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Hardening the Agency
Innovation to overcome the pagan assault of Western culture
When one writes about innovation, one is bombarded with requests for examples. People want concrete examples of what ministry innovation looks like. This is unfortunate in one sense because part of the motivation is to copy. People want to copy successful innovations, which is not innovative. Copying somebody else’s solution is not innovation (a marker of a successful innovation is when it is diffused through copying). Yet, I too love hearing about ideas that lead to ministry innovation. It is inspiring and it leads me to wonder if that solution would work in my environment.
Because I work in the global missions space, I often look first in my own backyard for these examples among missions agencies. Emerging challenges in the church are currently leading to some interesting innovation. Does missions live downstream from the church? If so, some think we may be in for a rough ride. How much confidence do you have in the ability of the local church to fulfill the Great Commission? I often ask this question to various leaders, and I don’t recall a single positive answer over the past few years. Not one.
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I recall one mission agency CEO who said to me, “If the Great Commission is up to the local church, we are in trouble. We are hardening our work against church failure in the US.” Those are strong words given that the church is the bride of Christ. I thought the phrase, “hardening our work,” was a good one, though. If we were to “harden our work” to bring about mission fulfillment, it could lead to some exciting innovation (you could also “harden our work” toward organizational preservation, which would be unfortunate). What would original innovation look like if we were seeking to overcome problems in the local church? Let me give you two examples of innovation that is moving from the idea stage to the diffusion (copied) stage.
The first regards sexuality. One thing I heard last week at a workshop in the Missio Nexus conference was that we are all sexually broken. The speaker said that the fall affects our entire being, including our sexuality. For ministry organizations, helping our people as they deal with the fallout from the 2nd Sexual Revolution (Obergefell to now) is paramount. This workshop was led by the Sexual Wholeness Initiative. They want to raise the bar concerning sexual health for ministry organizations. They do this through education, services, and a shift in organizational culture. This shift moves people from shame to restoration, from secrecy to accountability. This is one way to “harden your ministry” against the destructive forces regarding sexuality that are represented in this cultural moment. Very innovative and worth copying.
The second example surrounds discipleship. The local church should be a context in which deep discipleship occurs. In my walk with the Lord, most of the discipleship I received was from a campus ministry (the Navigators) with the local church contributing later, in my missions vision. Most missions agencies recruit people from local churches expecting these recruits to be mature Christians, ready to go into hostile territory with the Gospel. They have, for decades, expected the local church to have discipled these recruits. Today, that assumption may or may not be true depending on the church, in large part because the culture works against a Christian worldview.
For the past 15 years or so, new ministries have innovated on this problem. They focus on training missionaries for overseas service and include discipleship as a part of their paradigm. These are typically residential, one-to-two-year programs, held in major urban areas, and combine missions strategy with spiritual development. There are about a dozen of these that I know of. In addition to these standalone organizations, many traditional missionary agencies have created their own internal programs that do the same thing. It is a recognition that the “raw materials” coming into the mobilization pipeline need to grow spiritually before they will be ready for service in difficult places.
I recently was on a call with a Catholic leader and we were discussing Protestant church decline. I mentioned that most of us expect missions to decline alongside the church. “Why? Why do Evangelicals think they will decline if they don’t own the culture?” It was an erudite question and one which helped me to reconsider my assumptions. He went on to describe the success of Catholic mission in preserving a faithful core despite significant failures in Catholic churches.
As we move further away from Christian moral assumptions in the broader culture we will need to innovate more. These two examples are both designed to overcome problems that we did not face a generation ago.