I'm teaching a 30 hour course on 'Mission Strategy' this summer. I did not name the course and the title raises all sorts of red flags for me. My interviews with emerging church leaders revealed that strategy has seen better days. These leaders are highly skeptical of strategy, and for good reason.
Strategy is a military term and the word has often been used within the church with strong military metaphors. Institutions, perhaps more neutrally, perform strategic planning in order to create possible scenarios so that action in the present may be taken with the future in mind.
One could argue that churches, as institutions, must do this same sort of planning. But what about mission movements? Emerging Churches often fall into this second category, as they are movements within postmodern culture rather than churches that maintain a 'come to us' Sunday meeting/building focus. Ought emerging churches to perform strategic planning?
Jason Evans started a new community in the San Diego area just this last year. When I asked his plans beforehand, Jason asked rhetorically, how much planning can I do if my focus is on embodying the kingdom rather than planting a church? What Jason understood is that the gospel is a response to a particular context and not a set of abstract 'truths'. In other words, if the gospel is always embodied and incarnational, thereby taking the context seriously, then how much planning can we do beforehand? Jason's understanding builds on the works of Dallas Willard and NT Wright who asserted that the gospel is that we get to participate with God in the redemption of the world and does not only refer to the work on the cross. Our gospel is one that welcomes others to share in the joy of this inbreaking movement of God rather than existing as simply a verbal message...
Emerging Churches plant themselves in the midst of culture and respond with practices of the kingdom such as hospitality, generosity, and humility. In contrast, modern strategic planning objectifies the other as a 'means to an end' (e.g. planting a growing church, penetrating an area, advancing the kingdom). Hospitality and other kingdom-like practices treat the stranger as a gift, to be welcomed, as the 'end' and not the 'means'. The very next step or direction for the community is likely to be discovered not by a preset plan but in the least likely of places through the most uncommon sorts of people. Strategic planning cannot foresee this.
Incarnation rather than strategy is scary, ad-hoc, and relies on the Holy Spirit. As Chris Matthews, of Red Cafe, Swansea, Wales said, “Throw us into the midst of culture, and see what happens!”.
Abstract plans objectify ministry recipients and are inherently hostile to incarnation. Thus, they have no place in emerging churches. Incarnation - yes, strategic planning, no.