Wicked Missions


I first heard the terms “Wicked Learning Environment” versus “Kind Learning Environment” in an interesting little Youtube video a few days ago on a channel called “Curious Tangents.” Then only a yesterday it came up again when talking to a cousin of mine in the context of the work of Daniel Kahneman (in his book, Thinking Fast as Slow). I decided to look into it a bit more. As far as I can see, the terms were developed by Emre Soyer and Hogarth.

Conceptually, it is quite simple. A “Kind Learning Environment” (KLE) is one in which one’s experience (one could also say training in all of its flavors) can be considered reliable in preparing one for future activity in that environment. A “Wicked Learning Environment” (WLE) is one in which one’ experience must be recognized as unreliable in preparing one for future activity in that environment.

Generally, Kind environments (or domains) are ones where the rules don’t change or the object of study does not change. Chess rules don’t change (as most sports don’t change, or change very slowly), so training and experience in chess in the past will be informative in the future. Human anatomy doesn’t change so training in human anatomy will remain helpful for those fields of work that have to deal with that domain.

This is not to say that there is no need for continuing education in Kind domains. Things still change, but even then, the changes can be understood as specific “tweaks” to the foundation of learning rather than the need to throw things out.

Wicked domains are those where the rules keep changing (software design) or the object studied is constantly changing (like business). Ones past competence is not only necessarily a good indicator of future performance. And further, it is possible that the experiences and lessons one has gained from the past may be an impediment for success in the future.

With this in mind, Christian Missions is VERY WICKED. First, Christian Missions is heavily contextual in terms of ministry setting and time. Things change over time. What is needed in missions in 2020 is not what was needed in 1820 or 620. Settings vary geographically and culturally with varying needs. Based on this alone, if a person had 20 years of experience in Setting A as a missionary, there is no certainty that this experience will be helpful in Setting B.

Second, Christian Missions has different goals. While some (like McGavran or Winter) saw this in terms of evangelism and churchplanting, other goals are almost always realistic, whether it is community development, relief ministry, leadership development and more. And even if one believed that evangelism and churchplanting were the only goals, the specific, strategies to do this may vary greatly in terms of time and place.

Third, the factors that make experience unreliable as a predictor of success is even more true of formal education in missions. Much of missions education is limited to only certain goals, utilizing only certain systems of missions (like 4F — foreign, full-time, fully-financed, forever— missions), that is applicable in only certain places. Add to that, the missions training was probably developed by older missionaries that had developed their knowledge base from their experiences from decades before, and you have a real problem.

Does this mean that formal education and experience has no value? NO. However, one must more consciously enter every mission situation as a learner. At the point where one concludes that one has it all figured out, we are starting down the wrong road. As Daniel Kahneman notes in the book I referenced above, we tend to use our own experiences as reality— that is just the way it is. It it may be that that WAS just the way it was at that point, in that place, under those circumstances.

Personally, I think this is why it is better to learn Theology of Missions to provide a centering for missions. It is also good to study History of Missions, not to learn exactly what to do and who to copy, but rather to understand missions in its variety, its changing quality, and the harshness of lessons. It is also good to learn the principles of Cultural Anthropology, not to understand a culture, but to learn the process for tentatively understanding cultures. It is further important to learn how to do research (especially qualitative research) and how to interpret and utilize findings.

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