the "democratization" and "amateurization" of mission

January 1, 0001

democratization. transitive v. 1) to make more democratic. 2) to make something available to all; to make it possible for all to understand.

amateurization. Coined by Clay Shirky, and defined as the process whereby the dichotomy between experts and amateurs is dissolved, creating a new category of “professional amateurs."

*expert. n. a person with special knowledge, skill, or training in something: “a computer expert.” *

*expert. adj. done with, having or involving great knowledge or skill: “an expert driver” or “to seek expert advice.” *

professional. adj. 1. relating to or belonging to a profession. 1b. Worthy of or appropriate to a professional person (competent, skillful, assured). 2. Engaged in a specified activity as one’s main paid occupation rather than as a matter.

amateur. n. 1. a person who takes part in a sport or other activity for enjoyment, not as a job. 2. a person who is not skilled (related: amateurish).

The last two decades have seen a trend in the “amateurization” of trades that recently required a professional. This has been true of web design, encyclopedia editing, photography, construction, book writing and publishing and sales, product design and marketing and sales, and even mission.

Ralph Winter was not thrilled with amateur missions. But by “amateur,” he meant the unskilled, incompetent hobbyist who doesn’t care to hone their craft. Globalization has made “amateurization” possible. Amateurization does not mean a degradation of a trade to an amateurish level, but rather the broad dissemination of previously professional skills into the mass audience. (See Shirky’s definition at the P2P Foundation).

In other words: amateurization makes it possible for the untrained to become inexpensively trained, until with knowledge and practice they rise to the level of expert. Before, the terms “expert” and “professional” were linked, and “amateur” was one who was not. Now, “amateurization” unlinks “expert” and “professional.” Professional now means mostly “one who is paid” (while generally implying competence). Amateur now can be linked to expert.

Last night I read “What went wrong in Flint” (about lead poisoning); in part 3 of the story, LeeAnne Walters taught herself the skills of water sampling, until she knew more than the “experts” (thus becoming an expert herself).

Another example: my wife and I have undertaken the renovation of a bathroom. This involves replacing the toilet, retiling the floors, repainting the walls, the replacement of a bathtub, and re-tiling the walls around the tub. Previously, these skills might have required a trained professional. Now, there are many Youtube videos showing us the process step by step. The only thing we needed a professional for was the plumbing required to install the tub. In that case, I wanted a licensed professional (certified by a governing authority as skilled) so I would know absolutely it was done right. (You don’t want water leaking behind the walls.) I didn’t have access to that knowledge. The rest of it, I could easily learn and do.

Today, it is easy to move into a missionary context. We don’t need the logistical support of an agency or a church. We can get a passport, an airline ticket, a job overseas, and the other things needed to put ourselves in a cross-cultural setting. (People do this all the time; my wife and I occasionally watch “Househunters International” which shows case studies of people moving to other settings for a variety of reasons.) Location does not make you on expert missionary.

Today, it is easy to get the basic skills of a missionary - for example, language acquisition, culture acquisition, spiritual mapping, prayer, sharing Gospel stories, common challenges of communicating to specific religions, ways to communicate with folks back home, etc) are all very easily available (books, personal conversations, workshops, etc). Knowledge does not make you an expert missionary.

However, as location and skills become easier, many have been considering the implications of amateurization (as we define it here). Churches don’t always think they need the agency to send missionaries. And individual missionaries don’t always think they need anyone to send them at all. There can be some bad things in that, but there’s also some good. We need to keep a few things in mind:

  1. More cross-cultural evangelistic contact from Christians to non-Christians is always good, and if we can help people do it better, that’s a very good thing. I’m all for the “amateurization of skills” represented in things like Tradecraft and courses like Perspectives.

  2. For the “hobbyist missionary” to become a “professional amateur,” they need more than access to a mission context and skills. They need an environment that encourages them to practice the skills, learning and improving. I can watch all the videos I want about how to tile a tub; but if I never pick up a tile and stick it on the wall, what difference does it make? We must encourage people to hone their craft–to do it and get better at doing it.

  3. There will always be a need for a licensed, certified, highly-trained professional: doctors, plumbers, electricians, construction foremen, missionaries. The professional is someone who does it full time, who is constantly learning, constantly updating knowledge, and available for work and consultation.

  4. There can be a very powerful synergy between the professional, full-time, long-term worker and the “professional amateur” that can push forward the advance of the Gospel. When we had our bathtub installed, the plumber was very generous with his advice and knowledge, suggesting things to me that would help get the job done. The professional missionary will often have a more strategic view (largely because they’ve been involved longer, and see/know more), and can help the “pro-am” missionary know where to push forward.

5. Agencies and Churches: there are many thoughts about “who should send” and “who should do what” in sending, and I’m not going to get into that here. I believe there’s a role for agencies just as much as there is a role for churches (and the role varies depending on the specific agency and the specific church). I’ve seen churches do missions very amateurishly; I’ve seen churches that have a long-term strategic “professional” role in specific countries and peoples. (And the same for agencies, for that matter.)

Amateurization simply means expert skills are available to a larger body of people in ways that are not prohibitively expensive to obtain. It does not automatically make amateurs into experts. Putting a “professional” camera into the hands of an “amateurish” picture taker means the pictures might be marginally better in technical quality (thanks to the assistance of the tech) but still won’t have the quality of an experienced photographer (who understands not just the camera but how to use it as a tool).

The missionary who wishes to be an expert will have to avail themselves of both learning, mentoring and practice. Anyone can be an expert missionary, even if they aren’t a paid professional missionary. But not everyone automatically is, just because more missionary skills are being amateurized. The mark of maturity is the willingness to experiment, listen, learn, and persevere!