There is a four-stage framework that my team has uncovered that sets the template for how many white, evangelical church, academic, and non-profit leaders approach local and global missions. It goes like this: Notice, Diagnose, Solve, and Walk Away.
Notice: Because of the geographic and relational distance between white evangelical institutions and impacted communities, we’ve become adept at making thin observations and then convincing ourselves of how correct we are. From a distance and void of authentic relationships, we’re proud of the comprehensive accuracy of our surface-level noticings and tout them with the elegant air of self-acclaimed expertise.
Diagnose: Priding ourselves as savvy, resourced innovators, we pile into whiteboard sessions. While there we subconsciously stand on a theological foundation that places us as uniquely responsible and capable to solve the world’s problems. Before we offer what we’ve noticed, we begin by discussing the opportunity that this particular problem may provide us to disciple our people. Once convinced that we could leverage the brokenness of another for the sake of our own people’s transformation, we offer our observations and coalesce them into a series of premature conclusions. Within a matter of hours, we walk out of our mini innovation labs with what we believe to be an accurate diagnosis of the problem. The next step will be to build the strategy for how our ideas, once implemented, will eradicate the problem of (fill in the blank).
Solve: Solution and strategy in hand, we head “down there” to present our findings and intentions with the Executive Director of the organization we are “partnering” with. Our solutions resemble simplistic projects that can be accomplished by groups of well-intentioned yet deeply unskilled laborers. Because the partnership is rooted in charity rather than solidarity, she accepts our proposal and an unhealthy dependence is likely to emerge (or continue). Within these circumstances, the Executive Director frequently sees the self-serving evangelical compulsion that the evangelicals appear ignorant to. Yet, for the sake of continuing the work that will benefit the desperate, she chooses not to ask too many questions. She demonstrates gratitude, the event is calendared, and, as the evangelicals turn our attention to marketing the program, she laments that her life’s work is misunderstood as a consumable for the benefit of the privileged.
Walk Away: After three hours or three days of sweat labor and a new multitude of noticings taken in through lenses that reinforce our biases, we hand an underprivileged family the keys to their new home. Or, we conclude the soup-kitchen service and clean up. Or, we put our rakes and leather gloves away after servicing the under-resourced elementary school. Or….
Often without a deepened knowledge of the family’s story, acquiring (& remembering) the name and contact information of anyone we’ve met at the soup kitchen, or growing an understanding of the systems in play that cause one school to lack what another elementary school has an abundance of, we walk away from the project. What was a deeply insignificant moment in the life of those impacted by housing inequity, poverty, and educational disparity was experienced as a deeply satisfying project by the evangelicals. After congratulating ourselves, we return to our regular lives relatively unchanged.
This four-stage framework, when applied to short term missions in Tijuana, Baja California, has resulted in that city becoming a severely (over)evangelized city. Myriad organizations have built very successful (read “lucrative”) business plans based on this framework that have resulted in tens of thousands of homes being built, bi-national “relationships” between churches and pastors being formed, and hundreds of thousands of Mexican children hearing the “good news” of Jesus by white youth through Vacation Bible School presentations.
This is great news, right? Not when you speak with Mexican faith leaders who are measuring the negative implications of Short Term Missions (STMs) on the church in Tijuana. From their perspective, because of STMs, the church in their city has deepened in its inferiority complex, has become dependent on US American voluntourism, and has lost its vigor to be a truly indigenous expression of the church within its city. It is not good news to the city planners of Tijuana who are now dealing with tens of thousands of homes that have sprung up in ways that interrupt any semblance of long term design and sustainability. It is not good news to the humanitarian non-profits who are working tirelessly to create jobs for deported and migrant women and men in the fields of creative childcare and construction.
The aforementioned four-stage framework is an example of “First-Order Thinking” that author, Shane Parrish, critiques in his book, The Great Mental Models: General Thinking Concepts. In this first volume of what will become a five-volume work, Parrish excavates nine of the leading mental models in an effort to help his readership understand how we think, how we learn, how we form beliefs, and how we make better decisions. (Parrish, Location 106) Rather than inviting us to choose the one that we resonate with most, Parrish asserts that employing one mental model is not enough. Rather, we have to draw upon a repertoire of models personally and in community with others if we are to solve complex problems. (Parrish, Location 133)
Second-Order Thinking is one of the nine mental models highlighted by Parrish and is a response to the First-Order Thinking illustrated above. It is a model that invites us to engage questions, conflicts, and complex problems beyond the surface level. As Parrish sees it, too often, our answers to the questions, resolutions to the conflicts, and/or solutions to the complex problems are near-sighted. That is, informed by confidence, arrogance, urgency, naivety, or expediency, we’ve become groomed to diagnose issues based on surface-level observations and then engage rapid strategies that rarely answer, resolve, and solve.
Our thin noticings and quick fixes often perpetuate, if not accelerate, the problem. This is the dangerous outcome of First-Order thinking that is exemplified in the Tijuanan analysis of the four-stage framework listed above. While it can contribute to the solving of an immediate problem, it does so without considering the unforeseen, long-term implications that the solution could generate. First-Order thinking does not require proximity, costs very little, and perpetuates both the superiority complex of the powerful and the inferiority complex of the oppressed.
Second-Order thinking is thoughtful and deliberate. Rather than suffering from nearsightedness and the tyranny of the urgent, this model considers both various options and interventions as well as the potential ripple effect of consequences that the action will trigger. With humility, this model recognizes that with every possible intervention, the likelihood of harm is very high. Thus, Second-Order thinking demands proximity, considers long-term implications, and requires ongoing partnership.
While I agree with Parrish’s analysis of First-Order Thinking and preference for Second-Order Thinking, he disregards the former and downplays any benefit that First-Order thinkers make to the world. I affirm that every action carries the potential for negative consequences and agree with the pursuit of wisdom. That said, there are moments of trauma that demand fast action. My hope is that a habit of Second-Order Thinking would generate rapid strategies steeped in wisdom, but when it comes to the intensity of trauma, those impacted by it simply need it to stop. Rarely do they care how it is accomplished.
So if my analysis is accurate that many white evangelical faith leaders have been groomed into well intentioned First-Order thinking as it pertains to local/global engagement, then where do we begin in our attempts to shift them toward Second-Order Thinking? Here are four suggestions:
- Interrogate your noticings. Within milliseconds, what we “notice” becomes categorized into our bucket of preconceived truth. Ask: What did I notice? What truth did it reinforce? If it unsettled me, why? What do I know or not know about the story behind what I noticed? What would it cost me to move from noticing to seeing? What am I willing to sacrifice in order to learn a more accurate truth?
- Suspend your diagnosis and choose curiosity instead. While we’ve been groomed to develop and articulate analyses, we must acknowledge that void of input by the impacted community, our analyses are insignificant. Ask: Who do I have access to that lives in the pain? In conversation with them, ask: What’s your analysis of the problem? How did we get here? Who benefits? Who loses? What is the experience of living on the underside of this?
- Recognize and acknowledge that no one is asking you to solve anything. To solve is to perpetuate the power differential and maintain the system of charity that poisons the waters of restoration. In relationship with the impacted community, ask: What solutions are you discussing with one another? What do you need from me? From us? Historically speaking, what kinds of contributions have been helpful? Which ones have been positive at first and then spiraled south?
- Declare and demonstrate that walking away is not an option. Ask: If we co-create solutions in the near-term that have negative consequences in the long-term, how will we analyze and engage them together? What agreements can we make to stay in it together?