Perception, abstraction, and goals

We tune our perception to our motivated goals. Right? Like, follow me here.

The whole world is a vastly complex structure, with larger things containing smaller things and smaller and smaller and smaller, smaller things nested within larger things. Man has a heart, the heart contains blood cells, the cell is made up of proteins and lipids which are made of molecules and atoms... on and on and on it goes down.

Because the world is made up of such complex structures at every point, we speak and think in the abstract in order to keep it all straight in our limited minds. An abstract might be the "Man" to which I referred in the previous paragraph, for example. That wasn't a specific man, that was man in the abstract. Get it?

Like, when I say "church" you might think of the sort of abstract symbol of a chapel: ⛪️. Four walls, a pitched roof, a steeple, a cross on the door... But do all churches look like that in reality? Nope.

Or if I were to say "car," would you picture a Hyundai Sonata, or would you picture a generic sort of metal half-dome surrounded by windows, with four wheels and four doors: 🚙?

We think in abstractions.

If I were to ask a group of people to draw "home," few people would end up drawing their home. No, instead you'd doodle the little stick homes we've been drawing since kindergarten. Who, if I asked him or her to draw a person, would draw a specific person? Most people would draw a little stick figure.

That's because we think in the abstract. Ok so why is this important? Let's consider how we process thoughts about the world in all of its vast complexity.

Let's take a look at a complex system. I'll use a church as my example, as that's a system with which I'm intimately familiar. A church is complex, with its architectural design and its furnishings and the people inside and the message being taught there and its membership bylaws and its organizational structure…

That's that particular church, we'll call it Washington Avenue Baptist Church. And Washington Avenue is a complex community of individual believers banded together to do the stuff of church. If you've ever been an active, participating member of a church, then you fully understand the complexity of this contractual agreement.

Members of a particular church are faced with a whole host of interesting and complex social issues, and they must navigate such issues in agreement with one another—as best as they can—as a church. And there exists an expectation that the actions of individual members are to be representative of the beliefs of the collective and of the truths taught in Scripture. A healthy public church is God's representative to the wider community.

What we do, in our minds, is we compress that very complex image down to simpler concepts like, Washington Avenue is "the place where Bible is taught" or "the place where the pretty girl from my psychology class goes" or "the place with the free donuts in the concourse" or "the place with the cool music."

Then we take that smaller, compressed idea, and we give it an iconic representation. Then we take that icon and represent it with a word. In this case, "church." And from then on, anytime someone mentions "church" you recall the icon, then decompress it into the concept, then further decompress it into more detailed images of the place in your mind.

Still don't get why that's important?

It's because, like I said, our perception is tuned to our goals. If your goal is to date that pretty girl from psychology class, your perception of "church" will be radically different from that of the deacon who's in charge of passing 'round the offering plate or the pastor who's there to give a word from God.

To the deacon, this same church is not a place to go to be near Stacy or whatever, but rather, it's a place to serve or to be seen or to bring his children so that they might receive instruction. To the pastor, that same church is "work," is his "calling," is his "parish," his "flock." Same building, same people inside, same structure, same activities, different perceptions entirely of the place.

So we must ask ourselves, and be truthful with ourselves, especially of church, "What is my goal in coming here?" Because our goals will dramatically influence our perception and our experience of the place.

In conflict within the church we often find that the issue is not with competing ideologies or ideas, but with two competing perceptions. Two different views of the church held by those in conflict. Here's an example:

Let's say that there is a student pastor, and he decides to change the student activities in a drastic way. Many rural churches will bus students in from inner-cities, to feed them and to teach them about Jesus. The 'bus ministry' is a common form of outreach among churches and has been since an explosion in popularity in the '60s and '70s.

My father was in bus ministry early on in his career as a pastor and would bus in 400 to 500 kids from inner-city Dallas to feed them, entertain them awhile, get them off the streets, and tell them about Jesus.

It was a huge practice in that time, but the practice has since died off tremendously as churches are finding that impoverished kids are best served by social workers, after-school programs, the Y, mental health experts, rehabilitation facilities, and shelters.

Quite frankly, these kids don't need Jesus—not yet—what they need is a hot meal and someone to help them get to school on time, because their parents by and large have simply checked out. I'm generalizing here, yes, but consider that, according to many studies, about 18% of all kids in the United States live in poverty. Of that 18%, about 70% of those children live in single-parent homes.

In other words, poverty and the family structure are very closely connected. When dad or mom checks out, leaving the other spouse to carry the full load, children suffer most of all. These kids, disenfranchised, begin to act out and seek the attention they simply don't get at home. The rate of truancy is increased in impoverished areas, as are the rates of crime and gang activity.

As an aside, too, student ministry dramatically changed in the '80s and '90s. Those two decades were marked by several highly-publicized kidnappings and serial killings, followed by heinous and criminal indiscretions committed by leaders of the Catholic church (and subsequently swept under the rug).

As a consequence, and I think this is probably for the best, it became kind of an awkward transaction for a humble and well-intentioned minister to ask a parent if he might take their kid on a bus ride to church! Understand that the vast majority of ministers and priests have treated children with compassion and with kindness, and that the Bible in no way condones the abuse of a child.

The efficacy of early bus ministry is undeniable, when you speak with church members who were involved in the practice at its height in the '60s and '70s. Those older church members will tell you stories of children they were able to feed and clothe and educate children and rescue them from abuse and lead them to saving faith in Jesus Christ. They'll tell you of parents who followed shortly thereafter, to see what this Jesus was all about. They'll tell you of broken homes made whole and of families lifted from poverty with the help of the church.

But let's say, back to the point, that our student pastor decides to end the bus ministry—no longer bussing children in—as the practice has lost its efficacy and requires much thought on how to bus kids safely and ethically. Let's say, too, for the sake of argument, that those impoverished kids—desperate for attention—have been misbehaving during the church's normal proceedings. Let's say they're acting as typical undisciplined children, making a mess of things here and there, running about and raising their voices, hitting, biting, scratching other students or volunteers, and disturbing times of contemplative prayer or times of worship.

Our humble and well-intentioned student pastor sees that today's impoverished youth are best served by other organizations than the church—and that's not to say that the church has lost its ability to teach valuable life-skills or wisdom or proper social behavior or even deeper truths like the life-changing love of God or the forgiveness found in Jesus Christ—let's say in his mind he has decided instead to focus on serving students of charter members of the church.

To that student pastor, his perception of "church" is probably a mixture of the things described above: To him, church is his work, his purpose, a responsibility, an avenue of service to the community, etc.

Now let's say that there is a volunteer in the bus ministry whose perception of church is similar in many ways: It's the place he or she goes to serve, to be of use in God's kingdom, to be a loving mentor to a group of students, to engage with their parents in an effort to bring the whole family to church, etc.

And now, because we know that man is inherently both good and evil and that the Christian is no exception, let's say that the two parties have selfish or sinful goals as well. The student pastor might view church as a place where he can exert control over a group of people, as so many pastors so often fall for the allure of a cheap power grab.

And let's say that our bus ministry volunteer's intentions are not entirely pure either, perhaps to him or to her, church is a place to be seen doing God's work, where he or she might receive praise and attention and respect or become the object of jealousy to another. We all want to be seen as Mother Theresa's in the world, don't we? And certainly none of us are able to do a good deed without wondering whether that deed might go unnoticed.

Let's not forget the goals that each party has for the church. One wants to see the students of church members grow in discipleship and discipline, grow in wisdom, have a good time while learning to be active participants within the church even after they've grown.

The other wants to see the church's numbers grow—bring in more people and pack the house—in effort to cast a wide net of Gospel over a diverse group of students, in hopes that some might be saved. Perhaps he or she views the church as the best vehicle for social justice, for community activism, or for restoration.

Here we have two parties in conflict, with differing perceptions of the same church. It's the same building, the same people, the same place and time, the same activities and offerings and goings-on, the same message being preached, the same songs being sung. And yet we find two very different perceptions of the place, motivated by two very different sets of goals for the place.

One thing we ought rightly to consider is that the student pastor and the volunteer are not equals within church hierarchical structure. The volunteer may have been a member of the church for 50 years, but he or she still isn't a pastor carefully selected to be in a position of authority over students within the church.

With differing perceptions, sure, there are things the two parties could learn from one another, but ultimately, as in all hierarchies, one must submit to the other. Still, for the sake of getting all we can out of this purely hypothetical, not at all something that's going on within my current church situation, let's follow the two views closely.

Is this church the place I go to work, to shepherd a flock, to have influence, and sometimes, selfishly, to exert some level of control over the behavior of others? Or is it a place to serve and to be seen serving, to enjoy the attention and envy of others, to be a person of importance?

Is it a safe-haven for the Christian, to come and receive acceptance, support, and education? Or is it a hospital for the spiritually sick, a vehicle for outreach, a tool for repairing our world? Discipleship or evangelism? Whatever it is, at that point, it is only "church" in the abstract.

Therein lies the source of conflict: Warring perceptions, motivated by differing goals over the same thing in the abstract.

To the teacher, "school" is a job and a duty to provide instruction. To the student, "school" is more like a prison, a place of entrapment, punishment, or oppression. The two remain locked in conflict, teacher and student, and such conflict stands as fodder for countless movies and books each year. Teacher and student will always be at war, might as well get some entertainment out of it!

What are your goals for church? or for school? or for your home? And how have those goals influenced your perception of those spaces?

Do you dread coming home, because your goal for the home was to have a place of haven and rest, and there's simply no rest to be had around your wife or your husband or your children? What might you do to change that?—could you change your goals, your attitude? Could cleaning the place up a bit help? Would it help to have a talk with your spouse?

Before making concrete, objective observations about a place or a thing, like, "I hate church, I'll never go back," consider how your perception of the place might have been motivated by a misconceived goal. Consider the goals of others, and how those goals have driven their perception of the place.

There's a phrase that I vehemently despise, and that is: "Perception is nine-tenths of reality." I hate that phrase, it's a pernicious lie, I despise the idea to my core. There is Reality and there is Non-reality. There is truth and there are lies. Perception cannot be reality, as perception is so skewed by our selfish goals and motives.

And yet, this is the lie under which many churches conduct their church discipline and even form their ecclesiological structure. I remember a conflict that led to a meeting with the whole staff, when I was on staff at a church years ago. I remember that the pastor said that perception is reality, and that we should anticipate how our actions will be perceived by the two parties in conflict.

No. No. No. No, we should tell the truth, or at least not lie to these people. We should be people of the truth, not of optics. We should be communicators of truth, not a communications department or a public relations team. We should get out of the way of the truth, let it stand on its own merits. We should remove the filters of our goals and our motivations from the lens of truth. We should endeavor to see things as they are, not as we want them to be.

Perception and reality can be closely aligned if we'd only humble ourselves. And then the reduction of complex systems would lead to better communication of ideas. If we let our perception be so motivated by our goals that it changes the thing in abstract for us, that's when we begin to walk out of step with others and with the real world.

To the church volunteer looking to remain head of a dying bus ministry, I might say: Thank you for your time and your service to the church. We know that your heart is for students, so we welcome you to mentor students of charter church members. We've decided to end the bus ministry, at least for older students, because of the many many complex issues around which we must tip-toe when it comes to working with kids in today's society.

We feel that our attempts at outreach will be more effective outside of the walls of our church, not within. After all, that's why it's called "OUT-reach." We continue to invade our communities with love and support and food and gospel.

I might also remind anyone who worries about gospel implications, that the church was not commissioned to share the gospel, but to "make disciples." It's your responsibility, as an individual, to share the gospel in your community, and the church exists to help you.

Why don't you continue to knock on doors and share the gospel as you always have? If you need a vehicle to get there, you can borrow one of our buses. Just don't ask to borrow their kids for the evening.