A Field Director’s Musings about Innovation in OMF Thailand

This paper examines questions about our motives for pursuing innovation and looks at examples of ministries developed in Thailand that sharpen our ability to share the good news.A Field Director’s Musings about Innovation in OMF Thailand

 

 

Ulrich Kohler is a Swiss Mennonite, married to Renate, a German Lutheran. With their three sons, they presently live in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Joining OMF Thailand in 2001, they have been serving in church planting, regional leadership in Central Thailand, leadership training in various capacities, and, since 2016, as field director for OMF Thailand.

 

 

 

 

A Field Director’s Musings about Innovation in OMF Thailand

Mission Round Table Vol. 16 No. 1 (Jan-Apr 2021): 24-26

Companies need to constantly innovate, keeping their fingers on the pulse of the time, and ready to reinvent themselves to prevent the day coming when time has passed them by and their company and its products are left completely out of date. I come from an engineering background, so I vividly remember the Swiss engine manufacturer Mag Motoren being made obsolete in the 1980s by the more innovative, smaller, and reliable Honda engines. Or similarly, Land Rover, which failing to see the writing on the wall, was completely overrun by the more innovative Mitsubishi Pajero. Examples abound of companies that had a great product and then started to rest on their laurels. In the end, their failure to invest in research, foster innovation, and develop new products led to their downfall.

We have all seen it happen. It is no wonder that most of us have a fundamental, though likely subconscious, conviction that innovation is crucial. We need to move on, we need to develop, and we need to change from where we are to something different as we enter the future. Most of the time, we are probably not even aware how that overall framework of thought influences us.

However, in recent years I have started to ponder about all of this. What seems so logical in the realm of software development, design, engineering, etc. does not always seem to be fully applicable to the church, or, as in our case, to a parachurch organization. The problem is, I am not even fully sure what makes me uneasy about this. It is just that sometimes I wonder whether we might improve and innovate ourselves to death? Some forms of innovation require a corresponding structural change in an organization along with the people who will populate it. And the question comes whether our innovation is fundamentally linked to our core mission or whether innovative ideas could also significantly distract from it.

What drives our desire for innovation? Is it purely to become sharper, more effective in achieving what we as OMF exist for? Our mission statement declares that “We share the good news of Jesus Christ in all its fullness with East Asia’s peoples to the glory of God.” Do our innovations help us attain that goal or not? Or is our innovation driven by external input like listening to members of the national church in a given country tell us what they think OMF should focus on? Or is our desire for innovation and change at times driven by the need for organizational relevance and popularity as perceived by the general Christian public? (Or even the secular public?) Or are we at times even driven by what C. S. Lewis calls that “horror of the Same Old Thing”? In his classic book The Screwtape Letters, Lewis portrays the senior devil Screwtape instructing the junior devil Wormwood: “The horror of the Same Old Thing is one of the most valuable passions we have produced in the human heart—an endless source of heresies in religion, folly in counsel, infidelity in marriage, and inconstancy in friendship.”[1]

I think that the fear of the “Same Old Thing” actually dwells deep inside most of us and produces a bias for something new and different, a bias against the old that we have had for a while. I am not suggesting that we should be a club of people patting ourselves on the back about how great we are doing and how the old stuff we have done is the non plus ultra and thus the way to continue forever and a day.

But we’d do well to remember that change is not necessarily progress. And neither is it automatically a good thing. Denzel Washington, in a graduation speech, once put it pointedly when he said, “never confuse movement with progress. Because you can run in place and not get anywhere.”[2] Actually, that very quote is preceded by some other noteworthy comments.

have goals and understand that to achieve these goals you must apply discipline and consistency.… hard work works, working really hard is what successful people do. And in this text tweet, twerk world that you’ve grown up in remember just because you’re doing a lot more doesn’t mean you’re getting a lot more done.[3]

What does that have to do with our topic here? Well, innovation is often triggered by a desire for change, a desire that might stem from dissatisfaction with the present situation and/or a vision of the position one would like to be in sometime in the future. Examples might include Land Rover getting back to being the market leader in the off-road vehicle business and OMF mobilizing 900 new workers in a five-year time frame. The question is whether the changes we apply or the actions we take to achieve the desired outcome will actually do the job. Or to use the words from above, “just because you’re doing a lot more doesn’t mean you’re getting a lot more done.”

Are the things we are hailing as innovative, exciting, and new in our organizational or ministry context really getting us where we want to end up? Do they sharpen us so that we are more effective in sharing “the good news of Jesus Christ in all its fullness with East Asia’s peoples to the glory of God”?

These are things which must never change. And that is where every endeavor that has to do with the gospel of Jesus Christ is fundamentally different from the efforts of a company providing some product or service. It is astonishing how the concepts of remembering, keeping, and holding onto something are woven into Scripture. Developing that topic would require a separate article. Suffice it to say that it is worth reflecting on the degree to which an organization like ours falls under the same “innovate or die” law as a company producing a product.

Absolutely everything will change—indeed, must change—from a methodological or structural standpoint. Today, we don’t handwrite every single gospel tract as was necessary a thousand years ago. To do so would be foolish and would neglect the opportunities the Lord gives us nowadays (for example, with the existence of digital media ministries). We are right to look at the context and adapt.

For several decades, OMF Thailand had a massive focus on leprosy ministry, at one point running three hospitals and many more clinics. Leprosy patients were cared for and, at the same time, the gospel was shared with them, their families, and their neighbors. But leprosy has virtually disappeared from Thailand and so has our focus on that area of ministry. Rightly so.


Working on the Thai Bible Project

In recent years, OMF Thailand ministries have expanded in a number of different directions that we might label as being innovative. The development of “Project Paul”—a focused church planting training program that we continue to sharpen—was an innovative step to help OMF members become more effective in ministry. Based on that experience, we took it further and developed an adapted version in Thai. Another innovative move regarding our organizational administration entailed switching to a new software platform to process all our visas, work permits, and partnership MOUs. On the side of direct ministry to the Thai people, we have found that setting up our Digital Media Department was a positive development, and only regret that we did not start it ten years earlier. Major foci presently are Facebook postings, courses on the learnnn.com platform, and bringing The Bible Project into Thai. And we hope to continue expanding the digital media ministry significantly with online evangelistic campaigns, developing better pathways to connect initial online interest to solid mentoring online, and eventually linking to an “offline”, physical, local church.

We continually seek ways to lovingly and effectively share the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ with Thai people. Everything we do—reaching rural people through an eye glasses ministry, sharing God’s Word on Facebook,[4] providing crisis pregnancy care,[5] teaching and mentoring Bible college and seminary students,[6] reaching out to migrant factory workers, joining hands with and building up the national church,[7] providing online evangelistic courses,[8] coaching soccer,[9] taking the painstakingly slow route of building trust with urban poor communities,[10] fostering reproducible, evangelistic cells, reaching out to young people with adventure camps,[11] or simply sharing Bible stories consistently in our neighborhoods—must serve that one purpose of sharing the good news of Jesus Christ in all its fullness with the Thai people to the glory of God. Whatever does not serve that purpose, we must terminate. It doesn’t matter whether it is something that we have done for a long time or whether it is a trendy and seemingly innovative focus that keeps people busy but does not result in the gospel being shared. What we need to see happen is consistent, ongoing sharing of the good news, in whatever form that takes. This is tough work. It needs perseverance and discipline. There is no church planting without blood, sweat, and tears. And no amount of innovation will change that.

Coming back to some of the questions asked above about what drives our desire for innovation, parachurch organizations may be motivated to innovate due to a strong, subconscious drive for self-preservation. Even so, if we are truly seeking the kingdom of God, our focus should never be on self-preservation. Neither should innovation focus on keeping a certain form or structure alive. Rather, it should be focused on getting a certain task accomplished.

One might argue that no task will get accomplished if there is no structure present. And to a certain extent, that is true. In all that God has created, life is tied to structure and form. However, throughout history, the Lord has used certain forms, certain vessels, for a given period of time. And then came a time when that vessel lost its significance and the Lord used different means. One example from history would be the monks and the monasteries. At one point, they were the main missionary workforce, the main carriers of the gospel, the center of theological thinking. It is probably fair to say that that is no longer the case. Was their demise a simple failure to sufficiently focus on innovation? I don’t think so. Cataclysmic shifts happened that diminished the significance of that model. It is likely that no amount of innovation would have helped that model maintain its significance in a new era. And it doesn’t matter whether it was the Lord who caused the cataclysmic changes to happen that necessitated new models or whether the Lord simply called people to adopt new models in response to the societal changes that were taking place.

It is very likely that, at some point, the era of parachurch mission organizations will come to an end and no amount of striving for innovation will change that. And why should we try to prevent that? Because we want to keep a certain model or a certain organization alive? If that was the case, we would have completely missed the point. Don’t get me wrong, I neither wish that day to come soon nor do I think it is imminent.

But neither a drive for self-preservation nor the aim to gain attraction should govern our striving for innovation. Both are a dead end. Our innovation needs to lead to effective gospel proclamation. And as the book of Acts indicates, where gospel proclamation is effective, general attractiveness decreases. This is because, more often than not, gospel penetration will not be to the liking of society in general and thus will increase scorn and opposition.

Innovation must never be an end in itself. The fact is, the pursuit of innovation can be an indication of personal pride that I should be listened to because I am the person who is thinking outside the box. There is, however, no guarantee that out-of-the-box thinking will enhance the work. It is thus correct to say that to the extent we desire innovation no matter what the outcome—as long as it is outside the box and not just the “Same Old Thing”—we are surely headed toward another dead end.

At the end of the day, it is great if an organization fosters a climate in which people dare to try something new even if it might fail. I have always greatly appreciated the freedom I have had to do new things in my context in OMF Thailand. Even so, what truly matters is not that we do something new or that we perceive ourselves to be innovative, but that the good news is proclaimed, people turn to Christ, and fellowships of believers—churches, to use a biblical word that seems to be out of favor in some circles today—are established. The bottom line is that all our innovations should enable us to be more effective as “We share the good news of Jesus Christ in all its fullness with East Asia’s peoples to the glory of God.”

 


[1] C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (New York: Macmillan, 1950), 126.

[2] Denzel Washington, “Number One: Put God First,” transcript of commencement speech delivered at Dillard University, Louisiana, USA, 7 May 2015, Speakola, https://speakola.com/grad/denzel-washington-everything-i-have-is-by-the-grace-of-god-full-2015 (accessed 18 May 2021); Dillard University 2015 Commencement Address | Denzel Washington, YouTube video, 15:50, posted by Dillard University, 10 December 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ROiNPUwg9bQ (accessed 18 May 2021).

[3] Washington, “Number One: Put God First.”

[4] The ‘Prakhampee’ Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/Prakhampee has more than 170,000 followers on Facebook (accessed 18 May 2021).

[5] For more information, see the “Fountain Ministry” that serves women with unwanted pregnancies, https://nampu-fountain.com/ (accessed 8 June 2021).

[6] For example, at the Bangkok Bible Seminary (https://www.bbsthai.org/), Chiang Mai Theological Seminary (https://www.ctsthailand.org/), and the Phayao Bible Seminary (https://www.phayaobible.org/).

[7] I dream of a strong community of biblical churches. See OMF Thailand CT team, “I dream of,” https://omfmedia.s3.ap-southeast-1.amazonaws.com/au/files/20230213134852/OMF-TH-CT-team-I-dream-of.pdf (accessed 18 May 2021).

[8] Know God, https://knowgod.in.th/ and Learnnn Platform, https://prakhampee.learnnn.com/ (accessed 18 May 2021).

[9] Sattha Soccer Ministry, https://omf.org/au/serving-through-sports/; “Sattha Soccer Thailand,” Vimeo video, 1:56, posted by Ulrich Kohler, https://vimeo.com/105108288 (accessed 18 May 2021).

[10] Urban Poor Ministry, http://rakchumchon.org/en/home/ (accessed 18 May 2021).

[11] Jeff Callow, “South Thailand Adventure Camp,” Adventure Outreach (blog), 10 October 2013,  https://omfsouththailand.net/index.php/en/blogs-2/serving-in-mission/42-south-thailand-adventure-camp (accessed 18 May 2021).

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