Eddie and Sue Arthur

Corkscrews and Pomegranates

It’s always exciting to discover a new writer who shares the same concerns as you do. I’m very grateful to the ever prolific Justin Long for pointing me to the Bread and Pomegranates blog and in particular to this post.

Christina, the author of Bread and Pomegranates describes herself on twitter as “Serial fitter in, finally making the break to embrace the disruptive prophetic edge”. What this means in practice is that she used to work in a Christian organisation, but is now self-employed, working with organisations and individuals, helping them adapt to a changing future. It sounds vaguely familiar.

In the post that I highlighted Christina makes the following observation:

It doesn’t matter how well managed and governed mission agencies are, if they are not looking ahead and reading and understanding changes in society and the church, then they are still making very good corkscrews for people who have no use for them.  This makes traditional mission agencies ripe for disruption.  Most NZ mission agencies were established to support a particular model of mission that began early last century; it was also based in a particular model of the church as a strong and established part of society.  Mission agencies care deeply about mission and they have obviously changed with the times in how they do mission.  However some of the ways that mission agencies are structured and the systems and processes involved haven’t changed for a long time.  The result of this is that it is difficult for them to move with the speed and flexibility that the current pace of change requires.

This is an excellent quote and reflects something that David Smith wrote a few years ago and which has been the foundation for much of my thinking. Christina then picks up on a book The Innovator’s Dilemma (which I haven’t read) to suggest two things:

  •  Traditional agencies are being driven to put increasing effort into support functions at the expense of finding new ways to actually do the job of mission.
  • Mission boards are becoming increasingly risk averse.

Though I’ve not read the book that Christina refers to, these two observations do broadly align with what I have observed in the UK. However, there is another factor in the UK context which may not be an issue in New Zealand, from where she is writing, and that is official regulation. Over the past decade or two, the regulatory burden placed on charities and mission agencies has increased exponentially. It is hard to be innovative and creative when you have to spend a lot of organisational and trustee energy jumping through hoops made from red-tape. See this post and the ensuing comments, for a discussion of this.

However, whatever the causes, I think that the outcomes are just as Christina suggests. She then goes on to suggest a solution:

The time is ripe for new entrants into the mission sector, there is a large section of a globally connected generation that are not engaged or educated about mission.  New entrants would be free to experiment with new structures, new systems of funding, and specifically new ways of talking about mission that expresses faith differently and inspires the coming generations.  This goes much further than simply making mission relevant to a new generation, as it would need to change the whole system and structure of the agencies.

This is where I start to diverge from Christina. I think that new innovative organisations might be the answer to the issues we are facing. It is certainly an attractive prospect, but it is also one that is fraught with problems.

The first is that we already have too many mission agencies in the UK (I’ve posted on this at length in the past, so I won’t rehearse the arguments here). Adding more agencies would be doing no one any favours. Things may be different in New Zealand.

Secondly, I’m not too sanguine about the ability of new agencies to do the sort of innovation which is needed. Operation Mobilisation and YWAM set out to do mission in a new way forty years or so ago, but these days they don’t look all that different to any other mission agencies.

However, there is undoubtedly a need for change. Otherwise in the words of a commentator on one of the posts I’ve linked to above we will be #Sleepwalkingintoobsolecencewithduediligence.

As ever, I have questions but no real answers, but here are a couple of thoughts.

Firstly, I believe that the historic agencies need to become a lot more serious about adapting their structures, practices and governance to face the future. I believe that the challenges we face are so great that it will involve serious time and effort by agency leadership and boards. I also don’t think anyone agency is equipped to make the changes that are needed on their own; there will need to be across the board cooperation.

Secondly, I think we need to recapture a vision for mission being a function of the local church, not the agency. Where churches are innovative and creative in their cross-cultural mission (with the expert support of agencies, when needed), we see transformation. It’s exciting and challenging. However, there is a catch. We need churches, not agencies, to take the lead in mission but for the last hundred years or so, churches have effectively outsourced their cross-cultural involvement to those same agencies.

“It’s some catch, that catch 22.”

In all of this discussion, it is important to remember that mission is still going full steam ahead all across the world. British (and New Zealand?) agencies may be facing big issues, but it is a huge mistake to conflate our western organisational structures with the big picture of what God is doing all across the globe at the moment. We have a part to play, but the picture is much bigger than our part in it.

By the way, I apologise for the obscure title for this blog post, but it sort of made sense!

This post is more than a year old. It is quite possible that any links to other websites, pictures or media content will no longer be valid. Things change on the web and it is impossible for us to keep up to date with everything.

2 Comments on “Corkscrews and Pomegranates

  1. I’m wondering (maybe) if you’ve missed the point of disruption – or perhaps it’s not made clear enough in that single blog post, but it points to a MAJOR paradigm shift away from the colonial, patron-supported, agency-managed, model. There’s no real point trying to tweak the status quo when something will pop-up totally different. We’re talking Uber instead of Taxis, AirBnB instead of motels. Can we imagine such a level of disruption in mission? Is it already happening? Are there examples (good ones at least)? In the July edition of the Missions Interlink NZ BULLETIN (here: http://ow.ly/agsD303IeuM) we feature 4 “mobilisation innovations” out of the USA without further comment: Equip2Go, GoCorps, Sixteen:fifteen, and the Mission Table. GoCorps seems to be trying something like WebJet/Expedia for mission, but to a narrow audience. It’s only a matter of time before technology and mission sending meet that circumvents the current agency model.
    Cue: pulling out hair and gnashing of teeth…

  2. Hi Eddie, It’s been a thought provoking discussion for sure! Yes in NZ the issues are different we don’t (yet) face the same regulatory pressure. The issues are decreased funding and a decreasing pool of recruits as the traditional evangelical church shifts or declines. That creates gaps where traditional agencies are too focused on over-providing for their existing members and unable to capture the new recruits who look vastly different to previous generations. New agencies can then jump in and disruptive theory suggest eventually to the detriment of the traditional agencies. So you don’t end up with more agencies – but this can take some time, I think there is a distinct possibility that this could occur in NZ. In the companies that Christensen studied only existing companies that managed to create a new side company to innovate into the new spaces managed to survive.

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