about the enormous population growth expected in western Sydney in the next 25 years – somewhere between 1.5 & 2 million new residents. The article pointed out that 2 new churches had been built, one was in progress and one was planned. It didn’t say at what cost, but I believe each one costs several million dollars.

    Currently attendance at Anglican churches in Sydney Diocese is about 50,000 – 60,000, which is barely 1% of the Sydney area populations of more than 5 million. If we assume 1% of this new western Sydney population attends an Anglican church and each church has an average of 500 members, a new multi-million dollar church will be required every year over the next 35 years just to keep pace.

    I doubt this will happen, and I don’t think it should happen, because these multi-million dollar landmarks may be quite unsuitable for purpose by that time – which is your point here.


    1. Yes there is a small positive in those examples in that the first one indicates some cultural awareness – not that common! But the ‘working to an old paradigm’ indicates the major problem because a radically new paradigm is needed to reach the current, constantly changing mosaic of cultures.

      Your second reference is both an example of the old (Sunday Centric, In-Drag (Attractional) , Christendom -form) paradigm on-steroids which cannot be funded and even if it could be has now been for decades missionally very low fruit.

      The broader tragedy is, what I have called elsewhere, the ‘Biggest Elephant in the Missions operations Room’ namely that of Leadership which generally appears either unwilling or unable to grasp the realities of the Missional challenge.

      Some slight encouragement is that there are some, although extremely few and far between, ‘Green Shoots’ but they are very rarely in the standard church system.


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