“In times of change, learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.” – Eric Hoffer
If you were to wander into the archive storage closet on the second floor of the U.S. Mobilization Center, you would find evidence of a world of missions much different from today. Brochures and letters from the 60s and 70s show refreshing innovation and boldness to reach nations in a world without personal computers, digital images, the internet, or cell phones (smart or not). It was a face-to-face, travel-by-van-with-a-hand-held-megaphone kind of world.
Now, nearly two decades into the twenty-first century, we live in a rapidly changing world where North American mission organizations, like One Challenge, face significant challenges as we look to the future. Dick Grady, Vice President of Field Ministries, puts it this way, “Five years ago, it was estimated that human knowledge was doubling every 13 months. The changes in communication, medicine, robotics, and computer technology in just the past few years have been staggering. Artificial intelligence is changing the playing field. All of this impacts the way we do missions. The only way we can be prepared for the future is to stay aware of trends. If we are not constantly adapting to our changing environment, we are doomed to extinction.” While our calling to fulfill the Great Commission remains unchanged, operating the same way as we have for the last decades will not serve us well in the decades to come.
“Futures Think Tank” Gathering in Colorado
Realizing that change challenges the effectiveness of mission work as we know it, OC leadership invited the Global Research Team to facilitate a Futures Think Tank in Colorado, October 12-13. Twenty-five people participated, 16 of whom traveled to Colorado for this meeting. By using communication technology, we also had two others join us from Asia (even though it was well into the evening for them). Beforehand, participants prepared by doing extensive reading and completing an online survey. The meetings had four objectives:
- Reflect critically on our understanding of the missional task within our present global context.
- Identify trends and “wild cards” that could significantly impact OC’s future.
- Create three or four future scenarios for OC’s ministry.
- Identify “next steps” to position ourselves to accomplish our vision and mission in light of our changing contexts.
Understanding the Times and Trends
How exactly can an organization prepare for the future? OC’s president, Dean Carlson, pointed the group to 1 Chronicles 12:32 as an example of what was hoped for during the two-day gathering. In that passage, it is said of the tribe of Issachar that their leaders “understood the times and knew what Israel should do.”
So, the first day aimed at better understanding the times. One of the tools the group used was a systematic way of observing and describing trends called the STEEP acronym: Social, Technological, Economic, Environmental, and Political. As a Christian missionary organization, OC is deeply concerned with ethnic peoples, their religions, and spiritual openness. Thus, the Ethnic and Religious dimensions were added to make the STEEPER framework.
After looking at trends, the group considered potential “game changers.” What events or movements are more or less probable? What events have low or high impact? Finally, of these, which are high impact and highly probable? In that scenario, what impact would those things have on One Challenge?
Possible Future Scenarios
The second day, the group brainstormed and drafted future scenarios using the STEEPER trends from the day before. Each scenario could be modified by considering what is an 1) anticipated future, 2) alternate future, 3) a wild-card future, and 4) a preferred future.
The group debriefed each scenario by asking: What do we learn about the future? What surprises us? What seems plausible now that didn’t seem plausible before? What new challenges or opportunities are waiting for our organization? How does our organization need to adapt? What new strategies must we adopt?
Looking at the Next 3-5 Years
While all of this can seem a little far off and intangible, the group pulled it in a bit with each regional worker asking themselves:
- What actions ought the ministry groups serving in our area take over the next 3-5 years to be in the best long-term position to assist the Church in our region to disciple all nations?
- What actions ought our Mobilization Center take over the next 3-5 years to be in the best long-term position to assist the Church in our region to disciple all nations?
Trying to wisely anticipate the future is a tall order. Nevertheless, there was a sense of joy and anticipation in collectively listening to the Spirit as One Challenge moves into the future. The group recognizes that this is just a first meeting. There will be follow up, including a mission-wide webinar this month and another Futures Think Tank Seminar next fall.
Above all, we continue to pray for enlightenment and God’s daily guidance. OC President Dean Carlson summed it up this way: “God cares about how we approach the future. He calls us to be attentive to our times and prepared for new challenges. The OC Futures Think Tank provides us a collaborative lens through which to view the future of mission. I’m excited for OC to courageously ‘look around the corner’ and anticipate opportunities for service that will soon open before us.”
How can you respond?
To follow the example of the leaders from the tribe of Issachar, we must seek to understand the times and know what to do. As learners, we seek to identify trends that are shaping our world. Here are some available resources:
- The book Innovation in World Mission by Derek T. Seipp serves as a good introduction.
- The articles “7 Demographic Trends Shaping the US and the World” or “10 Key Trends in Global Christianity for 2017” provide perspective.
- Prayer … a timeless way to “process” our rapidly changing world is prayer. Operation World: The Definitive Prayer Guide to Every Nation by Jason Mandryk, 2010, is a good source of information for informed prayer. Consider using it daily, listening to God’s voice and applying His Word to the world’s problems. Take time to tune in to what our Father is doing, where He is moving, and how you can follow Him.