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Scripture, Global Mission, and Black Swans

by Colin Bearup

“Black Swan” is a term coined by Nassim Taleb (2007), a writer, thinker, and former city trader who deals in the unpredictable and the improbable. For thousands of years, most people believed that all swans were white. All the evidence confirmed it. The discovery of even one black swan confounded the old certainty, but it was easily accepted and explained once it became known. 

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Your concordance and Bible software will be in full agreement that black swans are not to be found in the Bible—neither are white ones, for that matter. However, the truth is that the Book of Acts is full of black swans.

“Black Swan” is a term coined by Nassim Taleb (2007), a writer, thinker, and former city trader who deals in the unpredictable and the improbable. For thousands of years, most people believed that all swans were white. All the evidence confirmed it. The discovery of even one black swan confounded the old certainty, but it was easily accepted and explained once it became known. 

Taleb argues that the whole of human life is dominated by things that we do not expect, and that we train ourselves not to expect the sort of things that will actually be of the greatest significance. He is not just talking about the person on the street, but instead demonstrates how experts lead the way in getting it wrong and covering their tracks.

Taleb believes that our lives are dominated by the random and the unpredictable, but the modern human mind is predisposed to deny this truth and has many ingenious ways of imposing order where there is none. Human beings assume, he argues, that there is order to what happens, and that the future is predictable. We routinely rewrite the past to accommodate all the unexpected things that happen, but we do not question the assumption that there is an order to be discovered. It is no great surprise that he does not get asked to write for evangelical publications.

Black Swan Events in Acts

Taleb writes of Black Swan events, saying, “They have three characteristics. First, they are not expected. They are outside what people thought was going to happen. Second, they have a big impact. Third, although they were never predicted, once they have happened, explanations quickly fall into place. People think they should have known.” 

As Christians, we believe that there is an order behind what happens in this world more than we believe that God is actually working out a plan. Does that mean that Taleb can have nothing whatever to say to us? Not at all. Even though scripture testifies to God’s sovereignty, it also testifies to the experience of “black swan events” from the point of view of human experience. Sure, God is working out his plan, but on the ground people do not know what is going to happen next. They live in a world where the unpredictable happens. And things that they do not plan for turn out to be major turning points. 

Acts is particularly instructive because it is the biblical narrative about people like us—people serving the Lord after Jesus took his seat at the right hand of God, making his word known between the first coming and the second. 

In Acts 2, the apostles were waiting for the promise of the Spirit, but they had no idea what it would be like or what would actually happen. When they got out of bed on Pentecost morning, they had no idea that by the evening of the same day they would have five thousand new disciples to look after. They were quite able to account for what happened after the fact, but they did not know what was coming. 

In Acts 3, Peter and John set off to go to the temple as usual, but on this occasion something happened. One of the beggars was healed. Before they knew it, they were preaching to a crowd, then they were arrested, then preaching to the authorities. It was all unplanned and unexpected from their point of view, although looking back we can see the hand of God. 

In Acts 7, Stephen is killed and the church is scattered. There is no sign of preparations for such an event. It took them by surprise. They were familiar with threats and harassment, but this scattering of the Jerusalem church was unforeseen. Looking back, we can see how the Lord used it mightily, but the people involved did not expect it and did not plan for it. It did not appear on their list of goals. Nor was it in their five-year plan.

In Acts 9, we read of the conversion of Saul of Tarsus. The persecutor becomes a believer. No, more than that, he becomes a preacher. No, that does not cover it. He becomes one of the most influential Christians of all time. Not only did the faithful not expect this to happen, but many refused to believe that it had happened. It was the plan of God, but at the human level it was a black swan event. 

I could go on. All the major turning points in Acts are things that surprised the participants, but in retrospect proved to be the sort of things they should have expected, what Jesus and the scriptures in general said should happen. In fact, if you go to the Book of Acts looking for evidence of the value of planning ahead, then you will be disappointed. Even Paul’s journey to Rome via Jerusalem, with all its warnings, was full of unexpected twists and turns. The Book of Acts clearly teaches that we are not nearly as in control as we like to think we are. 

Black Swans in Ministry

When I looked at the history of my own ministry, I found the same thing to be true. The critical turning points were things I did not anticipate, but which made perfect sense after the event. Another way of saying this is that they were moments of clear divine intervention. 

One could argue that the “successes” in Acts (please forgive such a sadly human expression) were the result of people being able to respond to the unexpected. They did not know what was going to happen, but they did have a solid grasp of what their role in the world was and therefore how to respond to events. 

How then should we be prepared for mission? Should we study the past—or at least the version that is served up to us—so as to be able to predict and manage the future? Taleb argues that this never works in any sphere of life, contrary to popular belief. It is certainly not what the disciples were relying on in Acts. It was their personal knowledge of the Lord, and their understanding that they lived in a universe in which he was going to intervene, that gave them what they needed to ride the waves—both the unexpected opportunities and the dramatic setbacks. 

I suspect some of my colleagues may be uneasy at this way of reasoning. Isn’t it a denial of the biblical worldview? Are we not dishonoring God if we regard the world he runs as being disorderly? Actually, I suspect that many Majority World Christians, both in past generations and today, would have no problem with this point of view. My Chadian friends understand very well that the world is not predictable, but that God can be trusted. 

Westerners tend to dismiss this as sub-Christian fatalism. Maybe to some degree we are right, but the assumptions that we ourselves work with concerning our ability to plan our futures and organize our lives come from our Western culture and are merely clothed in biblical garments. Westerners have a profound belief in our understanding of causality (why things happen) and we analyze and systematize what we perceive. I know I do. If my Chadian friends are sub-Christian, then so are we, but in a different way. It sounds as though James, writing in 4:13-16 of his epistle, would be on the side of my Chadian friends. And what did Jesus say in Matthew 6:34?

Taking a Second Look at Black Swans Today

Taleb does not fill his book with endless examples of black swan events. No, he is much more interested in how we (individuals, experts, businesses, and governments) filter our thinking, how we justify our failed predictions and our faulty analyses, cheerfully replacing one set of explanations with another set also doomed to fail. 

He looks at how we have an inbuilt tendency to seek confirmation of what we already expect and weave events into coherent narratives to make them acceptable. He takes time to expose how we often examine the past and
create convenient explanations that exclude the random and unpredictable, and then try to draw up plans based on such studies. 

I see examples of this in current missiology. Proponents of the Church Planting Movements (CPM) mindset do this quite explicitly. They claim to have studied situations of great fruitfulness, to have drawn out the key factors that they have in common, and propose a methodology based on their findings. 

From my perspective, the method is flawed on two major accounts. First, how do they know whether they have really identified the key causes? If the real key in a given situation was not obvious, they would not know they had missed it. You tend to find what you are looking for. Second, to establish that they have identified the key methods or practices, they also need to demonstrate that the same results are always produced when those practices are followed. If workers follow the practices elsewhere without getting the results, then the theory fails. It shows that there must be other factors at work—unpredictable ones, perhaps. In fact, CPM proponents are actually advocating the sort of thing that many missions have sought to implement but often without success. 

The same thing is true for the Fruitful Practices movement. They advocate very good practices, but to establish that these practices are the key to fruitfulness, they need to show that (1) they always lead to fruitfulness, and (2) those who pursue less high-quality practices always fail. Actually, it is a mysterious truth that sometimes people “do it all wrong” and are still blessed with great results. This is a truth easy to establish. I like what the Fruitful Practices people teach, but I mistrust the underlying mindset. 

Early in my cross-cultural ministry, I was surprised to find overseas workers who seemed to have no idea how to relate to Muslims and were not
concerned about it. They did not seem to grasp that there was much to learn and a great need to adapt. In most cases, they worked faithfully and saw no lasting fruit. 

Personally, I have always believed it is important to seek knowledge and to understand what is going on. And I have sought to share that knowledge and insight with others. But I have also come across people totally committed to serious missiology who have studied to adapt themselves who go on to see no significant results. This is very unfortunate and thought-provoking. Most interesting of all, I have occasionally come across people who seem unaware of the need to adapt and follow good missiological principles who have been amazingly fruitful. I recently met a man who has led sixty-five Muslims to Christ over the last five years. He has no idea how. He has no method or technique. But he is very at home with the unpredictable. 

Along with all the other things we do to prepare ourselves to serve the Kingdom of God, perhaps it is time we should add the cultivation of “black swan awareness.”

Reference
Taleb, Nassim. 2007, rev 2010. The Black Swan, The Impact of the Highly Improbable. London: Penguin.

. . . .

Colin Bearup has been with WEC in Chad since 1986. He led the translation of the Chad Arabic New Testament and is author of Keys, Unlocking the Gospel for Muslims. He is married to Jean and has three adult children. 

EMQ, Vol. 51, No. 3 pp. 252-254. Copyright  © 2015 Billy Graham Center for Evangelism.  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ editors.

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