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Is Your Ministry Challenge a Puzzle or a Mystery

The type of research and thinking required in global mission has fundamentally shifted and few have taken notice. I don’t say this to be controversial, I say it because today I see people asking last century’s questions and hoping for 21st Century insight.

Most of our line of inquiry in mission is assuming that we simply do not have the information and need to collect it in order to understand our world better and make decisions. This was the case in the mid-1900’s when the amount of activity and complexity of the activity were fairly limited. In those days the question, “Where is the church and where is it not?” “How many Christians are there in a given country or province?” “Where is a Scripture translation underway and where is a translation needed?”

In today’s globalized world the complexity is much higher but the amount of information we have is also exponentially greater. Today’s complex world requires us to ask questions that will overlay various pieces of the information already collected to give us insight to very specific situations.

The difference between a line of research defined by a lack of information and a line of research defined by multiple streams of complex or conflicting information is described in Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker article, “Open Secrets” (reprinted in his book “What the Dog Saw”). In this article Gladwell applies Gregory Treverton’s principle of “Puzzles vs. Mysteries.” Simply put, when solving a puzzle the main ingredient needed is more information. However, when solving a mystery the main ingredient needed is insight.” Gladwell goes on to give very practical examples. Finding Osama Bin Laden was a puzzle whereas understanding Enron’s fall was a mystery. The first required information in the form of intelligence. The second required people to go through mind-numbing amounts of publicly filed paperwork and understand the complex financial tools being employed in risky ways.

In the missions world today, we have fewer puzzles and more mysteries. There are still places in the world where we simply need more information. There are countries like Laos, North Korea or parts of India where we truly need more basic information about the Church and the status of the Gospel. However, for most of the world you can get this information at one level or another.

Our greater challenge involves the mysteries of mission. For instance, “How do we know when a church is sustainable?” “What triggers growth in a national Church?” “How do we measure and understand discipleship?” “How do we reach a people group when so many are in cities and in diaspora communities?”

For each of these items we have a myriad of data points, on-the-ground stories and theories. The challenge is to work through the data and the complex situations to try and come up with possible ways to understand these questions and make decisions based on that understanding.

If what Gladwell described is really the situation facing mission, that has significant implications for the mission community. For one thing, we need fewer counters and more analysts. We need fewer people out collecting data in the field and more people analyzing what we already have. We also need people who are able to understand complex cultural, religious and geopolitical realities.

Secondly, those of us in leadership need to recognize the difference between the puzzles and mysteries and think strategically about what we are trying to solve. Many of us are mobilizing the resources necessary to solve a puzzle when we really have a mystery on our hands.

The last century required persistent puzzle solvers but this new century will require inquisitive detectives who love a good mystery. Do you have any good detectives in your mission agency? If not, now is the time to start looking.