My research is focused on missionary effectiveness and sustainability in the 21st century, and I’m asking the question, “What do missionaries and missionary sending organization need to do differently in this century than they have been doing for the past 50-100 years?” I’m convinced that missionaries and mission organizations that want to see Kingdom movement for the glory of God must pay attention to what is going on in the world around them. We must be relevant to present age—for though our message is timeless, the means and methods of delivering that message must be adapted to the people and places that we are called to reach. Fritz Kling said it well in his book The Meeting of the Waters, asserting that modern missionaries need to be “relevant and orthodox, productive and faithful, current and grounded, innovative and contented.”
In the book, The Leadership Mystique: Leading behavior in the Human Enterprise, author Manfred Kets de Vries describes the attributes that are critical to leading well in the “digital age.” The essential leadership attributes that he identifies are: self-management, cognitive complexity, cultural relativity, action orientation, generativity, team-building skills, impression management, task-relevant knowledge, and the ability to inspire trust.
Might those same attributes be applicable to missionary effectiveness as well?
I believe that Kets de Vries’ list could be divided into three categories in relation to missionary effectiveness in the digital age: Timeless Attributes, Lost Attributes, and 21st Century Attributes.
Timeless Attributes are attributes that have long been valued and incorporated into mission work and still are relevant in the digital age. In my opinion those would include self-management, action orientation, and team-building skills. Missionary heroes of the past, like Amy Carmichael and Hudson Taylor, were known for such abilities, while modern movement leader Ying Kai exemplifies what such skills look like in our time.
“It is no small comfort to me to know that God has called me to my work, putting me where I am and as I am. I have not sought the position, and I dare not leave it. He knows why He places me here-whether to do, or learn, or suffer.  –Hudson Taylor, 1899
Lost Attributes are those that were once highly valued among mission agencies, but seem to have fallen along the wayside. I agree with Kets de Vries, that these are needed for leaders in the digital age, and I would suggest that mission leaders look for ways to reincorporate these attributes into their ministry endeavors. The Lost Attributes are task-relevant knowledge and the ability to inspire trust. I often feel like missionaries could be compared to the toys that Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer meets on the Island of Misfit Toys. Many of us didn’t quite fit in back in the States, and struggled to find our place in the world. Unfortunately, this can lead to misdirection and ineffectiveness on the mission field, particularly if one never really develops a skill or capacity for doing ministry. There is a lack of “task relevant knowledge” among many foreign missionaries, especially those who think that having a theology degree or preaching experience qualifies them for mission work. Knowledge that is relevant to the task of foreign missions includes language learning, cultural intelligence, and discipleship training, just for starters.
“Language-learning requires sustained hard work. Isolated posts demand extraordinary professional competence and self-reliance under pressure. The mission field is no place for lazy, undisciplined people.” –Gerald E. Bates, 1977
As for the ability to inspire trust, this too is lacking but needed. Because missionaries are dependent upon the donations of others, there is a strong tendency to exaggerate the truth our even lie about what’s actually happening on the field. Such behaviors might raise funds, but they don’t inspire trust. Trust requires transparency, authenticity, and a willingness for genuine accountability.
“I well remember the time when the men…with our mission met on a retreat in South Africa where we talked about these issues and looked each other in the eyes and asked painful questions about obedience and failure. That’s good and missionaries need that. I certainly do. Home churches need to do that with the missionaries they send out.”—David Wegener, 2013
I’m particularly interested in those attributes that represent a change from the way things have been done in the past to the way things must be done now, given the present realities of global connectivity, millennial mindsets, the shift of the global center of Christianity, and the changing funding priorities of donors. These would be the traits that fall into the third category—the one I’ve labeled 21st Century Attributes, and would include what Kets de Vries’ calls managing cognitive complexity, cultural relativity, generativity, and impression management. I’d like to briefly explain why I believe each of these are particularly relevant to missionary effectiveness in the 21st Century.
Managing cognitive complexity is a skill that people either have or don’t have, according to Kets de Vries. It is the ability to “quickly grasp the essence of a complex idea” and then “simplify it for others.” Mission agencies that do not have leaders who can manage cognitive complexities will not be able to keep up with the challenges of our modern world.
Cultural relativity is a freedom from ethnocentrism. Mission work must be free of any hint of colonialism in the present age.
Generativity is about “getting pleasure out of dealing with the next generation,” or in a nutshell, mentoring. According the Forbes Magazine, mentoring is critical to retaining millennials. “Among millennials, there is a collective shout to employers to develop them, mentor them, and give them opportunities to lead.” We can assume that millennial missionaries desire the same.
Impression management is the ability to “positively reframe difficult situations” and includes storytelling. In a world where social media makes communication accessible and possible 24/7/365, missionaries and mission agencies MUST know how to communicate effectively both within their ministry context and back home to supporters.
I will be exploring all of these concepts deeper in my dissertation.
 Fritz Kling, The Meeting of the Waters: 7 Global Currents That Will Propel the Future Church, 1st ed (Colorado Springs, Colo: David C. Cook, 2010). 26
 Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries, The Leadership Mystique: Leading Behavior in the Human Enterprise, 2nd ed (Harlow, England ; New York: Prentice Hall/Financial Times, 2006). 237.
 Kets de Vries. 239-241.
 “The 15 Best James Hudson Taylor Quotes – Leadership Resources,” October 14, 2013, https://www.leadershipresources.org/the-15-best-james-hudson-taylor-quotes/.
 “Who Is Qualified to Be Called as a Missionary?,” accessed November 15, 2018, https://missionexus.org/who-is-qualified-to-be-called-as-a-missionary/.
 Kets de Vries, The Leadership Mystique. 239.
 Kets de Vries. 239.
 Kaytie Zimmerman, “Modern Mentoring Is The Key To Retaining Millennials,” Forbes, accessed November 15, 2018, https://www.forbes.com/sites/kaytiezimmerman/2016/07/18/modern-mentoring-is-the-key-to-retaining-millennials/.
 Kets de Vries, The Leadership Mystique. 240.