You may not be aware that there is a plan on the horizon to begin colonizing Mars by 2026. SpaceX founder Elon Musk’s plan does not stop there. Musk’s ultimate goal is to see one million people living on Mars by the end of the century.
Let us consider US President John F Kennedy’s speech in 1961, calling for a man to be put on the moon within a decade. In order to put his vision in context, in 1961 there were no personal computers, most commercial aircraft still used propellers, and TV was still predominately black and white. Considering the available technology at the time, Kennedy’s horizon was audacious. People thought it just could not be done; yet eight years later, Neil Armstrong descended a ladder and took that famous ‘one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind’.
Higher horizons versus incremental steps
If we had simply continued doing what we were doing, taking incremental steps to do it a little better each year, we would probably never have set foot on the moon. Yet this is where most of us find ourselves: looking for steady, incremental improvements. The problem with this kind of thinking is that we look back at what we have done in order to see what is possible in the future. In essence, we look backward in order to look forward.
However, Kennedy did not base the future upon the past. He set an audacious horizon, looking forward, to something far and beyond where we were. It inspired people to reach beyond mere incremental improvements.
Kennedy knew that the knowledge and technology needed did not even exist in 1961. This caused scientists to look forward and explore what technologies would be necessary to accomplish such a radical goal. Once those necessary technologies were identified, scientists began working their way back to the present. This allowed them to create a roadmap starting from the future, which identified each technology that needed to be developed to bring them to their desired destination.
Great horizons always push us to look forward beyond ourselves. Once we understand the desired future, we walk back to the present and figure out how to get there. This kind of thinking results in innovative, paradigm-changing ways of impacting our world.
When we set our sights on higher horizons, it is amazing what can be done. Pyramids are built. Cathedrals are constructed. Brave new worlds are discovered.
Horizons for mission
Bill O’Brien was Vice-President at the Southern Baptist Convention Foreign Mission Board (now the International Mission Board) when he read an article in 1994 about a physicist at NASA who was setting broader and higher horizons.1 The article literally changed the course of his career. It described how physicist Dr John Andersen led his team to find a revolutionary new approach to space travel. As a result, they cut the time necessary to fly to Jupiter down from several years to just a couple of months.
‘This is what we need in Christian mission’, O’Brien excitedly thought.2 He contacted Andersen, who was more than happy to lead a group of ministry leaders through a similar process. In 1996, international leaders gathered to discuss the future of Africa in the year 2050. O’Brien said: ‘The reason Andersen pushes those horizons out so far is that it helps people engage in the process and stop just extrapolating elements in the present. The second thing is that we need to construct a new framework, not just for fantasizing, but for using critical relevant thinking within that framework.’3
Andersen kept pressing the group to look out further and further to the future, while exploring higher and higher leverage capabilities. Then the group worked backwards to today in order to discuss all the steps necessary to arrive at this new future. O’Brien says the results were revolutionary for everyone involved.
O’Brien was convinced. He began helping other organizations practice this type of thinking. One such project was with World Vision. They explored the possibility that the organization would be forced out of business by 2030. ‘It got everybody scared’, says O’Brien.4 The organization realized just how vulnerable it was to the many changes happening in our world. Many significant changes came out of those meetings.
‘This is not a way of creating strategic plans, but it is a way of creating new ways of thinking’—O’Brien.5
Understanding potential futures
Our world is changing faster than ever before. Entire cultures are changing in the light of globalization, technology, urbanization, and a host of other factors. Unreached people groups are migrating to cities. The number of global languages will likely drop by half. In the face of these radical changes, merely seeking incremental improvements in our ministries will only set us further and further behind.
Forward thinking empowers leaders to explore and understand all the various places the future could take them. They break free from limited thinking patterns holding them back from something greater. As leaders do this, they begin to see themselves differently. They also view the resources at their disposal differently too.
The Bible is full of stories which highlight this type of thinking. Take Gideon, for instance. He limited himself by thinking he was the least family member of the smallest tribe in Israel. Yet God saw Gideon as something else entirely. To enable him to share God’s perspective, he needed a radically new horizon. God told Gideon he would rout the entire enemy army; but he would have to do it with just 300 men. Now, it is important to note that God never told Gideon how to do it.
As a result, Gideon deployed 300 soldiers in an innovatively new way. To the old Gideon, hiding in a well and constrained in his thinking, the original vision was as impossible as sending a man to the moon.
A good soccer player knows not to go to the ball, but to get to where the ball is going to be. The same can be said about ministry organizations. As the changes leaders face come faster and faster, leaders must learn to align their organizations with the future environment before it emerges.
To do so, leaders must seek to understand the most likely environments to emerge in the future.6 One way to do this is by studying the emerging trends, issues, and choices being made. As a weatherman creates forecasts by examining how weather changes interact in the environment, leaders can use trends, issues, and choices to create forecasts about their future environment as well.7 The greater these are understood, the clearer the forecast of the future will be. And when leaders have a clearer picture of the future, they have a much greater chance of getting to where the ball is going to be.
Mission Society example
O’Brien was asked by The Mission Society to help them address an issue of growing concern. It was their 25th anniversary and a significant gap had developed between their vision and the way their missionaries were being deployed on the ground. They gathered missionaries and leaders from around the globe in Prague in 2008.
‘The horizon was 25 years’, says Vice-President Jim Ramsay.8 They explored what the world would look like far into the future. Ramsay said they realized: ‘If we don’t change, we won’t be addressing the key global issues in 10-15 years . . . the future is going to challenge our structural models as well as our funding models. We have to rethink how we do everything. It’s an exciting time, and there is a lot we have to wrestle with. Broad organizational shift is happening as a result of that meeting—its fingerprints are all over many aspects of our organization today.’9
The results of that meeting in 2008 are still creating an impact. The organization refined its vision and mission, and then changed its structure and culture as well. They are also realizing the tremendous potential in developing multi-agency collaboration for global partnerships. Other new innovative ideas continue to emerge as individuals continue to align themselves with the future.
‘Wisdom is supreme—so acquire wisdom, and whatever you acquire, acquire understanding.’—Proverbs 4:7 (NET).
The chiefs of Issachar
David had been cast out from King Saul’s presence into the wilderness. There he gathered to himself the best men of Israel. Among them were great warriors, able to use their weapons with both their right and left hands. In the middle of this great list of warriors is a curious group. The Bible says these 200 chiefs of Issachar understood the times and knew what Israel should do.10 They understood how the issues and choices would interact to create a future in which David would be king. These warriors’ greatest weapons were their minds.
Implications and suggested responses
The Bible commends the chiefs of Issachar for understanding the times and knowing what to do. God is looking for similar men and women today, who are prepared to lead ministries into the future. To get started, leaders should begin engaging their teams in conversations about the future. Here are some initial questions to ask:
What emerging trends, issues, and choices do we see happening in our environment?
How might these combine to change our future environment?
To what new horizon is God calling us?
Is our organization prepared for the future 5, 10, 20 years out?
There is also a small but growing set of books and resources which can fuel these conversations. In 1998 Paul McKaughan, Dellana O’Brien, and William (Bill) O’Brien co-authored Choosing a Future for US Missions, which is available from the William Carey Library. Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary’s Center for the Study of Global Christianity produces many resources highlighting global Christian trends. More often, however, the most innovative ideas arise as we study other disciplines and then seek to apply them in our own areas of expertise.11 Finally, later this year, the William Carey Library is publishing a book by the author of this article specifically designed to help ministry leaders develop a comprehensive framework for analyzing trends, thinking about the future and setting broad new horizons.
1 World Futures Society (Fall 1994), Horizon Mission Future. Bethesda, Maryland: World Futures Society.
2 Bill O’Brien (personal communication, 17 October 2014).
6 A Hines and P Bishop, Thinking about the Future: Guidelines for Strategic Foresight (Washington, DC: Social Technologies, LCC, 2006).
7 F Polak, The Image of the Future (Amsterdam: Elsevier Scientific Pub Co, 1973).
8 Jim Ramsay (personal communication, 17 October 2014).
10 1 Chronicles 12:32.
11 A Hines and P Bishop, Thinking about the Future.