Learning Language That Means Something: APEST in the Organization

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Language matters. It shapes the way we think and act. This is a short excerpt about how the language of APEST stands to revolutionize our ways of thinking and practicing ministry and leadership. Here is a snippet from The Permanent Revolution about APEST and a vocabulary of organization.

In a chapter in Organization at the Limit, a book dedicated to analyzing the organizational dynamics that contributed to the Columbia space shuttle disaster, William Ocasio discusses the unique connection between language and organizational activity. Applying an analysis of the language used and how it points to deficiencies in thinking, Ocasio points to the subtle yet powerful capacity of language to focus our attention as well as to blind us to seeing problems when they occur. The language we commonly use can greatly influence what gets noticed and what gets ignored. He says:

“It’s not that language determines what can be thought, but that language influences what routinely does get thought.”

In other words, as G. K. Chesterton noted about institutionalized insiders, it is not so much that insiders cannot see the solution. It is that they cannot see the problem itself because they have no language for it. To illustrate, the fact that we tend to experience blind spots in vehicles is not so much an engineering problem as it is a linguistic one. When we refer to “rear-view mirrors,” we use those mirrors to look at the rear view alone, in essence, creating the blind spot on the side. When we refer to the external mirrors as “side-view mirrors,” then we will use them to view what is happening on the side of the vehicle. Words matter big time. Taking his cue from the official report of the Columbia disaster, Ocasio and his team of organization consultants concluded that simply putting it down to individual error does not solve the issue of what caused the crash. The problem instead lay in the way NASA actually conceived of and articulated organization and management itself. Their language indicated that they did not have the categories to help them even see the problem coming, let alone resolve it. He calls this phenomenon of organizational blindness the “vocabulary of organizing.”

[bctt tweet=”As G. K. Chesterton noted about institutionalized insiders, it is not so much that insiders cannot see the solution. It is that they cannot see the problem itself because they have no language for it.” username=”@5QCollective”]

In an effort to describe its core practices and procedures, organizations develop a vocabulary that helps describe, as well as prescribe, organizational activity. Realizing this inherent connection between organizational vocabularies and activity is insightful because it helps explain why some issues receive more attention and become more prominent than others. Ocasio says, “The vocabulary of organizing serves to provide the organizational categories which designates what constitutes a problem or issue to be attended to as well as what type of solutions and initiatives are to be considered.” Essentially a vocabulary of organizing plays a significant role in determining what practices will be considered normative and what practices are literally unheard of. Thus, the linguistic categories that an organization uses can shape how it conceives of core tasks. By applying these ideas to the Western church, we can easily see how our most generative forms of ministry—the apostle, the prophet, and the evangelist—have been edited out of our organizational vocabulary.

They are no longer considered to be legitimate descriptors for leaders of ministries in most churches. The result is that we are scripted not to see or pay attention to issues related to apostolic, prophetic, and, to a lesser degree, evangelistic concerns, even when they are staring us in the face. Again we are shown how we are perfectly designed to achieve current outcomes. Because APEST supplies the church with the essential linguistic categories to form a complete vocabulary of organizing, reinserting the very language of apostle, prophet, and evangelist into organizational discourse will revolutionize our conception of the church and its core tasks. Instead of seeing the church as an extension of the seminary (teacher) or as a place to merely get fed (shepherd), we can rightly conceive of the church within the broader framework of Christ’s ministry.

[bctt tweet=”Your organization is perfectly suited to get the results it is getting. Is new language the way to achieve new results? ” username=”@5QCollective”]

For instance, if we persist in using the standard shepherd and teacher frameworks for church planting, then we will inevitably see that the primary purpose of the new plant will be to run worship services and Bible studies. Adopting a broader APEST understanding and vocabulary brings other insights about the functions of the church into play. New possibilities will present themselves. It will reinstate the possibility of the permanent revolution by giving us a broader range of options and opening us up to a multidimensional way of seeing.

[bctt tweet=”If the words we use to talk about church predicates the way the church organizes and operates, imagine what could happen if we re-Gospelized the way we use language in regards to the body of Christ! ” username=”5QCollective”]

Try it: extend your ministry vocabulary, ensure you have a good understanding about the five APEST roles and functions, and watch how the analysis of the situation as well as the capacity to problem-solve will improve.


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