I was due to write this article back in April of this year but then we were in lockdown. All of a sudden what I thought I was going to share was thrown up in the air and I was asking myself, “who would even read it in the unique circumstances that we now find ourselves in?” It has taken me six months to feel that this next article was worth writing and hopefully worth reading.
My main problem was I wanted to write about the importance of strategy in mission but COVID-19 seemed to throw this in the air and any strategy we had known or that made sense was suddenly thrown in the bin. Yet over this period I have relearnt that it is not so much that we need a strategy but more that we need strategic thinking. There are moments in the life of the church when everything does get thrown into the air. It is in these moments that we should not stick rigidly to the path we have known but instead find the new path that now makes sense.
Back at the beginning of this year I was driving back from a SCBA trustees meeting only to discover that the A34 had been closed. Believing that this couldn’t apply to me I ignored the warning signs and just headed on to where I was certain I would be able to take my normal journey. When arriving at the A34 I discovered that the warnings had been correct! I had to turn around and head back the way I had come. You will have thought I would have learnt a valuable lesson but instead I decided to ignore the diversions signs and headed off in another direction convinced that I could somehow find my normal route. Eventually after an extra 10 minutes of driving through tiny country roads in the dark I arrived right back where I started! It was time to take a new route and follow the diversion before I ran out fuel!
I have found that the word strategy is over-used and highly misunderstood or misinterpreted. In fact it only appears in the Bible once in Isaiah 8v10 (NIV) and the vast majority of translations use the word ‘plans’ or ‘courses’. ‘Strategic thinking’ is never listed as one of the gifts of the Spirit we find in the Bible. So you could ask, “Is it Biblical?” Yet it seems to me that there are plenty of Godly examples of good strategic leadership and the early church was not bereft of acting strategically. I want to suggest, therefore, that it is very much is an essential a tool of the Spirit to guide us in our missional leadership.
Let me suggest five characteristics of the gift of strategic thinking that I believe are of great value to the Kingdom of God.
- Strategic thinking first seeks God’s wisdom
Finding the right path/strategy must always start in prayer. Psalm 119v105 encourages us to look to him who is a “lamp for my feet, a light on my path.” The path or strategy that we seek must be His and therefore we must start patiently on our knees asking for His wisdom and His insight. He ultimately is our navigator. Personally, I would encourage sharing this with others. Discernment shared together is so much stronger than discernment alone.
- Strategic thinking values logic
Logic doesn’t sound very spiritual. I have noticed over the years that sometimes spiritual discernment ignores all logic. Yet, if God created a rational world we would be foolish to ignore that which makes sense. Many of the sayings in Proverbs are common sense logical statements and Jesus himself encourages rational thinking.
In terms of mission we need to ask the question, “What makes sense?”. By asking this question honestly of an activity, initiative or project I have discovered that sometimes the answer is “No, it doesn’t!” The missional team or leader must have the courage to accept that the answer might be ‘no’.
On one occasion at Eastleigh we invited a number of people to join a faith questioning group. We set the date and time with the expectation that this would work for all involved. We discovered that that was not the case. Not all could make a Thursday evening, not everyone was ready for the group dynamic and everyone had a different set of questions. Logic suggested that instead of running a group we should offer each individual bespoke opportunity that fitted their time, with people they could relate to and in an environment where they could ask their unique questions. It made sense to make the change.
- Strategic thinking recognises when it is time to change
I have found in the business of church life we rarely stop to ask the question, “Are we on the best path?” We often plough on regardlessly hoping that the route we have always taken is still the best route. The problem with this mentality is that the landscape has changed and society has moved on. People are asking new questions and right now COVID is having its own cultural impact. A different strategy is required and we need to be brave enough to embrace the change and to be willing to take a risk at finding a new way. Excellent strategic thinking is when a team realises that now is the time to find a new route.
The gift of strategy is that it recognises when something just isn’t working and that change is needed. This is invaluable in our mission today.
- Strategic thinking looks for the best routes
Over the years I have enjoyed playing the game Risk many times but I fear playing against my brother-in-law who seems to have the gift of winning! At the point it looks like he might lose he seems to find another way to win. He is always prepared to change his plan and to find a better way.
We need people in our churches who recognise when change is needed but who also are able to discern a better path for the present. COVID has taught us this. When everything is thrown into the air and everyone around us is panicking because the old norm has gone, it is the strategists that often step forward with possible new ways forward. I find that strategists are optimists and creative and prepared to think in new ways. They don’t give up but instead keep searching for the better way. They are risk-takers who are trying to work out which paths are the best paths.
In these times of COVID asking the question, “What is the best route now?” is an important missional strategic question. I’ve been amazed by how many churches have not strategically considered what the new missional path during COVID might look like. Many have focussed too much on how to do church and to keep pastorally connected to existing members. Many churches have continued to exist behind even tighter closed ‘virtual’ doors. Let’s face it, if you are just doing ‘Zoom’ Church you are closed to the world. At a time when so many people are asking deep questions about meaning and purpose now seems to be a time to open up the experience and message of the Church to the wider community. Credit to those churches who have managed to find new ways of engaging with their community or opening up a virtual experience of worship and hearing from God for both their members and the onlookers.
- Strategic thinking connects the route together
Lastly, but far from least, a strategic thinking does not just focus on the destination but on the journey. If you don’t have a road map (or SatNav) you probably won’t arrive at where you hoped to go. The road map for a missional church is crucial but so is connecting up the various stages.
I’ve always enjoyed doing mazes. I’ve even got a maze app own my phone. There are three ways of completing a maze; you can start at the beginning, you can work backward from the end, or if you are really clever you can start from both ends and meet in the middle. A strategic thinker considers the steps needed to be taken from both ends in mission. From where the church begins and from where the not-yet-follower of Jesus starts. From the church perspective work must be done to prepare people to go on a journey in order to meet them as they seek to discover Jesus. But great consideration must be made to understand the journey required for those who are seeking. From the seekers perspective we need to consider carefully what the paths are that help someone come to faith today. If you don’t know, go and ask someone who has recently come to faith.
I was speaking to one of our pioneers yesterday and she told me that a person she has met recently, who has no faith, had requested to come to their “Outdoor Church”. Apparently she admitted that she wasn’t religious but just “loved hanging out with you guys”. This is not just accidental. It is recognising the importance of relationship and belonging as important initial steps in strategically outreach in our times.
Personally, I believe that strategic praying, thinking, conversation and implementation is at the centre of good missional leadership. I think this is what Paul is hinting at in 1 Corinthians 9v19-23, when he says that to reach the Jews he became a Jew; to reach those under the law he places himself under the law; to reach those not under the law he became like those not under the law; to reach the weak he became weak; so that “by all possible means” he might save some. This sounds like strategic thinking to me!
 Noah’s Ark, Joseph’s management of the famine, The Exodus, Joshua, Gideon, King David, Solomon’s temple, Proverbs, Daniel, Nehemiah, Jesus’ public ministry, Paul’s missionary journeys etc…
 Matt 6v19-21, 7v9-12, 24-27; Luke 14v28-33, John 11v9-10
This is article 7 of 8. You can view the whole series here.