Christian Mission and Innovation: The Experience of CIM/OMF in History, the Present, and the Future

This paper discusses the meaning of the term innovation and the different ways in which it can be experienced and passed on. It looks at examples of innovation in CIM/OMF history and recent times and offers suggestions for future innovation.


Walter McConnell directs OMF International’s Mission Research Department. An American, he has previously served in Taiwan as a church planter and theological educator, taught Old Testament at Singapore Bible College where he also directed the Ichthus Centre for Biblical and Theological Research, and served as pastor at the Belfast Chinese Christian Church.



Christian Mission and Innovation: The Experience of CIM/OMF in History, the Present, and the Future

Mission Round Table Vol. 16 No. 1 (Jan-Apr 2021): 4-10


In 2020, OMF’s International Leadership Team was challenged to consider the state of innovation within the Fellowship in order to help members see that new ideas don’t have to come from the top down and that no one should expect it to. Rather, all members should feel free to innovate if it would enhance their ministry. Where the changes in today’s world require a change in the way we do ministry, we should welcome and promote the necessary changes. The focus on change prompted the writer of a paper promoting innovation to quote the aphorism commonly attributed to Heraclitus: “Change is the only constant in life.”[1] To do ministry in today’s changing world, we need to be ready for change, look for ways to change, and promote change. In other words, we need to be innovative.

But just what is innovation?[2] The more one looks into the subject, the more one discovers just how difficult it is to come up with a satisfactory explanation. Julia Kylliäinen rightly says that “Innovation can be a confusing topic because there are so many different kinds of innovations out there and everyone seems to use the term differently.”[3] As used in the business world, innovation is the implementation of new processes, services, or products with the goal of increasing revenue and thus expanding the company. At times, innovation springs from the adoption of new technologies, marketing strategies, or the application of an already existing technology to a new product or procedure. When applied to products, innovation can result in their becoming more desirable due to an improvement in quality, performance, ease of use, or aesthetics. Services may become more widely available or streamlined for easier use. A process may be speeded up or quality-control enhanced.

It should be clear that innovation effects things in different ways. This is true for business and, as we will see, for mission. To help us visualize some basic types of innovation that companies frequently describe, the accompanying diagram introduces four types of innovation that relate to the market and technology: incremental, disruptive, architectural, and radical.[4]

The most common type of innovation—incremental innovation—will likely use existing technology or processes to add features or services that will benefit those who use the product. Incremental innovations can be highlighted in advertisements that proclaim a product to be “new, improved, better than ever.” In mission terms, incremental innovations might include new evangelistic or discipleship literature, a new sermon or Bible study, and improving our grasp of the language and culture so as to better communicate the gospel.

Another type—disruptive innovation—is seen as one company making use of new technology or processes in order to engage their current market, and though it may be more expensive or less user friendly than older ways, it eventually disrupts the market by proving better than the old ways.[5] Though this understanding of disruptive innovation is popular, the standard way of understanding it is to see it as smaller companies challenging more established firms by focusing on a less-lucrative segment of the market or consumers who aren’t being served and then upping their game (and their profitability) until the major organizations are forced to respond due to the disruption caused to their business.[6] The classic example is the way Xerox lost market share to Canon and other latecomers that produced personal copiers that were far smaller and cheaper than those made by the company that invented the first photo copier.

Missiologically, a disruptive innovation would be like what happened more than half a century ago when a number of new mission agencies were intentionally founded to send and disciple short-term workers. At the time, many established mission societies either ignored these groups or viewed them positively as a spawning ground for new workers. However, as these organizations grew and started sending out their own long-term missionaries, many of the older groups felt the disruption caused by this innovation and began to add short-term and training programs to their ministries.

The third type of innovation is architectural innovation. This is the use of existing products, technology, and methods that are linked together in a new way so that the “architecture” changes. Henderson and Clark illustrate the difference by comparing the change from a ceiling fan to a desk fan. Both use the same parts—switch, motor, fan blades—but they are put together in a new way. Applied to mission, this would be like taking the gospel to a new language group, or producing digital Bibles that can be passed on by Bluetooth. It would also include the transition from printed material to websites and social media in order to communicate with supporters and mobilize new members.

The fourth type is radical innovation. This comes about when new components are linked together in a new way to create something that was previously unknown. Industrial examples include the invention of airplanes, the transistor, and the silicon chip. From a missional point of view, the worship of the man Jesus as God was clearly a radical innovation. For an organization like OMF that has focused on bringing the gospel of Jesus Christ to East Asian people, a radical innovation might be something like training Africans to develop theological education programs in Latin America, producing Greek and Hebrew phone apps for Bible translators, or developing social welfare programs that intentionally exclude any reference to the gospel. But while innovations such as these may move us beyond our current mission and vision statements, it would be far worse if we innovated in a way that would have moved the Apostle Paul to call the result the preaching of a “different gospel” (2 Cor 11:4; Gal 1:6). So, while radical innovations may be possible, they may not be viable.

This brief introduction to innovation is enough to show just how complex the topic can be. Even so, it makes it clear that innovation pertains to the development of new products or ways of doing things that bring change through the use of new technology or processes or through applying standard technology or processes in a new way. It also makes it clear that most of these changes will be incremental, involving gradual steps along the path of improving a product or process.

The reference to change brings us back to the quote: “Change is the only constant in life.” Like so many other things, this idea ascribed to the Greek philosopher needs to be understood in context. And those who have studied Heraclitus inform us that these words cannot be found in any of his extant works but are surmised from what others wrote about him. What is clear is that his ideas about constancy and change were not written so much to emphasize that everything is continuously in flux, but that “some things stay the same only by changing.”[7] He thus never conceived that change might negate that which was constant or that there should be change simply for the sake of change. Rather, he believed that “One kind of long-lasting material reality exists by virtue of constant turnover in its constituent matter.”[8] Like a river that only remains a river as its water moves along in ever-varying currents or a human who continues to be human due to the process of metabolism and aging in his body, all things remain what they are through change.

In many ways, this is not unlike the Chinese concept of 常變—“permanence and change”—or 生生不息—“there is no end to growth and change.” Innovation can only take place in the context where stability is maintained through necessary change. That this was known to both Greek and Chinese sages highlights the reality that change is neither something to fear nor something to grasp after. It’s an ongoing reality in our world that is ever changing and yet ever the same. And though we are sometimes informed that our age is characterized by rapid change that was unknown in former days, our ancient philosophers remind us that this is just an illusion. The interplay between constancy and change has always existed and always will.

This is true in philosophy, and it is true for Christian mission. An organic interplay exists between constancy—the way things are according to history, guiding principles, and practice—and change—the way things need to be applied in specific circumstances. Over the past couple of decades, two Duke University professors have introduced the concept of “traditioned innovation.”[9] This is a recognition that organizations will change over time, but that the changes are anchored in tradition. As Gregory Jones, who coined the term, argues, institutions “do not need radical change. The task of transformative leadership is not simply to ‘lead change.’ Transformative leaders know what to preserve as well as what to change.”[10] And as his colleague Kavin Rowe adds, “Traditioned innovation is a way of thinking and living that points toward the future in light of the past, a habit of being that requires both a deep fidelity to the tradition that has borne us to the present and a radical openness to the innovations that will carry us forward.”[11] Constancy and change. Tradition and innovation. These are basic concepts that go together and should guide a mission and its members as they pursue innovation that is grounded in Christian and organizational history.

What is innovation in mission?

If innovation takes place in the context of constancy and change, what is the constant for mission and what kind of change can we expect? A discussion of a topic as broad as this could identify multiple constants. For simplicity, however, we will list two—the gospel of Jesus Christ and the organizational mission, vision, and values. Both of these are foundational if we are to continue to be who we are. And yet, both of these can be experienced and passed on in different ways. This is where “change” comes into play. As we come to know the gospel and live it out, and as we serve as members of an organization, we will of necessity innovate as we encounter new circumstances. We must be clear that whatever change may be needed, the gospel remains the gospel. This is why radical innovation is a very limited option. Whatever changes result from our developing or adopting new processes, services, and ministries, they cannot depart from this constant any more than water can leave the river and remain the river.

The astute reader will notice that I did not say that whatever changes may be needed, the organization remains the organization. While the Christian gospel is unalterable, a mission agency can—and arguably must—undergo change. The history of CIM/OMF is a prime example. When all foreign missionaries were required to leave China in the early 1950s, the organization was left with the choices of changing or going out of existence. Similar things have happened to other agencies that have, in the light of changes around them, modified their focus of ministry, amalgamated with other organizations, or ceased functioning. It is, therefore, possible that the mission, vision, and values of the organization may need to be changed or refocused, though this should not take place without a deep level of reflection and much prayer.

If a mission agency is to continue to exist, it must innovate when it encounters new circumstances. This could be a change in target group, change in political situation on the field or at home, change in available technologies, or something else. There is, therefore, a sense in which innovation is not something that is sought for the sake of being innovative, but adopted or adapted according to the circumstances faced.

It is important to realize that as innovation is a response to on-the-ground realities, it cannot be legislated or even anticipated to any degree. It frequently works on an ad hoc basis, so that while one innovation may impact generations of missionaries, another may have an extremely short lifespan and be limited to a very narrow geographical area, cultural milieu, or religious context. Furthermore, an innovation can never negate the constant that makes the mission what it is. From the perspective of evangelical missions, recognizing the fact that many Asians find the exclusiveness of Christianity unacceptable does not mean the suggestion that we should introduce Jesus as one of many ways to God is innovative. From the perspective of Christian tradition, it remains heresy. The constant must remain constant while we adjust to new situations. In this case, the issue is how we can explain that the man Jesus is the one true God.

It is also critical to grasp that due to the nature of change, innovation can run in a couple of different directions. We can most easily identify with the need to create a new ministry or way of doing ministry that hasn’t been done before or hasn’t been done in a particular place or with a particular people. Thus, opening a leprosarium, establishing a theological college, starting a café where one can “gossip the gospel,” or promoting personal hygiene to the inner-city poor can be innovative at a given time and place.

Even so, in many places, the growth of the church and the development of society mean that foreign missionaries are no longer needed to do certain types of work. Some jobs are rightly passed on to local Christians and the focus of other ministries narrowed to reflect changes in need.[12] It is, therefore, innovative to establish and run a publishing house to print Christian literature for a local market. It is also innovative to pass the running of this house into the hands of local Christians. It is similarly innovative to reach out to diasporic communities with the gospel, to turn outreach to diasporic communities over to local diasporic communities, and to focus one’s ministry on foreigners who are planning to return to their country of birth. In each of these cases, the need and the available workers prompt the response. This can all be seen from the more than 150 years of history of CIM/OMF.

Examples of innovation from CIM/OMF history

Though many people think of the mission in terms of tradition and stability, the characteristics of “permanence and change” have always been present. The China Inland Mission, we must remember, was the child of an innovative individual who looked for ways to serve God that hadn’t been done before. James Hudson Taylor felt compelled to share the gospel in China almost from the time he expressed a true faith in Christ. While he was still in England, he learned all that he could about that far-off land. The writings of Charles Gutzlaff particularly provided him with ideas that were, from the perspective of other missionaries, overly innovative. By adopting them, Taylor was often derided.[13] Gutzlaff’s influence prompted him to join a new mission society—the China Evangelisation Society—that others rejected as being “a peculiar trans-denominational innovation.”[14] This reminds us that innovation is, rightly or wrongly, not always appreciated.

Straying from conventional wisdom and practice, Taylor arrived in China without qualifications and unordained. From his early days, he sought to do the impossible by taking the gospel beyond the treaty ports where foreigners were allowed to live, and working in the interior of the country where it had seldom if ever been heard. He further dared to dress in Chinese clothes. Many of these innovations, and more, Taylor had learned from the influence of men like Gutzlaff, Walter Medhurst, William Burns, and others, though they were roundly rejected by other leading missionaries of the time. This is particularly true of his aim to become a Chinese to the Chinese by adopting their language, dress, and customs and engaging in itinerant evangelism.

Women pioneers in the CIM. From top left: Grace Stott, MaryJane Bowyer, Louise Desgraz; middle row (from left): Anna Crickmay, Jennie Faulding, Celia Horne; bottom (from left): Emily Snow, Elisabeth Wilson, Fanny Rossier. From Marshall Broomhall, The Jubilee Story of the China Inland Mission (London: Morgan & Scott and CIM, 1915).

Back in England, after the failure of the China Evangelisation Society, Taylor innovated by developing the first major example of what would become known as a “faith mission.” This new organization—the China Inland Mission—would be interdenominational and international from its inception and, as it developed, would ask no one but God for monetary support. This was not the only thing that set it apart from other agencies. The CIM would also accept new missionaries who came from working-class backgrounds, with the belief and desire that they would be more able to understand the needs of working-class Chinese and bring them the gospel. He also sought single women to take the gospel to women who could not be approached by foreign men, and sent them to far-off districts for ministry. All of these innovations drew mixed reviews from other mission agencies in China and churches in England and elsewhere. And some of them—including the deportment of some of his uneducated workers and his escorting of single women from place to place—would cause misunderstanding and trouble in future years.

It is important to see that while Taylor is often credited for bringing many innovations to missions, he was indebted to others for many of the ideas, though he proved successful in developing and using them. It is also important to understand that some of his innovations were not as successful as others and that he could be flexible with regard to the implementation of his practices. For instance, though much is made of his dressing like a Chinese and requiring CIM missionaries who went inland to do the same, members who worked in the treaty ports were not under the same obligation, since the Chinese who lived in those centers were used to foreigners wearing foreign clothes and they might find it strange for a foreigner to wear local clothes. Like other innovations, the on-the-ground needs impacted the response.

Much more could be said about the kinds of innovation that arose in the early days of the mission.[15] However, it should be noted that after all missionaries were required to withdraw from China, another major innovation was essential for the organization to remain in operation. The degrees to which this was needed—for an organization founded to reach inland China to develop into the Overseas Missionary Fellowship and take the gospel, first to “Overseas Chinese” in nearby countries and tribal groups with links to China, and then to the peoples of other nations in South East Asia—were many and cannot be underestimated.[16] Although the earlier emphasis on itinerant evangelism, church planting, theological education, and medical mission continued, innovations were shaped by where and to whom these constants were carried out. Many missionaries who had given their lives to learn Chinese language, culture, and religion were now required to learn new (even multiple) languages, cultures, and religions for the sake of the gospel. In many cases, the “inland” focus of the organization remained despite the new direction, as missionaries went to areas and peoples in various countries where gospel witness was either weak or non-existent.

Examples of innovation from recent times

In years since the “reluctant exodus,” OMF has innovated by establishing home councils in many East Asian countries and welcoming members from them.[17] Other innovations have come as the organization sought open doors in a number of “creative access nations” where Christians with expertise in medicine, business, education, and other fields could work, while “traditional missionaries” were unable to enter. As East Asians relocated to other places on the globe, OMF began to focus on international students and diasporic populations.

Some innovations in ministry came in the wake of popular understanding of how mission should be done. For instance, the 1970s and 1980s saw a huge rise in “people group” thinking and the desire to identify and reach out to every group.[18] While the definition of a “people group” often links people ethnically and linguistically, the term is, at times, stretched to focus on people who were socially or economically related.[19] Some OMF missionaries in Taiwan and Hong Kong in the 1980s identified taxi drivers as a people group and specifically engaged them with the gospel. In the 1990s, Christians in many countries promoted the “March for Jesus” and were joined by missionaries. Others engaged in spiritual mapping projects and “taking our cities for God” campaigns. While each of these activities may have been considered innovative at the time, many of them—though clearly not the “people group” thinking—have virtually, if not entirely, disappeared. This should not surprise us. And while questions should often be raised before someone suggests or instigates an innovative way of ministry, this does not mean that all attempts should be quashed.

Our overview of innovation within CIM/OMF makes it clear that, in many cases, new ways of ministry were not so much created as adapted in line with new situations and ideas concerning how mission could or should be done. Sometimes, the ministries were only innovative as far as Fellowship members were concerned, as others were already using them. The same situation is seen today as many members have engaged in ministries they find new but are not to missions in general. True innovators and true innovations, it should be noted, are extremely rare. But innovations gain traction as they spread to other people who adopt them or apply them to new situations. This has led to a major theory regarding the diffusion of innovation. The initial ideas were developed in 1962 by Everett M. Rogers in his book Diffusion of Innovation, which is now in its fifth edition. Rogers states that “Diffusion is the process in which an innovation is communicated through certain channels over time among members of a social system.”[20] It happens as people learn about an innovation over time, consider whether to adopt it or not, and inform others about it. As more people adopt the innovation, social change occurs.

Rogers’s development of this idea is illustrated by a bell curve in which he distinguishes between innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority, and laggards.[21] What these categories indicate is that while a small minority of people are truly innovative, the ideas they develop will be adopted and disseminated by some fairly rapidly, by others in the more distant future, and much more slowly by the rest. In mission terms, Donald McGavran and Ralph Winter were the innovators of the “people group” concept. Not long after hearing about the idea, a few missionaries got excited about it and started to promote it. Over time, a great many more picked up the idea and started to use it until it became a major foundation stone of evangelical mission. And though this one caught on, some other innovations didn’t attract a very large following or didn’t last very long.

We should note two important things at this point. First, there is not necessarily a direct relationship between the quality of an innovation and its diffusion. Indeed, Rogers begins his book describing an innovation that would have done wonders for the health of rural villagers in Peru that failed miserably, mainly because the person who was trying to promote it focused on the benefits of the innovation instead of connecting with the social networks in the village that were necessary for it to be accepted.[22] Similarly, the acceptance or rejection of missional innovations are less likely to be connected to their theological or biblical bases or effectiveness in the field than to how well the concept is communicated and disseminated within a particular social network. This is true whether the network is a bunch of evangelical missionaries or a national, regional, or ethnic group of people. Due to lack of diffusion, some very good innovations will quickly evaporate while poorer ones will succeed as they are picked up through social networks and passed on. This highlights the need to examine all missional innovations in the light of Scripture, culture, and time and to make sure that they are disseminated through appropriate channels.

The second point is that much of what we think of as innovation is not truly innovative. Rather, it is the diffusion of someone else’s innovative idea or method. Far from being a negative assessment about innovation in mission, this should actually be recognized as one of its most positive aspects. When properly diffused through social networks, innovations spread and have far-reaching impact. It is for this reason that something that was innovative, say ten or twenty years ago, can still be considered innovative as it is applied today to a new context.

Let me illustrate what I mean. Since the rise of COVID-19, many missionaries have started using Zoom, Skype, and other online platforms to teach courses, run church services, do training, and visit people. Though many have considered this innovative, it is anything but new. As early as 2007, I received pastoral counselling and taught Bible college lectures on international Skype calls, and I am sure I was not the first to do so. While the extent of online ministry may have increased greatly, the only real innovation pertains to the people and places involved.

Undeniably, the almost worldwide lock down accompanying COVID-19 has changed the way society operates and how we do Christian ministry. Many have had to shift their workplace from an office to home with the extensive social and resource challenges that this brings. (And let’s not forget the newfound freedom many have discovered.) Meetings have gone from being face-to-face to onscreen. While staring at a rectangular light source all day long has serious drawbacks, it has made it possible for people to get together who could not meet in person. Zoom coffee breaks unite people separated by great distances. Prayer meetings and virtual training can stretch across a city or nation or around the world. While this can make it possible for more to attend, it can also make it possible for some to hide among the postage stamp-sized pictures arrayed across everyone’s devices. I recently taught a class to students in a different country who, due to poor internet connections, turned off their videos and audio with the result that I spent many hours of class time talking to black boxes on my screen. Positively, however, the needs experienced in the world at this time have opened doors for some missionaries to work with country leaders to develop research and practices that will help them deal with the pandemic.

Suggestions for future innovation

Highlighting innovations from the past is extremely helpful as we face the future and consider the kind of innovations that might lie ahead. The dramatic slowdown of worldwide travel during the past year has changed a lot of what we do and how we do it.[23] It also demonstrates just how much innovation can come in response to changing situations that cannot be anticipated. This section will mention a number of areas where recent changes require innovation.

Current workers. The outbreak of COVID-19 has seriously impacted the way mission is done. Many overseas Christian workers have found themselves “stuck” in their home or a third country waiting to return to countries where they served.[24] Others have had to put off returning home due to closed travel routes or the fear that they might not be able to return to the field. This has forced many to ask serious questions about what they should be doing and for how long. Some will undoubtedly be lost to the work force. Others will need to change the course of their ministry or how and where they do it. Some workers have been able to carry on their ministries through an online platform with all the associated benefits and drawbacks. This is a particularly good possibility for teachers of many subjects and at various levels. Moving Bible studies online has kept many going, and has made it possible for people who had not attended for some time or had moved to a different city or country to attend. Online seminary courses can make it possible for someone to teach a subject in a country where it would not have been possible otherwise.

Some workers who remain at home may be able to join a ministry serving diasporic members of their original focus people who are living in these workers’ home countries. In addition to helping those in need, it may also enable the workers to maintain or even improve their language and cultural skills. Others may be able to upgrade their education, whether this pertains to their vocational/business field, biblical/theological courses, or something else. As will be seen later in this issue, one couple who run a café were able to maintain relationships with frequent customers during lockdown by engaging them through online discussions.

New workers. The difficulties faced by veteran workers are also being experienced by new workers who are unable to move to the countries where they believed God was leading them for service. After spending so long preparing to move overseas, what can they do when the doors to travel are shut? Some could start by doing what they would do upon arriving in their new country by taking language classes and/or working with diasporic people right where they are. Classes could be taken at a local university or taken online from a language institute in the target country. There was a time when new OMF workers started language study in Singapore following their orientation course. This old practice may be an innovative way for new workers to learn a language in today’s world.

The disruptions that have kept new workers from moving might give them an opportunity to develop other skills that will help them serve overseas. Some may be able to study in order to improve their biblical/theological, business, or vocational knowledge and skills. Others should be encouraged to see the interruption as an opportunity to get more work or ministry experience that will be amply paid back later. As with experienced workers who are not able to return to their country of ministry, new workers may be able to join teams working with diasporic people, both to get to know them better and enhance their ministry skills.

Another innovative move that some new workers (particularly those from Asian countries) could take advantage of would be to minister with field missionaries in their home countries. This would allow them to build relationships with missionaries serving nearby and gain vital experience in doing evangelism and church planting without having to cross cultures and learn a new language. In addition to benefiting the new worker, it would strengthen church planting teams and other ministries. It should be appreciated that Hudson Taylor used a similar strategy when he sent CIM candidates to do evangelism in inner-city London or Glasgow. Not only did this give them practical experience in gospel ministry, it also provided an opportunity for mission leaders to evaluate their Christian lives and fitness for overseas work.

Short-term mission. The spread of COVID-19 curtailed many short-term trips in 2020 and will do the same in 2021 and probably beyond. As long as countries restrict those who can enter and require a ten- to fourteen-day quarantine (sometimes in a government assigned facility at the individual’s expense) along with two or more negative COVID-19 PCR tests before entering, it will be difficult to plan for short-term opportunities abroad.

How can we innovate in such a climate?[25] One possibility is to allow short-termers to work within their home countries. This could include outreach to foreigners who live there or focusing on reaching out to their own people in partnership with long-term workers who are there. Like having new workers serve on local church-planting teams before going overseas, this would be a great way for short-termers to get to understand Christian mission while working in their own language and culture and for mission leaders to see if they have the skills needed for long-term ministry.

Some short-termers might be able to help with office tasks at a mission center that lacks manpower to do certain jobs (presuming that the office remains open). OMF Singapore has provided an opportunity for a short-termer to help with various projects in the International Center archives. Not only is he performing a job that wouldn’t have been done otherwise, he is also gaining valuable skills, and, all the while, learning more about the history and practice of the mission. Bible college students in other countries who were not able to do a placement overseas are doing similar jobs at various home offices and on the ground. Short-term placements of this type should not be seen as an inferior experience in getting people involved at the present time, but as something that could (and should) continue.

Associate organizations. When Hudson Taylor founded the CIM, it did not take long before the innovations he promoted became known to people in other lands who wanted to join the organization. In the end, more than a dozen different associate missions were started that worked with the CIM in one way or another.[26] The fact that many of these associate missions were based in non-English speaking countries reminds us that similar arrangements could be made today. Mission organizations from non-English speaking countries could work on the field under OMF’s mission, vision, values, and beliefs, but maintain strong ties with churches and a sending organization at home. And in the same way that the CIM designated some parts of China for Swedish, Norwegian, or German speakers to work, similar arrangements could be made in some fields today. Building strong ties with associate organizations could enable a broader participation in the work while freeing some from the necessity of learning English in order to join OMF.


The challenge of responding to change in the world around us while holding fast to our tradition is ever before us. Clearly, the way forward is not to insist on unbending conformity. Neither is it to advocate, much less legislate, unbridled innovation. Even so, as the history of CIM/OMF shows, innovation frequently springs from the heart of a person who is looking for ways to serve God and minister to people in the context of the now. What is the need? What is possible? What gifts do I have that can be used toward that end? These are extremely important questions that need to be worked through as we think out and implement innovative measures to reach people with the gospel of Jesus Christ and disciple them in the faith. As we do so, let us take courage that even though “Achieving and maintaining a culture of innovation and creativity in the context of missions brings with it significant leadership challenges,” it “also holds the promise of greater effectiveness as we leverage the changes around us for God’s glory.”[27] Let us face the challenges of our day by exercising regular and innovative means as we glorify God by sharing the good news of Jesus Christ in all its fullness with East Asia’s people.


[1] Melissa Chan, “Pursuing Innovation within OMF,” 3 September 2020, unpublished paper.

[2] Some writers distinguish innovation from invention. Invention, they say, is the creation of a product or process for the first time and innovation is the improvement of a product or process that already exists. Others link invention to discoveries in the natural and biological sciences and say that innovations come through discoveries in social sciences, industrial engineering, and business. Such attempts try to make unnecessary distinctions between overlapping categories.

[3] Julia Kylliäinen, “Types of Innovation – The Ultimate Guide with Definitions and Examples,” Viima (4 October 2019), (accessed 11 March 2021). In her article, Kylliäinen outlines a number of ways people speak of innovation to demonstrate that this isn’t a term to be bantered around thoughtlessly.

[4] Jorge Lopez, “Types of Innovation,” Constant Contact Tech Blog (blog), (accessed 22 October 2020). These ideas are a development of those found in the seminal paper on innovation by Rebecca Henderson and Kim Clark, “Architectural Innovation: The Reconfiguration of Existing Product Technologies and the Failure of Established Firms,” Administrative Science Quarterly 35, no. 1 (March 1990): 9–30, (accessed 30 April 2021). In Henderson and Clark’s original two-dimensional model, the axes do not represent change in technology and market, but changes in “core concepts”—i.e., technology—and the links between core concepts and components—i.e., the parts that work together in the product. For example, a change of core concepts in a desk phone would see mechanical and analog parts replaced by electronic and digital parts. Even so, the components and function of the product could remain the same. Henderson and Clark call this a “modular innovation”. (This term goes into the same quadrant as “disruptive innovation” in Lopez’s diagram, though the idea is somewhat different as it doesn’t center on marketing.)

Though reducing innovation to four categories simplifies our examination of the topic, they do not do it justice. As Mario Coccia points out in an important working paper on the subject, literature on economics can use one term to refer to different types of innovation and different terms to refer to one type of innovation. He also introduces a number of other categories of innovation that are discussed in management and technological literature that go beyond the four mentioned here. Mario Coccia, “Classifications of Innovations: Survey and Future Directions,” Ceris-CNR, W.P. N° 2, 2006, (accessed 5 April 2021). See also, Kylliäinen, “Types of Innovation.”

[5] So, Lopez, “Types of Innovation.”

[6] Disruptive innovation was first mentioned in Joseph L. Bower and Clayton M. Christiansen, “Disruptive Technologies: Catching the Wave,” Harvard Business Review (January-February 1995), (accessed 11 March 2021). A later article on the subject states that “too many people who speak of ‘disruption’ have not read a serious book or article on the subject. Too frequently, they use the term loosely to invoke the concept of innovation in support of whatever it is they wish to do.” Clayton M. Christiansen, Michael E. Raynor, and Rory McDonald, “What is Disruptive Innovation,” Harvard Business Review (December 2015): 44–53, (accessed 10 March 2021). This reminder is equally as important for missional innovators as for those in business or technology.

[7] See Daniel W. Graham, “Heraclitus,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, (accessed 17 February 2021).

[8] Graham, “Heraclitus.”

[9] See L. Gregory Jones, “Traditioned Innovation,” Faith and Leadership (19 January 2009), (accessed 15 March 2021), C. Kavin Rowe, “Traditioned Innovation: A Biblical Way of Thinking,” Faith and Leadership (16 March 2009), (accessed 15 March 2021). I thank Patrick Fung for introducing me to the concept.

[10] Jones, “Traditioned Innovation.”

[11] Rowe, “Traditioned Innovation.”

[12] This was recognized early on by Hudson Taylor who, in a famous passage from a letter to his wife in 1873, wrote, “I look on foreign missionaries as the scaffolding round a rising building; the sooner it can be dispensed with the better—or rather, the sooner it can be transferred to other places, to serve the same temporary purpose.” Dr. and Mrs. Howard Taylor, Hudson Taylor and the China Inland Mission: The Growth of a Work of God (London: CIM, 1918), 232.

[13] For a brief introduction to Gutzlaff and his work, see A. J. Broomhall, The Shaping of Modern China: Hudson Taylor’s Life and Legacy (Carlisle: Piquant, 2005), 1:3–5, 74–78.

[14] Broomhall, The Shaping of Modern China, 1:413. For a list of mission societies that were founded by or greatly influenced by Gutzlaff, see Broomhall, The Shaping of Modern China, Appendix XIII.

[15] For more on these issues, see Daniel W. Bacon, From Faith to Faith: The Influence of Hudson Taylor on the Faith Missions Movement (Singapore: OMF, 1984) and Klaus Fiedler, The Story of Faith Missions (Oxford: Regnum Lynx, 1994).

[16] See David A. Huntley, “The Withdrawal of the China Inland Mission from China and their Redeployment to the New Fields in East Asia” (PhD dissertation, University of Liverpool, 2002).

[17] See Koyuki Sami, “How Indigenous are the OMF Asian Home Councils? Tracing the History of their Establishment,” Mission Round Table 14, no. 3 (September-December 2019): 4–11, (accessed 30 April 2021).

[18] The term “people group,” along with “hidden peoples” became popular after the 1974 Lausanne Conference on Evangelism where Ralph Winter, Donald McGavren, Alan Tippett, and Peter Wagner read papers and led workshops on “church growth.”

[19] Many have traced the “people group” concept to the Greek panta ta ethnē found in Matthew 28:19, where Jesus tells his disciples to “make disciples of all the nations.” Recent attempts to do this include “What is a People Group?,” The Traveling Team, (accessed 16 March 2021) and Jacob Westland, “Unreached Peoples: Has Everyone Already heard the Gospel?,” Pioneers Europe, (accessed 17 March 2021). See also John Piper, “Unreached Peoples: The Unique and Primary Goal of Missions,” Desiring God (1 January 1991), (accessed 16 March 2021). Piper supports the concept though he recognizes the difficulty of defining “people group” when he indicates that three missiologists identify 8,900, 17,000, and 24,000 different people groups. But instead of addressing the discrepancy, he concludes: “It seems to me that each mission agency will have to decide what working definition of ‘people group’ and ‘unreached people’ they will use, and then base their strategy on it.” If those who are positive about using the term are so far apart in their understanding of what it means, it is of very little practical use beyond stating the obvious that many different groups of people can be found in the world. For a rebuttal of the idea that the biblical term panta ta ethnē refers to the “people groups” in a modern sociological sense, see Darren Carlson and Elliot Clark, “The Three Words that Changed Missions Strategy—And Why We might be Wrong,” The Gospel Coalition (11 September 2019), (accessed 16 March 2021). A more robust examination can be found in Peter T. Lee and James Sung-Hwan Park, “Beyond People Group Thinking: A Critical Re-evaluation of Unreached People Groups,” Missiology 46, no. 3 (May 2018): 212–25, (accessed 30 April 2021).

[20] Everett M. Rogers, Diffusion of Innovation, 5th ed. (New York: Free Press, 2003), 5. Italics original.

[21] A graph of Everett Rogers’s Technology Adoption Lifecycle model, (accessed 29 April 2021), CC BY 2.5, <>, via Wikimedia Commons.

[22] Rogers, Diffusion of Innovation, 1–5.

[23] A perhaps unexpected result of this change that should be evaluated when considering future meetings and international ministry has been the lessening of travel expenses and the CO2 emissions. There is a very real sense in which online mission can be clean mission.

[24] The December 2020 issue of Christianity Today included some feature articles on the subject that indicate the different ways in which people were impacted. Rebecca Hopkins, “When the Coronavirus Interrupted Expat Life, Christianity Today (December 2020): 34–39, (accessed 18 March 2021), and Cara Meredith, “The Teacher who Chose to Stay,” Christianity Today (December 2020): 40–43, (accessed 18 March 2021). The same issue also introduces a couple of excitingly innovative missional outreaches.

[25] Though it is a slightly different issue, this change could provide an opportunity to reassess short-term programs in order to evaluate how they fulfill our mission and vision, and the extent to which they are effective.

[26] The first of these were The Quaker (Friends) Foreign Mission (May 1884) and the (Methodist) Bible Christian Mission (August 1884). Others came from mainland Europe. See Broomhall, The Shaping of Modern China, Appendix XXXVI for a table listing all the groups and the years in which they became associated with CIM. For more information on the associate missions, see Broomhall, The Shaping of Modern China, 2:532–36.

It should be noted that the term “associate” has held different meanings at different times during the history of CIM/OMF. At one point, it referred to those undergoing a “period of probation before becoming a full member of the Mission.” Broomhall, The Shaping of Modern China, 2:183. At other times, it was used for mission organizations that were independent of but worked with the CIM. As Broomhall describes the relationship: “In China individual associates were all but members of the CIM, adhering to its principles and practice, while in their homelands the organisations were independent of each other.” Broomhall, The Shaping of Modern China, 2:498. The term could also be used to refer to individuals who were independent of the mission but shared values and ministries. Some of these same people were later classified as “friends of OMF”.

[27] Larry B. Jones, “Must-Haves for Innovation in Missions (Part One),” The Exchange with Ed Stetzer (blog), 9 April 2017, (accessed 16 February 2021).

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