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Tom Sine and Dwight Friesen – 2020s Foresight [Review]

2020s ForesightLeading in Accelerating Times

A Review of

2020s Foresight: Three Vital Practices for Thriving in a Decade of Accelerating Change
Tom Sine and Dwight J. Friesen

Paperback: Fortress Press, 2020
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Reviewed by Michael Shepherd

With the somewhat ironic title of 2020s Foresight, Tom Sine and Dwight J. Friesen provide an introduction to strategic planning and a pastoral guide to leadership in an era where we are experiencing dynamic change and expecting more. Writing from their experience as organizational consultants, the book conveys a summary of their group process and examples from the relationships they have formed through these encounters.

The authors describe the purpose for the book as being a resource for leaders in churches and Christian organizations to “explore and engage in innovative ways of responding to rapidly changing times in their lives, neighborhoods, and congregations that reflect the way of Jesus” (11). They accomplish this by providing a basic framework for conducting foresight analysis and then describing entities who have applied the practices to their context.

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The initial chapter provides a summary of societal changes that are churning in the world, with particular focus on North America and the United Kingdom. The authors make a note that the book was in the midst of being finalized for print when the COVID-19 crisis began to accelerate in the United States. In an addition, they cite the anticipated death tolls of roughly 100,000-200,000 Americans as an example of broad, unprecedented change, which we now know was an underestimation of its impact (This review is being written in the fall of 2020, as the United States enters a “third wave” of infections with no coordinated federal response). This helps to underscore the need for a conceptual framework for adapting to unexpected events.

The three steps in Sine and Friesen’s method are Anticipating, Reflecting, and Innovating (16ff). While other strategic planning processes may be more robust, this three-step exercise will provide a cogent orientation for leaders to begin thinking of how they can prepare for uncertainty. Anticipation and Reflecting are each provided a chapter for discussion while Innovation receives four chapters, focused upon Innovating for Life, for Community-Making, in Place, and as Church. These four chapters extend the methods in the Anticipating and Reflecting chapters and provide more detail from examples of responding to change.

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The chapter covering Anticipating seemed to focus primarily on describing current events and trends that make the 2020 decade one of accelerating change. After a fairly broad description of generational characteristics, the authors describe eight distinct global trends that they believe will have long-lasting impact. Each is given several paragraphs to convey the significance of the trend and enough nuance to avoid a quick dismissal by the reader. These pages should serve as an example of how to anticipate change, as each context will have more factors to weigh that will affect them. While the global and national trends will filter to most communities, they are beyond the scope of many organizations to factor primarily into their strategic planning.

The chapter on Reflecting introduces the change represented by Big Tech and then focuses exclusively on how this impacts spiritual formation. The response, Friesen suggests, is to restore ancient Christian practices such as lectio divina. While this does establish a spiritual basis for listening before responding, no other direction is provided about how to develop this practice. There are excursus into concepts worth reflecting upon, but if thoughtful reflection is an atrophied muscle in the American church, I suspect most leaders will want to rush through to innovation.

The following four chapters on Innovating provide examples of groups and individuals who have adapted to changes in their community. These stories serve to demonstrate that there is not a single solution to innovation and reinforce the principles of anticipation and reflection. The authors provide a condensed outline for an innovating group (termed “Quest for the Best”, 114-129). These seven sessions comprise the most explicit structure for moving through this process, though each chapter concludes with a written prayer and set of group discussion questions which would help to contextualize the material to any church group or Christian nonprofit organization. These discussion questions would augment the limitations of the Reflection chapter mentioned above, assuming that Reflection is an inductive experience in learning the process. A list of books that further the chapter’s material is also provided, beyond what is cited in footnotes in each chapter.

While the authors succeed in supplying examples of innovation from multiple scenarios, their reference points are often economic and demographic. While these areas may be important in a book about healthy and growing Christian communities, it perpetuates a scarcity mindset in considering assessment and forecasting. The examples of “accelerating change” which the authors employ are also cataclysmic, which can lead the strategic planner blind to consider how problems of today may have been created over time and they will not have a direct or universal solution. Perhaps this is necessary in the initial chapters, as their readers may be wrestling with these anxieties, yet by the concluding chapter, the philosophy has shifted to take a more hopeful posture toward open possibilities.

One aspect of “accelerating change” that is not given enough treatment are positive trends, such as the diversification of Americans, greater awareness and respect for people with mental and physical health needs, and changing attitudes about gender and sexual diversity. At times the writing style became too conversational, reading more like the transcript to a webinar with references to off-book material or links, yet not frequently or flagrantly enough to distract from the core of the text.

Overall, 2020s Foresight is an excellent tool for any leader who is trying to initiate medium- and long-term planning, provided that they are the type of person who learns best through osmosis. The reliance on examples will illuminate the message to some while others may be looking for more pragmatic direction about conducting strategic planning. The subtitle of the book claims to provide “practices for thriving in a decade of accelerating change” and I believe that they deliver on that promise. The writing is accessible to people who are not fluent in the leadership canon and will provide the rationale for beginning to align the direction of a church or organization to meet the challenges of an unknown future.

Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd is the Minister of Social Action at First Christian Church, Fullerton (California) and an adjunct professor of intercultural studies and political science at Hope International University. He can be found on Twitter at @mchlshepherd and welcomes any questions about discerning and applying an LGBTQ+ affirming position.

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