The Management Paradigm for Mission: Providing the Right Answers to the Wrong Questions

Last time, we investigated the introduction of the management paradigm into the world of mission. Here’s a link if you haven’t read it yet.

Dr. McGavran was not a revolutionary thinker. He took an incremental step that was perfectly in line with American culture. It was pragmatic, empirical, and data driven. He continued the relatively recent Western tradition of thinking of the Great Commission as a matter of method, technique, and strategy. As soon as a connection / correlation is made between technique or method and spiritual or church growth, the modern Western mind can’t help but try to optimize the solution. In other words, we jump from correlation to causation. It connects with so many of the deep-seated elements of our worldview: the desire for control and self-determination, the idea of progress and optimization, and the worship of science and data.

We are inexorably drawn by our consciences to the science of management, in particular, project management. To do any less, from our cultural viewpoint, would be the height of irresponsibility, if not outright laziness. The science of project management has changed the world. The scale and efficiency of the modern corporation is unimaginable without a science dedicated to completing projects on time, on budget, and up to standard. The famous triple-constraint requires us to balance quality, budget, and timeframe to find an acceptable and realistic compromise. We must maximize impact, provide a good ROI, increase efficiency, measure indicators, develop strategies and 5-year plans. Management, both as a discipline and a sub-culture, has developed a language all its own. This language is found in the executive committees of corporations, mission agencies, megachurches, and Christian development agencies all over the world.

But is management the right paradigm for mission? If there is one principle that missiological training is supposed to ingrain in us, it is deep suspicion of the places where the gospel and our culture fit too snugly and comfortably together. That is certainly the case here! In fact, this idea is so embedded in our worldview that it is almost impossible to imagine alternatives. And if we had an alternative, how would we decide which one was better? And how would we make that decision? Using return on investment, success, and efficiency, of course!

And that is the problem with the management paradigm. It defines the problem on its own terms, and then provides us with the right answers to, what I believer, are the wrong questions. The questions it asks are management questions. Questions like:

‘What methods of evangelism are most effective at converting Muslims in Southeast Asia?”

“Missionaries from what background and ethnicity will provide the most impact for the kingdom at the least risk?“

“What are the emerging markets for Christianity in Pakistan and how can they be exploited?”

These are great management questions, and they lead to great management answers. But are they the right questions?

The Case Against the Management Paradigm

It is surely noteworthy that the 1974 Lausanne Conference not only marked the global debut of Dr. McGavran, but also the global debut of C. Rene Padilla, the coiner of the term “integral mission”. Dr. Padilla would spend the next 40 years questioning and critiquing the church growth paradigm. Driven by the Latin American experience of evangelism, this group of Latin American theologians couldn’t accept the presuppositions which drive Church Growth Theory. Comparing paradigms is incredibly difficult. But we are given some guidance in the Scripture on how to deal with new teachings. We are taught to compare the new with what has gone before. That is what I will attempt to do in this section.

The Premise that Can’t Stand

One can only manage what one can control. Where there is no causal relationship between method and output, there is nothing to manage. That is the linchpin of the case. Do my methods cause spiritual growth? That is the hardest question in the world for a Western person to answer in the negative. A million objections immediately come to mind:

  • What about bad methods that always fail?
  • Are you saying the method doesn’t matter? That’ ludicrous!
  • Isn’t there proof that seeker-sensitive churches grow faster?
  • I have read the research!

But the questions Paul Hiebert posed to the leadership of his denomination, the Mennonite Brethren, in his concluding remarks evaluating church growth are more relevant and incisive than our knee-jerk reaction..

Is Church Growth in danger of over-contextualizing the gospel in a modern cultural setting? The gospel must be contextualized—in other words, it must be understood clearly in each cultural setting. But, we as Anabaptists believe, it must also be prophetic—seeking to transform that culture in line with the standards set by the Kingdom of God. The church is always in danger of letting the context set the agenda rather than of calling that context to change. One of the hallmarks of modernity is a mechanistic, technological approach to reality (Berger 1974, Ellul 1964). In the natural sciences this has led to factories and an engineering mentality that seeks to control nature. In the social sciences this same technological approach has led to bureaucracies and an engineering approach to human beings. This is seen, for example, in the M.B.O. (Management By Objective) style of management found in modern businesses. Goal setting, progress reports and amoral methods are characteristics of this culture. To what extent can the church buy into this culture and still remain the church? At what point, in seeking to contextualize our church planting, have we lost the heart of our message and become a Christian club?

Paul G. Hiebert, “An Evaluation of Church Growth,” International Journal of Frontier Missiology 33, no. 2 (Summer 2016): 81.

I think the Bible has some fairly clear things to say on the subject, once we step out of the Western cultural frame of reference. What is the main point of the book of Job? “My ways are higher than your ways, and my thoughts are higher than your thoughts.” Suffering is not always a reward or a punishment for our actions, and those who think it is will be judged.

“I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow.” Who does the saving and the growing in the New Testament? God. End of sentence. The Apostle Paul was one the greatest evangelists of all time. He also wrote Romans 9, the gist of which is God is in charge of salvation. I’m not trying to make some ultra-Calvinist, double predestination argument about the eternal destiny of humanity. I believe that is also going beyond what is written. Instead, I’m trying to point out that there is no place in the Scriptures where I have seen a clear causal relationship between methods and results.

ASIDE: According to the management or church growth paradigm, Paul can’t be considered the most successful evangelist in history. That honor is reserved for the great missionary Jonah. With unbelievable efficiency and effectiveness, his inspired message “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown” caused the whole city of Nineveh (including the animals) to repent in sackcloth and ashes in a matter of days. The author knows of no attempts to replicate this hugely successful evangelism strategy, which seems to represent a large gap in the missiological literature.

In other words, mankind is not the cause, we are the means. And it almost seems like God makes sure that the means are all WEIRD, so that we don’t get the idea of trying to replicate them (e.g., when the Israelites tried to replicate the methods of the past by trotting out the Ark of the Covenant to win a battle in 1 Samuel 4). So we must make an important theological move away from “human actions cause salvation” to “humans as being the means by which God causes salvation”. Once we make that move, management for spiritual growth becomes an irrelevant paradigm because we can’t manage God. And that terrifies us because we are not in control.

The same principle applies to the sanctification of believers. We live in this place of fantastic tension between divine sovereignty and human responsibility, and nowhere is this tension higher than in evangelism and sanctification. We know that we must pursue sanctification, but Paul makes it very, very clear in Galatians that to pursue sanctification by the strength of our works is to fall into deadly folly. Our actions again appear to be means which God uses to achieve His ends, our sanctification. Doesn’t that speak directly to your experience? Have you ever become more holy, more like Jesus because you worked harder at it? I know I haven’t, and I’m not super happy about it. Can’t I at least be in control of my own spiritual development?

A Better Paradigm

The final caveat is that, while we don’t control sanctification or salvation, it does seem that we play a role in helping (and hindering) it. That’s God calling us to be ambassadors in 2 Cor 5:20, it’s Paul asking how people will believe if no one preaches (Rom 10:14). We have agency, but we don’t have control. That’s a key difference! The reductionists among us will take that agency and bring us right back to management because it amounts to the same thing, right? We are just taking care of our part as efficiently as possible! But that approach cuts against the grain of Scripture. A better paradigm is proposed by P.eter. “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.” (1 Peter 4:10) When we don’t have control, faithful stewardship is a far better paradigm than effective management. The right metaphor is the master carpenter and the apprentice. The apprentice has to be ready to fetch wood and help with assembly and other tasks, but those tasks don’t determine the outcome. They are valuable contributions which help the master do something He could have done Himself. It is the master, not the apprentice, that sets the pace and determines the outcomes.

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