But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise,
And God has chosen the weak things of the world
To shame the things which are strong,
And the base things of the world, and the despised,
God has chosen,
The things that are not, that he might nullify the things that are,
That no man may boast before God.
1 Cor. 1:27-29

This week I read the recommendations of a strategic consulting firm for a large church in our area. The summary of recommendations closes with these words: “make frequent use of longer term planning.”

It is another paradox that I am coming to the end of a doctoral program with a new appreciation of the limits of human wisdom. There is a sense in which all I have studied and learned is so much rubbish. The tendency of those who collect knowledge is to rely increasingly on their own abilities. Strategic planning grew out of the scientific method of observation and control based on a knowable, predictable, and stable Universe. That world passed away with Einstein and Heisenberg. One only has to watch the evening news to recognize that the future is often different than the prognosticators would have us believe. Similarly, our ability to shape our own future, in an increasingly complex and interconnected world, is only more limited as the markets fall and the days go by.

Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
To the house of the God of Jacob;
That he may teach us concerning his ways..  Isa. 2:3

If your world revolves around five year plans and you were suckled on John Maxwell, this will be merely a “minority report.” If that isn’t you or if you are prepared to have your assumptions challenged, then read on.

“The words that closed the report noted above, a good report on the whole, were these: “make frequent use of longer term planning.”

Now, I’m not naive. I honestly did not expect to read a closing statement like this: “In an increasingly complex world innovation and rapid response will become the norm. Get comfortable with chaos. Learn a new dependence on the Lord through regular prayer and times of retreat.” But wouldn’t such a statement have a strong resonance with the New Testament and the one who said, “You can do nothing apart from Me.”

Some who read this criticism are already thinking: “Oh, no! Another anti-intellectual who will oppose Word and Spirit. It’s just more Gnosticism.”

And here is the problem. In modernity it became nearly impossible to raise this issue and not be accused of Gnosticism. We divided Faith and Reason into two worlds, one relevant to spiritual issues, and the other to real life. We lived with this dualism for so long that the culture around us is now more spiritual than the church, and we do not see how secular we have become.

And here is the problem. Here at the close of modernity and in the collapse of Christendom, we hold tightly to the methods that grew our churches and our ministries in the modern world. We are formed and shaped and suckled in an ethos that is secular, but we no longer perceive it. We drown in myths: the myth of progress and confidence in reason, a trust in science and technology that is purely modern.

Come, house of Jacob, and let us walk in the light of the Lord
For you have abandoned your people…
Because they are filled with influences from the east..  Isa. 2:6

Even now when the ship is sinking, we want to listen to a merry tune. We refuse to recognize the sweeping changes all around us, our heads firmly planted in the sand. It’s true that our economies may recover. It’s also true that global warming may be a theory only and weather patterns may become more predictable again. But the collapse of Christendom is not a pattern that will reverse itself. We have entered a new clearing and there is no going back. A whole host of scholars and astute observers are telling us that we are in a radically new space: Darryl Guder, George Hunsberger, Alan Roxburgh, Alan Hirsch, Reggie McNeal, Brian Miller, Len Sweet, John Douglas Hall, Stuart Murray and more.

Strategic planning was born when the scientific method reached its zenith. It was adopted by churches in a settled culture, where change could be managed and predicted, and futures forecast with some reliability based on current trends. Those stable conditions no longer exist. Strategic planning now becomes a hindrance to innovation. As John Paul Getty is rumored to have observed, “In times of rapid change, experience is our worst enemy.”

Consider the wisdom of the captain of the Titanic as it left Liverpool harbor. He was right to proceed at 20 knots. He knew the waters well and had no reason to expect any risks. Consider the wisdom of the same captain when he knew he was traveling among icebergs. Or consider the question asked of an overweight man who was observed eating ice cream and chocolate for dinner: “How do you see your future?” It was the right time for a serious question. But consider the same question asked of the same man gasping for breath and clutching his chest in a doctor’s office. At this point it is foolish to inquire about the future, the question now is, “Do you have a personal faith?”

And the pride of man will be humbled,
And the loftiness of man abased,
And the Lord alone will be exalted in that day..  Isa. 2:11

I submit that when the patient is clutching at his chest and we insist on asking questions about the future we are manifesting a state called “Denial.” A very good and short leadership book addresses this tendency among leaders and is titled, “Who Moved My Cheese?” The debate as to whether we should be an attractional church or an incarnational church is completely missing the point. How will we survive in these new conditions given our current culture if we aren’t even admitting that the new conditions exist?

Nor is it a question of, “If we do what we’ve always done we’ll always get what we always got.” Rather, “if we do what we’ve always done we’ll be dead in the water in five years.”

And the pride of men will be humbled,
And the loftiness of men abased.   Isa. 2:17

Now, like the question asked of the man gasping for breath, I want to make a comment on prayer. Most Christian leaders I know talk a good talk about prayer. Most actually practice it very little. It isn’t just that we live with the tyranny of the urgent. It is that we have learned to rely on ourselves, our own knowledge and systems and methods, rather than on God. We have come to believe that the kingdom is within our grasp, and it is up to us to achieve it.

This is not only bad theology, it is deadly practice, and deadly to the very cause we espouse. And it is more deadly now than it was in 1950.

A man will lay hold of his brother in his father’s house, saying,
“You shall be our leader,
And these ruins will be under your charge.”  Isa. 3:6

I was grateful when last fall I picked up a book by the father of western mission, Lesslie Newbigin. In the midst of the casual way we speak of mission and plan our efforts, as if the mission is our possession and not God’s, Newbigin — an Anglican Bishop — was a fresh voice for the freedom and sovereignty of the Spirit. In The Open Secret he wrote,

My own experience as a missionary has been that the significant advances of the church have not been the result of our own decision about the mobilizing and allocating of “resources.” This kind of language, appropriate for a military campaign or a commercial enterprise, is not appropriate here. The significant advances in my experience have come through happenings of which the story of Peter and Cornelius is a paradigm, in ways of which we have no advance knowledge. God opens the heart of a man or a woman in the gospel. The messenger (the “angel” of Acts 10:3) may be a stranger, a preacher, a piece of Scripture, a dream, an answered prayer, or a deep experience of joy or sorrow, of danger or deliverance. It was not part of any missionary “strategy” devised by the church. It was the free and sovereign deed of God, who goes before his church.” (64)

I won’t turn this into a lecture on our need to dwell more often in the presence of God. What we need is not a lecture, but a revelation of our need. Our need can become the vehicle for our salvation, for our deeper dwelling in the place where we learn our true names.

Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a tested stone,
A costly cornerstone for the foundation, firmly planted,
He who believes will not be disturbed.  Isa. 28:16

8 Comments on the future of strategic planning

  1. John Santic says:

    Len,

    Fascinating piece. Well written and worthy of reposting for its prophetic insight that cuts to the issue at hand.

  2. brad says:

    Thanks for the effort you put into this post (as with all of them), Len. I strongly feel that traditional “strategic planning” will never be CPR’ed back to life. It was designed for a world of easy breathing in the open air, and now that world has become the submerged equivalent of a temporary biosphere in Atlantis. Its shelf life and its vitality have expired …

    However, I would suggest that “systems planning” is a viable option that uses some few elements of abstract planning, but much more pays attention to the parts of the system in order to monitor the health of the whole. It will also use insights from “strategic foresight” (studies of the future) to help monitor the pressure towards change and the unfolding of chaos that should call forth creativity. And a whole new system of metrics for “success,” and perhaps entirely fresh ways of building ministry that is vibrant, missional, and sustainable.

    Those who need to compartmentalize, perfect their internal structures, and live in continuity will find themselves falling prey to outside changes beyond their control, which affect their entire environment. Those of us who’ve been marginalized for attempting to do systems design work may find our ministry will soon be considered a necessity (instead of an oddity or a luxury) by those who wish their organization to live in continuance.

    Not saying this to gloat, because it’s unfortunate that Kingdom churches and enterprises are being forced to keep bailing out their boat because they don’t always know how to plug the holes in the hull. Just sayin’ it because, as an advocate for the systems alternative, it also means those of us from the systems perspective were not crazy. Our backgrounds in ecology, organics, organizational development; our labors in obscurity; and who knows what else now will make more sense in terms of God’s providence. Perhaps at least a fullness-of-time moment is arriving when all that we have been prepared for can now serve the Body, like Joseph’s tenure in Egypt, to the deliverance of many. Not sayin’ we have The New Answer, but we can offer A Flexible, Sustainable Process. But are the traditional strategically-planned leaders tired enough of bailing to be ready enough to want us yet? We’ll see …

  3. len says:

    Brad, yes! There is a world of difference, more like “prepare” rather than “plan.” And John, thanks man 🙂

  4. Mick says:

    Perhaps, more like pre-prayer, mid-prayer and post-prayer. Acts 2 shows us the value of waiting in prayer to receive who we need to accomplish what is not within our power. Jude tells us to build oursevles up in our most holy faith and pray always in the Holy Spirit. I am not a pentecostal but I wonder if I need to be. What is the cost of waiting to receive power? To wait is an act of humility and dependence. To wait in prayer is to redirect our attention. To wait together in prayer is “non productive” if we believe the Spirit will not come and transform us into a people we can never become through our own engineering.

  5. […] I suggest # 10 and #11 10. Kindly reject strategic planning in favor of thoughtful preparation. We really don’t know the future… but we know that the Spirit is birthing his kingdom among us as we respond faithfully day by day. We keep our eyes on Jesus. Newbigin warned us that, “the significant advances of the church have not been the result of our own decision about the mobilizing and allocating of “resources” [rather] the significant advances have come through happenings of which the story of Peter and Cornelius is a paradigm, in ways of which we have no advance knowledge.” (The Open Secret) […]

  6. […] Check out David’s post. To his nine items I’d like to add these: 10. Kindly reject strategic planning in favor of thoughtful preparation. We really don’t know the future… but we know that the Spirit is birthing his kingdom among us as we respond faithfully day by day. We keep our eyes on Jesus. Newbigin warned us that, “the significant advances of the church have not been the result of our own decision about the mobilizing and allocating of “resources” [rather] the significant advances have come through happenings of which the story of Peter and Cornelius is a paradigm, in ways of which we have no advance knowledge.” (The Open Secret) […]

  7. […] Apprentices are formed in the hard disciplines of prayer, study and reflective action with the intention of producing passionate followers of Jesus. Disciples “systematically and progressively arrange their affairs” under the guidance of the Word and Spirit. (83) […]

  8. […] Related: the end of strategic planning? […]