The story of Cisco Systems is apposite here. In March 2000 it became the most valuable company in the world; Fortune magazine described it as ‘computing’s new superpower’ and acclaimed the CEO John Chambers as the best in the world. Within a year the stock price had declined from $80 to $14 and the business press was full of assured comment on why the company’s strategy had failed and why John Chambers ought to go. He didn’t, and within a few years the company was making a good profit. Yet again, the press explained the turn-around under the same CEO without shame. The knack of commentators to change their mind on a regular basis without embarrassment is predicated on our inability to remember any press article from even a week earlier. Our culture has become obsessed with control and measurement and feels queasy at the suggestion that good plans may not come to fruition.
Matthew Raynor has invented the concept of the strategy paradox to describe this problem. He argues that the main cause of strategic failure is not bad strategy but good strategy which happens to be wrong. This is not an argument against strategy per se. Those who do not plan are more likely to fail than those who do, but great strategy depends on whether the initial vision is sound or not – and it is fiendishly difficult to get this right regularly.
Most military commanders and historians would recognise this truth from the study of war, out of which the concept of strategy emerges. Many successes in battle arise from unforeseen circumstances. The saying that no battle plan survives contact with the enemy gives us a mighty hint over strategy’s shortcomings. Napoleon posed a question about every aspiring commander: is he lucky? This is not as eccentric as it sounds, for he was reaching after an indefinable quality and accepting the limits of his judgment.
Churches speak necessarily of strategy now. This may be a reflection of early post-Christendom, where mission must be planned and blithe assumptions merely about us being here if people need us complacently overlooks growing irrelevance. Strategy has always been a component of Christian mission but a richer understanding of its content includes a potent mixture of human planning and divine providence. To use the word ‘strategy’ in today’s culture is to create the impression of clinical, fail-safe execution where managers make all the difference between success and failure. Christian thinking edges towards the idolatrous when it makes no account of the freedom and spontaneity of the Holy Spirit in these plans. No honest Christian would wish to be guilty of this and so we should wrest strategy from its current context by admitting there is a lot we don’t understand about how the work of God is done.
St. Paul acclaimed the winsome combination of planning and providence when he told the Corinthians: I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. Whatever emerges from mission does so only by the grace of God. Two of the great departures of the early Church – the spreading of the Gospel beyond Jerusalem and the inclusion of the Gentiles – only occurred because of extraneous events, namely persecution and the vision given to Peter. A case could be made for saying these were the two most influential outcomes in the early Church yet they were entirely devoid of human strategy. Once these departures happened, the first Christians were able to shape compelling plans, showing flexibility and suppleness of faith.
In Acts 18 we gain insight into how planning and providence combine. Paul came to Corinth from Athens. He was a man in a hurry and he made use of limited time by targeting his mission on the big urban centres of the Middle East, knowing that these were places people mingled in and passed through. If he reached the city, every surrounding town and village would be touched too. The particular geography of Corinth made it a key communications centre, giving Paul extra cause to stay.
If this was the human strategy, where was the divine providence? The first piece is the arrival of Aquila and Priscilla from Italy. They were to become influential Christians in the early Church but only came to Corinth because of the anti-Semitic act of Emperor Claudius in expelling all Jews from Rome. A bigger social trauma had produced a smaller spiritual blessing. God could also be seen mischievously at work in the conversion of Titius Justus, who provided a centre of worship for those dispossessed of the synagogue next door to it. In this way, Paul was able metaphorically to park his tank on the lawn – a visible reminder of the growing power of the Christian community.
Furthermore, the conversion of Crispus, the actual synagogue ruler would have had great symbolic effect. All people are equal before God but some people are more influential than others because of the positions they inhabit. Crispus, in modern sociological terms, was a key node in a nexus of relationships. His conversion would have been noticed.
Human planning and divine providence walk hand in hand in the journey of the Gospel, but there should be no doubt which has priority. Every strategy should be subject to the Lordship of Christ: a truth Paul embraced when God encouraged him in a dream to stay in Corinth against his better judgment rather than to leave.
Good Christian planning takes its cue from God, which asks of it greater malleability than the hard, inflexible rule of the modern strategist.