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August 08, 2005



So how does one go about teaching a class on something he has decided is a bad idea?


Thanks for the post Ryan. I couldn't agree more. This is an important theological concept that our more relational generation grasps but ... the challenge comes when you have well meaning and generous older people who want to bankroll initiatives but also want some strategic plan to know where they are putting their money. That is what I call a clash of civilisations!!! How do you keep the narrative going and the generations together but follow this path? Any resources you know of?


I wonder whether there is a little bit too much of an "either/or" element here in your remarks that needs to be nuanced a bit more by "both/and".

At a rudimentary level prior thoughts coalesce about what an individual or a team proposes/intends to do. A missionary has some prior tradition in which she/he stands, informed by Scripture, shaped by a coterie of interpretative gambits and a heritage of thinking about Scriptural imperatives, the missional telos, and so on.

In cross-cultural work some prior intention to go is obviously shaped by the past tradition, the Scriptural teaching and so forth. And in cultural contexts where there is no shared lingua franca, the missionary plans ahead by exegeting culture, linguistic preparation and so on. Once there more cultural exegesis occurs, praxis occurs, reflection on outcomes occurs, further refinements theologically, apologetically, missionally etc.

In our pluralist settings in the West, the mere prospect of engaging people presupposes not only intention, but surely a minimalist amount of forethought.

For example, I was previously immersed in the literature of new age (primary sources as well as Christian exegesis of it). I became aware of the cultural event, the Mind Body Spirit. I felt immediately here is a place to share the good news and went in as a visitor. I observed the event, the booths, the patrons; conversed with visitors and booth operators; even had some chats about partaking of Jesus' way.

I left the 1990 event, and wrote up some reflections. I wanted to do something here. A few people expressed an interest in collaboration. Inquiries were made as to our admission as an exhibitor. Application was accepted. The first booth experience was a stab in the dark, and it brought about post-event reflections on praxis, theology, missions etc. And a reciprocity developed from festival to festival in constant refinement.

But at the bare minimum there had to be some planning even for the first exhibition. Who should participate? What funds do we need? What materials can we use? How do we decorate? What prior orientation and training is needed? And with this was the ruminations about implementing an incarnational approach to this particular network of sub-cultural spiritual seekers.

Indeed, given the strong negative apologias in print about new age, it became necessary to cull out individuals whose temperament, attitude and personality would only denigrate seekers and reinforce the strong perception of Christians as utter jerks in the eyes of the seeker.

In the white-heat of the first event, the initial praxis was found to be very weak; and hence refinement and planning evolved.

To return to the main point. If one is going to incarnate in a given cultural or sub-cultural setting, prudence suggests prior thought and some rudimentary planning is necessary. Even asking "what has the Church thought and done" in the past history of missions surely brings us to consider the wisdom and the follies of previous missionaries who thought in advance about how to reach a given culture.

This also seems evident in the Lukan account of Paul's journeys in Acts. The infamous Areopagus event indicates a prior awareness of Stoic and Epicurean writings, and the summation of his speech suggests forethought about engaging that culture.

In a passing line Paul indicated to the Romans that he had plans to go to Spain (15:24) and on the way he'd drop in on Rome. Subsequent events indicate that he ended up in his Caesar's Appeal in Rome (but not Spain as far as is known); but he at least had a travel plan. And his missional axiom "a Jew to the Jew, a Gentile to the Gentile", suggests not only incarnating into contexts but some prior ideas about what to do/not to do.

I recognise you are animadverting about pre-packaged programmes in church plants and attractional events under the rubric of "strategies". But in reacting against the packages, does that mean the vocabulary is necessarily taboo?

An unintended impression (I guess) is that one might construe then incarnational efforts in missions in the West as only being framed around the kingdom practices you allude to in the absence of any planning. I'm sure you don't intend that; but is the vocabulary of strategy and planning so sullied? Words like strategy and plans can also evoke synonymous actions that are benevolent, prudent, and flexible.

The incarnation of God in Christ is the fullness of times as prophesied being fulfilled, which in turn suggests God's intentionality of operating in Hebraic culture.

Yes the Spirit drove the apostles out of Jerusalem, but it is also apparent that recognition of the apostolic gifting of Paul (Acts 13) results in the missional concordant: Paul & Barnabas go to Gentiles; James, Peter etc go to Jews. That seems to me to suggest an intra-church dialogue about prudent preparation prior to the launching of Paul's first journey from Antioch into Asia Minor.

In other words, incarnational and preparations/plans (a both/and) rather than incarnation vs plans (either/or).

Andrew Dowsett

"Abstract plans objectify ministry recipients and are inherently hostile to incarnation. Thus, they have no place in emerging churches. Incarnation - yes, strategic planning, no."

Is it not possible that incarnation *is* the strategy - a plan that is solid rather than abstract, but open-ended rather than nailed-down (though Jesus *was* nailed down, albeit temporarily)? Perhaps the problem is not with strategy so much as with *our* definitions of strategy? In my opinion, Luke 10 and parallels can be described as Jesus' strategy for his disciples - one that applies equally to mission in pre-modern, modern, and post-modern contexts...


my reading of Ryan's post was that it was the open-endedness he was arguing for. Almost all 'modern' strategic planning seems to be a case of staring with your 5/10 year goals and workign backwards to create a strategy for arriving there. I much prefer the idea of the incarnational approach being more like Abram setting out without knowing where he would arrive.

Ryan Bolger

Ben, my very question - how do I teach a class on mission strategy? As I have sorted this out, this I know -- our God is the source of all mission and that the Bible is filled with God's people engaged in missionary encounter. As the ultimate goal of mission strategy is the engagement of other culture's with the gospel, I cut to the chase and we will explore those bible stories for clues as to how the encounter occurs as well as how the people of God are to live among other cultures. We then imagine what that might mean for us, having studied these patterns...
That is what I got so far!

Ryan Bolger

Andrew -- you have named perhaps the biggest challenge of all! I have interviewed so many who said that they felt they were doing what God called them to, but it was not 'real church' to their donors. It might be a missional group, a home group, a network that has no specific desire to grow big etc. Their funders just didn't understand.
No good answers yet I'm afraid...

Ryan Bolger

Thanks for your well thought out post.

I'm not sure how to nuance in blogging (I am still new to the medium). It seems the blogging post encourages the use of a single idea and very little qualifications.

To clarify, I am not anti-preparation at all. I'm at a mission school -- many of our people are spending years on preparation.

Preparation goes well with incarnation. I would support the sort of planning that went into your event at the Mind Body Spirit (Manchester?)

Your plans did not minimize the other or the Holy Spirit's work. The strategic planning material I've encountered (rampant in the US) does minimize the place of surprise, mystery, and the still small voice.

Can the word strategy be redeemed? I'm looking to do just that in my class next week -- thank you for clarifying my thoughts in this regard, planning with incarnation in mind...

Ryan Bolger

Andrew Dowsett -- great idea -- redefine/redeem the concept of strategy around incarnation and the Holy Spirit -- I will seek to do that in my class next week...


In answer to your query, the entry into the Mind Body Spirit festival that I mentioned began in 1991 in Sydney, Australia. It is the crew at Santcus1 in Manchester who have in the last 2 years been in the UK equivalent.

You can read all about our experiences in Jesus and the gods of the New Age (Lion 2001/Victor 2003).



Can't you just make one up so that I can quote you!


Charlie Wear

You might start with God's mission "strategy" as revealed in the ministry of Jesus. There was one, wasn't there? It's in there somewhere, isn't it? The work of kingdom of God workers is revealed isn't it? Then one starts with the call of God, doesn't one? Jason was called to the area he landed in...so the easy part was over, the question of where was answered? That is part of strategy for mission, isn't it?


Ryan, I've been thinking and reflecting on my initial comment and your reply because frankly... it isn't a good enough answer or situation (that isn't a negative about you but about us... all of us)! So here are my thoughts... what we need are relational pastors and leaders of denominations and churches who will be 'bridges'. People who are able to 'set a screen' in basketball parlance which gives young people space to experiment but keeps them in relationship with mentors and the diversity of the church which frankly they need as most emerging churces seem to be basically homogeneous units. People who will hang with them and push them when they run on emotions and feelings and just need to be tougher but who will also encourage, and build theologicsal reflection across party lines.

ryan bolger

Charlie, yes, I believe Jesus had plans, and possibly a very loose strategy. What I am critiquing is the modern use of strategy I see in churches, one that depends on predictability, calculability, efficiency, and control (elements of McDonaldization). I don't see this sort of approach in Jesus. I don't see a church growth perspective in him either.

However, I share your sentiments -- I am looking to redeem the word strategy and tie it to the mission of God in the world. Less business, more kingdom...

Andrew, I agree -- great ideas here. Look at my new post, "Let Go' which resembles your ideas...


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  • Hi, welcome to my former blog! My name is Ryan Bolger, and this is where I posted my thoughts on Jesus, culture, new forms of community, among other things. Come visit me at my new blog: http://www.ryanbolger.com. I still teach at Fuller Seminary in Southern California where I'm doing some writing as well. Feel free to bounce around the new or old website -- I hope it might stir your imagination -- feel free to stir mine as well by leaving some comments, preferably at the new site... Peace...


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