Innovation in World Mission

January 1, 0001

“Innovation in World Mission,” Derek Seipp, William Carey Library, 109 pgs. Disclaimer: Derek is a friend and a fellow Beyonder. This is a short, quick, practical read: 8 chapters, about 100 pages.

I highly recommend it particularly for the skill sets described in Chapters 5-7.

Chapter 1 lays the groundwork, defining terms like ‘strategic drift’ and ‘innovation.’ These are important to Seipp’s thesis: big wildcards can dramatically change the world, but the drip-drip-drip of daily change can change us far more over the long run–precisely because we rarely notice the drip-drip-drip, so we don’t take any steps–or not enough steps–to correct.

Chapter 2 is a short primer on mega trends that are changing our world: globalization, technology, economic change, deculturation, mobility, and environmental change.

You’d have to be living under a rock in outback China not to be familiar with some of these already.

Seipp does a good job of framing them so we’re all on the same page.

Chapter 3 discusses megatrends in global Christianity.

One interesting point: ‘Today, for the first time in history, a mature church exists in practically every province of every country of the world.’ While my own research seems to back this up as correct, I’d note in passing that in many places, that church is very, very tiny. He notes mission sending ‘appears to have crested’–the number seems fairly stable, with perhaps just a slight decline.

It will be interesting to see what the forthcoming North American Mission Handbook statistics are, but my own research suggests Seipp is correct: missionary numbers are not growing significantly. This is a challenge for those who want to send more.

He additionally examines the changing American church.

Chapter 4 is “God and Innovation”: a sort of “Biblical basis for innovation” piece.

It’s an important question: how biblical is ‘adaptation’ to the culture around us? Who are the ‘men of Issachar’ in our organizations, who can understand the times and what is to be done? Chapter 5, “a few fundamentals,” starts to get into the practicals.

First, we consider “research and God’s will”–we start with prayer, but we don’t end there; God “called many biblical characters to perform research as a complimentary part of discerning God’s will.” (I’ve never heard the spies portrayed as researchers, but…) At the same time, we have to be careful of only doing enough research to prove our assumptions.

Second, he moves on to “creative destruction”: the idea that we have to stop doing what we are doing in order to do the thing we really ought to be doing, given the changes in our environment.

I remember this from the closing chapter of Kevin Kelly’s old book, “New Rules for the New Economy.” Third, he circles back to “challenging our assumptions”: an important concept hinted at in research.

Just because we’re doing something in what appears to be a cost-effective and sustainable way doesn’t mean it’s going to achieve the overall goal.

When we think, “X could never happen”–we need to challenge those assumptions.

Fourth, he focuses on Systems Thinking, which is absolutely critical to planning for the future.

In a handful of pages he does a good job of laying out what systems thinking is; those who are interested in a book-length treatment should take a look at “Thinking in Systems” by Donella Meadows.

Fifth and finally, he looks at S-curves, or “product lifecycles.” At first, I pondered where he was going with this–but then he brought us back to the eras of mission history, and how they overlapped.

The point of S-curves is to plan for the downturn while you’re still in the up-cycle, and have time.

Chapter 6 is the really practical chapter, “Scenario Planning.” I won’t get into the nitty-gritty here.

He covers how futurism isn’t about planning for one particular future, but an array of more-plausible and less-plausible futures; scanning; building impact maps from scan hits; gathering portions of impact maps into categories that can become scenarios; and looking at wild-card futures and how they can impact the scenarios in view.

He gives an example of a scenario from the Middle East.

Chapter 7, “Institutionalizing a culture of innovation,” focuses on how businesses–and missions!–can integrate the process of forecasting and innovation into their organizations.

To do this, he looks at the role of spiritual leadership (to support and encourage innovation), organizational learning (and the importance of diversity to bring different perspectives together), and dialogue (because having people who talk to each other, and learn from each other, are far more important than simply having smart people who ‘proclaim’ their ideas to an admiring audience).

Chapter 8, “Getting Started,” starts remarkably enough with “The folly of going all-in.” Most attempts to launch organization-wide change fail, Seipp notes.

Instead, we must not “despise small beginnings.” Small wins, early and often, are critical to introducing innovations and changing cultures.

We must “fail forward,” but Seipp notes correctly, in a quote: “Don’t stop experimenting.

Go back and try something bigger next time.

You’ll probably end up making even bigger mistakes in the future, but you must promise me never to make the same mistakes again.” Learning from mistakes is the key to ‘failing forward.’ As I noted, it’s a quick read, and a useful summary of a number of skills.

I think it would be a useful book to spark a conversation around the subjects of futurism, innovation, and planning for the future.

If you’re unfamiliar with these concepts, you’ll learn something new.

If you’re familiar with them, get it and give it to a friend or co-worker as an introduction to an interesting discussion you could have.