Dwight Gibson Interview (Part III): Exploration

Dwight Gibson Interview (Part III): Exploration

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Dwight Gibson, The Exploration Group
Dwight Gibson, The Exploration Group

Dwight Gibson is Chief Explorer at The Exploration Group, as well as Director of Program Outreach at the Acton Institute.  He is featured in Acton’s video series: For the Life of the World: Letters to the Exiles.  Dwight was recently on the Wilmore campus of Asbury Theological Seminary to give a chapel sermon (3/3/15)and to spend the day with a group from the seminary and from Asbury University thinking through issues related to faith, work and the Wesleyan tradition.  

Part I of the Faith and Work Collective’s interview with Dwight focused on craftsmanship.  Part II focused on Methodism.  This is the third and final part, focusing on exploration.   

You live in Philadelphia, PA and work at The Exploration Group; and your job title is Chief Explorer.  What’s the significance of the term exploration?

The Exploration Group started in 2008.  And what I recognized is that over a period of time in our history, we had moved from what I call a “world of exploration” to a “world of management.”  Now, management is a necessary and needed skill in our world.  In management, you typically have a known problem, a known starting point, a known destination.  And there’s a known process.  The undergirding thinking is replication and control.  And again that thinking is necessary to have sustainability and repeating.

But what I found is that, in order for management to be done well, exploration needs to happen first.  By that I’m saying: there’s a recognition that we’re kind of here, we want to go there, we’re not quite sure what it looks like or how to do it.  And that’s a very different methodology and thought process.

For instance, in a world of management you really want to avoid failure; and you want to have control.  In a world of exploration, things by nature cannot be held too tightly.  And there actually has to be room for failure.  I look at Thomas Edison, whom I would consider a great explorer.  When he was working on the electric light, he tried out thousands of elements to be used as a potential filament in the light bulb.  He was taking notes, he was learning, he was listening.  He’d say he had one right and 999 failures!  And if you asked Edison, he’d say, “We learned something from everything.”  So when it comes to exploration, it happens first; and it helps you make sure you’re answering the right questions.  Management is about replication and control and helping you have sustainability.

You mentioned that the world had shifted some time ago from the “world of exploration” to the “world of management,” which is the language I’m sure most people are familiar with.  I’ve known several management consultants; but you’re the first person I’ve known with a job title of chief explorer!  What historical reasons lie behind this shift from exploration to management?

This shift occurred during the period between 1870 and the 1920s.  Prior to that time in society and civilization, there was an understanding that there were things we didn’t know: geographic places we hadn’t been, and things we just simply didn’t know.  As time moves forward over the period I mention, there was a perfect storm of four things that came together that moved us from a “what if, or what could be?” thinking to a “this is the way it is” thinking.

First, the ascendancy of the Industrial Age.  With things that had always been made by hand and had to be contemplated individually as they were made, there were now machines which were mass producing things.

Second, in 1895 there was a major gathering in London of the various geographic societies from around the world.  And the sense was that the only significant discoveries yet to be made were of the south pole, the north pole, and the depths of the oceans.  And once they got to the two poles, there was this sense that “we’ve found everything.”

A third thing that occurred was the modern age, the modernity movement.  In the thinking of modernity, we don’t look backwards; we only look forward.  We’re focused on the answers but not on the questions.  We started thinking just to the task; there was a sense that we were in control.

The last thing that came together—and you can cite authors such as Nietzsche or Freud—was there was a sense that we didn’t need God anymore.  And when that occurred, along with the other three things I mentioned, we started denying what we didn’t know.  We started thinking that we were aware of everything and that the thought processes are in the hand of man.  And I think when that occurred, in reality our world became smaller—because we now needed to control and explain it, as opposed to trusting God with the mystery of what we didn’t know.

But I think we’re now at a point in history again where we’ve had to admit that we don’t know everything, that we’re not in control of everything.  And actually we’re seeing in various ways a recognition once again that we’ve got to start exploring.

You’ve mentioned several times the word control, which I think is a good word to emphasize.  I imagine one reason that some churches might resist the model of exploration is that “there’s too much to lose” if we fail at something.  And that’s really about control.  But if a pastor or group of lay leaders did want to help a church start thinking in terms of “our next exploration,” as opposed to “our next project to manage”, what might be some good first steps?  

What first comes to my mind is that, when Christ was initially calling his followers, the phrase that you see in the Gospels is “come and see.”  It’s an invitation.  So when I think of churches and communities, the first thing is this element of “come and see.”

The second thing I would say is, in the life of the church, to “go and see.”  Going and listening to our communities, and asking ourselves what it would mean to be the hands and feet of Christ in this community.

This involves asking ourselves, “What’s really sacred here?  Is 10:00 on Sunday morning sacred?”  I’m not talking about compromising our orthodoxy or stretching the Gospel message in ways that are not appropriate.  But it’s asking: “What is really important here?  What is going on in this community?  What does it mean to live out the Gospel in light of what we’re seeing around us?”  And so it’s not a matter of compromising; it’s a matter of asking what God is doing.  There’s a lot in the church that is sacred and needs to be sacred.  And then there are some other things we may make sacred, which are more habit than anything else.

The third thing involves seeking, trusting, and waiting.  A number of years ago I was involved in the beginnings of the international day of prayer for the persecuted church.  It was 1996 and I was on the staff of what’s now World Evangelical Alliance.  We had three goals: let’s inform people of what’s going on with persecution around the world; let’s call them to pray; and let’s see what happens.

And I had people say to me, “Dwight, we need to tell them what to do.”  And my response was, “No, we don’t.  If we’ve given them the information, and people indeed have prayed, they’ll know what to do.”  If we had told them what to do, that’s more management thinking.  But if we call them to pray and say “let’s see what happens,” that’s trusting the Holy Spirit to give wisdom and insight.  And frankly, that is what we did.  And there were ideas and thoughts and responses that came out of that process that were beyond anything we could have ever imagined.

Back to your question about what local churches can do to explore, it’s good if we can give people permission to try something, to see what could be.  When it comes to applying exploration thinking in a local church or organization, it’s: (1) seeking God; (2) praying; and then (3) waiting to see what God will do and will speak in the life of his people.  Because if they are truly obedient, something will happen.  If they’re not, frankly it’s all for naught anyway.

The Exploration Group:

For the Life of the World: Letters to the Exiles:

Chapel Sermon 3/3/15:



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