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.

When the Facts Decieve Us

Many a crusty reporter on deadline has uttered the words, “Give me the facts . . . just the facts!” We are constantly drilling down to what we hope is the core information about the situation at hand. We interview, test, verify and analyze the information at hand in a genuine effort to find the truth.

But sometimes the facts don’t lead to the truth. Sometimes we are decieved by the very tangible and real information presented to us. When this happens it shakes us to the core. And that is exactly what happened to Joshua and the people of Israel soon after they entered the Promised Land.

In Joshua chapter 9 we are confronted with an example of deciept and cunning that is impressive while also shocking. The Israelites were recently finished redeeming themselves from the debacle in Ai where they initially lost becaue of sin in their camp when they were presented with another critical moment of decision.

The Gibeonites realized they would die if they fought Israel, so they planned a trick. They pretended to be a delegation from a far-away country coming to make peace with Israel. They took great pains to look the part, bring old and moldy food and give every reason for the Israelites to believe them. The facts were in their favor . . . not because they were true but because they were intentionally being deceptive.

So as the Israelites processed the Gibeonite’s story and considered how they would respond they had two real choices. They could go with the facts as told to them by this delegation or they could start by seeking God and allow the facts to fit into the conversation as He guided.

The Israelites chose the first. Joshua 9:14 says, “The Israelites sampled their provisions but did not inquire of the Lord.” And because of their choice they inherited a who group of people who came to live among the Israelites as slaves. These and people like them brought their gods and beliefs into the Israelite communities and caused incalculable harm as God’s people turned away from His teachings to follow the gods of the local tribes.

The facts in this story were not unimportant, but they were not the whole picture either. Most of the time in our decision-making we start out with the facts and ask God to bless our findings. But Spirit-led decision-making requires us to start with the Spirit and then allow the facts to be part of the process that He guides.

This will take more time, it will seem less professional and it will not be as easy to control . . . and all that is good. The facts give us a false sense of control over the decisions in our lives. We need to release the facts to God and allow Him to use them in the decision-making processes that confront us.

Think about the last decision you made where the facts decieved you. Did you make that decision in the Spirit? What was your process? Learn from the past and commit to allowing the Spirit to guide your processing of facts and figures!

The Evidence of Insight

How do you know when someone has made a brilliant guess or a well-thought out decision? They might look just the same from the outside but underneath, the process of achieving each would have been very different. I’m not saying there is anything wrong with making well-placed guesses based on intuition. In fact, many times that is what must be done. But I would like to look for a moment at some of the evidences of a decision thoughtfully considered.

1. Witnesses: People will know about your thinking before the decision is public. Why is that? Simply put, a thoughtful decision usually involves getting input from friends, experts, mentors and the like.

2. Options: In most decisions that have been considered in depth, there will have been several options that were tested and prayed through before the final choice was made.

3. Situations: Insight draws heavily from the real-life situations going on around the area of decision.

4. Passion: If the decision is important then there will be passionate opinions working their way into the process. These passions represent vision, ambition, excitement and desire to make a difference.

5. Information: When a well-thought out decision is being made, the actors will have quality information to guide their thinking.

Now that I have laid out these seemingly obvious evidences of good decision-making, consider a decision you are wrestling through. Are these things present? If so, list them out so you can see them at work. If not, ask yourself why and what you are going to do about it!