In recent years I have had the opportunity to pursue reading across a broad spectrum of materials. I have been thinking about several books that are interconnected with the opportunities for global witness of the evangelical Church. Here is a brief reflection on eight books (in no particular order), many seminal works unto themselves, that can contribute to strategic thinking for churches and mission organizations willing to take the time to think deeply about their actions before taking them. It is likely that many readers are already familiar with most or all of these but even so, perhaps it would be best to revisit them and think on how they interrelate. None of these books are new but, as we are wont to do, we may have let them slip from the forefront of our awareness and thinking. These are some of the best works in our generation and worthy of refreshed reflection.
Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap . . . and Others Don’t - Jim Collins (HarperBusiness, 2001).
Collins offers eight chapters on the key elements of what make great companies great. He has ordered them according to their importance to the endeavor toward excellence. Perhaps three keys are most relevant to effective evangelical missions work. The first is that each organization is headed by humble leadership. These folk know their own limitations and make sure they augment those with the right folk, which is the second key: getting the right people “on the bus.” These leaders also pursue the best interests of the constituencies they serve. Personal interests and agendas, fiefdoms, political maneuverings, etc., have no place in their pursuit of success. The third key is The Hedgehog Concept, that is, zeroing in on what it is your organization does specifically and not allowing ancillary activities undermine the best efforts that might be applied to organizational focus.
The Wealth of Knowledge: Intellectual Capital and the Twenty-first Century Organization - Thomas A. Stewart (Currency, 2001).
Missions organizations and churches seem to function more on instinct than extending a best effort in intelligence gathering and data analysis. It is almost as if “there is no king…everyone is doing what is right in their own eyes (Judges 21:25). It is hard to imagine that the Lord condones the disunity and lack of transparency among many in missions work today. Many will not share intelligence because they fear it will undermine their ability to fundraise. To be most effective, missional leaders must shed such fears and practice their faith with an open hand, sharing and coordinating information and efforts. To not do so is tantamount to robbing the Kingdom of its most expeditious effectiveness. Information is often more valuable than money today in pressing toward organizational success. The Church is a singular reality and divisions undermine its witness and ability to minister to the world.
The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization - Thomas L. Friedman (Anchor Books, 2000).
I would recommend coupling this work with Friedman’s The World is Flat and Hot, Flat, and Crowded. Friedman has been given an uncanny ability to capture a snapshot of globalization in our day and its far reaching implications. The world is far smaller than it used to be and missions organizations can tap into the same re-organization of thought corporations do as both seek to enter and grow in global markets. But to do so without at least trying to frame the globalized world into missional strategies will result in transcultural failures and missed opportunities.
The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order - Samuel P. Huntington (Simon & Schuster, 1996)
There is one key point to this book that keeps it in front of me though I do not remember Huntington discussing it directly, and that is liminality. The whole world is in flux, especially politically and economically. Whole societies and cultures have been disrupted by the globalization of the past few decades. People everywhere are confronted by a depth of knowledge of other cultures and systems unlike any time in human history. Research has shown that people are most open to new ideas as they face life transitions, like having their worldview shaken by exposure to new ideas. These are transitional times and the best (often, most practical) ideas will be adopted to replace less effective notions of reality and living. How does the Church address the opportunities at hand as whole populations are faced with conflicting ideas, with new opportunities, or losses of opportunity? How is Christian faith framed as the best option for understanding the world we live in and making the best life for individuals and communities? How is Christian faith framed in light of the draw of Islam, Hinduism, secular humanism, etc.? People are looking for life and their world to make sense. They are searching for answers and meaning in highly agitated and disrupted times. How can the Church provide them answers and meaning?
The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time - Jeffrey Sachs (Penguin Books, 2005)
The real message of Sach’s book is an unanswered question: If we have the economic power to eliminate abject global poverty, why are we not doing it? The Global Church controls immense amounts of wealth. Unfortunately many Christians in the West are committed to worldly, fear-based investment strategies to ensure their own comfort in old age. Retirement accounts appropriately parsed, at least to the world’s thinking, among precious metals, blue chips stocks, and a slight commitment to riskier high growth funds, have nothing in common with the biblical admonitions to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and house the homeless. What we are missing is that the greatest wealth generation possible is by investing in the poor who, since all GDP is ultimately labor, possess the greatest potential for economic growth.
The Phenomenon of Man - Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (HarperPerennial, 2008, first published in 1955)
Chardin was a French Jesuit and an authority in the field of paleontology. First, he was unafraid of reconciling the biblical creation account with modern scientific considerations of evolution. On this point, I agree with him wholeheartedly. It is only by a misguided insistence that the Bible is a history book rather than a sacred text that we must insist that every aspect must be taken literally. Unfortunately, that approach misunderstands the literary genres of the Bible and that stories, like Jesus parables, can contain truth without being factual. My second takeaway from Chardin’s book is in his visionary considerations of the growth of the noosphere, a “layer” of collective human intelligence surrounding the earth like the biosphere. The advent of the Internet has, in practical ways, made his vision come true. This points back to Stewart’s The Wealth of Knowledge above. The development of growing human knowledge, computing power, and global electronic communications offer opportunities to reach all the people of earth with the message of Christ in ways never before imagined. What strategies will best take advantage of these opportunities? Will they be restricted to simply “preaching” online or might they include ways of helping the world overcome its strife and struggles through the dissemination of ideas and practical applications of knowledge to alleviate suffering? Can global communications and knowledge-sharing help with economic development which, in turn, undermines oppression, modern slave trading and sex trafficking, economic isolation and deprivation? The possibilities have yet to been intentionally considered in the missions community. There are some pursuing these lines of thought in missions but who will step up to encourage and facilitate the conversation on a global scale?
Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration - Keith Sawyer (Basic Books, 2007)
Scripture is replete with the wisdom of seeking a multitude of counsel before formulating plans. Unfortunately, attempts to coordinate efforts among mission agencies, even to host gatherings of likeminded people toward collaborative work, is met with resistance. Two problems seem to exacerbate trying to overcome such resistance: the unwillingness to share information (see The Wealth of Knowledge above), and busyness. The first I have already discussed. The second is due to shortsightedness and an over emphasis on pragmatism. In the ancient days, when agrarian societies could afford some down time from productive field work, a fair amount of time was spent in learning and discussion among city elders. The worst impact of modern commercial society is the lack of opportunity to spend time together simply to discuss matters at hand. We have lost the art of personal social discourse and relegated it to blog posts and short articles on LinkedIn to share our ideas. These venues, unfortunately, do not allow for fluid discussion and the nuances of casual conversation. To be intentional about collaborative thinking, leaders must be willing to set aside portions of their schedules, trusting that the gains gleaned from such conversations will, in the long term, outweigh the fire-fighting and setbacks of business-as-usual. Together we can accomplish far more than we can individually, especially as we share ideas and parse our work according to each one’s strengths. The marketplace has demonstrated the positive impact of comparative advantage and specialization that many missions organizations and churches have yet to understand.
Non Zero: The Logic of Human Destiny - Robert Wright (Pantheon Books, 2000)
This is an interesting read as Wright studies social development throughout human history then draws a parallel between that development and biological evolution. Perhaps the most interesting observation, though Wright refuses to cross over into the discussion of metaphysics, is his conclusion that the progression toward higher complexity and specialization in both orders seem to be unidirectional and compelled by an inherent “force” or impetus. Though humankind has experienced some setbacks and dealt with some serious flaws along its developmental path, Wright’s conclusion paints a hopeful future.
The global Church is poised to take on some of humankinds biggest problems – poverty, human trafficking, political corruption. To do so will require a great deal of collaboration and willful high-minded thinking and strategizing. To do anything less, given the opportunity, is to short change God’s calling on every Christian life to become living witnesses to the glory of God. Can we set aside egotism and self-protecting fiefdoms? Can we embrace the tensions of admitting we each lack comprehensive knowledge and trust one another as God’s own children, all with the singular focus of welcoming and advancing God’s Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven? How might we go about creating a virtual think tank that openly welcomes disparate views on our current reality and then discuss without vitriol how different interpretations of Scripture might inform next steps and long term strategies?
Historically, the Church has suffered, and inflicted suffering upon the mission of God, by its own divisiveness. Very often, it has been the Church which hindered the progress of God’s agenda as movements of God have been embraced in the Spirit but then institutionalized, making them more a reign of human organizations than of God’s leading. If you have read some or all of the books discussed here, please reflect on them and how they can contribute to deepening discussions of Christian discipleship and Kingdom advancement.