We are about ready to distribute a spiffy, hard-copy version of our 2013 Map this weekend. We take our planning seriously. We set goals and (to our surprise!) tend to meet them. But don’t get us wrong. We don’t have a very deep commitment to strategic planning, as it is commonly practiced (as in, I don’t really understand the chart on the right).
Some Christians actually think that if your church is not involved in some strategic plan you are being unbiblical. One article from the venerable Christianity Today said, not long ago, that there was a mandate for strategic thinking in the Bible and they quoted Proverbs 16:9 as their proof: “In their hearts humans plan their course, but the LORD establishes their steps.” I think they were interpreting that to mean, “If we plan, the Lord will make the plans happen” (Marshall, n.d.). But I think the proverb more likely teaches: “You can plan all you want, but if the Lord does not make your steps solid, your plans will come to nothing.”
The latter interpretation is more in line with how we map out the year. I admit, some of us wish we were much more adept at working together like a well-oiled machine according to a sensible, trackable, strategic plan. But we are not that adept. For instance, the pastors, have a 3-4 hour meeting every week that’s full of strategizing. But it is so long because a good hour of it, at least, is always devoted to sharing our hearts and developing one another. There is entirely too much laughter to allow for adept project management! We just can’t stop the love to make progress. Progress ends up “happening” in spite of our plans, sometimes.
That kind of planning for God to show up seems to be how Paul’s missions strategy really worked. If you want to talk about biblical strategizing, check out how the premier, most successful, strategist in the Bible worked out his plan. In the view of 21st century strategic planners, who take their cues from corporations, people say Paul focused on the major cities of the Mediterranean basin as his target for world evangelization and carefully worked out a well-considered plot to infiltrate the whole area. Well, I’m not sure about that. He got to the major cities, most of them, that’s true. But it seems like his strategy amounted, mostly, to taking the next opportunity that presented itself and then sticking with it until he, most of the time, got thrown out of town.
Take Philippi, for instance, this was Paul’s first stop on his leap into Europe, a leap occasioned by a vision in the night. Philippi was an important city which Augustus had refounded as a Roman colony and where he settled Italian colonists and veterans of the Praetorian cohort. Acts 16:13 reports that there was a Jewish synagogue (proseuchë, “place of prayer,” is a designation for Jewish meeting places) by the river Gangites, about a mile west of the city center. That’s where Paul met Lydia and things got going. But up-and-coming Amphipolis, which would have been the next port of call for Paul’s ship, probably would have been a more strategic place to start. Preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God and the Lord and Savior of the world in Philippi risked hostile reactions from the beginning, since its citizens were staunch worshipers of the emperor and of his deified ancestors. A series of coins minted in Philippi shows on one side the head of the emperor Augustus with the inscription “the Augustan colony of Julian Philippi on the command of Augustus”; the reverse side depicts a statue of Augustus on a pedestal being crowned by Julius Caesar, with the inscription “Augustus, son of the Divine, for the Divine Julius” (Schnabel, 2007). The Philippians were pretty hard-core.
While Luke reports in some detail the conversion of Lydia, a God-fearing woman from Thyatira in Asia Minor who lived in Philippi and attended the synagogue (Acts 16:13-15), he focuses his history of the mission in the city on the opposition instigated by locals who initiated legal proceedings against Paul and Silas before the magistrates, which landed them in prison (Acts 16:16-40). The missionaries were accused of causing disturbances in the city and of “advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice” (Acts 16:20-21). This is where Paul’s strategy led him to get started on Europe.
It looks like God established Paul’s steps right to Philippi, good strategic thinking notwithstanding. Paul had his general orders to take the gospel to the gentiles, but it looks like he didn’t overly care how that happened. We are doing a similar piece of strategizing this year. One of our network goals starts with the general idea of who we need to be. We know that “We are incarnations of Jesus in our neighborhoods. We want to be people who are known for bringing the hope and justice of Jesus to the streets.” That’s a given. But we don’t mind how many different ways that happens.
We have an idea for how we can carry out our vision this year. So we have charged “our Coordinating Groups to connect with people and partnerships who already bless our neighborhoods.” We don’t really know exactly how these groups of cells will meet this goal, although I hear that a couple already have some good ideas. Our Map offers an assortment of suggestions for how we might meet our need by working on the goal: We could connect and partner with people among us who work with agencies in our neighborhoods. We could partner with other churches, agencies, and allies. We could mobilize the resources of the church to bless our neighbors.
The suggestions are purposely general, because we want the Lord to establish our steps. We want people to listen to the Spirit and to one another and to risk taking the opportunities they are given. We don’t need to be slaves to the strategic plan, fitting ourselves into holes predesigned by some piece of paper. We know what God wants us to do, and we trust that the Lord will work out the specifics. We are sure that our plans and agreements can only help in the process, but we certainly make them flexible enough to take our best shot when it is provided. If we fail, or get thrown out of town, that might make things even better! Read Paul’s letter to the Philippians from prison in Rome and you’ll understand his idea of strategy even better!
This one comes with references!
Schnabel, E. E. (2007). Paul’s urban strategies : Jerusalem to Crete. Stone-Campbell Journal, 10(2), 231-260.
Marshall, M. (n.d.) Is strategic planning biblical?: Looking at leaders from scripture. Christianity Today. Retrieved from http://www.buildingchurchleaders.com/articles/2003/le-031112a.html?start=2