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The Lesson of the Dinosaur

by Rev. Paul McKaughan, June 21, 2010

McKaughan Musings: June 2010

mckaughan_lAngry black clouds of roiled oil, gas and water gushing unabated from a ruptured pipe a mile under the sea, majestic birds appallingly helpless, feathers coated with thick slimy tar, pristine white beaches poisoned, for who knows how long, by black crude oil, these images have invaded our collective consciousness.

After watching repeated attempts to stem the flow made by the same men who had the technological prowess to open the torrent, we wonder why there were no workable contingency plans to stem the disastrous flow. BP (British Petroleum) was not ready because such a thing had never happened before, nor could their cognitive maps even countenance such a catastrophic occurrence. They built a program on false assumptions as to their own expertise and the oceanic environment in which they were working a mile below the Gulf’s surface.

Assumptions about the environment and potential futures are critically important when one does deep-sea drilling for oil. Assumptions about the environment and future events are just as critical when one does missional long-range planning.

As missions we work with long operational lead times. From the time one is first challenged with a distant need or opportunity to its operational phase, is often 5 years. One must recruit people, raise money, plan, and deploy personnel who have to acquire language and cultural proficiency before they are effective, yet in our planning we assume our support and ministry environments will remain the same with a few minor shifts.

Most of us do straight-line projection planning, going from what we have to what we think we will need. We count on un-articulated and un-acknowledged assumptions about the environment as a firm foundation for today, as well as 5 to 10 years from now. But are they?

Is the environment in which we do missions changing or has it changed already without our perception or acknowledgement? What are the things (like BP) that we are blind to? Often because our operational plans are not sufficiently informed by our foresight, our environmental assumptions are proved wrong.

A renowned futurist by the name of Arnold Brown puts forward a cautionary tale. He called it “The Lesson of The Dinosaur” Reduced to its most basic point, Brown’s admonition is that the growth and multiplication of this very large and imposing beast could only be successful if its world didn’t change. However, it did.

A radical change of climate over a relatively short time accomplished what their predatory rivals couldn’t. An ice age is thought to have eradicated these awesome beasts. All we know of them today is found in bits and pieces of bone and a few fossils. No matter what you think about dinosaurs or their demise, Brown’s conclusion that significant changes in the business, technological or social environment can maim or kill even the most imposing entity is valid.

The bones and fossils of once powerful institutions litter our history books, proof of the impact of contextual climate change. BP is in danger of becoming one more carcass for a future business anthropologist to study.

As mission executives, we are so absorbed with diligently managing the present that we don’t lift our eyes, both temporal and spiritual, to list and study the powerful trends on the horizon that may cause the climactic alterations that inexorably advance on us. We all do some form of long range planning. However these exercises rarely examine the assumptions on which the plans are built.

Will our institutions perish like the proverbial dinosaur because our world changed and we didn’t? Do our organizational assumptions match up well with God’s future, for He sovereignly superintends the future not merely the past. In our reading, thinking and praying are we marking the trends that are shaping future?

Like the men of Issachar in I Chr 12 do we read the signs of the times and know what the Church should do, or do we merely project and manage the tired “tried and true”?

In my ministry as ambassador at large I have visited many missions and ministries. These visits now number in the hundreds. Yet I can recall only three ministries that have even one person in the organization tasked, even on a part-time basis, with keeping track of environmental climate change and the trends that shape the future we will all minister in.

“Corporate foresight” is the discipline that documents meaningful trends swirling around us that signal a change in our contextual climate. Our schools dedicate large blocks of time to the study of our missional history, yet only one or two evangelical institutions are in any way equipping men and women to look at the future implications of trends and innovations that in God’s providence are among us.

If we are “people of the Book,” the future should be a major focus. So much of the Bible has to do with the future. We always think of those awesome prophetic passages regarding God’s redemptive program, but the Bible also talks about being wise about interpreting the rather mundane trends of the present and projecting them into the future to inform our actions about The Christ and His program. (Mt.16:3)

We are to weigh discipleship in the light of future demands, as a king would calculate the future cost of a an impending war with an enemy and then sue for peace or engage in battle.(Luke 14)

Most Biblical prophecy is given so that God’s people would be prepared as they move into a future ordained by the Creator. The whole of Scripture has a strong future component. Why is not the future a major focus for us as mission leaders?

Biblical stewardship is always responsible management in the light of God’s future. It should never be short-sighted or reactionary. Realistic management evaluates assumptions and resources in the light of future realities and demands. A SWOT exercise (which we all engage in) must be a spiritual discipline that is done in the light of projected future realities.

The assumptions about the future that frame those realities must be acknowledged and tested. Is the environment we assume changing or has it already changed? What are the indications of these changes? If you don’t even acknowledge or test your foundational assumptions, you may be building on sand. Like BP, there may be issues that you should plan for that are being ignored. This could lead to disaster, or at the least, significant missed opportunities.

The proverbial dinosaur, for all his bulk, had a very small brain. God has gifted you with a very large brain and given His Holy Spirit to help you sort through the cacophony of trends swirling around you so that as the ministry climate changes, you will be ready to take advantage of all the opportunities God has placed within it.

REV. PAUL MCKAUGHAN is has more than 40 years of mission experience ranging from 14 years on the field in Brazil to denominational and para-church leadership roles. He served as COO for the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization and on the Executive Committee of the World Evangelical Alliance. He provided leadership for EFMA, now The Mission Exchange, for 15 years, serving as President & CEO before accepting the special assignment as Ambassador at Large. Out of the overflow of his wealth of practical wisdom and experience, Paul and his wife Joanne travel the country coaching, mentoring and consulting with mission leaders.

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