Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

A Chaos Theory of Missions

Written by: on April 11, 2013

In the song “Wake Up Dead Man” Bono echoes the lament psalms of David, crying out for a God who can sometimes seem silent in the chaos and violence of our world.  At one point Bono questions “is there an order in all of this disorder?”

This week I have been reading Leadership and The New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World by Margaret J. Wheatley.  Here Wheatley’s central thesis is that by looking at the developing scientific outlook on the world found in such new perspectives as quantum physics and chaos theory, we in fact find a world that appears chaotic but in fact is highly connected, sensitive, and intuitive.  In fact, Wheatley points out that our universe is “a world rich in processes that support growth and coherence through paradoxes that we need to contemplate (loc 528).”  There is an order to the disorder.  Thus for Wheatley, the fact that in the natural universe order is found in and derived from disorder, chaos, and utter interconnectedness means that our human understanding of organizations and relationships should mirror a New Science view of the world.  Thus, the intention of human organizations to impose order and avoid disorder, chaos, and confusion is faulty.  Leadership and organizational structure should be more about imparting vision, values, and freedom, to allow human systems to work themselves out through the chaos, thriving on the chaos, and ultimately forming new, creative, and better structures and systems.

Wheatley’s thesis is intriguing to say nothing of an essential apologetic to God’s presence in creation.  God is a master of order within chaos, of the ultimate unity and connectedness of all diversity.  He is a God who scatters at the Tower of Babel, who appears in a whirlwind, who creates life out of death and tragedy, and who sends his people out, even to the ends of the earth.  In fact, this may very well be the starting point of missions, and God’s work in the world: the continual push and pull between chaos and order.  A quick indexing of some of the major mission’s movements of the last 2000 years finds that those which were the most potent and effective arose out of a crisis of chaos.  The current revival affecting China and launching a new world wide mission force finds it genesis in the disaster at Tiananmen Square.  The Christian growth, transformation, and mission passion of South Korea found its formation after a devastating war.  One of the most successful spiritual reproducing movements of European history started in the heart of a kidnapped boy on the fringes of a crumbling Roman empire, was incarnated in a transformed barbarian culture (rife with paganism and violence) and went on to start hundreds of centers of faith, learning, and art during what is historically known as the Dark Ages.  In fact, one can almost state that Christianity has in fact a pattern, from chaos to the margins to order and the center, and then collapse and rebirth in the new chaos.

Today in a time of global, postmodern missions I believe we can say that mission is in a state of chaos.  The standard mission models inherited from the modern world are no longer the de facto lines of movement for the gospel.  In Spain, I serve with Spaniards, Americans, Brazilians, Catalans, Columbians, Argentines, Panamanians, and for good measure a Lithuanian.  We bump up against and work with Pentecostals, Charismatic Catholics, Presbyterians, Baptists, and non-denominationals all with a passion for seeing others enter into the Kingdom.  All of this is done in a spiritual climate of fracture, confusion, re-appraisal, and collapse.  In Europe, the periphery is already re-integrating the gospel into which what was once the center of Christian influence, as a new generation of Nigerian, Chinese, and Latin American missionaries, working across an infinite array of organizations, movements, strategies, and networks carry light to a people who have forgotten.  The gospel is now from everywhere to everyone, all at the same time.  How does one lead and work within this chaotic context? 

Wheatley offers an important answer, and a God of paradoxes helps us imagine a new way forward.  Here we must not fear chaos (and certainly the cross cultural tension and shock of such an array of peoples with the same mission is chaos), instead we must embrace it.  We must embrace that God is working in the chaos, and a new thing will most certainly arise (as it always has) out of the discomfort and confusion that we find ourselves as we attempt to lead and navigate these times.  Here are a few suggestions:

  • The typical Western understanding of organizational leadership and planning will need re-evaluation and adaptation.  I regularly receive documents from the USA about how to do strategic planning.  In certain contexts I am sure that this type of strategic planning is highly effective.  However, my experience working with a multi-cultural team of people from countries who are less temporal and linear thinking, I have found this type of planning can be overwhelming and self-defeating.  Many cultures work better with less planning, figuring things out and adapting as they go along.  Often this seems chaotic, but progress is regularly made.  This is just one example, but we do need leaders and systems that can work in this kind of cross-cultural chaos. 
  • We need movements not institutions.  Institutions stop, un-pack, set up, and can quickly become staid.  Movements are often chaotic in nature, but are organic, and are constantly on the move, adaptive, penetrating new areas, and are guided by vision and values, not by loyalty to a brand or organization.  Steve Addison in Movements That Change the World” Five Keys to Spreading the Gospel enumerates five keys to successful movements which are: white-hot faith, commitment to a cause, contagious relationships, rapid mobilization, and adaptive methods.
  •  Faith and Vision.  Following Wheatley, we need leaders who have the vision to see all the interconnecting parts, the order in the disorder, and the faith to know that God is working.  We need leaders who can then impart this faith and vision to those in the pew and the mission, and free them up from fear and paralysis to jump head long into the chaos, into the whirlwind if you will.  Much of Western Christianity seems to be suffering a crisis of faith at the collapse of Christendom and the rise of a postmodern world.  We need to impart a faith and vision that does not fear these realities, but with clarity understands God is working, and from chaos will ultimately continue to grow and revive his church.

About the Author


Leave a Reply