March 14, 2009

Missionary Networking

One of the ideas that has been increasingly fascinating to me of late is the idea of the "network." Basically, a hierarchy, is like this:

CEO -> SVP -> VP -> Peons

It's centralized at the CEO, who makes the decisions and communicates them via peons to the SVP, and so on.  Instead, a network has no leader, no "center." It is "decentralized," and yet for some reason, it works. Think of a flock of birds, who for no apparent reason all decide to change direction mid-flight - all at once. Or a school of fish. Or a protest rally. Or a protest rally that turns ugly. Or Al Qaeda. Human nature is more complicated than was previously thought; we don't need to have a solid leader to do things together, it seems, but rather we need some sort of idea that can be easily "sneezed" from one person to another, a guiding principle that motivates action. Sometimes, we will even do things in groups that we wouldn't do otherwise; we get caught up in the moment, a sort of "collective-consciousness" that nobody can quite explain.

It's amazing.

Obviously there are plenty of negative applications, but what about positives? The internet is a good example, one that has been used for both. Similarly, over time, the church has been just such a "decentralized" structure; no matter how many denominations pop up with a CEO-style visionary at the top, there are always enough others that make up for the deficiencies of the others. When one denomination suffers a major setback - say, one of its leaders gets frisky where he or she shouldn't - there are always others to pick up the slack. It's like having a spider-web; even if one node in the web breaks, the rest still hold it mostly together. Sure, they miss the one, and the web doesn't look quite as nice, but it still works.

What if this idea could be harnessed for beneficial means?

I was talking with a missionary friend the other day, and he was telling me about the environment he's working in. It's a hard place he's working in; high rate of unemployment, lots of poverty, and a culture quite at odds with the larger culture that surrounds it. And he's struggling just a bit, trying to figure out not only how the culture works and thinks, but what he can do as a missionary to help improve things in a way honoring the people and their heritage.

And it occurred to me, I know a few people who might have something to say for him, but just happen to be involved in missions in cultures around the globe. And then I thought, surely there must be other missionaries who I don't know that could help him, or at least give him some good principled advice that he could apply to his situation, stories of "well this is what WE did ...".

And then I thought, hey, this is that networking stuff.

The more I thought about it - in the shower, at my desk, during sermons at church (sorry Mike), before I fell asleep - the more I thought "this could work, we just need a place to start it." I've talked to a few friends, professors, and the like, and they all agree - a place for missional networking is desperately needed. Missionaries have so many stories that have good, practical solutions for everyday problems, stories that can help other missionaries in other cultures with solving the everyday problems a mission agency or a sending church is not equipped to think through.

We've had a few ideas; but I would love to hear yours, especially if you are a missionary. We talked through the idea of using a centralized office, but that was too impractical in this time of financial crunch. We talked through the possibility of each seminary having a small office and networking - this is, I think, the best option, but sadly a ways off. We talked about web forums and a database ... but it seems like too little, especially for missionaries in places without web access.

So that's where we are. I want to open it up, ask for some creative help.

Who out there has a good idea?

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