This article has an accompanying PowerPoint that you can access here.

Few words are more overused, misused and abused than “strategy.” Who would dare submit a budget or funding proposal without the word ‘strategic’ liberally sprinkled throughout?

But what does strategy really mean? How can we know if we are truly strategic?

Lakota wisdom says, ‘When you find yourself riding a dead horse…dismount.’

Etymology can shed some light. Strategy derives from the Greek word stratagein, which is comprised of two words: stratos and agein. Stratos means ‘a line.’ From it, we get our modern word stratification and stratosphere. Agein is a verb meaning ‘to lead.’ From agein we get our modern words synagogue (lead together) and demogogue (lead the people). Combining stratos and agein produces the compound idea of ‘leading into a line,’ think here of a battle formation; or simply the word ‘alignment.’

Stratagein and today’s ‘strategy’ conveys the idea of aligning or leading our resources in such a way as to accomplish a goal or execute a victory. Strategein was used in military contexts to refer to the battle plan that the generals would use to align their men, horses, weapons, time, and allies to win the victory. Resources of any kind that are not aligned to win the victory are non-strategic.


No one knows for certain who first coined this expression, but it is often associated with Albert Einstein: If you keep doing what you’ve been doing, you’ll keep getting what you’ve been getting. Applying it to your own situation: If what you’ve been doing isn’t accomplishing your desired vision, then maybe it’s time for a change.



Riding Dead Horses

Be honest with yourself: Are you riding a dead horse? Is your ministry going nowhere?

Many of us go through a time in our ministry when we find ourselves riding dead horses, i.e. stuck with a ministry plan that simply isn’t going to accomplish our vision.

Let’s look at how some of the ways people have tried to revive their dead horses:

• Use a bigger whip.

• Use a bigger carrot.

• Appoint a committee to study the horse.

• Learn how others ride dead horses.

• Appoint a tiger team to revive the horse.

• Train riders better.

• Hire others to ride it.

• Change the definition of dead.

• Compare your horse to other dead ones.

• Harness your horse with other dead ones.

• Provide more funding to increase performance.

• Change performance requirements for horses.

• Finally, promote the horse.

Insanity Defined

There is a corollary to the expression, “If you keep doing what you’ve been doing you’ll keep getting what you’ve been getting.

The corollary goes on to explain: To keep doing what you’ve been doing, but expect different results, is the definition of insanity.

How about you, are you pursuing a crazy strategy? Or are you ready for a change?

It’s easy to say, “Don’t ride a dead horse.” But how do you dismount? Here are some tips.

Once you’ve resolved yourself to dismount your dead horse ministry, it’s time to reposition yourself for a new plan of attack.

Four Types of Strategy

Today’s military and corporate warriors have identified four types of strategy, four paths to strategic advance. This is important, because one size does not fit all! Specific types of strategies are suited to specific types of challenges. You don’t want to be pursuing the wrong kind of strategy, when another one perfectly fits the challenge you are facing.

Take a few minutes to learn these four types of strategy, their strengths, weaknesses, and the types of challenges that they are designed to surmount. Then you will be ready for whatever challenge stands in your path.

The four types of strategy are: 1) Multiple Choices, 2) Innovation, 3) Morphing/Tweaking, and 4) Best-Practice Benchmarking.

Launch a Thousand Ships

Multiple choices means launching many, many different ministries at once to accomplish your vision. The strength of the multiple choices strategy is that ‘surely something will work!’ The weakness is that the strategy is not a very efficient use of resources, and can get confusing as you try to juggle several different ministries simultaneously.

So when do you use the multiple choices approach? It may be tempting to try multiple approaches strategy any and every time, adopting a ‘shock and awe’ approach to reaching a community. But this approach should not be used simply as a substitute for good research into other ministry approaches that are already working well.

Multiple choices are a good option when you are facing a seemingly intractable challenge.

Multiple choices are a good option when you are facing a seemingly intractable challenge. You should consider multiple choices when initial efforts have been spurned and rejected. Consider the alternatives: a) keep doing what you’ve been doing (and we’ve already seen where that leads), or b) shake the dust off your feet and move on. Though the latter strategy is biblical (Luke 10:10-12), don’t rush to employ it. Remember, Jesus directed it during a short-term mission trip, not as a long-term strategy. To employ the dust-shaking solution to an entire people or community, just because they reject your initial approach, is to consign them to an eternity without a gospel witness. Before you shake the dust off your feet: launch a thousand ships! Then monitor the ministries closely, when one of them successfully conveys the gospel to your people group, invest in that ministry, nurture it through to success, and multiply it widely.

If I were tackling an unreached and historically resistant people group in Pakistan, Afghanistan or perhaps Saudi Arabia, I would certainly want multiple choices in my strategy toolkit. Rather than limit myself to a single hit or miss approach, when historically there have been few if any successful ‘hits’ is not the most promising pathway to reaching the people for Christ.

At the other end of the spectrum, I would also want to consider a multiple approaches strategy for some of the most resistant, post-Christian communities of Western Europe or secular America. In these traditional, nominal Christian fields, the local population has become resistant to traditional evangelism and church planting approaches. It’s time to expand our arsenal of options!


As the name implies, innovation is trying something new, taking a radical new approach to fulfill the vision. While some missionaries are natural innovators, others fear trying new things or simply feel inadequate to the task. Likewise, while some mission organizations encourage innovation, others are risk averse and discourage any ministry models that they do not recognize. Innovation requires careful research, good accountability, and frequent assessment.

The strength of innovation is that it can lead to a genuine breakthrough and make a powerful new contribution to the advance of the Kingdom from which future generations can benefit. Some of the greatest innovations in salvation history include the Jesus Film, the missionary Strategy Coordinator, Bible storying and Tentmaking. These innovations have led to millions of new additions to the Kingdom of God. The weakness of innovative strategies is that they are high risk ventures, typically costly in both time and money. Their creators can become overly invested in their creation, myopically believing in their innovation even when early indications are that the innovation is not effective. Finally, most innovations are not effective, if they were, they would have already been adopted. So you have to evaluate your innovation carefully along the way, and be prepared to morph it (see below) to enhance its chance for success.

If you are an innovator by nature, you might be tempted to use innovation all the time. This would be a mistake.

When should you employ an innovative strategy? If you are an innovator by nature, you might be tempted to use innovation all the time. This would be a mistake. To use an innovative approach when other strategies are already reaping a great harvest of success is simply selfish and short-sighted. Why try something new when something that has already been tried and tested is already a proven success? Remember, it’s not about you, it’s about how best to reach your people.

Innovative strategies should be used in places where the people you are trying to reach have rejected your initial gospel efforts. Just as with ‘multiple choice’ strategies, innovative strategies are intended for resistant people groups. Use innovation before you shake the dust off your feet. Then you can be assured that your people group are getting every opportunity to say yes to Christ before they meet him face to face.

Tweak It

Morphing strategies take whatever ministry is currently working, even if only working a little, and improves it. As the name implies, morphing or tweaking strategies presuppose that some types of ministry have already been attempted and have met with some success. Many ministry efforts have been in place, virtually unchanged, for decades. Employing a morphing strategy can transform these ministries into much more effective avenues for Kingdom advance.

The strength of morphing is that it is building on already effective ministries. One need not reinvent the wheel or start from scratch. Positive inertia is already working to your advantage. You need only increase the momentum. Sometimes this is simply a matter of better aligning a ministry to accomplish the desired vision. Sometimes it comes as you import some new technology that will improve efficiency, a technology that was not available when the ministry was first conceived.

The strength of morphing is that it is building on already effective ministries.

Though it is basically a conservative strategy, morphing also has its weaknesses. Morphing requires you to convince an existing ministry to make some needed changes. This can be a frustrating and time-consuming process. Morphing is also more likely to result in incremental improvements rather than exponential breakthroughs. Finally, some ministries are not really worth morphing. They may be so out of sync with the needs of the people or perhaps already running to their optimum, so that the time needed to make some small improvements would not be worth the effort.

When is a morphing strategy appropriate? Anytime a ministry or strategy is already showing some promise, you can morph it to achieve greater results. You can even take a morphing approach to your innovations and multiple choice strategies, evaluating them to identify areas that could be improved, and them morphing them to greater effectiveness.

Wherever churches or ministries already exist, morphing can be employed to ramp up these ministries. Converting a traditional church into a purpose-driven church, or a cell church can expand the churches capacity and effectiveness. Taking an effective ministry and multiplying it through a franchise supervisory model can multiply an effective ministry into a ministry movement.

In our South Asia ministry, while pursuing innovative and multiple choice options among unreached and resistant people groups, we also worked with traditional churches to increase their capacity and effectiveness as primary partners in vision fulfillment.

Why Not the Best?

The fourth type of strategy is called best-practice benchmarking. Best-practice benchmarking surveys methods from one’s own field, from related fields, and from unrelated fields, identifying the most effective approaches to accomplishing the mission, but it doesn’t stop there. Best-practice benchmarking then identifies the principles and key elements within the best practice and adapts these principles and elements to the new ministry context.

The strengths of best-practice benchmarking are: a) it is a proven strategy, b) it is a conservative use of resources, c) it draws on the collective knowledge of the broader body of Christ and beyond to achieve vision fulfillment, d) it can be applied to virtually any aspect of the work.

The weaknesses of best-practice benchmarking are: a) it can stifle innovation, by relying on tried and true methods, b) if not properly understood or properly adapted, it can result in a frustrating lack of comparable results, c) if not filtered for biblical fidelity, it is little more than pragmatism, i.e. whatever works, d) finally, best-practice benchmarking requires one to learn about other methods, approaches and strategies; if one is in a restricted information environment without a free flow of information, it is difficult to learn best practices.

Though best-practice benchmarking is not the only strategy, it is one that should never be ignored. In South Asia, we built on a foundation of best-practice benchmarking, making sure all of our personnel had a mastery of best practices before moving on to innovations, morphing and multiple choices strategies. Best-practice benchmarking requires a culture of continuous learning what God is using to accomplish his purposes around the world, examining the biblical principles within them, and adapting them to our own ministry. Though resistant fields may require innovations and/or multiple-choice strategies, these should be preceded by best-practice benchmarking efforts.

Best-practice benchmarking frees us from the limitations of our own abilities by opening our ministry to the wisdom of the entire world of possibilities. Woodrow Wilson said it well, “We should not only use all the brains we have, but all that we can borrow.”

Websites such as are dedicated to presenting and disseminating best practices. It is our hope that Christians around the world will learn and adapt best practices wherever and whenever they can. Individuals, churches and agencies that do so, are on the pathway to success.

Best-practice benchmarking frees us from the limitations of our own abilities by opening our ministry to the wisdom of the entire world of possibilities. Woodrow Wilson said it well, “We should not only use all the brains we have, but all that we can borrow.”

Customizing Your Strategy Portfolio

How about your ministry? Which strategy or strategies are you employing? Is it the most appropriate for the type of people you are trying to reach? Should you be trying a different strategy? Perhaps you are on the right track, but now you see that you could add morphing or innovation to your current approach.

A tough ministry field might prompt you to rely more on innovation and/or multiple choice strategies, but a balanced strategic portfolio might include ministries from all four strategies.

In the International Mission Board’s South Asia Region between 2001 and 2009, we settled on a balance of about 60% best-practice strategies, 20% morphing strategies, 10% innovation and 10% multiple choices strategies.

The majority of South Asia’s population was a responsive harvest field. For these highly responsive communities we did not waste time with anything less than best practices. These best practices led to numerous Church Planting Movements, thousands of new believers and churches. South Asia was also home to thousands of traditional churches with legacies going all the way back to William Carey. Unfortunately, many of these churches had become fossilized in 19th century European traditions that were out of touch with the needs of 21st century South Asia. By introducing both best practices and morphing, many of these churches were revitalized and became avid partners in fulfilling the Great Commission.

South Asia is also home to highly resistant communities, many of which have a long history of resisting Western Christian outreach. For these communities, we chose not to shake off the dust from our feet, but rather to innovate and to attempt multiple ministry approaches. Consequently, many of these communities have become among the most responsive in South Asia. One of them, Muslims of Bangladesh, have seen more than 100,000 adults baptized and thousands of new churches planted. This would not have occurred without innovation and trying multiple new ways or doing ministry.

Church Planting Movements are essentially a best-practice benchmarking strategy. CPM practitioners take the most effective approaches to evangelism and church multiplication in the world and adapt them to their own ministry situation.

Take a few minutes to analyze your people group or community. Are they tough and intractable? Are they responsive? Is this an ‘old-work field’ with many under-performing ministries?

The state of your people will determine the optimal strategy or strategies to employ.

But whatever approaches you choose, if you find yourself riding a dead horse…dismount.