Sunday, November 5
Third Generation Thinking
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?”