EMMANUEL RESEARCH REVIEW
Resources for the urban pastor and community leader
published by Emmanuel Gospel Center, Boston
Issue No. 54 — March/April 2010
In this issue: Crossing the Perception Threshold
Introduced by Steve Daman
Communications Director, Emmanuel Gospel Center
& Co-author of The Cat & The Toaster
"The problem is not complexity. The problem is in the way we perceive complexity." -Douglas A. Hall
In the same way that our senses are limited by design, we are also limited to a narrow spectrum of understanding, when it comes to perceiving things that are complex. Because God’s order is far more complex than we have the ability to understand, God’s order appears chaotic to us, not orderly at all. If we then try to work in God's world with limited perception, we will be ineffective. Thankfully, God has a plan to help us see things the way he does.
In this issue of the Emmanuel Research Review, Douglas A. Hall, President of Emmanuel Gospel Center, shares an article, “Crossing the Perception Threshold,” on the social-spiritual complexity of urban ministry, which is also related to his recent book, The Cat & the Toaster: Living System Ministry in a Technological Age.
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Crossing the Perception Threshold
Douglas A. Hall, President, Emmanuel Gospel Center and Author of The Cat & The Toaster
I’m a big fan of the History Channel. One thing I’ve learned from watching is that as human beings our senses of hearing, seeing, and smelling are limited to a pretty narrow spectrum. Dogs have it all over us. They can smell things we cannot smell and hear frequencies of sound that we cannot hear. We are used to seeing specially trained dogs smell out drugs in the movies and on TV. When it comes to the sense of seeing, we see only a small spectrum of light, not all the span that is possible.
Of course, with scientific instruments, we can hear and see a great deal more. I learned the other day that scientists have even devised a way to hear magma moving in a volcano!
In the same way that our senses are limited by design, we are also limited to a narrow spectrum of understanding, when it comes to perceiving things that are complex. We have made great advances in learning how to deal with the complexity of living physical systems, but when it comes to dealing with the diseases of social systems, we seem unable to make any effective change. We might know how to define social problems at some level, but they are far too complicated for us to solve.
Somehow, the important work needed to address social system problems gets done. But it gets done beyond that narrow spectrum of what we can understand as order. I think the same thing is true in ministry. The big answers to big problems occur beyond the perception threshold. The higher order where the important results occur, seems like chaos to us.
God’s order is far more complex than we have the ability to understand. God’s order appears chaotic to us, not orderly at all. We can operate comfortably at a certain level of order, where we are able to perceive spiritual truth. But the way we know revealed truth may not help us actuallydo it. At a certain point we hit a perception threshold beyond the narrow spectrum in which we live.
Prayer is one spiritual dynamic that pierces that narrow spectrum of our understanding and opens the door to the wider reality in which God works. Prayer may enable us to cross a perception threshold from our narrow spectrum of reality into the broad spectrum of God’s order. When we learn that the most profound, long-term, and best results happen at a level that we can’t fully understand, then we realize the poverty of our own, individualistic, mechanistic actions that are bound only to what we can see, hear, smell, and understand. We begin to look for the invisible world, we begin to rest in God’s higher way, where God’s Kingdom work gets done.
As we cross the perception threshold, we can eventually learn to participate in a level of order beyond what we normally know. Like Elisha’s servant, we begin to “see the armies of God.” If Elisha’s servant had been able to answer his own question, what would he have done? “Oh my Lord,” he said, “what shall we do?” Without crossing the perception threshold, he might have continued, “Oh, I know! I will wake up everybody in Dothan and tell them to bring their swords. And I will send a small boy through the wall and have him get the King of Israel and the army right away. Oh! Maybe we can bribe the Aramean army with all the gold in the town, and ask them to leave!”
When we are stuck in our Western, works oriented, mechanistic thinking, we tend to look at low-level reality with low-level vision (the seven variables limit), and we also look at high-level, complex, living social systems with that same low-level vision! While our low-level thinking works fine for mechanical problems (broken toasters), it fails miserably when we attempt to view living system problems (sick cats).
Here’s how I have often seen it played out in ministry settings. A new pastor comes into a church with his brilliant ideas and persuades the church to buy into them, not looking at the setting or the people or considering their visions and interests. Because he is not seeing or discerning the living system, the pastor may view his new church as chaotic, and so he will focus primarily on the clarity of his own low-level ideas. I am not suggesting he is insincere. He may be very sincere and concerned to meet needs that he sees in the church, but because he is seeing the need in low definition, he is only seeing the disease in the system, and not the actual living system itself. Thus, he only tries to address the disease, not the whole system. He has not learned to discern the living system.
In order to be effective in ministry, he needs to adopt a new mental model that will convert what he sees as chaos into something else, the living reality of the actual situation. He needs to be able to see the “rivers flowing underground” in his church. He needs to learn to perceive the complex setting as a living social system, not just chaos. Sadly, if he cannot do this, he will actually create chaos where there was no chaos by imposing his own simplistic activities into the complex system. He will reap unintended negative returns and cause much pain to the church system. He may think the tools he wants to use, such as organizational disciplines and tactics, are designed to get the job done, but they will not fit the living social system.
Dominantly primary culture people seem to be able to embrace complexity with ease (have you ever been to a marketplace in a developing country?), but most of us Westerners have so lost touch with our inner abilities to apprehend complexity subconsciously that we interpret highly complex forms of reality—especially social reality—as chaos!
The problem is not in the complexity. The problem is in the way we perceive complexity.
Low-definition conscious thought is not an accurate and logical way to perceive complex reality. A lot of reality is far beyond our ability to perceive with conscious, low-definition thought.
High-definition complex thought is the truly accurate and logical way to perceive living social system reality. High-definition, complex contexts appear chaotic to us when we observe them with low-definition eyes, but are they? Actually, they are not! They are of a higher order, one that can only be seen in high definition. Our God is a God of order. All living systems in God’s creation are very orderly, although the creation is suffering temporal disorder from the Fall.
We can overcome this perception problem. With the redemptive treasure of eye salve that Jesus gives us, we can begin to see with new eyes and discern the living system. It is as if Jesus’ eye salve helps us in secondary cultures regain the primary culture’s ability to see in high definition. He allows us the privilege of learning to see what is actually there. When he does that, he is treating us more like sons and daughters than slaves.
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