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Innovation and missions

The faster the world changes, the faster we've got to change to keep up. In the world of missions that I live and work in, everything has changed in a generation: A generation ago, 90% of missionaries used to be American and 10% from other countries. Now the figure is reversed. T…
By Seth Barnes
By Seth Barnes

The faster the world changes, the faster we've got to change to keep up. In the world of missions that I live and work in, everything has changed in a generation:

A generation ago, 90% of missionaries used to be American and 10% from other countries.
Now the figure is reversed.

Travel costs as a percentage of a missionary's total costs used to be much higher.

Communication with the field took weeks. When I was a missionary to Indonesia in 1980, a letter took two weeks to get home. Phone calls were prohibitively expensive. Now, of course, we Skype for free.

Every four years you traveled back home for a sabbatical. Now you come home annually.

Church planting used to be a bigger deal. Now issues like social justice take priority.

The Church's mission hasn't changed. We're still motivated by Jesus' call to "go and make disciples of all nations." But our methods of doing so need to flex to leverage current trends. As the world changes, we can either make adaptations, or get left behind.

It turns out that many missions agencies are in fact getting left behind. I'm amazed by how many continue to use the same tired old methods they always used. And each year their ministries get a little smaller.

If you visit their home offices, they seem to be staffed by an older demographic. And when you ask them how they're going to adapt to the way the world is changing, the shelves of their imagination are bare. They seem to be content to manage a declining status quo.

This morning as I went into our offices, our staff had a worship service. I worshiped with a demographic that is probably half the age of other mission agencies.

The atmosphere is fun, exciting even. And we're busting at the seams. Every day we wrestle with new ideas and we are committed to empowering young people to implement them.

Yes, they are very different than my generation was at their age. They are more community-minded. They are quicker to be transparent about their brokenness. They don't commit as easily. They live on the internet. They have tattoos. Most of their peers have already left the church.

And they can't abide phoniness of any kind or the stodginess of most mission agencies. Which is why those agencies won't be around in another generation.

Jesus' message should not be confused with the methods by which it's communicated. The message never changes. The methods perpetually do. Innovate or die.

Some questions to ask to help you stay relevant:

  1. What are the old ideas you've believed that may need revitalization?
  2. What are the old ways that need to be rediscovered?
  3. What in your life is in need of change?
  4. Who are the people who want to introduce change? How can you help them?

Comments (7)

  • I truly wonder why at age 54 do I relate more to what the twenty-somethings are doing than those my age! Maybe it’s because I have cried out to God to keep me young thinking and on the “edge” and I’m willing to try new things? So glad you at AIM and the World Race are doing what you are doing! Bless you guys!

  • Innocence. I want innocence reinforced in my life.

    Trust. I want trust rediscovered.

    All the misgivings. I want to enjoy life.

    Change has to come from within.

  • Thanks Seth for this reminder. You and the team at AIM have for years been on the front edges of a changing world and new interpretations of missiology. For that and our thirty year friendship I am very thankful.

  • I’m encouraged with the Fathers heart that remains the same yesterday and forever… But he’s also the door and will move when ever and where ever he wants to move. Our wine skins need to be able to follow where He is move. Easier said than done, lets do this in Jesus Name.

  • Thanks for this post Seth. We were just talking about some of these issues at a meeting called “Foresight.” Since returning from Thailand, I have joined the staff at the US Center for World Mission in Pasadena, CA.

    Known for bringing to light the reality of unreached people groups, the Center is making its way into the new horizons of global mission. They have been going at it for nearly 40 years and could easily choose to rest on all they have done, but they are making the changes necessary to stay up to date and invite younger guys like myself in to challenge them with fresh ideas and thinking.

    There is some fresh wind blowing here!

  • What are the old ideas you’ve believed that may need revitalization?
    The idea that love is the only true method of ministry that lasts through the challenges of a changing world. Though all the works of generations may be great and bring a lot of people to Christ, it is only the one to one connection of active love that really makes the difference.

    Not to criticize those who “go out on missions,” going out also can mean simply reaching out to someone next to you–in a church pew, in the Xerox office, in Starbucks, in one’s own home.

    When Jesus said “make disciples” he used the word that best translates in its fullness as “mentor.” To mentor takes time and patience, presence and support, listening and genuine care–in short, genuine love.

    The amount of people one reaches is less important that the transmission of love to those in front of your face.

    What are the old ways that need to be rediscovered?

    Not relegating vitality to age. Not judging an agency because it is dying. It’s time may be over and that’s okay. Celebrate the fact that very likely if the old mission strategists had not existed, one’s own may not either. If you’re going to move on with updated tactics in a rapidly changing world, then do it. If the old codgers want to catch up with you, they will.

    What in your life is in need of change? Everything, for I am being renewed daily.

    Who are the people who want to introduce change? How can you help them? I’m not interested in people’s need to introduce change. I am only interested in people who recognize their need for community, grace and love. The Holy Spirit will introduce what changes are needed, when one listens to him.

    Please, don’t take this as anything more than a hopeful challenge to your own thinking. We do well not to separate ourselves from one another by our “methodology” anymore than by our “doctrine.” All have gifts given by the Holy Spirit as the Spirit deems needed. Let each one of us rejoice in the work that we have been given and be diligent to perform it.

    One thing I noticed about your message “You are special , your dreams are [important] and the world needs them,” sounds very much like what the world says to us. It seems to me that we must communicate, and I don’t doubt that you do it well, that “We are connected to the Special One whose dreams are the most important dreams for the world.” Just saying.

    At any rate, God bless you and keep up the great work.

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Seth Barnes

I'm motivated to join God in his global reclamation project. He's on the move, setting his sons and daughters free from their places of captivity. And he's partnering with those of us who have been freed to go and free others.



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