All the World's a Classroom
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
 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.
Sometimes, at the end of a day or week, tired of intellectualism, you just need to hear simple words that refresh and satisfy the thirsting soul.
Those who stand high in the world for their education, wealth, or calling, are seldom addressed personally in regard to the interests of the soul. Many Christian workers hesitate to approach these classes. But this should not be. If a man were drowning, we would not stand by and see him perish because he was a lawyer, a merchant, or a judge. If we saw persons rushing over a precipice, we would not hesitate to urge them back, whatever might be their position or calling. Neither should we hesitate to warn men of the peril of the soul.
None should be neglected because of their apparent devotion to worldly things. Many in high social positions are heartsore, and sick of vanity. They are longing for a peace which they have not. In the very highest ranks of society are those who are hungering and thirsting for salvation. Many would receive help if the Lord’s workers would approach them personally, with a kind manner, a heart made tender by the love of Christ.
The success of the gospel message does not depend upon learned speeches, eloquent testimonies, or deep arguments. It depends upon the simplicity of the message and its adaptation to the souls that are hungering for the bread of life. “What shall I do to be saved?”–this is the want of the soul.
Thousands can be reached in the most simple and humble way. The most intellectual, those who are looked upon as the world’s most gifted men and women, are often refreshed by the simple words of one who loves God, and who can speak of that love as naturally as the worldling speaks of the things that interest him most deeply.
Often the words well prepared and studied have but little influence. But the true, honest expression of a son or daughter of God, spoken in natural simplicity, has power to unbolt the door to hearts that have long been closed against Christ and His love. Christ’s Object Lesson, p. 230-232
Take note of this, all ye campus ministers.
When you observe the things of nature, certain principles of existence just emerge out of the system. I’ve been spending some time being wondered by nature and natural systems through various means – different reading materials, documentaries, other montage of pictures, photo journals, actually being outdoors, etc. – and it’s been very instructive. I highly recommend the activity.
One of the striking things that, to me, is ubiquitous in nature is the multiplicity of function of any single entity or living being. The natural system is so intricately and intelligently designed that any one aspect in the bio-network serves more than one purpose. The trees in the forest are not just carbon sinks and oxygen suppliers for the earth, they also serve as water retainer, participating in the natural water purification system, as bird sanctuaries, as food, as soil stabilizer – physically and chemically, among many others that I’m still not aware of.
When one portion is removed, the equilibrium is disrupted and you end up with an imbalanced system. So when a species is endangered because of human activity, for example, a whole ecological web is in actuality imperiled because others depend on that species as food source or supplier of other services (e.g., cleaning, leftovers, etc). The natural system is so elegantly integrated that often, we only learn the truth about seemingly unconnected things after we disrupt them. The good news is that nature is so robust that it can tolerate a certain degree of disruptions, both natural and human – I’ll reflect on nature’s robustness in another entry. Yet when it comes to humans, foolish extremes are not an impossibility.
This type of integrated, versatile design, stands in stark contrast with some human designs. A lot of the times, humans are so one-tracked minded that when we design things, the product only serves one goal. Usually that single track purpose is commercial (read: money). The problems with this kind of mindset are the following: one, it is highly inefficient/wasteful, since the opportunity costs to this mindset are products that could actually serve multiple purposes, and two, it is usually extremely disruptive since it pushes for this one (economic) goal at the expense of all other ‘unimportant’ factors.
A classic example is plastic. In nature, things work in cycles. When the cycle is complete, there will essentially be no or little waste. Only humans can design something that is once-through and disposable like plastic. It is basically a one-way conversion from resource to waste, with no large-scale mechanism in place to convert the waste back into a resource. Yes, there’s some recycling with plastic these days, but the portion of recycled plastic is very, very small compared to the waste. In fact, it’s not a true recycle anyway because plastic degrades, meaning that when you re-process plastic, what you end up is a lower level plastic; you don’t get the same plastic quality with the original materials (unlike glass). These wastes get shipped to some islands in third world countries somewhere, and these days many fishes and birds swallow plastic bits into their bellies. It turns out that plastic does break down, not in a way that biomaterials disintegrate, but into smaller pieces. These bits can be imperceptibly small (but still plastic), and when they enter the animals’ digestive system, they chemically react and release toxins that kill the animals.
Our lives now revolve around plastic – it’s hard to imagine life without it. But here’s the thing – our need for plastic is artificial. Life existed before plastic, but plastic changed the world. It turns out though, that the design, even with all the uses of plastic today, is not versatile enough. Apparently the inventor(s) who no doubt earned a lot of money, was not enough of a global thinker to think of non-human members of the earth, or of the earth itself.
But not all human designs are bad. Coincidentally there are those who come up with brilliant ideas to use resources sustainably, because they try to work with nature. I’m a big fan of the Veta la Palma story (read here) <– must read!
As an engineer in training, I want my design to be more like the nature story than the plastic story. There’s just simple brilliance with this versatility and integration that I wish we as human beings would imitate more, to be wide-minded and arrive at far more efficient and creative designs. I want to imitate the works of the ultimate Designer.