Commentary by Dr. Whitesel: below are the notes from my presentation, “Leadership Foresight: Our Gateway to Innovation is Not Imitation … But Foresight.” If you are interested in information on the Doctor of Ministry cohort on this topic beginning at Fuller Theological Seminary, see the flier below the notes.
OUR GATEWAY TO INNOVATION IS NOT IMITATION … BUT FORESIGHT
by Bob Whitesel D.Min., Ph.D., 2/21/23
A paper/lecture delivered to The Great Commission Research Network Annual Conference, Orlando, Florida, March 6, 2023.
Foresight thinking (also known as futuring or future thinking) is of increasing importance due to today’s rapid pace in technology, artificial intelligence, ChatGPT, etc. Leadership foresight is defined as “the ability to create and maintain a high-quality, coherent and functional forward view, and to use the insights arising in useful organizational ways.” Regrettably, foresight is often overlooked in lieu of focusing on replicating what’s currently working. But what will work tomorrow, a year, five years and 10 years from now is of critical importance for denominational leaders, district superintendents, bishops, coaches as well as the average pastor. This paper will investigate how future thinking has contributed to the impact of effective evangelism, but how replication eventually slowed that impact. Suggestions will be given regarding how ecclesial leaders can recapture foresight.
Unexpected Detours on My Road with Effective Evangelism
1980s: Reflecting on four decades of journeys within what we call Great Commission Research and Donald McGavran called “mission/(effective)evangelism,” I’ve noticed each decade has been distinguished by a theme and sometimes a course correction. My travels began when I earned a DMin in Church Growth and Evangelism at Fuller in the 1980s. In this decade the term church growth, through provocative, was the darling of ecclesial America. Even mainline churches were reading its principles. Through my church coaching I came to be mentored by thought leaders such as Peter Wagner, Elmer Towns and Eddie Gibbs.
1990s: The next decade saw a dizzying proliferation of programs, tools and tactics. There arose tools to proliferate small groups, plant churches, share your faith, indigenize worship, etc. It was during these years that I developed close friendships with my fellow coaches Charles “Chip” Arn, Kent Hunter, Gary McIntosh, Elmer Towns, Ed Stetzer and others. My greatest angst during this time arose when programs were adopted by churches without sufficient analysis of the community and its trajectory. Ill-advised and ill-suited programs often ended in failure, even though they had worked elsewhere. The result was that at the end of the decade there was an increasing suspicion about church growth tools.
2000s: In my third decade a renewed emphasis upon multiculturalism led to an increasing backlash against effective evangelism. This was largely from misperceptions that McGavran‘s principles where culturally divisive. Not recognizing that McGavran was a missiologist, steeped in intercultural principles; casual readers would misinterpret his emphasis upon sharing the Good News across bridges of God that were culturally suited to the receiver. In “The Legacy of Donald McGavran” Jeff Walters summarized, “one of the great aspects of McGavran’s legacy is that people ought to be able to hear the gospel and respond to the gospel in their own cultural context, where they are comfortable—not having to cross big cultural barriers in order to hear the gospel.”
This “great aspect of McGavran’s legacy” was a profound respect for dissonant adapters, and a desire to improve their encounter with the Good News both via communication and celebration. McGavran’s idea in his book The Bridges of God, was not to argue that churches should be made up of only one homogeneous bridge. Both he and Wagner worked in mission agencies that reached out to multiple tribes or castes at the same time. But McGavran suggested that the more receptive a culture appears to be, should dictate priority and resources over less receptive cultures. Less receptive cultures should be “held lightly” in strategy, not being ignored; but when resources become available, logic suggests putting resources where there is a forecast of growth. This key element of McGavran was foresight.
McGavran’s strategic DNA emphasized future thinking, i.e., to see where and in which cultures people were coming to Christ and then to spend more resources there to follow the move the Holy Spirit. In The Bridges of God he stated, “The era has come when Christian Missions should hold lightly all mission station work, which cannot be proved to nurture growing churches, and should support the Christward movements within Peoples as long as they continue to grow at the rate of 50 percent per decade or more. This is today’s strategy.”
But critics in North America focused upon what would happen if a local church focused entirely on a homogeneous people and ignored other cultures. To untangle this debate, it’s important to understand McGavran’s DNA of foresight. If you look at McGavran without foresight and simply focus on the present, you will create strategies and tactics that foster a homogeneous church. But if you look closer, you will see it is McGavran’s foresight that leads him to not ignore resistant cultures, but that we “hold lightly” in strategy until the Holy Spirit begins to move among them.
Here is a simple example how lack of foresight can impact effective evangelism. A Lutheran Church which at one time reached Scandinavian immigrants on the north side of Chicago eventually died because it didn’t reach a new influx of Hispanic people. Hispanic congregations have since rented the church, but cross-cultural partnerships never developed. This is because the Scandinavian congregation saw themselves as discipling a homogeneous Scandinavian immigrant culture. They didn’t grasp McGavran’s foresight to look ahead for the next people movement (Spanish-speaking immigrants) and disciple it.
2010s: More scholars emerged to defend McGavran, such as Gary McIntosh and Mosiax leader Mark DeYmaz, who showed that McGavran wanted to see a “heterogeneous church,” but with homogeneous sub-congregations and worship expressions. Still, the momentum waned significantly until leaders of the Great Commission Research Network (GCRN) such as Gary McIntosh, Elmer Towns, George “Chuck” Hunter, Ed Stetzer, and others began to re-emphasize McGavran‘s writing and thoughts. Stetzer often wrote about McGavran for both Christianity Today and Outreach Magazine. Toward the end of the decade McIntosh penned an authoritative biography of McGavran. The result was a course correction back to the principles behind the tactics, rather than a proliferation of tactics.
2020s: A fourth decade of observation has led me to believe the work of Stetzer, McIntosh, Gibbs, Towns, and Hunter must be completed. This means grasping the unique attributes of McGavran‘s thinking, and why it was so revolutionary. And, the role of foresight in McGavran’s DNA should be studied and reconsidered.
McGavran’s visionary foresight was to look for the harvest not after it ripens, but as it begins to emerge from spiritually fertile soil.
I spent the last twenty years in varying leadership roles in this organization, which drew me deeper into the thinking and foresight of Donald McGavran. I began to see that McGavran‘s DNA was based on two elements. First, an element of his DNA was his analytical mind. He loved observation and prediction, much like famed church growth writer, Lyle Schaller, who had been a former city planner.But secondly, and perhaps most important for the movement today, is that within his DNA was a focus on foresight, future thinking.
McGavran’s foresight meant that that he wasn’t as concerned about methods, as he was about seeing where God is moving and envisioning where he would move next. Gary McIntosh offers a helpful history of how McGavran’s foresight developed:
Through this study, McGavran discovered that of the 145 areas where mission activity was taking place, 134 had grown only eleven percent between 1921 and 1931. The churches in those areas were not even conserving their own children in the faith. Yet, in the other eleven areas the church was growing by one hundred percent, one hundred fifty percent, and even two hundred percent a decade. A curiosity arose within his breast that was to occupy his life and ministry until his death. He wondered why some churches were growing, while others, often just a few miles away, were not. He eventually identified four major questions that were to drive the Church Growth movement worldwide, and in the United States of America.
George Hunter summarized these “driving” questions of Great Commission research: 
Question 1 and 2 are research questions.
Question 4 is an application question. “What principles … are reproducible” encourages replicating current best practices. It was this principle of reproducibility that captivated and inadvertently depreciated much of this movement.
Question 3 is a gateway to understanding McGavran’s mind, what I call his strategic DNA. It is a question about foresight. Notice it is about “factors that canmake the Christian faith a movement among some populations” (underline mine). Though this foresight question was foundational to McGavran’s DNA, its lack of immediacy made it less attractive to practitioners and publishers. Yet this third question is what makes his writings ground shaking. McGavran’s visionary foresight was to see the harvest not after it ripens, but as it begins to emerge from spiritually fertile soil.
Such DNA led McGavran, at Fuller President David Hubbard’s invitation, to establish the School of World Mission at Fuller Theological Seminary when McGavran was 67 years old. Charles Van Engen described the school as embracing “prophetic foresight and trend-setting mission leadership.”
The foresight of Donald McGavran (and the shortcuts of his readers)
A problem which befell the Great Commission Research Movement was that McGavran‘s emphasis upon foresight was overshadowed by the popularity of replication. And who could blame his readers for this partiality? For the first time cross-denominational scientific measurement was applied to the church. Judicatory leaders as well as local pastors were either enthralled or alarmed. But they all were interested, especially in shortcuts. Such shortcuts were not peering into the future, but locating what is working today and replicating it. The focus on the future faded from view as the shortcuts of the present clouded it out.
McGavran had looked to see where the Holy Spirit was moving and then marshalled resources to support future ministry in those areas of fertile soil. McGavran sought to allocate future funding to ministries and cultures where the Holy Spirit was and probably will be moving. His most well-known mentee was the prolific author C. Peter Wagner, a colorful cheerleader for replicating what was working elsewhere to customarily help aging congregations thwart geriatrophy.
While both replication and foresight are important tools, Wagner‘s enthusiasm moved the emphasis away from foresight and placed it on copyright. Thus, began decades of finding what’s working and following it, rather than finding where the Holy Spirit is preparing to move and following Him.
Pulling few punches, Alan McMahan, the former president of the Great Commission Research Network called this proliferation of tactics “faddish,” “shrink-wrapping” and a “paint-by-numbers” approach to McGavran’s missiology:
“I have concluded that McGavran‘s missiology was really quite a bit different than the church growth practice in the US and there is a bit of a disconnect there. As it became faddish in the US and proliferated to thousands of churches with all the church growth conferences and church growth products, and as places … shrink-wrapping it all into a tape, a workbook, or a textbook, it became a paint-by-numbers, kind of an approach that many people adopted.”
While McMahan attributes this paint-by-numbers to a loss of cross-cultural experience, it could also be attributable to the lack of foresight that’s required of a missionary. It might be said that McMahan is suggesting, “We don’t analyze sufficiently how and where the Spirit is moving or will move in a community.”
Three Disadvantages of Paint-by-numbers Methodologies
And so, the Effective Evangelism Movement came to be criticized for promoting the latest trend or tactics.And, when such tactics start to be used by many churches, the tactics lose their effectiveness for at least three reasons.
- A faddish reputation creates a distain among innovators and skeptics. As a result, organizations led by innovators or change-agents will avoid and even ridicule tools or programs associated with prefabricated methodologies.
- The more that people experience certain tactics, the more good (and bad) experiences will result. Because bad experiences are more likely to be shared than good ones, even worthy tactics can lose their positive regard. For example, the cohesive power of a small group has been attested to from Jesus’ example, through the small group methods of Wesley, to the sticky groups of Larry Osborne. But one bad small group experience in one church can lead an attendee to conclude all small groups are irrelevant to them. Popularity breeds potential for innovation to be more widely criticized … and avoided.
- Finally, this creates a copycat culture rather than a culture of creativity and innovation.
McGavran saw methodology as dependent upon the opportunity. Opportunity was observed through foresight. Foresight dictated the methodology, not reduplication.
Where did leadership foresight come from (and how do we get it)?
What then is the antidote to prefab tactics? The solution is to focus on where and how the Holy Spirit is moving and to begin planning to meet future needs. Richard Slaughter, the scholar most associated with foresight thinking (also known as futuring or futurethinking), described foresight as “the ability to create and maintain a high-quality, coherent and functional forward view, and to use the insights arising in useful organizational ways.” Here are his three principles of leadership foresight.
1. Predicting the future is not as difficult as deciding to study it.
Leadership foresight as a practicum has largely escaped the examination of theologians and practical ecclesiology. But we have been dancing around it for decades. As a secular academic practice, it first came to prominence with the research and writings of Richard Slaughter in the 1990s during a ramp-up to the new millennium. Slaughter came to be concerned about societal upheavals might bring in the next twenty years. Towards that end, Richard Slaughter began to study both how we think of the future and how we act upon that thinking. He studied historical examples of people who thought long and deep about the future and who were then able with a degree of accuracy to predict the future and take advantage of it.
But Slaughter saw reasons organizations don’t study the future and are therefore surprised and disadvantaged by it. These include: “their roots are in an earlier age, change is slow in institutions, turbulent times create problems for leaders, and they avoid thinking about it, and ‘Faulty assumptions in western industrial worldview… e.g., me, mine, now’.” Slaughter warns leaders not to attempt, “to move into the future without foresight.” 
2. Predicting is not enough; we must academically critique our forecasts.
2023 is the 54th anniversary of the release of Stanley Kubrick’s magnus opus and Oscar award-winning film, “2001: A Space Odyssey.” In 1968, coauthors Kubrick and science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke predicted what the world would look like at the turn of the millennium. Those of you who have seen this film know it is sometimes confusing. But the film predicted that, by 2001 there would be active archaeological digs on the moon and artificial gravity manufactured by slowly rotating space stations. While some of the predictions such as landing on the moon, space stations, etc. were in part correct, this was a predictive exercise by Kubrick and Clarke, not an effort to engage what’s next.
(Article continues on the next page with Slide 13)
Why prediction alone is insufficient was brought to my attention by one of the pastors in the MissionalCoaches.network. This drawing from a Salvation Army newsletter in 1929 depicts a salvationist doing their work in 2029 via multiple television screens.Humorous then but strangely accurate now, it nonetheless did not lead The Salvation Army to be an early adopter of technology. Even to this day, one of my former students, a salvationist utilizing electronic outreach in Southern California told me, “We (the Salvation Army) are still wrestling with funding electronic outreach. In the last century, we were innovators in evangelism through musical outreach. But we are skeptical about technology today.”
3. Use future thinking to inform current strategies & innovation will result.
There’s a difference between predicting the future and adopting future thinking into our current actions. Dreaming about the future is easy, but it is not enough. We must start planning now how we will engage it. This is the fundamental difference between fantasizing and futuring.
As I look back over the Effective Evangelism Movement, I see bursts of creativity taking place when leaders think about what they can start doing now to pivot and engage what’s next. It’s not about just predicting the future. And it’s not even to bemoan it and fear it. It’s about integrating future thinking into our current plans. As Richard Slaughter said, foresight leadership is “the ability to create and maintain a high-quality, coherent and functional forward view, and to use the insights arising in useful organizational ways”
Three Ways to Embrace Leadership Foresight into Your Current Plans
1. Question your biases about the future.
Much has been made lately about the influence our assumptions and biases have on our ecclesial thinking. This is a good exercise. In fact, it should be increased if we are to also learn about biases we naturally have regarding future thinking. Talk to others who see your biases and cultural perspectives. Have others hold you accountable by questioning your assumptions and biases about the future. And when talking with others learn about their biases too.
2. Scan futuring from the outside in.
Don’t just read books and articles about church leadership but discover how leaders from varying fields are planning to meet future needs. Futuring has a robust canon of literature and not surprising more is being penned every day. So instead of reading about what is working elsewhere, try reading about what industries such as technology, communication, service and healthcare are doing now to prepare for tomorrow. Read their articles, books and follow their social media postings.
3. Be provocative: ‘any useful idea about the future should appear to be ridiculous.’
Richard Slaughter says, “The natural next step of scanning is to use your imagination. Challenge yourself to think of provocative implications of ideas, innovations and events. Connect the dots between seemingly disparate pieces of information. Think provocatively — as said by legendary futurist Jim Dator, ‘any useful idea about the future should appear to be ridiculous.’ In 20, 30, 50 years, what might happen because of a trend we see today? If you are afraid to let your mind wander, you’ll never find yourself at the leading edge.” 
The missio Dei at the Leading Edge
Like the salvationist who uncomfortably chuckled at a cartoon depicting the Good News traveling over televisions, today we worry and fantasize about the future, without making plans to engage it. And copying only what is working now leads only to a proliferation of cloned ideas and instills in the church a lack of innovative ministry. Rather for innovation to resurface, I call upon this research community and others within the ecclesial world to begin to study the future as much as we study the past and the present. Innovative participation in the missio Dei tomorrow and beyond, depends upon it.
NOTES AVAILABLE HERE >
 For example, ChatGPT and artificial intelligence are currently of particular interest to the church leaders. Also, future thinking is being applied to planning in the communications, service and healthcare industries.
 Richard Slaughter, The Foresight Principle. (Westport: Praeger, 1995).
 Donald McGavran, “What is the Church Growth School of Thought?” manuscript, as quoted in Wilbert R. Shenk, The Challenges of Church Growth: A Symposium, (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1973), p. 17. McGavran defines effective evangelism as a movement that, “enlists in Christ’s school all segments of human society, and incorporates in his body, the church, all the ethnic and linguistic units of the world.” Donald McGavran, “My Pilgrimage in Mission” IBMR, April 1986: 58.
 Jeff Walters, “The Legacy of Donald McGavran: A Forum” edited by IJFM Editorial Staff, International Journal of Frontier Missiology, 31:2 Summer 2014, 61.
 To understand the difference between dissonant adapters, selective adapters and consonant adapters see Bob Whitesel, The Healthy Church: Practical Ways to Strengthen a Church’s Heart (Indianapolis: The Wesleyan Publishing House, 2013), 69-70
 “The mission station was a little enclave, sort of a transplanted European walled city, that would provide a microcosm of European Christian culture amid the indigenous peoples of the mission field.” Bob Whitesel, “Missional & Are You a Mission Station or a Missional Community?” retrieved from ChurchLeadership.wiki, March 17, 2015, https://churchhealthwiki.wordpress.com/2015/03/17/missional-are-you-a-mission-station-or-a-missional-community-donaldmcgavran/
 Donald McGavran, The Bridges of God (Cambridge, UK: World Dominion Press, 1955), 109.
 Outside of coastal cities existed an American heartland with little diversity in the 1980s. The result was that practical theologians such as McGavran and Wagner, though they had grown up in cross-cultural mission fields, did not see today’s multiculturalism as a requisite factor in Great Commission strategy. Formative years in non-English-speaking cultures had bred in them a respect and appreciation for different cultures. In fact, not wanting to see those cultures assimilate, they understood from firsthand experience how such cultures took pride (as dissonant adapters) amid a worldwide proliferation of Northern European cultures. They didn’t want to see the One-third World push its cultural language, music and artistic expressions upon the Two-thirds World. This gave them a high respect for dissonant adapters, and a desire to see their dissonance preserved. As a product of their time, they did not see diversification as a pressing need within the North American church. Subsequently, this became an oversight toward which church growth under Wagner internalized. McGavran and Wagner were the furthest you can be from cultural supremists. Rather they saw the need to let indigenous peoples experience the Good News and celebrate that news in culturally relevant ways.
 Mark DeYmaz, Should Pastors Accept or Reject the Homogeneous Unit Principle? (Little Rock, AR: Mosiax Publishers, 2011).
 Lyle Schaller, The Interventionist (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1997).
 Gary L. McIntosh. The Roots of Donald A. McGavran’s Evangelistic Insights. Church Growth Network, 2015, retrieved from https://www.churchgrowthnetwork.com/freebies2/2015/3/13/passion-of-donald-a-mcgavran
 George G. Hunter, III. “The Legacy of Donald A. McGavran.” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 16(4):158-162.
 Charles Van Engen. A “Fuller” Vision of God’s Mission and Theological Education in the New Context of Global Christianity.Pasadena, CA: 2016, Fuller School of World Mission, retrieved from https://www.missionfrontiers.org/issue/article/a-fuller-vision-of-gods-mission-and-theological-education#_edn4
 Geriatrophy is a term coined by Kent Hunter to describe churches “wasting away because of old age” in Bob Whitesel and Kent R. Hunter, A House Divided: Bridging the Generation Gaps in Your Church (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000), 33.
 Alan McMahan, “Stewarding Legacies in Mission, The Legacy of Donald McGavran: A Forum,” edited by IJFM Editorial Staff, International Journal of Frontier Missiology, 31:2 Summer 2014.61.
 For an interesting historical perspective, reread this evaluation of The Church Growth Movement through the eyes of McGavran’s foresight and Wagner’s practicality: Gary L. McIntosh and Paul Engle (eds.), Evaluating the Church Growth Movement: Five Views (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004).
 Devon McGinnis, “40 Customer Service Statistics to Move Your Business Forward,” SalesForce 360, retrieved from https://www.salesforce.com/blog/customer-service-stats/
 Note the critical role small groups play in the Methodist movement’s effectiveness in George G. Hunter III’s classic To Spread the Power: Church Growth in the Wesleyan Movement (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1987) as well as his The Recovery of a Contagious Methodist Movement (Adaptive Leadership) (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2012).
 Larry Osborne, Sticky Church, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008).
 Other examples of McGavran’s foresight, beyond the length of this article but suitable for further research, are the role of foresight in funding, the role of foresight in theology (e.g. harvest theology vs. theology) and the role foresight in ministry training. Regarding the latter, McGavran’s foresight appears to have spurred him on to found schools to train future leaders while he was in an advanced age. He was 64 years of age when he founded the Institute of Church Growth at Northwest Christian College and 68 years old when he founded the School of World Mission at Fuller Theological Seminary.
 Richard Slaughter, The Foresight Principle. (Westport: Praeger, 1995).
 Jan Lee Martin, “A Summary by Jan Lee Martin Approved by R. A. Slaughter of The Foresight Principle (Melbourne: The Futures Foundation, 2001), retrieved from https://foresightinternational.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/FP_Summary_JLM_2001.pdf
 Sketch provided by Peter D. van Duinen, Major, The Salvation Army, personal correspondence, February 15, 2023.
 Roby Bridgeo, The Salvation Army, personal conversation with the author, April 2010.
 Richard Slaughter, The Foresight Principle (Westport: Praeger, 1995).
 “Foresight: The Most Important Skill in the 21st Century, The Futures School, April 13, 2021, retrieved fromhttps://thefuturesschool.com/2021/07/foresight-the-most-important-leadership-skill-of-the-21st-century/
 Jim Dator, “Foreword” to Richard Slaughter, ed., The Knowledge Base of Future Studies, (3 Vols.) (Hawthorn, Australia: DDM Media Group, Springer, 1996) retrieved from https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-030-17387-6_1
You must be logged in to post a comment.