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Roxburgh on Mapmaking

Posted by Mark Lau Branson on September 21, 2012

Alan Roxburgh continues to provide books that connect the dots between theological matters concerning the gospel and the Trinity’s life and initiatives, the major cultural shifts in late modernity, and how churches and their leaders can live faithfully into their contexts. In Missional Map-making he describes some of the maps that churches currently use, noting why they no longer serve us well. For example, strategic planning may have some usefulness in specific circumstances, but as a rubric for church initiatives it tends to fail. Roxburgh instead wants church leaders to become cartographers – because our maps are outdated. Student comments here will focus on the sources and shapes of our out-dated maps, the experiences we face in our own contexts that define our changing reality, and why old maps don’t work.


21 Responses to “Roxburgh on Mapmaking”

  1. Peter Ha said

    Alan Roxburgh on Missional Map-Making writes that the reason why many church leaders today do not succeed in their ministry or do not get the result they have planned for is because they are operating out of their “old maps” – the modern way of seeing and doing things – which do not align with the present reality. The world has changed so rapidly in the past few decades and leaders are in need of a “new map” that will help us navigate our faith and ministries in this new world.

    It seems to me that Roxburgh uses the word “map” to refer to set of worldview and practices. By “old map,” Roxburgh means the modern worldview and practices, where certainty and control seems to be the dominant values. However, such way of seeing and doing things do not reflect the current reality (postmodern) which is marked by change, pluralism, and many more that Roxburgh lists in Chapter 6.

    One of “old map” ideas that struck me in the book was the idea of strategic planning. Strategic planning was the idea that one is able to get a desired outcome by defining one’s mission and vision statement and putting in program to help him or her get to the result. It is a strategy based upon control and certainty, and in the church setting, this way of operating the church objectifies people as means to an end.

    I related to this idea because it accurately describes how I operated my youth ministry in the past. I viewed my mission and vision statement as a Godly outcome, and I designed programs to help “us” get there. In the end I objectified people and their time as means to the end. If I am to be honest, the underlying motive behind the strategic planning was my personal ambition to create a “successful” ministry, and my students became to me “products” that measures the success of my ministry. Not only that this strategic planning did not work, but also damaged the spirituality of my students and my own as well. I began to see a formation of “work-based” mindset in their relationship with God, and the “result” was the only reference point of our relationship to God. Like Roxburgh states in the book, it was not that strategic planning is a bad way of leading, but such way of doing things do not reflect the current realities of how people think and react to changes. Thus, Roxburgh says that we are in need of a new way of understanding our current reality, and leaders need to become the map-makers who can navigate the church during this time of change and adaptation.

    I found Roxburgh’s Internet illustration very helpful in understanding today’s reality and how people work. We live in a web of dynamic relationships, where there are “multiple centers of energy” as Roxburgh puts it. We cannot predict or produce results based upon a rigid formula or equation in this new space. This new space is a world of “discontinuous change” and adaptation, and leaders are called to be the new map makers that will help other navigate during this time of confusion and new possibilities.

    • Charles Liu said

      I thought there should be some distinctions between church maps and tools. In essence, tools are neutral, but the map can be designed and formulated to serve a specific purpose. It may comprise of multiple tools to build a map. For example, the strategic planning process can be viewed both as a map or a tool depending on the application. In same way, the internet can be viewed as a vehicle of missions, not a map?

    • Jerod Yates said

      Peter, I too found the discussion on the “old map” idea of strategic planning very helpful. Roxburgh’s Internet Illustration was very helpful in understanding the complexity of dynamic relationships and the “multiple centers of energy.” I particularly resonated with the illustration with cats in chapter four for some reason. I suppose when I was reading this book last week, my cat kept coming up to me. I reflected how there are times when I just want to hold the cat, but I can’t necessarily do that. If I try to control my cat and do what I want, my cat will react unexpected sometimes and I can possibly get injured. If I hold it too closely, you never know what unexpected noise outside might cause it to be startled and dig its claws into me. However my cat is very affectionate and loving at times, but it just happens to share it in its own way and not mine. Just like my cat, so much in our lives is neither predictable nor controllable. Reflecting on our current maps and old map ideas, caused me to reflect and wrestle with the author on why maps of control, management, and predictability can’t really be trusted. Thank you for sharing how personal ambition can become an underlying motive behind strategic planning. I too have had that as an underlying motive, and I agree that it doesn’t work, it sees people as objects, and it hurts relationships with one another and possibly even relationships with God.

  2. Charles Liu said

    Alan Roxburgh discusses the importance of maps to guide and shape Christian tradition and church ministry. But these established internal maps in our culture today no longer connect with or function in the rapidly changing environment cross North America. Roxburgh identifies eight complex changes (globalization, pluralism, technology, postmodernism, global need, disconnected lives, knowledge democratization, and romanticism) that challenge our world and confront the church leadership. In transition, we are crossing into a new space and journeying toward alternative maps. Leaders are invited to build the bridge and become alternative map-makers.

    Roxburgh argues that the strategic plan as one of the conventional church maps has not been a viable tool to deal with increasing signs of decline. Most churches use different levels of strategic planning to establish the direction they will take in order to enhance their ministerial performance by setting forth the commitments, goals, and strategies to be taken in a three to five year timeframe. This “top-down” process develops a commonality of purpose and a “shared” sense of responsibility for the future among church membership. The plan generally includes, but not limited to, membership expansion plan, church program enhancement, significant facilities plan and project management, mission and outreach plan, and community services.

    Utilizing Newbigin’s model of the dichotomy of a public world of “facts” and a private world of “values,” Roxburgh explains why these plans fail in the present culture. For Roxburgh, the modernity’s maps of linear strategic planning processes are based on “public” world of reality and have little room for “private” world of the personal beliefs and faith. People do not have a sustained interest in things they don’t own or weren’t a part of creating in the first place. The strategic planning process is at odds with the emerging missional way forming in the imagination.

    The problem lies in the assumption that we could predict the actions of others, align them with our goals, and control their actions. The current status of the church’s maps such as the strategic planning must take historical, natural, social and cultural contexts into account. In this sense the frameworks of the theological and intellectual imaginations must be congruent in the ways we plan and lead. What it means for church leaders is the fresh interpretation of the Incarnation Christ and the Trinitarian nature of God to discover solutions to our problems through the understanding of the old maps, the engagement with the biblical narrative, and the make of the new maps on the journey. The fundamental language of the in-between is an understanding of how the culture we live in predetermine the categories we use to read our world. The church needs the rework, reinterpretation and rediscovery of new language, forms and expressions in order to reach the changed world.

    Moreover, Roxburgh addresses the challenge the church is facing with the introduction of the computer and electronic tools. The transition from modern to post-modern information culture and a democratization of knowledge-changes calls for new expressions of church attuned to the changing culture. The experience and the implication of the internet require us to learn adaptive skills and become map-makers to shape the community of faith. I am in full agreement with Roxburgh in this respect.

    • Jed Linder said

      You do well to mention the “control” aspect of Roxburgh’s arguments. Our maps, as Roxburgh describes them, are all about control – us trying to get a handle on an unpredictable world. So what about our new maps? Are they not about control? I know we are supposed to begin cartographing them by listening to others, dialoging, and seeking the Spirit as it calls us forth, but how easy is it for us to simply take what we learn and begin to quantify it so that we can understand it??? We may need as much (or more) time adjusting our ways of reading our maps as we need in making new maps!

  3. Jed Linder said

    As I was reading the first part of Roxburgh’s book, I was becoming frustrated – he goes a long way to diagnose the problems in Church leadership today, but his solutions (hinted at thus far) are vague and incomplete! Therein lies the problem, not with the book, but with me. As Roxburgh analogizes, we rarely see the windshield unless it is pointed out to us. I want a systematic and orderly plan to take us into the new epoch upon whose precipice we stand. This is my modern map guiding my reading of a book about the end of the modern map and the task of new map-making! Undoubtedly, these frustrations were those “resistance” defense mechanisms roaring to life inside me, or even romantic notions trying to keep me in control and assuring me that the path was clear and well-mapped before me should I work within the church institution (as we understand it, or do not really understand in this new space!).

    During my study, I found a striking parallel to my own life. Though I grew up in a Christian home, I never went through the mill of Christian education and never intended to be in any sort of ministry vocation. I went to public, secular schools and worked in the Entertainment Industry. Three years ago, when I decided to make a change in my career path and enter into the Seminary, I found myself in a new space. The maps I developed while working in Entertainment Industry did not prepare me for this new context. I did not know the jobs I was preparing for or how to get them (still really don’t). I did not know the problems and challenges churches today were struggling with, much less have any kind of solutions or ideas to that end. In short, my maps were not working and I was wandering around in the “in-between” time personally, just as the church, and the rest of the world for that matter, finds itself corporately.

    As it stands currently, I feel some trepidation for the church entering into a world without maps, but at the same time, I feel a kindred experience to my own. I have been operating without reliable maps for a while now*, and through every new class and experience I have, allows for a little further cartographic work. Though I am far from any sort of working map. This leads me to speculate that, perhaps, I am in a good position to assist, in any major or meager way, the Spirit in this gifting of a new space and transformed opportunity.

    *On a related note, I thought it worth a mention that through these tumultuous periods of flux I have been experiencing, I have often referred to them as time in the desert!

    • Charles Liu said

      Thanks for your honest comment. Over the years, I have realized that large-scale plans rarely pan out as originally envisioned both in our personal life and church history. The custormer of the grandiose planning is usually developed for selfish reasons or “markets”, not for “true need.” Multiple smaller-scale approaches make more sense and can achieve the goal over time.

    • Paul Ssembiro said

      Thanks Jed for sharing this with us. It helps me to appreciate the disconnects that may exist between church and entertainment and your comment adds flesh somewhat to Roxburgh’s thesis in this book.
      I feel that if Roxburgh had given more attention to the changes that he introduces in chapter six, the culture that arises as a result of these changes, and the needs that the church needs to address, it would have given this book the usefulness that it seems to promise. I hope that my view will change when I read the last three chapters of this book

  4. Patrick Duff said

    Alan Roxburgh’s Missional Map-Making hit home for me in several contexts, and in many ways, he provided a breath of fresh air and clarity for me as I found affinities between his observations and frustrations and my own.

    First, my main context is not within a church setting, but Roxburgh’s observations and conclusions are no less salient. I work full-time as the technology director at a film school for Christian undergrads. A main part of my job is to keep up with technology trends in filmmaking and implement this ever-changing horizon into our workflow and teaching. In doing so, I have become increasingly frustrated by the incongruence between what I observe as changing in the world of film and in this upcoming generation of filmmakers in contrast to the overwhelming need by my peers to stick to the old ways of doing things. Even the word “film” is an antiquated term as the industry shifts to digital (see Kodak’s bankruptcy as one major example). Using Roxburgh’s terminology, many in the industry are trying to achieve equilibrium in maintaining the old ways of filmmaking; they are using these old maps to control and manage this tide of change rather than attempting to ride it and adapt to it. This book has helped me realize that this tide of change encompasses much more than technological advances; a new YouTube generation of networked filmmakers are already in the process of smashing the mold and building new maps. Moreover, this book has reinforced what I have intuited all along: that these changes are happening and we must adapt.

    Second, my church context, in which I serve as an elder, definitely fits the bill of living in Roxburgh’s “in-between time”. Within this last season of the church, we have implemented pilot missional small groups; however, within that same time period, the elders and pastoral leadership have worked through the exact process of strategic planning that Roxburgh outlines in chapter five. My limited church experience with this in-between time is that it is a messy time indeed. I do not know if it is possible to achieve a clean break from the old ways of doing things. It appears that we may need to hold on to some old maps in order to give us the equilibrium to then forge new ones. I would be interested in hearing others respond to this observation: does it fit your own experience or not?

    • Jed Linder said

      You will get no arguments from me on the industry, it’s a land where dinosaurs roam still hoping for the big payday from DVD’s and CD’s completely unprepared for the new technologies at hand. Though, many people at the bottom or middle of the ladder are more in tune with the changing landscape.

      As to your question, I was having the same quandary as I was reading. Roxburgh has not given us much in the way of alternatives to the old maps thus far, he is simply bringing our attention to them (hopefully part II will remedy this). Beyond this, Roxburgh really has not mentioned a role for the church in trying to shape the new space we enter. He seems to describe a passive church, one that simply adjusts to the world around it but does not seem to say much regarding the changes. Can the church help shape the landscape, or are we simply relegated to map-making? Helping to shape the landscape would seem to me to be a realm for leadership in the in-between time, no? This especially given what we know about the changes we are experiencing (all of chapter 6).

      Of course, some might argue that my critique here is beyond the scope of his argument and is thus not relevant. But given his political analogies peppered throughout the text (perhaps flavored by a map he is reticent to let go of), Roxburgh clearly sees some landscaping duties to be done!

      • Patrick Duff said

        I wonder if the in-between time resembles what Donald Gelpi has written about the conversion experience (I read Gelpi for another class). Gelpi wrote that conversion is more often a process, not an instantaneous event; moreover, different areas of our lives go through the process of conversion at different times. For example, a person might experience a religious conversion to Christianity, but it come at a later time before that person experiences social, political, financial conversions that would change how the person treats others and gives of his/her time and resources. In the same way, I wonder how possible it is for someone to completely abandon his/her old maps and then build new maps from scratch. I surmise that it is more of a process, in which we still hold on to old maps until we discover their uselessness and make new ones to replace them; in this way, there is a tension of making new maps as we still hold on to old ones.

  5. Eric Alvarez said

    Alan J. Roxburgh’s thesis in Missional Map-Making: Skills for Leading in Times of Transition is that the “maps” used by churches struggling to engage the current cultural context in North America are outdated and ineffective. Roxburgh’s use of the map analogy is brilliant. In the analogy, the modernist worldview, birthed in the Enlightenment, is the map used to cross the terrain of our culture. However, the terrain has changed. The modernist worldview is no longer the narrative driving the way people live in the 21st century. Therefore, the modernist maps are useless. In the first part of his work, Roxburgh does an exceptional job of sifting through the confusion and conflict created by the outdated maps and encourages his readers to be map-makers of the new terrain of postmodernism.

    In my personal context, my native culture (Mexico) is still steeped within the modernist worldview. It seems like it is a few steps behind the American worldview. In my church context, the congregation is still informed under the auspices of strategic planning as described by Roxburgh. Instead of looking to see what God is doing in the Latino community, my church is still focused on quantifiable measures (i.e. conversions, attendance, and program participation.) Yet, I have begun to see movement towards seeking an alternative. Many members, including myself, are beginning to ask questions that challenge the old maps and ways of doing church in the Latino community. Roxburgh’s critique of strategic planning is eye-opening for anyone beginning to ask more postmodern questions about how to be the Church.

    Old maps do not work, according to Roxburgh, because they guide you through a terrain that no longer exists. Although they are valuable to chart where we have been in the past, they do not lead people forward in the unknown places of God’s work within humanity. Today’s maps need to hear the voices of those silent during the modernist era. Christianity is not being formed by the West, but by global Christians. North America is no longer the missionary, but the mission field. Global Christianity is the new missionary. Roxburgh challenges us to make new maps in light of the changing culture around us. He gives an adept illustration of how we change by using the Internet as an example in chapter seven. Personally, my interest is picqued to see where Roxburgh will lead us in the second part of the book.

    Personal Note: I found Roxburgh’s content fascinating yet I found myself irritated with his wordiness and the text’s multiple spelling and grammatical errors. Poor editing by the publisher.

    • Patrick Duff said


      I appreciated how you (and Roxburgh) pointed out that we shouldn’t simply abandon the old maps; rather, we need them to understand the past and how we’ve gotten to where we are today. So often, I see postmoderns in the church who, in my opinion, throw the baby out with bathwater and completely abandon all traditions and old ways of doing things simply because they are old and outdated. As Christians, we must reflect upon history and the old maps; otherwise, we are bound to repeat our mistakes, and our new maps will look a lot like our old maps in new clothes.

      I am reminded of Jesus’s analogy of putting new wine into old wineskins and patching new cloth onto an old garment. While we must understand modernity, I agree with Roxburgh that our starting point for map-making is not modernity (the old maps/wineskins/garments); it is the biblical narrative. I suppose the challenge then is: how do we understand the biblical narrative without resorting to our old maps of interpretation?

      • Eric Alvarez said


        Thank you for you comment. I, too, see the mistake some postmoderns in the church make of abandoning traditions or rituals for the sake of developing something new. Yet, I also find it interesting that when we talk about doing church differently the conversation inevitably turns into a journey into the past to see how the early Church sought to express themselves. It seems like we always return to the experience of the early Church to seek guidance on our “new” ways of doing church. Maybe Roxburgh has a point in keeping old maps as reference to show us where we’ve been, what’s worked, and definitely what hasn’t.

  6. Sebastian Lopez said

    As its title points it out, Roxburgh´s book is presenting the metaphor of “Maps” as the way we are use to navigate trough every situation or setting in human life. Those maps are understood as the charts trough which we understand life and the world, and most of the times they are encrypted in such a deep level in our subconscious that is hard to see while we read and obey them. Our cultural maps bound our imagination. Roxburgh explains how the configuration of our maps is mainly rooted in the values of modernity; rationalism, technics, knowledge and metrics are the means to manage reality, having it under control and predictability. The self is the center of modernity’s imagination and automatically thinks “individualistically or atomistically, as if human beings are independent, separate entities functioning out of teir own self-determined worlds.”(Roxburgh 2010, 10) This is the author’s starting point from which he articulate his thesis and argument. The thesis of the book is related with the shifts that our world is experiencing since enlightment. He proposes that the world is not predictable and meassurable as it was. Factors as globalization and technology are shaping our world accelerating the processes of change transforming it to a place where metrics and formulas no longer provide usefull information. Roxburgh suggest that, in this new setting, we need to move from our old maps and mapping sistems to become map-makers. In his book he is offering tools for church leaders that will be usefull to walk towards becoming cartographers of the new terrain that we have been called to fertilize; “a world of multiple religius views, and a deep mistrust of the institutions that gave us our identity as nurturers of God’s people.”

    • Eric Alvarez said


      Thank you for reminding me about how second nature our “maps” about church have become. These maps certainly are so deep in our subconscious that they’ve become a part of us. Do you think that eliminating these maps is akin to severing a piece of ourselves? Do you have any suggestions about how to be the Church without eliminating these traditions that make us who we are?

  7. Jerod Yates said

    In looking at Part One of Alan Roxburgh’s book, Missional Map-Making: Skills for Leading in Times of Transition, I was particularly drawn into chapter five on why strategic planning doesn’t work. The stages of strategic planning (p.82-84) mentioned in the chapter caused me to reflect on a recent internship with a local United Church of Christ congregation that basically set out to go on the journey of a similar process. The local church signed up to participate with a Disciples of Christ program called “New Beginnings” which is basically a process for congregations who have been in decline for nearly a generation and have congregants who are mostly over the age of 60. Stage One of the Strategic Planning mentions how it begins with internal and external audits. This New Beginnings process began with an outside church consultant evaluating the church and demographics. The report of the church was then given to the church to begin a small group process of discussing this consultant’s information. These small groups would also begin gathering data on its church, community context, and members. After a supposed six weeks process, the church was supposed to have developed a mission description which would be Stage Two of Roxburgh’s Stages of Strategic Planning. People began to react different ways, because no one was ready to decide necessarily on a mission or vision statement after the six week process. Unfortunately, this New Beginnings process that the church participated in did nothing to assist the local church in this process after helping the church to assess its situation after six weeks.

    I resonate with Roxburgh when he discusses how a strategic plan looks good on paper (p.82), but in reality I relate with the many difficulties of it. I and along with many others become frustrated when the strategic planning becomes the primary means for determining the life and direction of the church. Do we turn human beings into objects? This greatly concerns me, and yet it occurs quite a bit all around us in the name of God. I agree with Roxburgh that “any method of planning, no matter how well intentioned and prayed over—that turns others into an object of our ends, no matter how committed we are to them, is not of God or the Gospel of Jesus Christ” (p.78). Roxburgh in part one of this book, really challenges us to reflect on the maps we are using as church leaders and churches. At first one might wonder if the author is taking too much material of his book to point out that our maps do not work, but after I read all seven chapters I am convinced that all of this material was valuable. It serves as a mirror to us to help us reflect on our current maps and why they are not working. It helps us to put an emphasis more on people instead of planning. It causes us to begin to consider how we can “cultivate environments that call forth and release the mission-shaped imagination of the people of God in a specific place and time” (p.77).

    • Peter Ha said

      Jerod, Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I also wrote about the strategic plan and how it objectifies people in the process. This really made me think about how we are to approach the Great Commission. When I hear, “Make disciples of all nation,” for me, it sounded like a mandate for a programming for discipleship. I dont know why, but I always think about programs and sets of teachings, when Jesus may have actually meant, “Walk with people as I did with you for the last three and a half years. Let them imitate your life as you imitate me.” After reading Roxburgh, I feel the need to really rethink on my idea of discipleship and church leadership.

  8. Jed Linder said

    Good illustration on the shortcomings of strategic planning, Jerod.

    Like you I was wondering if the author was taking too much time hammering home his argument… Unlike you though, I found a little too much repetition causing me to answer, ‘yes!’.

    Your thoughts and Patrick’s question go well together. You argue, along with Roxburgh, that long-term planning does not work, while Patrick is asking: ‘while that may be true, what are we supposed to do right now when our maps have failed?’ Together, this begs the question in me whether we should be relying on maps at all. God has worked through history pretty unexpectedly I would say, in ways no one could map out without a little prophetic spirit! So I agree with Roxburgh on the the centrality of the Holy Spirit as we go forward into this new space. But with this Spirit-centered progression, perhaps our greatest challenge is not making new maps, but instead trying to resist falling back on maps period when considering God’s plans for the cosmos.

  9. Sebastian Lopez said

    Dear class, I do not know if I’m supposed to do this, but reading the seventh chapter of the Book of Roxburgh I remembered this youtube video that Pr Myers used in his class of Globalization. I recommend watching this video to get an idea of ​​how fast our world is changing

  10. Paul Ssembiro said

    Roxburgh does a convincingl articulates how the maps that worked during the age of modernity are no longer suitable for this age that has moved on from modernity as a result of the several changes that are taking place including globalization, postmodernism, rapid changes in technology, pluralism and staggering needs. His attention to the shortfalls of strategic planning as a method borrowed from modernity, and used in many church circles to ensure management, predictability and control of church communities, exposes the evil in the same, that of objectification of God’s people.
    Because we are caught up in transition, the maps that used to work, no longer work, and we cannot know with certainty the kind of maps that are going to work in the new age! He suggests that we must be map-markers, coming up with maps as we take the journey into the unknown. In the first seven chapters a lot of focus is put on the leadership function of planning while implying that the functions of preaching, teaching and care-giving are proving to be irrelevant because they are based on the wrong maps! Is this a fair assessment? Is it not possible to connect to the hearts of postmoderns through preaching and pastoral caregiving? Has ministry effectiveness been lost altogether because of the times in which we are living? I wonder if I missed Roxburgh’s definition of ministry.
    I think for me the most sobering assertion made in the first seven chapters of Missional Map Making is, “church leaders have lost their place as respected professionals who had the lock on certain forms of knowledge” (108). I think that there must be trust in the minister if the church community is going to be open to receive ministry from him or her. With this trust eroded because of change of perspective of the recipient community, the maps indeed become irrelevant. I see the importance of being in touch with the changes in the prevailing culture, and adopting maps which are compatible with.
    On another note, I must mention that the ministry context in Uganda, for which I am training is not as challenging as this book has suggested. Good preaching and good teaching still produce great results where I come from. I continue to see that for us in Uganda we must cherish the Christian formative values that we still have in many homes, which lay a foundation for people seeing the need for church even in their adult lives.

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