The Next Big Thing Might Actually Be a Small Step Sideways

by Todd Poulter

New ways of doing are almost always preceded by new ways of thinking.

Note from Steve Moore, executive director of The Mission Exchange: In September 2008, The Mission Exchange put out a call for articles on innovation that addressed the question, “What aspects of how we do mission most need breakthrough innovation?” We received a number of quality responses and our team selected the following article by Todd Poulter. New ways of doing are almost always preceded by new ways of thinking. When it comes to fueling innovation, a few good questions are more helpful than a lot of dogmatic answers. Todd’s article combines fresh thinking with good questions that we pray will fuel innovative actions.


At the end of the nineteenth century…physics seemed to [simply] be a discipline filling in the last few details of a largely worked-out system. In 1900, Lord Kelvin famously stated, ‘There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement.’ Five years later, Albert Einstein published his paper on special relativity, challenging…the rules laid down by Newtonian mechanics which had been used to describe force and motion for over three hundred years.—Wikipedia, on the subject of Paradigm Shift

How many of us in recent years, following in the tradition of Lord Kelvin, have been convinced that all of the major internet innovations have already happened? Then something like Google (originally dubbed “BackRub”) appears on the scene (1997)—followed by eBay, Facebook, and YouTube. What’s next? And it is all because someone imagined something that had never before been imagined, built it, and brought it to the public. Recently, my university-age son showed my wife and me an internet video of a three-dimensional “printer” that “prints” CAD (computer-aided design) drawings as three-dimensional objects. Who says printing can only be done in two dimensions?

If we go back a bit further in history, our forefathers were dealing with more basic questions (e.g., Is the earth or the sun at the center of the universe?). The Greek astronomer Ptolemy confidently asserted the geocentric (earth-centered) nature of things in the second century. Apart from a few enlightened Indian astronomers who questioned his theory in the sixth and seventh centuries, it held sway for the next 1,400 years. That’s when Copernicus appeared on the scene and, armed with an alternate set of scientific proofs, proposed a counter-intuitive idea—a helio-centric (sun-centered) cosmology. Even then, it took another one hundred years before this new idea took hold. The problem with the acceptance of Copernicus’ theory was not the science behind it, but the sheer unreasonableness of it. It seemed to contradict both common sense and the Bible—violating people’s perceptions of the way things are, and preventing them from imagining a world that was different from the one they thought they were inhabiting.

What does this have to say to those of us who are passionate about seeing God’s mission fulfilled in today’s world? Is it possible that some of our cherished mission-related beliefs and practices growing out of our present perception of the way things are might actually be held captive to forces similar to those that kept people of Copernicus’ day from embracing his revolutionary new idea? Is it possible that what we consider reasonable, and what we believe is biblical, might benefit from some new insights?

Today’s global mission endeavors are certainly hindered by many well-attested challenges and shortcomings (e.g., information gaps, conflicting vision, broken relationships, and inappropriate use of money). Still, it is sometimes tempting to think, as Lord Kelvin did about his own discipline of physics, that all that’s left to do in missions is to fill in a few details of a system that has already been worked out by others. After all, we have the benefit of increasingly pervasive information, widely disseminated missiological insights and vocabulary, comprehensive visions, confident initiatives, successful models, robust strategies, and powerful structures and machinery to drive it all. Taken together, these forces create significant mission momentum, and fuel the perception that we already know what is reasonable and biblical in mission, and we just need to get on with the job. But I wonder…

Taking One Small Step Sideways
What if we temporarily suspended our confidence in these converging forces? Rather than looking for “The Next Big Thing,” what if we took a small step sideways? Let me suggest three ways we might do that, drawing on the insights of Rev. David Zac Niringiye, Asst. Bishop of the Anglican Diocese of Kampala; Rikk Watts, professor at Regent College in Vancouver; and David Smith, author of Moving Toward Emmaus, Hope in a Time of Uncertainty. “Instead of beginning with the commission at the end of the Gospels [the ‘go-paradigm’],” said Niringiye to the 2006 gathering of the World Evangelical Alliance Missions Commission in Cape Town, “I suggest we start with the ‘invitation’ of Jesus to the disciples at the beginning of the Gospels.” He went on to suggest that the defining moment for Simon Peter, Andrew, and the sons of Zebedee was Jesus’ invitation:

“Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Mark 1:17). Niringiye passionately exclaimed:

It is in following Jesus that they would become fishers of men. [Their] entire life would hitherto be shaped by Jesus’ kingdom mis­sion…To this day, it is Jesus who invites us to live in God’s mission…and to participate in making the Kingdom of God a reality. It is him who carries us to the ends of the world, where he is [already] at work. We go where Jesus invites us to follow him!

Watts, teaching on the early chapters of the Gospel of John at a men’s retreat, also spoke about Jesus’ invitation to his hearers, but from a different angle. He suggested that Jesus’ invitation, then and now, is to trade in the “certainty of knowing”—represented by the Jewish religious leaders’ and teachers’ approach to interpreting the law and prophets—for the “uncertainty of trusting and believing,” following Jesus wherever and however he may lead. The latter compels us to focus on cultivating an intimate, dynamic relationship with Jesus (demonstrated in John 15), rather than on solidifying and codifying our doctrine and practice—or in the context of this discussion, on reinforcing prevailing beliefs and models of how contemporary mission should be done, even so-called “cutting edge” ones.

Moving finally to Jesus’ encounter with Cleopas and his companion on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24, Jesus found two disciples who were completely undone by the recent turn of events. “We had hoped…” they explained to the unknown person who had just joined them, describing their disorientation at Jesus’ untimely death, and their uncertainty about the strange story of his disappearance from the tomb. Smith, in his reflections on this event, cautions us to beware of the dangers of already knowing the end of the story: “When the story begins there is absolutely no hint of the glory that will break into the darkness at its end” (2007, 3). Smith encourages us, instead, to “engage in an act of imagination that places us alongside these broken people as they retreat to the countryside,” (2007, 4) facing a decidedly uncertain future.

Can we similarly set aside our confidence about the glorious end of the mission story—what we know will be accomplished through our well-informed mission efforts—and walk together with Cleopas and the other disciple on our own Emmaus road, acknowledging how much we don’t understand about what is happening around us, nor what it will take to be truly effective in ministry today and tomorrow?

Approaching Mission by Faith, Not Sight
What might an approach to missions look like that is built on the “uncertainty of trusting and believing” rather than the “certainty of knowing”—an approach that looks to learn as much from the process of inquiry as it does from the momentum of current efforts? Might it be a place where wonder and awe complement our organizational planning—a place of worship and intercession that provides inspiration as well as discernment? Might it be an approach where uncertainty, curiosity, and imagination take their place alongside, and sometimes overtake, our confidence in the power of our resources, the wisdom of our models, and the effectiveness of our strategies? Might it be a place of humility, vulnerability, and even playful creativity that might open up avenues of ministry we could never have imagined? And might it result in a sense of expectant anticipation about possible outcomes that far surpass any assurance we might have about the intended results of our current efforts?

How does one actually take such a small step sideways? And who needs to be along on the journey, short as it may appear to be? Questions provide a wonderful starting point. Rather than beginning with a set of propositions to apply to a situation, it’s helpful to identify important domains to explore. Questions such as the following1 have served as a helpful guide for potential ministry partners as they seek God together, inspired simultaneously by a compelling concern for the people/situation that draws them together, and a sense of divine curiosity that fuels their joint inquiry.

1. What do we sense God’s heart and purpose is for this situation/people at this time? What do we see him doing?

2. What needs to be happening here? What would God’s kingdom look like in this situation among this people?

3. What is God leading us to accomplish together that none of us could accomplish on our own? What is too important not to do, and too big to be done by any single ministry?

4. What do we already know about the situation/people? What areas do we need to learn more about?

5. What will it take to do what is needed? Who (else) needs to be involved?

6. How strong is our foundation for working together?

7. What can each of us contribute to make a difference?

8. What will constitute effective performance and good results for us?

The quality of the answers corresponds directly to the experience, insight, and diversity of the people around the table, and to the quality of the process itself. Church historians, most notably Dr. Andrew Walls, have observed that the greatest growth of the Christian faith often occurs at the periphery, geographically and otherwise. Bringing together interested ministries who represent a wide spectrum of experience and perspective is likely to lead to more comprehensive and relevant answers—ones that will reflect the greatest creativity and have the broadest applicability to the situation. A process like this provides a practical opportunity to draw in those who are often left out of such strategic conversations by reasons of age, gender, ethnicity, or financial status.

Notice that questions like these can be asked in any context at any time. And while insights can be shared across different contexts, the specific answers cannot be transferred or exported to other people and places. So although such a process can be effective in an infinite number and variety of local/national situations, it is admittedly (and purposely) quite inefficient in terms of any regional or global application of the outcomes. The strength is in the context-specific nature of the interaction and learning, and in the benefits of working through the process together rather than simply being informed of the results.

Seeing Things in a Whole New Way
In closing, consider the following illustration. Thomas Kuhn, credited with coining the term “paradigm shift” in his 1962 book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, used this illustration to demonstrate how such shifts in thinking could cause people to see the same information in a totally new way.   


What do you see? Is there anything at all to see? Repeating our earlier question: To what extent might our contemporary mission-related beliefs and practices, informed by what we consider reasonable and what we believe is biblical, actually be holding us captive and preventing us from seeing what’s really there? Might it be that what we are in greatest need of is a fresh dose of sanctified imagination and inquiry—one that will set us free to take a new look at God’s intentions for his mission in our world?

Okay, I cheated by turning Kuhn’s illustration upside down the first time!

Now what do you see? And what else do you see? And do you suppose there might something more hidden there that none of us have yet seen?

1. These are drawn from the insight and experience of a number of ministries. It is critical to ask these questions in the order outlined, which may be counterintuitive for many of us. We usually begin with one of the latter questions first, in the form of, “What should we do?” With that as our starting point, we default to what we already know and feel comfort with, and end up simply continuing to do what we’ve always done, rather than engaging in the far more difficult task of identifying what’s actually needed in a given situation.

Kuhn, Thomas. 1962. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Smith, David. 2007. Moving Toward Emmaus, Hope in a Time of Uncertainty. London: SPCK Publishing.


Todd Poulter served with SIL in Africa and internationally for twenty-five years. He now divides his time between Mission to Unreached Peoples and the Forum of Bible Agencies International. He and his wife Karla are living in Southeast Asia.

Copyright  © 2009 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS).  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.



The Mission Exchange provides a series of learning initiatives for church and mission leaders. If you have the ability to talk on the phone and access the Internet at the same time, you have all the technology you need to join a webinar! Webinars this fall

October 8: Mastering the 20 Management Buckets: Why We Must Focus First on the Results Bucket. John Pearson, president, John Pearson Associates, Inc.

October 15: Making Disciples of Oral Learners: Truth that Sticks. Avery Willis, executive director, International Orality Network.

October 22: Overcoming the Problem of the Superficially Converted. Paul Borthwick, Development Associates International.

November 12: My Ten Biggest Mistakes in Missions Leadership and What I Learned from Them. Paul McKaughan, minister-at-large and former CEO, The Mission Exchange.

December 10: Results Focused Partnerships. Brian O’Connell, president, REACT Services.

December 17: Structuring and Leading an International Mission Organization in a From-Everywhere-To-Everywhere World. James E. Plueddemann, professor and chair of the missions department, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

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