Sunday, November 5

Third Generation Thinking

Third Generation Thinking

--by Chris Ammons

Seventeen years into my missionary career, a term came to me that described very well the process of doing missions...The term is “Third Generation Thinking.” This term does not deal with family generations, but with generations of new believers.

When the Gospel was proclaimed to non-believers in the not so distant past, one of two strategies was used by the missionary proclaimer. The author would like to propose a third way of thinking and of approaching everything we do in missions.

The first strategy used by those who lacked training or cultural sensitivity, was to teach exactly the way he or she had been taught. This can be called “First Generation Thinking” because the emphasis is placed squarely upon the one doing the proclaiming, with little thought given to the learner. Using this kind of thinking, generations of oral learners have been taught to read and write, parse Greek words, and preach three point messages. If only to prove He is all powerful, God has still used many who hold to this strategy to bring indigenous people to a saving relationship with Jesus Christ. Works that were based on this kind of strategy, however, seldom lasted past the lifetime of the believers whom the Missionary led to Christ.

A second strategy is used by those who have recognized or been taught the need to communicate the Gospel in a way the listener can understand. This kind of thinking can be called “Second Generation Thinking” because the emphasis is placed upon the one being taught, the second generation of believers. Most modern missionaries have used this kind of thinking. Missionaries have gone to great lengths to make sure that their message was understandable to the listener. The assumption was made that if the listener could understand the message, he or she could also teach the message to others. Less thought is given to the ability of the second generation to teach further generations. This kind of strategy often results in a two generation church. It lasts for the lifetime of the missionary’s students and their children, but usually does not extend past that third generation.

The third strategy, one that is being used by an ever-increasing number of missionaries, using a terminology I would like to propose, is called “Third Generation Thinking.” In third Generation Thinking, the emphasis is not on the first generation (the teacher), it is not on the second generation (the learner), but on the future generation who will be taught by the learner. Before teaching anything, we ask questions like; “will the learner be able to teach this as effectively as I do?” and “am I doing anything that will prevent my student’s learners from being able to pass on the message just as effectively as I am passing it on?”

Third Generation Thinking is more than a strategy; it becomes a filter through which every ministry decision passes. A very wise man once told me that every team needs an “idiot.” One that does nothing but ask one question; “why are we doing this?”

Most missionaries, by nature, strive for excellence. When a teaching is passed down to the second generation, it is usually highly polished and done with a flair. We strive to do the best we can. This is usually positive, unless it makes the student think, “He does it so well, I will never be able to teach in such an exciting way.” This can lead to discouragement, and in the long run is counterproductive.

A Third Generation Thinker would say, “I am going to do this just above the level of the one I am teaching. I will give him something to reach for, but will not “dazzle” him so much as to discourage him from teaching this to his students. I want the third and forth generation of believers to be just as effective as I am.”

Church planting movements do not break down because of mistaken observations. They do not break down because of bad intentions of the missionaries. They often stop but because we are a little too short-sighted in our strategy, not looking toward future generations.

A remedy for our own short-sightedness is to set our filters to not let anything pass through that cannot be reproduced several generations after we leave. This could be greatly helped by appointing one from each team to be the one who always asks “can this be reproduced by the next 10 generations of believers?”


Strider said...

Yet another great post Guy! I really resonate with this as we have fought hard to achieve this here in our context. Two things have surfaced through our efforts. One, the Word of God really becomes central in all you do. We don't have Bible studies and commentaries and lots and lots of books in our language here so we have to rely on just the Bible. This has been a limitation that has been a real blessing!
Second, I found that 3erd generation thinking has more to do with our attitude about who we are working with than about the methodology we use. If we really believe that the Holy Spirit is in charge and we are not then we are free to empower the nationals to go forward. If this is done well then the nationals will go forward with the same faith and empower those whom they lead to faith. As usual for me- too much talk when I should have just said, 'Good Post'.

Jeff said...


I've been fascinated by your blog for quite some time. I love your organic church approach and your commitment to reproducible church planting. I totally agree with what your saying, but how do you get there from here? I'm in Amarillo, TX trying to train people to reach apartment residents, mostly those in low income communities. Most of our workers, including myself attend a conventional US church. The unlearning curve for me has been extensive and many of our workers are in the beginning stages. Any advice for someone in the states trying to reach the unreached and forgotten?


Jeff Parsons
Amarillo, TX

GuyMuse said...

STRIDER--Well said, thanks for the good comment. The "attitude" we must have is to allow others to shine and be raised up as leaders, and not fall into the trap of trying to do everything ourselves.

JEFF--You ask, "how do you get there from here?" Good question! We are still trying to figure out the answer ourselves! The only advise I can come up with would be to keep plugging away. Some things work, but most don't. Try not to become discouraged and keep your focus on the One who calls you to the task. Church planting is hard no matter what the setting. Each setting has its own challenges. Try to identify the barriers and then keep working at it over the long haul. In due time the Scriptures say we will reap if we do not lose heart.

Kevin, Somewhere in South America said...


Post this on the CP Forum and see what hits you get on it there. My dear friend Chris has said it better than he ever did when we served together in Peru. It was his vision when we served together on the Peruvian Baptist Board of Theological Education; it helped to shape, if only for a few months, the future of TE in Peru. It was his vision for his work in the jungle. And it was his vision for what he did through X-treme. Kudos to Chris for saying what needed to be said.

GuyMuse said...

KEVIN--Your suggestion has been done and Chris's article has been posted to the CPF. One observation about the article is that it is easier said than done to put this concept into practice. Don't get me wrong, I do think it is the way to go, but it takes an enormous amount of effort to reprogram ourselves to make this a reality. I posted the article as a challenge to all of us who are still mainly involved with the first two types of thinking in our training.

Kevin, Somewhere in South America said...

You said it well, Guy. It takes hard work, true effort, to plan Third Generation training. Teaching comes too easily to us; we are more comfortable doing it ourselves than making it doable for others. At least that is my challenge.



Anonymous said...

The four generations of 2 Timothy 2:2 backs up your third generation outlook. Thanks for your thoughts.