Mission in 3-D

3d-glasses-001Those involved in Christian missions tend to be two-dimensional thinkers. They look at a map, see all of the “unreached people groups,” and then look for ways to reach them. This is, of course, an over-simplified view of how societies group themselves and how transformational information spreads from one group to another.

The generation gap, for example, adds a dimension to mission among people groups. Consider, for a moment, the great distance between generations within any given group of people. Humanity has always noticed a “gap” between older and younger members of society. The old are concerned that the young are disrespectful, irresponsible, and foolish. The young, on the other hand, see the old as closed-minded, controlling, and irrelevant. Technology, globalization, and changing social norms make the gap wider with each new generation. My point is this: what may, at a glance, appear to be one single “people group,” may actually be a deeply divided set of peoples who have only their ancestry in common.

Mission must take the generation gap into consideration. As it turns out, the younger generations of people groups may have much more in common, and may indeed maintain a greater level of shared culture than they do with their own elders.

Of course, generations aren’t the only additional dimensions to mission. New people groups, as I’ve written before, are emerging faster than we can engage established ones. Urban tribes are largely ignored by our current mission strategies, and we haven’t even begun to prepare for ministry among virtual social groups.

The truth is, people are connected meaningfully in multiple ways and at multiple levels. For us to be good missionaries, we must understand this and organize appropriately.

For starters, we need to promote diversity among mission teams. It won’t do to send three young couples and consider a group “engaged.” In order to address the generation gap (and to infuse a bit of wisdom into the situation,) we need many more mature adults on mission. Likewise, we need a diversity of life stages, experience, skills, and spiritual gifting on the teams we send.

We live in a complex world. In order to be good missionaries, we cannot afford a simplistic view of people groups.

About E. Goodman

Ernest Goodman is a missiologist, writer, teacher, and communications strategist.


  1. There is a lot that is good here, but I really don’t recognise your description of “those involved in Christian mission”. What you say describes one aspect of US based mission work, but doesn’t fit the whole of the American movement, much less the global mission movement. You are right that people groups are more complex than the caricature that is sometimes painted of them, but so are missionaries.

  2. Eddie,
    Perhaps I was being too vague, but I was trying to avoid calling anyone out by name. I don’t mean to say that everyone on the mission field thinks in these terms, but the over-simplification does seem to be widespread across missions agencies, literature, and advocacy groups.

    I find that most people on the “front lines” of mission truly recognize the complexities of social groupings and influence. But it seems to me that much of that is not communicated to supporting churches. The result is the “caricature” you mention perpetuated at stateside missions conferences and in U.S.-based missions literature.

    Thanks for pointing that out.

  3. Nice new layout. Love the title of the post too.

    You wrote: “…what may, at a glance, appear to be one single ‘people group,’ may actually be a deeply divided set of peoples who have only their ancestry in common.”

    The word “only” caught my attention. I was just reading yesterday in Christopher Wright’s Mission of God’s People (yes, truly), how important it is to our faith that we have a common ancestor. And interestingly, in all the diversity, when we are fully obedient, all those divisions melt away.

    In turn I was reflecting on how sad it must be to not trace a lineage… I can barely trace mine to maybe 5 or 6 generations ago. I suppose this is a tangent, but I can’t help but think all this talk of tribes (in a very different sense than New Guinean tribes, for example, which can trace lineages back to 13 or more generations), removes the important of lineage and ancestors.

    How glad I am the Bible provides that for me.

  4. On another note, I was recently asked to provide feedback on the marketing materials of a U.S.-based mission that sends missionaries to Muslim peoples. Their marketing highlighted the fact they send young men who are fearless, so to speak. My feedback was that if I were a philanthropist, which, in a sense I am, I would be watching for a mix of people they send, including “older” people, including “older” and “younger” women. My comments were only slightly influential, I think, but the last I heard, this organization is making an honest effort to re-brand itself. Maybe get away from sending a single demographic.

  5. Thanx for the reminder.
    The world, and the church, are full of “gaps” – always have been.

    Here in the fourth quarter of my life and ministry I am experiencing my own rather serious gap between my wannados and my abletos.

    The Christian witness has always been (and will always be) about “minding the gaps.” Back in the day, the London Underground (as in subway) incessantly repeated the recorded message, “Mind the Gap.” It was a reminder, a warning, to travelers about the small space between the platform, and the subway car – a gap into which a briefcase or handbag might fall – or in which one’s foot might get wedged with disastrous results.

    I’m no “ologist” of any kind but I do know there are serious voids or spaces in the understanding or comprehension of our witness. I also know we tend to make a lot of assumptions that are simply not valid, probably in a hasty search for some kind of “shorthand” that might advance our reach across the gaps into the culture. Not all gaps are “dangerous” but they are certainly worrisome to anyone concerned about the vitality and relevance of the Christian witness in the world.

    Some gaps are subjective, others are objective. Some are felt or sensed, others can be seen and measured by simple observation. That’s why mission is hard work, requiring both head and heart.

    Witnesses and disciplers need always to “mind the gap” (be aware of them, identify them and set about finding ways to bridge them).

    Again, thanx for the reminder and warning

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