Mission planning: A humble confidence in God’s sovereignty

In previous posts I’ve described why I don’t believe in mission strategy and looked at mission planning in the book of Acts. Here is the first of three implications I want to highlight of my conclusion that God – and not us – is the great mission strategist.

1. A humble confidence in God’s sovereignty
This is good news. The burden of planning mission is lifted from us. I want you to have a strong sense of God as the great mission strategist. It’s so liberating.

It doesn’t mean we switch our brains off. I’ve said ‘mission can’t be planned beyond the next step’. But we still have to decide the next step. We still have to make decisions. Thoughtful decisions. Informed decisions. Tomorrow I’ve got to decide what to do with my time. I’ll want to work faithfully with the opportunities God has given me. I’ll think about the need. I’ll look for partnerships with people with whom I can co-operate. I can be proactive.

But we don’t have to have a master plan. We don’t need a five year plan. Or a one year plan. It’ll almost certainly be wrong. Circumstances change. Opportunities change. People change.

But we can leave the big picture to God. We can let God make the connections. We can let God be our great Mission Director.

Here’s the liberating thing: I can trust God to use my small contributions as part of his big mission plan.

I think that’s very encouraging for local churches.

There is a rhetoric about that suggests we need to contribute to large organisations or global networks so that mission can be truly strategic. It’s hubris. It’s pride to think we are in control of the future: God is the one who is sovereign. It’s pride to think we can organise church growth: Christ is the one who builds his church.

You may be a small congregation reaching a few people in your local area – that is part of God’s master mission strategy. You may have a conversation about Jesus with someone on the train tomorrow and never see them again – that is part of God’s master mission strategy. You may be connected to a church around the world because of a rather random relational link – that is part of God’s master mission strategy.

10 thoughts on “Mission planning: A humble confidence in God’s sovereignty

  1. Tim,
    I must be misunderstanding your post. Your five year strategy is not to have a five year strategy because strategy makes us inflexible. That is just doublespeak isn’t it? Okay, so your strategy is not what you meant by strategy, but you have got to admit that it is actually a kind (different yes) of strategy. Its the strategy that you think will bring more flexibility in. Right?
    I’m all for flexibility, ask anyone that knows me. Turn up unannounced one evening and you might find me doing pastoral work or talking about the historicity of Jesus, but what you are proposing (if I understand you correctly) is a complete over reaction isn’t it?
    Would you offer the same advice to someone who was considering going to the doctor for an undiagnosed persistent pain or symptom? Would you say, “It’s all God’s sovereignty and plan and so, don’t do anything, you’ll stop God working” ?
    How crazy would that be? You’d end up ruining lives if you adopted that approach, and clearly the church of Acts had a strategy (otherwise why was Stephen selected?).
    I must have misunderstood you, or you must be trying to stirr up a discussion by shockjocking?

  2. You seem to be making a bit of a swipe at oI don’t know if you also realised what a historical contribution the parachurch organisations have made over the last 40 years. Working through a parachurch I’ve been able to speak to thousands of people about the gospel, that if they were not supporting, we simply wouldn’t get near. Naugle also recognises the value of parachurches / larger strategic orgs…

    “…the progress and influence of a Christian worldview in evangelical culture is primarily due to the efforts of parachurch organizations and thus the crucial need today is for the promotion, development, and implementation of this same worldview vision in the preaching, and teaching, and ministries of local congregations.”
    Dr. David Naugle

  3. Hi Tom, thanks for your comments.
    The patient-doctor analogy actually supports my case. Have I planned out with my doctor my medical interventions over the next five years – what treatment I will have in years one, two three, four and five? Of course not. I did see my doctor last week as it happens and I have an appointment for two weeks time for another course of treatment (nothing serious). So, sure, I plan the next step. But not two or three years in advance because I have no idea what I’ll be suffering from then!

    I didn’t say parachurch organisations should not exist (as it happens, I think they can play a role, but I do believe mission is the responsibility and privilege of the local church and parachurch organisations too often move from a support role to a lead role). But I do question those who claim they should plan mission on a large scale for a long period ahead. It’s hubris.

  4. Hi Tim,

    I find a lot of what you are saying compelling, but it does feel like there’s some kind of baby being thrown out with the bathwater here.

    I think the call for humility, flexibility and to recognise that all our plans are provisional is very welcome and needed. It is also very comforting to know that God is the master strategist… But surely it is not necessarily hubris to have plans that imagine more than the next step?

    Surely lots of the values, principles, “branding” and priorities of the crowded house network would be identified as “strategic”. Surely any commitment to buy buildings, launch fund-raising projects, hire staff etc. would involve a commitment to plans which might be classed as “large scale” or “long period”? Yet God has often blessed such plans as Tom has pointed out.

    “Hubris” suggests proud motivation, but why can’t it be the kind of faith-filled prudence spoken of in proverbs? And equally, couldn’t a commitment to spontaneity be accompanied by a kind of pride?

    Also would love to hear your scriptural arguments for why local church must take the “lead” role in mission instead of parachurch. How does this square with Acts and the fact that Paul’s apostolic team is never mentioned as a church?

    Sorry if I sound a bit argumentative. I am enjoying what you write – so thankyou. :)

  5. Thanks for the post Tim. I appreciated the diagram a couple of posts ago showing how TCH has developed – truely the way God works is often suprising looking back!

    But I don’t think this is an excuse not to plan. If I may, two reasons why not.

    1) you say we should make good decisions. I agree. But is making a decision about a partnership to pursue today any different to making a decision about which partnerships to pursue in 6 months or 2 years time? A strategy is essentially a decision you make now to focus on one thing at the expense of something else in the expectation that the thing you focus on will achieve a more valuable outcome than the thing you chose not to focus on would have done. We take the decisions, we leave it in God’s hands and we reassess!

    2) Paul uses lots of longer term planning than you claim to. E.g. his desire to visit the Romans; his collection of a gift for the poor in Jerusalem. Neither of those things worked out quite the way he intended, but was he wrong to plan them?

    Thanks again for the post – hope you’ll be able to respond to these points if you get time!

  6. I think the problem with long-term strategies is us! I used to be very committed to things like 5 years plans etc. But looking back all those plans did was make me feel important, in control and because they were the plans I thought were best to pursue they often did make me inflexible – “this is what we as a church as doing!”. And whilst I would be a fool to say that no good every came out of my plans – God is gracious and uses us in our weakness. I would do things very different if I could go back. I am convinced that because I was so committed to our plans, I missed joining God with some great things that he was doing elsewhere…

    I try to say this graciously but who of us are above this kind of committment to our plans… that is why we have them. Once we have decided on our course of action we generally find it very difficult to look around and see what else God is doing in our community. We have our plan – and we are going for it!

  7. Tim,

    Thanks for the chance to have a conversation about this.

    The doctor-patient analogy suggests, not that we don’t plan, but that we need to balance long, mid and short term planning against ‘living life’. Any doctor will tell you that if you go down a route of constant ‘planning’ or diagnosis, then you will find things – things that are not necessarily problems. On the other hand they will also tell you stories of people who ignored symptoms and didn’t react. For example – we have a history of heart disease in our family, so we are in a process of screening for that each of us moves through our 30s, 40s and 50s. There isn’t a pride in this, it’s wisdom. The wisdom that says, “If I can be around to support my kids a bit longer then that is better isn’t it?” Far from being pride, that is wisdom. Pride would be saying, “I’m the master of all this”. Wisdom might mean saying, “Under God, there are good choices I can make here.”

    I think then, that your main point – that longer term mission strategy is hubris or prideful is more in danger of being of a quick judgement about other peoples hearts and motives. You are making a guess about the motives and hearts of people that you probably don’t actually know. And supposing that you know who and what they are motivated by.

    So, my question is for you. We have never met so how do you know whether my motive in longer term mission strategy is prideful or not? You can’t just say it’s automatically prideful if it is longer term because you live in contradiction to that, because even having a non-plan is to plan.

  8. Wow, Tim you certainly have got a response!
    I mostly agree, as most people involved in missional thinking would, but people like to know that their church has a plan … and we need to be able to tell our folk that, ‘as far as we can tell, this would be a good plan over the next few years but that it may look very different within a few months (which it usually does)’. I think there needs to be vision with humbleness under God. Or else we will think it is our mission.

    However, I thought I would lighten things with a story my mentor once told … (and yes John, another quote from Lesslie Newbigin) … I think illustrates the point. This is from a book called, ‘Mission in Christ’s Way’ (1987):

    Thirty years ago, when I was bishop in Madurai, I had a visit from a village of which I had never heard, to say that there were twenty-five families wishing to be baptized, and would I come and baptize them? I looked the place up in the map and found that it was actually not in my diocese but a few miles over the border in the Trichy-Tanjore diocese. I wrote to the bishop there, told him of the request, suggested that it must be the result of evangelistic work by members of the church there, and invited him to deal with it. He replied that he had never heard of the place and that he knew of no evangelistic work in that area, and that I had better go there myself. I did so, and after a day in the village was able to piece together the story behind the request. It was a drama in four acts.

    Act I saw the visit of a team of development workers who helped them to put down a well, install an electric pump, and get a clean water supply. The leader of the team was a Christian engineer, a good man but not much of a communicator. He told them he was a Christian, and they saw that he was a good man. That was all. End of Act I.

    Next, a few months later, one of the villagers went to the neighbouring town to make some purchases and a colporteur sold him a copy of the Gospel of St Mark. He began to read it, became interested, and started discussing it with his neighbours who gathered round to hear him read. End of Act II, with no visible change.

    Some months passed, and an independent evangelist paid a visit to the village. As is the manner of his tribe, he preached a fiery sermon, stayed the night in the village, and left behind a tract that said: “If you die tonight, where will you go?” The villagers decided that the matter was more serious than they had thought and that further investigation was called for.

    So (and this is Act IV) they sent word to a village five miles away where there was a Christian congregation. “Will you please tell us”, they asked, “what is all this about this man Jesus?” It happened that one of the members of the congregation (all of them landless labourers) had had an accident and was unable to do field work. The congregation decided to send him over to the other village, to spend a month with them answering their enquiry.

    The result was a group of twenty-five families as ready for and as eager for baptism as any that I have seen.

    The point of the story is obvious. If you had assembled the engineer, the colporteur, the evangelist and the coolie for a seminar on missionary methods, they would probably have disagreed with each other – perhaps violently. Unknown to each other, each had done faithfully the work for which the Holy Spirit had given the equipment. The strategy was not in any human hands. And I, as the bishop, was kept right out of the action until the moment came when I was given my duty to do.

    I tell this story because it is a good example of what is constantly happening. Perhaps it is unfortunate that the history of mission is so often written by missionaries. They over-estimate their role. It is the Holy Spirit who is the primary missionary; our role is secondary. Mission is not a burden laid upon the church; it is a gift and a promise to the church that is faithful.

    Thank you Bishop Newbigin

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