“Gospel Ecosystems” and Organizational Systems

Summary: In my previous entry, Thoughts on Pastor Tim Keller’s “Gospel Ecosystems,” I noted that I planned to post a section of “appreciative inquiry” to summarize what I think his approach offers for social transformation enterprises. I prepared for this by viewing the Cape Town Lausanne video of Pastor Keller that Dr. Fitch linked to, and reviewing Keller’s Cape Town white paper PDF: “What Is God’s Global Urban Mission?”

In working through reflections on this material, the product didn’t turn out as I originally expected. It ended up as two posts, one with a summary of positive points in his organizational systems, the other on his organic systems. Each includes my concerns and what I still can’t figure out from the links Dr. Fitch provided in his post on the subject. I do apologize that there is repetition in these from my last post, and also that, unfortunately, I don’t have the time right now to merge these posts or to search for answers to my remaining questions. But I would rather post it now, repetitious and open-ended, rather than wait to I can merge the material … which could be an unknown span of time, given priority projects I must finish on deadlines.

Anyway, the writing process helped me clarify my own thinking in general about systems approaches to collaborative Kingdom enterprises for social transformation. Meanwhile, for a snapshot of my recent views on ministry collaboration systems that are organic, contextual, and transgenerational, see my post that overviews developing a 100-year missional plan.


Pastor Keller’s Gospel Ecosystems

In his Lausanne Global Conversation “gospel ecosystems” white paper, Pastor Tim Keller presents a very comprehensive strategy for reaching cities, in terms of who is involved, what they do, and for/with whom. He presents five clusters of organizational elements in his system, and seems to assume that whatever individuals, churches, ministries, networks, and agencies want to participate should be welcomed.

  1. Qualitative and quantitative growth through church planting movements that start new churches that develop disciples and steward resources.
  2. Population-specific networks for contextual ministry and evangelism (e.g., campus ministries, people who are poor, people from elite backgrounds, particular religions and cultures), and new leader development stemming from these efforts (especially campus ministries).
  3. Discipleship, networks, and organizations for public leadership by professionals in vocational and cultural fields.
  4. Agencies and initiatives to serve every neighborhood and specific population groups in need; church alliances and institutions to support sustainable Christian living.
  5. Overlapping networks of city leaders who know one another and provide vision/direction for the whole city.

His overall approach could be summarized as embodying missional ministry that is: gospel-centered, culturally contextual, multicultural, oriented toward self-replication and people-group movements, and theologically balanced. As I read him, Keller seeks to keep a dynamic tension going between discipleship (qualitative growth) and evangelism (quantitative growth), and between the social improvement approach of traditional liberal churches and the church growth approach of traditional conservative churches.

My Concerns on Organizational Systems

I don’t see anything overtly wrong with this strategy. It is one of the most comprehensive I’ve seen to date. It strives for balance. It seems relatively inclusive.

However, I generally find that it’s not what’s there that causes problems, but what’s missing that sinks us. And I do see critical points on organizational structures, processes, and procedures that are either assumed and left unexplained, or are missing. What systems are in use to equip participants for viable, flexible, and effective long-term ministry? I simply don’t know yet. But, to evaluate gospel ecosystems fully and fairly, we do need to see specific how-to’s that this strategy uses. For instance:

  • How to brainstorm ideas for new initiatives and ministries, select a strategy, and develop the needed infrastructures for implementation.
  • How to conduct cultural research into natural and virtual people groups, and interpret it appropriately for creating culturally contextualized ministry. (Natural people groups are related by genetic kinship, tribe, or country of origin. Virtual people groups are “families of choice” or subcultures related by similar values, worldviews, or lifestyles.)
  • How to supervise volunteers and staff members.
  • How to conduct appropriate quantitative and qualitative evaluations of impact, interpret the assessment data, and use findings appropriately to revise project direction or outcomes.
  • How to develop virtual networks and decentralized project leadership teams.

Unfortunately, my experiences with and research into seminaries and leadership training programs indicates that these kinds of essential and practical organizational systems skills are often deficient or absent. One reason I’m creating curriculum is to fill in some of the gaps by suggesting specific processes and procedures to implement sustainable social transformation enterprises, church planting, and new ministry development.

My Concerns on Church Planting Systems and Tools

Also, I agree with Pastor Keller, who believes planting new churches and ministries and agencies is vital to the entire prospect for reaching cities. However, as a futurist and a student of culturology and church planting strategy, I am concerned that popular tools for church planting movements are not contextual for the now-dominant postmodern culture. Conventional church planting candidate assessments typically use the system researched and developed by Dr. Charles Ridley. The practical evaluation tools he produced seem based on very specific definitions of “success” in church planting. And those definitions in turn derive from a modernist epistemology and paradigm.

Though all kinds of church planting websites and blogs suggest that Dr. Ridley’s 13 Knockout Factors are universal principles, I’d suggest these characteristics fit best as a coherent system with traditional individualistic Western cultures and the information processing styles (epistemologies) that drive them. And I would say that the underlying epistemology that “glues” together Dr. Ridley’s system is more abstract (theoretical rather than concrete), analytic (dividing rather than keeping things integrated), closure-oriented (rather than open-ended), and hierarchical/centralized (rather than broad-based/decentralized).

In other words, modernists tend to follow linear thinkers who are abstract vision-casting kinds of church planters who lead from the front in their positions of trained experts who use a traditional theory-into-practice model for learning. That translates into mostly conventional/modernist CEO and staff-led churches, with a pyramid structure and a top-level visionary leader who functions as pastor, teacher, evangelist, AND chief administrator.

But what happens where a culture or people group values the polar opposite of that kind of organizational system, with its distinctive corporate strategy and structure? What happens when they follow holistic thinkers who are concrete vision-carriers kinds of change agents who facilitate from the side rather than lead from the front, and function in their roles as experiential authorities who use an action-reflection model for communal learning? From my studies of paradigm systems, I’d have to say that definitions of “success” in one paradigm lead to strategies and structures and cultures that typically “fail” in other paradigms. In a holistic-paradigm culture, a traditional analytic paradigm leader may just epic fail – despite having solid Christian character, personal and marital maturity, and visionary plans. They simply don’t resonate with holistic-paradigm cultures, and can only succeed by committing themselves to first plant themselves into the culture and humbly learn to serve cross-culturally and refuse to make others become linearists.

Now, I’m not throwing out Dr. Ridley’s core characteristics. I believe they are still relevant in modernist, hierarchical cultures. But wouldn’t research methodology for paradigms and cultures confirm that tools based in analytic modern paradigms are no longer relevant or valid when applied to holistic postmodern cultural settings? If that’s accurate, and the 13 knockout factors have limited applicability, what implications does that hold for building teams to plant churches or start Kingdom enterprises? What does it potentially mean for long-term viability and sustainability of gospel ecosystems – especially in multicultural urban settings?

Granted, it would be useful to have a contextual system to identify social change agents who fit with more postmodern sensibilities of ministry development and “success.” And I do know of church planting candidate assessors who intuitively adapt the Ridley process and scoring system, and use it as best they can for candidates who don’t fit the modernist mold. But I’m not aware of any system yet that’s been researched and developed from the ground up for the postmodern, post-Christendom world in which we now live. It needs to be if the church planting and social agency start-up elements in gospel ecosystems are to thrive in the midst of emerging holistic cultures with their more multicultural, mystical, and intercultural paradigms.

UPDATE: For additional background and comments on church planting assessment systems and tools, see this post on Multi-Level, Multi-Generation Approaches to Coping with Cultural Transition (2004).