Understanding the Times, Knowing What to Do

“In times of change, learners inherit the earth, while the others find themselves equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.” -- Eric Hoffer

We live in a rapidly changing world where North American mission organizations, like One Challenge, face significant issues as we look to the future. Realizing that change impacts the effectiveness of mission work as we know it, OC leadership invited the Global Research Team to facilitate a two-day Futures Think Tank. Here are several significant highlights from the Futures Think Tank and some of the tools you can use to understand our changing world.

Understanding the Times and Trends

How exactly can a mission organization prepare for the future? A key biblical passage that provided a blueprint for the Futures Think Tank is 1 Chronicles 12:23-40, which describes how all the tribes of Israel came together with a “whole heart” and “single mind to make David King” (v. 38 ESV) “according to the word of the Lord” (v. 23 ESV). In the middle of a list describing each tribe, a significant comment is made about the leaders of the tribe of Issachar who, “understood the times and knew what Israel should do” (v. 32). These two characteristics set them apart from the others. Following their example, we must strive to understand the times and know what to do. Read on to learn how this is done.

The Futures Think Tank

Twenty-seven people participated in the two-day Futures Think Tank. Beforehand participants prepared by doing extensive reading and completing an online survey. Portions of Innovation in World Mission by Derek T. Seipp (William Care Press, 2016) provided a biblical framework and practical tools to understand how the world is changing and know how to respond. Other reading familiarized us with global trends and developments within the Body of Christ.

Five Future Forecasting Tools

“When evening comes, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,’ and in the morning, ‘Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times” (Matthew 16:2-3 NIV).

Jesus chastises the religious leaders of his day for their inability to understand their times and failure to act appropriately. It is noteworthy that Jesus uses an analogy for weather forecasting. Forecasting is a suitable metaphor as we strive to anticipate what may happen or be needed in the future. Here are five “tools” we used in the Think Tank to interpret the signs of the times and create possible future scenarios.

1. Environmental Scanning and Scan Hits

Environment scanning is simply the process of gathering information about our local and global surroundings which may influence the future. Significant findings care called “scan hits.” A large portion of the read ahead material familiarized us with a broad range of tends. Also, the online survey solicited input about significant changes both occurring inside and outside of the Body of Christ.

2. STEEPER Trends

Next, we used the STEEPER acronym to categorize scan hits. STEEPER stands for these key domains: Social, Technological, Economic, Environmental, and Political, Ethnic and Religious. Responses to the online survey were sorted into the STEEPER domains. Group discussions further elaborated developments in each domain. In all we identified over 150 “scan hits” within the seven STEEPER categories. This information helped us identify trends and better understand our times.

3. The Decision-Making Grid, Wildcards & Black Swans

A four-quadrant decision-making grid was used to classify trends according to their probability and level of impact upon mission work. The decision-making grid not only helps us evaluate trends, but also guides us in how to utilize the information in each quadrant. Our group identified over a dozen high impact, highly probably trends that are already reshaping mission as we know it as well as half-dozen future developments that could be significant game changers or wildcards. Possible game changers could be a world-wide revival, collapse of the global economy, or widespread damage to the ecosystem. We humbly recognized that the future will likely be shaped by unforeseen events, referred to as Black Swans. These describe events that come as a surprise and have major impact. The dissolution of the Soviet Union or 9/11 would be examples of Black Swans.

4. Impact Maps

We divided into smaller groups to further explore the impact of six trends. These trends were:

    1. Increasing government control of churches, both in very restricted and even open societies.
    2. Growth or multiplication of movements with Muslims, other communities.
    3. Increasing dependence on technology, primarily in communication and information technology,
    4. Growing secularism.
    5. Increasing involvement of non-western missionaries.
    6. Increasing dissatisfaction and activism in the younger generation.

The groups drew impact maps to explore the primary and secondary impacts of each trend. This was an exciting activity as we identified unintended consequences that can be helpful or harmful. A takeaway here is that what on the surface seems to be a negative trend may lead to positive outcomes if appropriate action is taken.

5. Future Scenarios

Four groups created trend-based future scenarios conceived as reports set 15 to 25 years in the future. These focused upon:

  • Disciple making movements on the rebuilt Silk Road,
  • Church and Missions Research in the worldwide work of the Church
  • an alternative sending structure for mission workers, and
  • a report to the OC USA Board of Directors in the year 2043.

There was a significant WOW factor among those gathered after hearing the four future scenarios. In each case, positive advances for Great Commission work were envisioned – in spite of what we would consider trends that hinder Kingdom work. These advances were considered plausible because fruitful mission strategies were developed for the future context. As we continue to monitor trends, we must also update our forecasts of the future.  

Next Steps

During final hours of the Think Tank we began to look at what our Mobilization Center and ministry groups should do over the next 3-5 years to be in the best long-term position to assist the Church to disciple all nations. Here are three “next steps” forward.

  • First, this process that will continue into 2020 and beyond. Another Futures Think Tank is planned for 2019 and “understanding the times and knowing what to do” will likely be a significant emphasis of the future leadership gathering in 2020.
  • Second, we envision multiple opportunities whereby everyone in the OC mission family can engage in this learning process. Already resources are available to help those who wish to explore these topics.
  • Third, to carry this process forward, we would like to add the voices of women and those from younger generations to the Future Think Tank task force.

    “Prayer alone will overcome the gigantic difficulties which confront the workers in every field.” John R. Mott

  • Those completing the online survey frequently mentioned “Prayer and Seeking God” as essential for OC to position itself to assist the Church to disciple all nations. So above all, let us devote ourselves to prayer, seeking God’s face as He guides us in the way we should go.
  • If you represent a group that would like to better understand the times andknow what to do, write us at Research@oci.org to explore how we could work together to use a similar process with your group.