All Models are Wrong

by Ted Esler

Within missiology there is much talk about “models.” Models of communication, models of church planting, models of culture, and so on. These models are attempts to explain the ways in which people theorize the world should (or could, or does) work.

I hear model-talk often. I was recently discussing church planting movements with some people and the whole time was spent on models. “Which model do you prefer?” along with statements like, “That model doesn’t take into account…” One ardent supporter of one particular model was very condemning of supporters of a different model. Thus goes the model debate.

When I visit church planting movement sites (and I have had the blessing of seeing some incredible examples) I often conclude that the models being promoted don’t really pan out in real life. The model might say it should work this way, or that way, but then you talk with people and find out that the model wasn’t really followed. The model was taught and it was parroted back to me, but that doesn’t mean the model was driving the movement.

I have concluded that models sometimes keep you from seeing what is really happening. In one place I visited, I asked a secretary what she did (and she was clearly a secretary). She told me that her job was “church planting.” Interesting answer for somebody who is a secretary. I began asking others in the movement, “What’s your role?” The answer? Regardless of the apparent job (taxi driver, accountant, doctor) they all said, “I am a church planter.” The model the leaders described never mentioned this important facet of the movement. Had I not asked that innocent conversation-starting question I would never have discovered the grass-roots worldview of the movement participants.

Imagine what would happen if all Christians saw themselves as church planters.

George Box is credited with the saying, “All models are wrong but some are helpful.” Nowhere do I find this to be more true than in missiology. Models can be helpful. But let us avoid being so dedicated to models that we miss out on what God is doing.

God is not subject to the laws of our models.

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