Versatile Thinking

I’d like to continue the line of thought that I started in my previous post on Versatile Design. The question that I want to explore here is, now that we’ve extracted some lessons from the design of nature, how do we apply them in real life?

At the end of the last post I touched on how I personally take those lessons in my field of engineering. But I also think that the concept of design does not only apply to technology, architecture, or engineering. Instead, the kind of approach that follows nature’s pattern can be applied in non-technical or even social contexts as well. In my world, this non-technical arena translates to ministry.

In campus ministry and the youth movement in general, we deal with design concepts all the time. We create programs, projects, initiatives, and resources for the primary “heaven-appointed purpose of giving the gospel to the world in this generation” (Education, p. 262). It thus makes intuitive sense that we ought to strive for the highest order of efficiencies to turn this noblest aim into reality.

Which Wall?

Ten years ago when it all began and the wall was down, builders were called into the work. Novel ideas and innovation sparked in these individuals’ minds, and the beginnings of the chemical reactions that would eventually turn into a fireworks of youth ministries were extraordinarily exciting.

Ten years into the movement, some walls are already built. Does that mean, however, that innovation stop? Heaven forbid. There are many things that are yet to be done and builders must continue to rise up. But what is important to note is that these builders cannot think that they’re working on an entirely destroyed wall anymore – that thinking is ten years behind. When current builders scope the land, what they should see is a wall that is partially built [I’m talking about the youth movement wall] precisely because the movement has moved. They must see how their work can fit into the larger context.

Don’t get me wrong, there are things that still need to be built from scratch, things that are simply not done yet. But what we have now is a field that is calling not just for builders, but also repairers and fortifiers. Starting something up may seem more glamorous, but there are many less glamorous parts that are equally important. The innovations need to take place not only in the building sector, but also in the fortification and repairing sectors. Yes, that means working on something that someone had built before, and making them multiple times better. We can’t all be pioneers in title, though we must have the spirit.

Ministry Ecology

The kind of versatile thinking that I’m trying to explore goes something like this. If I see a need that I am particularly called to address, instead of just asking the question “what can I do?”, I can ask a variant of that question, which is “how can I do this using the available structures?” This way, the originality of the idea doesn’t necessarily translate into a completely radical project that no one has ever thought before and creating everything from scratch, however romantic that would be, but it comes from the novel ways of connecting sectors of ministry and combining resources that many others have been working on. The glory of this kind of approach is that one may find that he/she doesn’t have to do much invention, just coordination, but exponential results ensue. Call this laziness; I call this efficiency.

When one zooms out to see a larger picture of how different sectors interact, what often emerges is the creativity to make any one sector more versatile. Light bulb moments come when, hey, one ministry can actually connect to many others without drastically increasing their activity. It’s all about opportunity costs here – the cost of not doing more. We see this all the time in business and different sectors of society. Just because different entities are not talking to each other, even when they’re working on very similar things, they lose much. Additionally, more resources are wasted because each one is in their own world[1]. In ministry, resources and waste translate to time, energy, and the spirituality of the individuals.

When I have a goal, a mission, an objective for a project, and I set my mind on doing it, it is incumbent upon me to find out what has been done that can help me towards this goal before, i.e., do my research. Indeed this must be one of the first things that I do. That’s what Nehemiah did, isn’t it? That’s what people do in business or research. You think you have a brilliant idea, but when you research the field it turns out that people have done it before. Do you get discouraged? No. You think more and see how you can advance the field by doing something that hasn’t been done, i.e., come up with a more brilliant idea.

Synergy is what I’m getting at. It really is a simple idea, and not novel at all. But it’s been bothering me a lot lately because I would be walking through an exhibit hall of ministries, and I would come across multiple booths doing almost the exact same thing. In my mind, I was like, “Umm… have you guys talked to those guys across the hall?” At the very least, they should split the work or something.

Now What?

To any ministry organization, this means more research, more communication, and more creativity. No one should live in their own world; they should know what’s going on outside of their direct sphere of influence. To an institution that has more of a wider scope of view, this means facilitating inter-ministry coordination. Perhaps a directory of ministry should be built as a go-to place for research. The question is what can we do so that we don’t keep reinventing wheels (yes, plural), because “reinventing wheels” and “end-time movement” sound oxymoronic to me.


[1] For example, sector A has a waste stream X. Because it doesn’t talk to sector B, who turns out to be able to process stream X as inputs, sector A dumps X to the environment or pays money to dispose it somewhere. Sector B, on the other hand, pays a lot of money to get their inputs elsewhere. What could happen instead is that sector A could sell X to sector B and gain more money. Stream X from A most likely costs less than what sector B is paying right now because it’s a waste stream, thus lowering their costs and increasing their profit. The environment is less harmed too on top of that. Gahh, I’m seeing this more and more the longer I live, and most likely the reason is political. If you haven’t read about the Veta la Palma story I recommended in my previous post, I highly recommend to look into it – there are many lessons to learn from their experience.

Global Thinkers

One of my favorite things in life is listening to, reading about, meeting and talking with global thinkers. These are people who speak with fire in their eyes, whose passion saturates their words, and whose brains never stop working. They have a source of energy that doesn’t die quickly. They have certain anger and dissatisfaction with the status quo, and want to do something to change it. They’re silly and a little wacky. They have a good sense of humor—a necessary trait, I think, for anyone who attempts to think of problems whose scale is as big as the world; if they don’t have this sense of humor, they’d go insane or turn bitter very quickly. This passion that has struck a cord deep inside their soul just emanates out of their skin and they can’t help it. All it takes is one conversation, a few sentences, and you just see them take off. What a delight!

These global thinkers, the real ones at least, are engaged in some small scale, local projects. They pursue their interests, always widening their experiences and skill sets, and most likely hold a regular day job as well, just like everybody else. On a day to day basis, they may not be working on some big, glamorous, or prestigious projects – in fact, their work may be quite mundane. But there’s a difference, because those mundane tasks are infused with a sense of purpose. They see their local, small scale activities as laboratories to test and refine their models and ideas, with a wider sphere of influence in mind.

The most amusing trait that I love about these people is that they’re unabashedly them. They’re weird, and they don’t care. They embrace their individuality and their gifts fully, so even though you can get a group of global thinkers in a room, each of them is distinctly different one from another. The nerds are unabashedly nerdy; the artists are unabashedly artistic, etc. They know how to focus in their areas, because those who try to multitask and juggle multiple global problems usually end up overwhelmed and not doing anything. They take care of that one circle really well and they get something accomplished. This boosts their morale and makes them think they can do more. The circle then expands a little bit. They get another triumph, and they get even more excited. Bit by bit they advance, and call them delusional or crazy, but they actually think they can change the world: they have proof that it’s possible.

We have a lot of these people in society. Go to TED.com and you’ll find a bunch of them there. But they’re not just on stage; these people really are everywhere. Oh and one more thing with this group of people—age is irrelevant.

When you combine global thinkers and the properties of the complexly connected world today, what you have is a potentially explosive combination. In an era where problems, issues, ideas, and cultural attributes cross national borders, the notion that a country’s problems can be exclusively confined within its geographical boundaries slowly disappears. Neighboring states get entangled almost immediately, and the problems magnify. On the flip side, however, this phenomenon also opens up opportunities of global impact because just as the problems cannot be contained in a geographical place, the solutions can spread out quickly as well. In an article for a recent publication by the Indonesian embassy, I wrote the following statements concerning the energy issues, which I believe is applicable for anyone and to any problem, “Because of the effective nature of the current communication network, a local or national solution to the energy problem contributes directly to the international portfolio of energy solutions. If and when Indonesia has found and implemented a successful approach within its borders, it immediately provides an adaptable model for other countries and communities. In other words, the endeavor to solve the local energy problem is an opportunity for global leadership.”

What this means is that as a citizen of this kind of world, making global impact is a real possibility. In fact, I think this mindset is no longer optional. Global thinkers are not born; the potential exists in every individual.

Global problems require global thinkers. Why? Because in problem solving, the solution can only be (at most) as good as your assumptions. The only way to reach the solution to these problems is if the proper scope and scale is taken into account, and the ones who can do that are the global thinkers.

To the Christian, there is one global problem that has supreme importance, more than the other ones that exist today. This problem is such that once it’s completed, the aftermath will ultimately solve all of the other problems, namely the renewing of the earth, when the old heaven and earth pass away, and the new heaven and earth are established. The problem statement is written in Matthew 24:14, the charge in Matthew 28:18-20, and again in Revelation 14:6-7 (read verses 6-12 for the whole package). It is what it is—a global mission.

If a 21st century world citizen needs to be a global thinker, there is no excuse for the Christian not to be one. Christians are called to be global thinkers, which mean that there’s something wrong when the only thing they do is to sit by their fire and bask in the comfort their own spirituality. What about the rest of the world?

If this global problem is to be solved, Christians need to think, plan, and strategize in the global scale, because the scope of the thinking affects the kinds of ideas that emerge out of that thinking. Creativity needs to be fostered and developed in implementing these plans, and I bet they’d see marvelous things that never happened before.

You know what’s really amusing though? You would perhaps think that these Christians walk around with furrowed brows, being serious all the time. But that’s not the case. These Christians are actually the most delightful to be with, because they have all the characteristics that I mentioned in the beginning of this piece. They’re a little ‘hyperopic’—they can’t really see the petty problems around them too well, so they are less susceptible to discontentment, bitterness, and weariness from these small, local, and temporary trials. It just sounds like a really great way to live.

Global thinkers. Be one!