Missional: is it rocket science?

Last week a group of us from Servant Partners gathered for a workshop on Knowledge Management, ably led by a dear friend to our organization. When our executive director introduced Jason, she shared with us about his ministry involvements in Northwest Pasadena through an organization called Northwest Neighbors. And then, almost as an afterthought she said: “Oh, and he is a rocket scientist.” We all laughed.

As he led us through a great discussion about how knowledge transfer is happening in our organization, he would regularly use examples from his own workplace: JPL. To illustrate a point about distinguishing explicit knowledge from tacit knowledge he would say something like: “You know, like when we were receiving all of the data from the first images of Mars…” Or to make a point about key staff members who hold some specific piece of knowledge: “Like if there is one guy on the team who is just really exceptional at calculating orbits…”

Honestly, I couldn’t help laughing every time he did this. And while we could perhaps argue whether building a spacecraft or church-planting in the world’s slums is more difficult, I felt a sense of awe at what is for him another day at the office.

There was one example from his presentation that struck me and has pressed my imagination a bit the last few days. He said that, at JPL, one of the most successful ways they have fostered a culture of knowledge transfer is through a kind of story hour. Senior engineers are invited to simply tell the stories about designing this spacecraft or calculating that orbit or solving some problem, and the junior engineers bring their lunches and just sit and listen to the older guys tell their stories.

Jason said that part of what makes this effective is that people like to both tell and listen to stories (as opposed to being given some textbook-like document or a bunch of data), and there is an emotional impact that helps binds the knowledge being presented. And the emphasis isn’t as much on the actual results as it is the process of discovery and problem solving.

Bill Kinnon posted a challenge of sorts for those who would consider themselves “gurus” in what is called the Missional Church movement. He writes:

I confess that I’m really not interested in hearing theories anymore. I want to know how the missonal profundities emanating from the particular guru are applied in their own lives – right now. Not last year, last century or last millenium. But. Right now.

“Where are you plugged into a local expression of a missional community? How does that impact what you are sharing with us?”

His question resonated with me a bit and I thought about how hearing someone discuss competing theories about rocket science would stack up against story hour at JPL. Scot McKnight recently highlighted a post by David Fitch on “picking out a house missionally”, and as I read it in the context of this larger discussion I thought it was a good example of someone sharing their story of process and discovery; of calculating a missional orbit of sorts.

I have thought before that maybe I should try to write more “theory” here, and there are any number of reasons why that is not what this blog has become. But I have sensed that, in the Christian blog world, theory is elevated. Strong opinions and arguments get readers, links and comments, and while I don’t blog to acquire those things, I have wondered about what unique contribution I am making here.

I think I’m pretty happy being a story hour kind of girl, though often enough I don’t feel very far along in the journey. But then I remember the kind words Rebecca spoke and I am reminded that stories that don’t have all the orbits calculated can useful too:

This is why I was glad to find The Margins. Because the story is being told while it happens, there is no over-arching thesis to be proven. Her brain has not had time to protect her from the memory of being scared for herself and her children. Because of this, her faith in the midst of all she is going through shines all the brighter. Read especially Erika’s post A Walk in the Park to see what I’m talking about. She doesn’t know yet that it will all turn out to be OK. But she does it anyway.”


  1. Couldn’t agree more with Bill Kinnon. However, I would add that not everything is about the “doing” but also the “trying.” In my own commuter-bsed, suburban context, we are trying to take the missional turn but run up against huge obstacles that are tied to ways of life a long time in the making. I am constantly reminded that “good ideas are not accepted simply because they are good ideas.”

  2. Jim,
    I agree with you. There needs to be a willingness to experiment as we discern what God would have us do. And therefore the willingness to say, “ok, maybe that wasn’t the direction” without feeling like we’ve failed some how.

  3. Hi Erika,
    I have been reading your blog for some time now and just wanted to say that I have really appreciated/been challenged and encouraged by your story telling. I have an 18 month old boy and live in suburban Chicagoland. I’ve laughed, cried, and prayed much reading your blog. Thank you for sharing your journey!

  4. B”H

    Hi Erika,

    Nice site you have here. I like reading the things you write because you are a good writer and communicate your thoughts in a clear and concise manner. I like both theory and stories. It’s really timely that I should stop by here this morning I guess. Lately I have been bothered by this sort of idea, “Who gets to be heard?” Bill K. and many others would tend to write someone like me off. I have a ton of thoughts and theories, but the ‘living it’ part is kind of thin. I recently was thinking of this. Who should listen to my ideas when I don’t live them myself? This is not a matter of intentional hypocrisy, it’s far more complicated than that. Even so, the bottom line is this, how can I talk about reconciliation and unity in the Body when I’m not an active part of any such group? Does the fact that I have been a believer for 35 years mean nothing? Has it been a waste of time for me to read and study or it is just a personal hobby? I like to think that knowledge has its own intrinsic worth. In my world, all truth is GOD’s truth. I want to learn from many sources. I listen to those who are both younger and older than me. Although I no longer regard myself as an Evangelical Christian, I try to listen and learn as much as I can from that tradition. I wonder if I’m making sense here any more. I feel this tremendous tension because I’m in a limbo place regarding fellowship with other believers. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and stories. I am sure that those who read your posts regularly are greatly blessed by GOD.



  5. Jelani,

    That post is awesome! Thanks for sharing the link. One of my close friends down here is a DJ and I have seen first-hand how hard she works. I would say it is definitely as hard as playing an instrument.

    And I hear you on the theory stemming from what we go through. I guess since I know you and know your context, I read you with that in mind, so you never feel like a talking head to me 🙂

  6. Bill and Jim,

    I think we often learn more from what fails, doesn’t work, etc., but not enough of us are willing to put those stories out there. I wonder, Bill, if those who are just talking without doing are in that place because what they are trying has failed or because it is simply untried. Two very different things.

  7. Stories make the world go around. No need to be apologetic about being a ‘story hour kind of girl.’

    I’m working on a justice non-profit focused on helping poor folks and Christian workers who serve among them tell their stories. Gotta get that kind of stuff online and in the old media too. I think you might be helping create an important model for what may eventually become a new (and very old :^) way of communicating old things skewed old and new enough to get a hearing.

    I really appreciated Bill’s call to immediate authenticity. Always good to limit the bs factor as much as possible and give current practitioners the first crack at making sense of the challenge.

    But I also appreciated a few other folk’s comments that limiting input to those types restricts wisdom and the potential advance of the work. Theorists and the experienced have a lot to contribute. Most folks don’t serve on the front lines in especially difficult situations over the very long haul. When on the edge, seems to me you’ve gotta get help where you can find it.

    One key element that struck me from Jason’s comments. If you don’t have experienced senior leaders who can lead a credible ‘story hour’ you’re going to struggle as a church or as a non-profit. Seems like getting those kinds of people in place as soon as possible–especially for a ministry committed to planting holistic churches among the squatter poor in the developing world–is sort of important. Sometimes younger, more gifted, more experienced and less spiritually mature people are the best choices to lead a ministry like that as long as they get help from older and wiser and less experienced people who aren’t threatened by their loss of positional status.

    In the interests of authenticity, Jason isn’t actually a rocket scientist. He writes software that rocket scientists use to do their thing :^).

  8. Hehehe, Erika…this brought back lots of memories! I spent almost 12 years working in aerospace with aero/astro engineers (including contracts with JPL!)

    You go, story girl!

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