4 The Underlying Theory [2012]

Theory Behind Opal Design Systems

Opal Systems Technical Overview

  • Introduction
  • Components
  • Scope
  • Sources
  • Paradigm Elements
  • Implications

Fractals and the “Espresso of the Thing”

  • Espresso as a Coffee Fractal
  • Tea-Tasting and Fractals

Opal Design Systems ~ The Theoretical Model

  • Five Components of The Opal Design Systems

Opal Pyramid (“Cultural GPS”)

Opal Profiles (Assessment Tools)

Opal Design Systems Training Curriculum

Opal Encounters, Immersions, and Expeditions

Theory Behind Opal Design Systems

Summary. Opal Design Systems is an integrated set of original materials and models, developed by organizational systems designer Brad Sargent. He bases his system elements in a holistic, organic paradigm to train people to observe, analyze, and interpret current cultures, and project forward to what plausible futures those cultures’ DNA holds. These are critical skills for team-based missional enterprises to lead in personal transformation toward Christlike character and social transformation toward “Kingdom culture.” To read about this curriculum’s origin story, see the page About Opal Design Systems.

Opal Systems Technical Overview


This is a moderately technical overview. However, some readers will want this information sooner than later, and I am intentional about accommodating the needs of people with different learning styles. So, I’m including it here.

The version of the technical overview here has been edited from something I wrote in 2009. Even though I have changed the current curriculum somewhat from what is presented here, I still believe it serves as an important reference. It is relevant, whether readers are include to be theoreticians, theologians, practitioners, or – even better to mesh with the complexities of the unfolding holistic paradigm – some combination of those three perspectives.


The Opal Design Systems consists of five elements, all integrated from the same paradigm and with the same purposes: developing biblical ministries that are culturally sensitive, and that are sustainable.

  1. Opal Pyramid – a four-point pyramid representing the set of all possible cultures, plus the possibility of integrating these four “pure type” points into ideal Kingdom Culture, and modeling how cultural dominances and declines occur over time. This is a sort of “spiritual/cultural GPS” tool for locating the position of our own culture, our host culture, and the goal of Kingdom Culture – which happens to be accessible to anyone and any group that chooses to follow Christ.
  2. Opal Profiles – assessment tools on information processing modes, communication styles, teamwork styles and roles in transformation, and cultural fluidity. Results are described as they relate with the Pyramid, so they are integrated with the main theory.
  3. Opal Design Systems Curriculum (formerly titled the Opal Connection Zone Curriculum) – training system of 30 core concepts and 15 skills distributed across seven topic categories (humanity, individuality, community, organizationality, culturology, ecology, futurology). All modules use illustrations from films, media, Encounters labwork, and Immersions and Expeditions.
  4. Opal Encounters – lab experiences with a seven-level simulation game in cultural fieldwork. Each level synthesizes progressively more complex concepts/skills, and also integrates with the Curriculum and the Immersions and Expeditions.
  5. Opal Immersions and Expeditions – installation learnings with concrete and visual media (e.g., games, toys, trading cards), case studies, and community field trips to observe and interpret cultural artifacts and interactions.


Opal Systems offers theologically-informed theories and practitioner tools designed to address:

  • An individual’s or culture’s coherence with one to four “pure type” cultures. Each pure type is based on a specific information processing mode (analytic, synthetic, symbiotic, analogic) which are rooted in linguistics (specifically, comparative discourse analysis and crosscultural communications) and learning style theories.
  • An individual’s or culture’s degree of coherence with the comprehensive, ideal, biblical culture. This “Kingdom Culture” is the social outworking of Christlike character. It is composited from value sets drawn from each of the four pure type cultures, and it excludes extreme versions of those values as they would be toxic.
  • Personal or social transformation toward either ennoblement and good, or corruption and evil, based on movement toward or away from Christlike character and Kingdom Culture.
  • Relative dominance of any cultural paradigm at a given time. This includes external factors – such as global paradigm shifts – that affect cultural ascent or descent, and the relationship of these systems to changes in mega-cultures or civilizations.
  • Various relational stances among cultures, and the potential outcomes of those relationships: Monocultural isolation or hegemony. Crosscultural conflict, culture shock, assimilation, syncretism, countercultural resistance. Multicultural coexistence. Intercultural collaboration.


Opal Systems is based in my own original research and development work that includes:

  • Processing significant personal practitioner experiences (including many apparent “failures”) in church planting, social enterprises, and cross-cultural relationships.
  • Original conceptualizing to create an elegant, comprehensive, organic approach that explains those findings through a set of interactive systems that uses a minimal number of principles, processes, and procedures.
  • Creating primary sources, and finding secondary resources, to explain and illustrate the concepts, and to teach and train people from a variety of learning styles and cultural backgrounds.

Paradigm Elements

In this post-Christendom, post-Western era of global paradigm shifts, it is important to start from ground zero and create a wholly new model based in the emerging holistic paradigm. It won’t work to create a “new” synthesis based in the Hegelian dialectic (the cycle of thesis-antithesis-synthesis), because that keeps the new tied to the old. That’s the ancient problem of old patches on new wineskins. It also won’t work to simply attempt to glue fragments of previous perspectives and disciplines together and call it “new.” That’s the ancient problem of new wine and old wineskins.

For instance, would American politics be fixed if we merged the Republicans and Democrats into one big party and did a mash-up of their platforms? Would it create a truly new paradigm if the progressives, fundamentalists, evangelicals, and emergents of American denominations all joined together for a mega-mega-Church, and then re-created a doctrinal statement by canceling out any items where their previous views conflicted with one another? What would be left?

Opal Systems is my original attempt to design from scratch, using a holistic paradigm, a coherent systems approach to focus on the intersection of deeply biblical ministry, current cultural concerns, and a preferable and sustainable future. (Sometimes I call this discipline by the unfamiliar term culturology to keep people from assuming they know what I mean.) Although many sources have influenced me over the years, I have not developed Opal Systems in response to someone else’s theory. I’ve based it on my own experiences, reflections, and concepts.

To accommodate readers from other backgrounds, here is a list of more traditionally-defined disciplines that capture some of many aspects of the holistic-paradigm Opal Systems:

  • Narrative/biblical theology and, to some degree, systematic theology.
  • Paradigm profiling, analysis, and interpretation of: end-state and instrumental values, worldview integration, operational strategies and structures (i.e., organization forms), cultural styles and lifestyles, collaboration, and ecumenism.
  • Cultural geography, appreciative inquiry/asset mapping, and critical contextualization.
  • Strategic foresight, analysis of cultural trends and drivers, non-linear extrapolation, scenario production.
  • Organic and organizational systems design, research and strategy development, team compositing, project management, genetics, reproducibility, adaptability, sustainability.
  • Virtual ethnography and network mapping.
  • Linguistics, especially cultural implications of comparative rhetorical (discourse) analysis.
  • Theories of creativity and learning styles, andragogy and pedagogy, game theory, simulations and immersion learning experiences for training.
  • Studies in film, multimedia, and hypermedia to enhance written, relational, and verbal training processes through use of complementary visual media sources.
  • Geometry and mathematical modeling, fractals, set theory, paradox, parallax, and optimality theory.
  • Macrohistory, eco-systems, complexity theory, and other meta-pattern approaches to various ways that elements integrate to create systems.


In traditional, modernist, analytic paradigms, Opal Systems would be considered “interdisciplinary” – requiring theoreticians and practitioners to be generalists and draw from multiple separate academic disciplines. That is certainly not favored in a world of academia dominated by specialists. However, within emerging, “postmodern,” holistic paradigms, Opal materials would be considered as stemming from their preferred paradigm that emphasizes systems.

This means Opal Design Systems components are rooted in a relatively comprehensive set of generalist perspectives and practices that are already interconnected, integrated, and interdependent – not specialist approaches that are dissected, isolated, and independent. Here are some expected outcomes of that kind of holistic and elegant approach to interpreting cultures:

  • If these various system aspects have been considered well, the resulting concepts inherently include qualitative information that can be used for planning and assessment, both of personal growth for individuals and of social transformation within any size group.
  • If the mathematical modeling of the system works well, it will demonstrate important principles visually. Also, all quantitative measurements (e.g., absolute location of a cultural GPS location point, relative distance between points, sources of lines and surface area, triangulation, volume, density, etc.) will be theoretically meaningful and have practical implications for actions social transformation practitioners should take to catalyze change.
  • If the training systems have been constructed well, they will validate and equip both disciples who are more analytic in their approach to application and those who are more intuitive.
  • If the training systems have been well designed, using multiple learning styles, the content modules and practical experiences will accommodate the needs of people from a wide range of learner types. This in turn should facilitate easier and stronger team-building, as the curriculum has already prepared the way by seeking to get different kinds of people “on the same page” by customizing the same material for their various learning style strengths.

All of these have significant implications on our potential for collaboration across differences of paradigms, generations, and system design methods.  And if we cannot figure out how to do more than merely co-exist in a world of shifting paradigms, we will never be able to embody the degree of Kingdom Culture that will draw out transformation in the lives of individuals and groups. But isn’t that kind of change exactly what we’re here for?

Well, we’ve gone through the origin stories related to the Opal Design Systems, and an overview of what I’ve developed in this Systems’ theoretical framework. The next section, Fractals and “The Espresso of the Thing” takes a more light-hearted approach to looking at the mathematical concept of fractals. Since fractals are woven throughout the entire Opal Design Systems, this will prove noteworthy.

Fractals and “The Espresso of the Thing”

Summary: Using analogies from some of our favorite hot drinks, this section presents a fun way to look at fractals, an aspect of the concept of “scale” which comes up repeatedly in holistic-paradigm practices.

I mention fractals occasionally in my futuristguy posts. Without getting too technical about this highly mathematical (and cool!) concept, let me just say that at their most basic level, fractals are about how the macro-bits of a substance exhibit the same essence, pattern, or impact as the micro-bits – only on a larger scale or with more strength.

Meanwhile, if you’re still bewildered or bothered by the concept of fractals, let me try a linguistic approach. The term fractal is a slice-and-splice word made up of the first half of FRAC-tion plus the last half of to-TAL. In a fractal, we see the same substance, principle, or process appearing in any part of the total. A practical and metaphorical way I’ve illustrated this idea is with one of my favoritest (flavoritest?) of all substances – coffee!

Espresso as a Coffee Fractal

If you are a coffee lover, you might know already about some of the versatility of espresso. These concentrated shots of caffeine can be drunk straight up, undiluted by extra water or any other additive. Or, they can be mixed in with a myriad of elements to make all sorts of delicious beverages.

The thing is, there’s the same amount of caffeine from a shot of espresso, whether it is undiluted in a small container, or put into a large mug and boiling water added, for instance, to create a Café Americano. The overall amount (or dare I say, “dosage”?) is the same, even if the concentration is spread out in a larger mug for this diluted version. Thus, I think espresso makes an excellent illustration for the concept of fractal as a principle of presence and concentration. And so, sooner or later, you’re bound to see me use the expression, “The espresso of the thing” to refer to the essential nature of something which appears in multiple variations. In other words, the “espresso” is whatever element ends up fractalized.

Tea-Tasting and Fractals

Okay, since I now have a number of British friends, I certainly should use a metaphor from the world of tea, since that is a preferred beverage in their homeland. So, here’s a fractal story on tea.

In college, I had a lot of international student friends. One of them was Gerry. He was from Singapore, and his father was a professional tea taster. Gerry gave a fascinating description of what these tea buyers do – and I’m sure I’ve got the details on numbers of servings and minutes wrong (though I’ve been trying to do research to get accurate numbers) , but I’m pretty sure I have the essence of the story right.

Anyway, as Gerry shared it, the tea company sent his father into the tea fields to taste samples made from various batches of  leaves that had been harvest and prepared. He’d pour boiling water into a one-serving teapot that held enough tea to brew 10 servings. Then he’d cover the teapot and let the leaves steep for 10 minutes. The resulting tea would turn out so strong that Gerry’s dad usually only had to take one sip to know the quality of that lot of leaves. Were these leaves high quality that could be used by themselves, medium quality to be mixed with other batches for a reasonable blend, used alone or mixed for a low-grade tea, or completely unusable? The answer was in the taste test from espresso of tea, as it were – or perhaps we could call it tea liqueur to remove the homage to coffee. If the macro tasted good – the brewed tea itself – that could only happen if the micro was good – the leaves, and vice versa. If the leaves were bad, so would the tea be. So, in fractals, macro and micro are intimately related. It’s just a matter of intensity or scale.

Well, enough on fractals for the moment. We’ll be using them on occasion, as I mentioned. And with that, on to the next section, which introduces the Opal Design Systems for researching and interpreting cultures!

Opal Design Systems ~ The Theoretical Model

Five Components of The Opal Design Systems

As mentioned earlier, Opal Systems consists of five components, all integrated with the same paradigm and purposes:

  1. Opal Pyramid
  2. Opal Profiles
  3. Opal Design Systems Curriculum (formerly called the Opal Connection Zone Curriculum)
  4. Opal Encounters
  5. Opal Immersions and Expeditions

1. Opal Pyramid – a four-dimensional, four-point pyramid representing the set of all possible cultures, plus the possibility of integrating these four “pure type” points into ideal Kingdom Culture, and modeling how cultural dominances and declines occur over time.

The Opal Pyramid was the earliest formal element I developed in what became the Opal Design Systems. The Pyramid came directly out of my disappointing experiences of a ministry meltdown during a premature church plant that merged with a declining church. I finished editing my first version of the Opal Pyramid model for cultural interpretation late in 2002. It took me at least six months of processing and writing. That initial dissertation was 250 pages of my own understanding of relevant theology, academic theory on cultures, and implications for ministry practitioners who wanted to contextualize their ministry without succumbing to syncretism. (Note: I apologize for presenting the following in words only. I do have a many geometric figures in development to illustrate the concepts, and the beginnings of many of the assessment metrics are in place. But finishing this advanced material cannot be my priority until Modules 1-8 are completed.)

The Opal Pyramid used an equilateral triangular pyramid to model various aspects of cultural existence:

  • Cultural Values – The four points of the pyramid represent four “pure type” cultures based on information processing styles (see details below). Each way of processing information carries with it typical values. Because the absolute center of the pyramid represents the point of a comprehensive, integrated set of biblical values, the center represents balanced, intercultural “Kingdom Culture.” Thus, the surface of the pyramid represents the tolerable limit of an exceptionally strong expression of those core biblical values, and the region outside the pyramid represents the negation of biblical values (i.e., sin and evil). In other words: The core/center is dense with integrated ways of processing information (all of which are reflections of God’s image) and dense with biblical values and worldview perspectives. The farther away from the Kingdom Culture core a culture’s location lies, the less dense the biblical content it has, until its own centerpoint reaches the surface of the pyramid or the area outside the pyramid.
  • Cultural Identity – The location of a specific culture in a three-dimensional pyramid represents its unique set of values from the universe of values. Its relative location in that space represents the equivalent of its “cultural GPS” reading.
  • Cultural Distance – The physical distance between two different cultures within the pyramid represents the similarities and differences in their overall sets of values, strengths of those values, and where the relative “gaps” and “excesses” likely cause “culture clash.” Since the cultures used can be those of an individual or a group (e.g., small group, tribe, organization, business, city, nation, or movement), the Opal Pyramid system allows modeling cross-cultural interactions (and “cultural clash”), including those of cultural change agents.
  • Cultural Change – The model assumes that the goal of social change is to move ever closer to the core set of Kingdom Culture values. This process of cultural transformation begins at the point of current cultural identity, which creates a unique trajectory toward the center – including false (anti-biblical) values that must be shed, good (biblical) values that must be integrated in, weak (not-yet-dense) values that must be repaired and strengthened. Because broken or missing values may be “off the radar” for a culture, its members should find it of help having a change agent present whose personal and social cultural identity includes at least some of the missing values needed. When two (or more) cultural presences work together, they can composite a more comprehensive resource set of values and practices toward achieving the goal of Kingdom Culture.
  • Culture Shock – Any trajectory begins with overcoming inertia, and then sustaining effort to keep on track and on target. Although the pyramid does not model this aspect directly, there may be ways it shows the presence of culture shock/resistance to change in the cultural transformation process when tracking the trajectory.

The pyramid uses four “pure type” cultures based on epistemology and information processing styles: Convergent or analytic, Divergent or synthetic, Mergent or symbiotic, and Submergent or analogic. These four epistemologies parallel four immaterial aspects of our humanity: mind (analytic/black-and-white thinking), imagination (synthetic/bringing together vast amounts of information in order to spin out numerous possibilities for the future), emotions (symbiotic/relational warmth and concern for bringing people together in health relationships), and soul (analogic/paradoxical reflection on actions and their meanings).

These four are combined by a fifth processing style: compositing, which parallels the volitional aspect of our immaterial being. We choose to move toward being intercultural because that represents an inclusive and truthful learning community, where we seek to help each other fill in our spiritual gaps and file off our toxic tips. Volition or will represents the choice of where the dense centerpoint is in our own cultural pyramid system , and that centerpoint gives us the measure of our composited overall distance from the home base or centerpoint of intentionally integrated Kingdom Culture. And that Kingdom Culture centerpoint represents the “transcultural” or universal moral, ethical, and wisdom principles that should be in every culture.

This five-element system fits with an intriguing quote from an author and preacher from a previous generation:

A basic trouble is that most Churches limit themselves unnecessarily by addressing their message almost exclusively to those who are open to religious impression through the intellect, whereas … there are at least four other gateways – the emotions, the imagination, the aesthetic feeling, and the will – through which they can be reached. ~ A.J. Gossip (1873-1954)

(Sidenote: How often can we pass on Gossip and it not be a sin?!)

So – putting it all together – the Opal Pyramid allows assessment of a given individual’s or social group’s relative position to Kingdom Culture in a three-dimensional representation of all cultural spaces. And the underlying theory then allows for determining probable issues of cultural bridges and barriers between any two points (or centerpoints) in that three-dimensional space. This means people who desire to work cross-culturally could identify the “cultural distance” between themselves and their culture of interest, discern accordingly how suited they are/are not for working in that setting, explore the specific issues of culture shock they can expect, and make an informed decision on whether or not they choose to enter that culture.

Since this cultural theory includes the target goal of “Kingdom Culture” (what God intends as universal principles for every culture that is transformed by Christ while still maintaining a unique and distinctive cultural fingerprint of where they came from), that means you could “triangulate a trajectory” among (1) an individual who serves in an indigenous or cross-cultural situation, (2) the host culture he or she works within, and (3) Kingdom Culture. And, when you take this three-dimensional model into a fourth-dimension, you can simulate the effects of global culture change over time as to which underlying epistemologies or pure type cultures are in the ascendancy and which are in decline internationally.

This was not all exactly new to me. I had already been considering cultures for a very long time by the early 2000s. My studies really got rolling in the mid-1990s, when I turned an interest in the creation of subcultures into case studies of emerging “postmodern” ministries in the later 1990s. In 1997, I also did an extended case study on cyberpunks as a “hidden people group.” But it took grieving the loss of a potential intercultural ministry to spur me into doing the deep work needed to create the Opal Pyramid … and I do actually look forward to when I can apply transformational geometry and mathematical modeling to simulate forms of spiritual transformation in the Opal Design Systems!

Opal Profiles (Assessment Tools)

2. Opal Profiles – assessment tools on information processing modes, communication styles, teamwork styles and roles in transformation, and cultural fluidity. Results are described as they relate with the Opal Pyramid, so they are integrated with the main theory.

So – I was learning from a situation of apparently unhealthy leadership and ministry breakdown on the way to potentially becoming intercultural. Meanwhile, it occurred to me experiencing unsuccessful teamwork didn’t necessarily help in understanding who could actually best facilitate a healthy and successful intercultural teamwork environment. But since I come from a strongly multicultural background myself (both of my parents exhibited many characteristics of what Jesus called, “people of peace”), I started seeing Scripture in a different light. I concluded that a particular kind of intercultural people, whom I called interpolators, seemed to show up in the middle of drastic cultural change situations – like what we’re undergoing globally these days – and make a positive difference.

In the late 1990s, I’d noticed such a pattern among the many teens and twenty-somethings in the Bible whose historical accounts we have: Esther, Ruth, Mary the mother of Jesus, David, Daniel, Timothy, Titus, and others. Such young men and young women as these were all at least bicultural, and many were living in a crucial time of cultural upheaval. And, intriguingly, each seemed to have an older generation mentor. For instance, Esther was of Jewish descent, though living in exile in a gentile nation, and Mordecai mentors her to use her providential position as queen to help deliver the Jews from genocide. Timothy apparently is bicultural as well, with a Jewish mother and a gentile father. He emerges as a leader in the critical early years of the Church, and his mentor, Paul, is tricultural – a Jew and a Roman citizen, reared in a gentile nation.

So … how do we identify interpolators and other kinds of cross-cultural workers in this day and age? That’s what the Opal Profiles set the stage to do.

After I completed the Opal Pyramid, the next segment of the Opal Systems to emerge was the Opal Profiles. I did the initial development mostly in 2003-2004. These assessment tools help identify the kinds of roles individuals can best play on a team that attempts to composite multiple cultures into an intercultural Kingdom Culture church, ministry, or other spiritual entrepreneurship endeavor. All emerge from the assumptions of strength-based ministry, that God has created us different in our processing abilities and gifts and cultural fluidity, and that these differences mean any and all people could participate and produce, not just consume. Weaknesses and missing abilities cannot always be overcome by more training; we are usually more successful when we just let people work in their providential areas of strength. (But well supervised/facilitated, of course, lest any particular person or strength gets overdone and thus, the effort of teamwork gets undone!) Thus, each person can play a specific role in helping make a difference for the Kingdom. The Opal Profiles also rely heavily on aspects of learning style theories, a fascinating topic which I’ve continued to study since 1997, when I was introduced to them by Dr. Kathy Koch of Celebrate Kids, Inc.

Opal Profiles also rely on an integrated or “fractal” approach: what is true for something at the most simple level of being an organism or in a system, is also true at each more complex/sophisticated level of interaction between that organism or system and any other part within it or anything outside it. So, what people who take the assessment tools find out about themselves as individuals theoretically “in isolation,” also helps them understand better how they function in ways consistent with that when they’re in such communal settings as:

  • Their own primary information processing culture, and their main identity subculture(s) within the larger cluster of that particular approach to processing information. This is assessed in the Opal Integration Styles instrument.
  • The Opal Discipleship Communication Styles instrument assesses everyday communications (and probable miscommunications and disconnects) with others.
  • The Opal Teamwork Styles and Cultural Roles instrument assesses roles in small groups and teams.
  • The Opal Cultural Fluidity Potentials instrument assesses cultural settings that could involve cross-cultural conflict and/or high levels of culture shock stress – such as business work groups, social groups, international travel, etc.

For instance, using this approach, someone who naturally focuses just on analyzing detail and making lists and flowcharts, will generally prefer debate as their dominant communication style. (Debate focuses on comparing and contrasting of details between systems, and assumes people are motivated to make decisions based on having clear and “convincing, logical” information about why their system is right and my system is wrong.) They will also tend to gravitate toward hierarchical authority structures on teams, churches, and political systems – as these likewise embody black-and-white thinking and step-by-step approaches to tasks, processes, and social change.

There are some cultures where this set of detail-debate-hierarchy traits would be viewed as completely positive and necessary, whereas other cultures would consider the exact same set as utterly toxic! If a detail-debate-hierarchy person does not become more “culturally fluid,” he or she will likely find any kind of cross-cultural encounters very stressful; his/her primary culture holds such a high value on being clear and accurate and “right,” that there is no mental perception or passionate value on encountering or incorporating “otherness.” And individuals from many other kinds of cultures simply will not tolerate that. Thus, everyone in the encounter misses out on some clarity in thinking and in truth that they need, because they have let the perceived (or actual!) negativity in the style of the deliverer put them off from hearing the truths underneath what was delivered.

In short, the ways we process life as individuals and cultures automatically set us up for specific relationships of culture clash with those who process life differently from us. They also set us up for culture shock if our typical way of processing life conflict with social changes. However, the main point is that these different styles and roles can work together and are all “of a piece.” They can be composited to create a seamless, coherent set that manifests compatible traits at all levels. This set includes: information processing modes, personal and social values, communications, teamwork, authority structures, and potential for cross-cultural fluidity. These are the major dimensions assessed and described in the Opal Profile tools.

Opal Design Systems Training Curriculum

3. Opal Design Systems Curriculum (formerly titled the Opal Connection Zone Curriculum, as it was focused on creating spaces for intercultural teamwork) – training system of 30 core concepts and 15 skills distributed across seven topic categories (humanity, individuality, community, organizationality, culturology, ecology, futurology). All modules use illustrations from films, media, Encounters labwork, and Immersions and Expeditions.

Although that catalyzing church plant experience in the early 2000s initially took me in the direction of studying cultures and how to composite intercultural entities, it took me in another direction later: organizational systems. Two years after exiting that difficult church plant experience, I stumbled across an intriguing quote in a booklet. It summarizes much of what I eventually learned from my reflections on how we organize and who we put in charge.

The organization can never be something the people are not. ~ Price Pritchett in The Ethics of Excellence

As with my earlier passing on a quote from Gossip, this has its own ironies: How often can you give a “Price quote” that has nothing to do with money, but could have a lot to do with costs?

My experiences and this quote helped me take a deeper look at how the ways we organize ourselves can lead to health or toxicity, and how the roles and expectations we give our “leaders” can structure whether others become passive consumer-enablers or active producer-participants. In the late 2000s, I processed a deeper level of that long-ago church plant and other difficult church/ministry experiences. I detailed many of my findings when I blogged 80,000-plus words in 2008 on toxic organizations and leadership styles. (You’ll find most of that material is in my futuristguy blog category on Recovery from Spiritual Abuse.)

Those years of reflection also incorporated my additional training and experiences in strategic foresight (also known as futurology – studies of the future). These insights proved important to considering how particular ways of organizing affect a group’s possibilities for the future. Will an organization’s people be flexible enough to adapt to changing cultural environments, or not? Will they passively just let the future unfold around them? Or will they discern, choose, and pursue what is a more preferable and constructive course?

Meanwhile, I continued to think through my experiences and write on other topics relevant to the overall theme of missional ministry and cultural contextualization. Eventually, I figured out that, since the mid-1990s, I’d written over a million words – not all of them worth reading, of course. But even those excess words helped clarify my thinking. (I typically process my questions through discussion and writing.) Finally, in 2009, it seemed time to stop writing and begin editing. This two-year editing project (which was beta-tested by a small missional/cultural studies group) served as the first draft of the Opal Design Systems Curriculum.

This Curriculum brings together four major concept and skill sets needed for healthy ministry contextualization:

  • Culturology identifies where a culture currently stands in its values, beliefs, and behaviors.
  • Kingdom Culture offers a portrait of what an ideal, transcultural biblical culture looks like. In other words, what all of Christ’s disciples of all races, places, times, and spaces should be and do – as individuals and as gatherings of the Church. (Using the theological principle of theodicy – that God is in the process of declaring Himself righteous and just and loving before the watching universe – we can study issues of evil and their manifestation in the “kingdom counterfeit” that opposes Kingdom Culture.)
  • Futurology helps a culture’s people decide their preferred future, in terms of what they want to be, become, and do.
  • Organizational systems design helps people tie all these things together and get intentionally organized to get there. (Organization will happen, whether we want it to or not. So, our choice is to be both intuitive and intentional about how that happens, or let it happen haphazardly.)

The Curriculum also explores seven areas that contribute to building an intercultural Opal Connection Zone. This multicultural-to-intercultural encounter zone moves people toward Kingdom Culture. When we composite cultures and embrace “the social other,” we have the opportunity to facing fill in our spiritual gaps and filing off our toxic topics.

There are three to eight topics in each of these seven areas, along with two or three practical skills that naturally arise from each area:

  • Humanity – General aspects of being image-bearers of God, how they shape us both to individuals and cultures. They include gender, sexuality, generations, tribes, race, nations, and civilizations.
  • Individuality – Specific aspects of individual being (like learning styles and creativity) and how we grow (spiritual formation, maturity).
  • Community – What brings us together as groups and communities, and how do we keep from splitting apart over difficulties and differences.
  • Organizationality – Our leadership systems, whether our ways of organizing lead to healthy or toxic impact, and ways to look at the processes of change.
  • Culturology – How cultures come together, change, and transfer their legacies to next generations. Ways of looking at cultures, and six kinds of cultural workers in Kingdom enterprises.
  • Ecology – Our relationship with the earth. Organic models for a diverse range of Kingdom enterprises that are viable, reproducible, and sustainable. Toxic clean-up when organizations go awry.
  • Futurology – Core skills of strategic foresight and keeping on a constructive Kingdom trajectory as individuals, communities, and cultures.

The first volume in the Opal Design Systems Curriculum is slated for release early in 2012.

Opal Encounters, Immersions, and Expeditions

4. Opal Encounters – lab experiences with a seven-level simulation game in cultural fieldwork. Each level synthesizes progressively more complex concepts/skills, and also integrates with the Curriculum and the Immersions and Expeditions.
5. Opal Immersions and Expeditions – installation learnings with concrete and visual media (e.g., games, toys, trading cards), case studies, and community field trips to observe and interpret cultural interactivity.

Besides offering content and skills, all modules in the Opal Design Systems Curriculum will integrate several other layers of training sources:

  • Film studies, which put concepts into a narrative framework, and that helps learners apply principles and practices to realistic situations of real people.
  • Simulation game segments, which give learners a safe setting in which to try their hand at applying cultural interpretation and contextualization as individuals and as teams. (Opal Encounters.)
  • Immersion learning exercises and community expeditions, which apply framework concepts and fieldwork skills in real-world settings and also train participants in skills of teamwork building through practical experiences. (Opal Immersions and Expeditions.)

Each of these layers may hold more appeal to participants of particular learning styles, but everyone using the full Opal Design Systems approach needs to learn from them all. Again, from a strength-based approach, we all have areas in which we “shine” because they are easy for us. We also all have areas in which we have to “stretch” because they aren’t so easy for us.

If we do not choose to pursue both stretching and shining as individuals, how quickly we end up creating an organizational culture that has huge gaps where we ourselves as leaders do! (Remember Price Pritchett, “The organization can never be something the people are not.”) Also, how quickly we end up creating an organizational culture that only reflects our preferred strengths. (Think of the negative form of reverse  Price Pritchett statement – as in, “The organization can only be something the people are.”) Keeping a balance between stretching and shining helps us work toward an intercultural connection zone where we regularly remember our need for the providential differences of others, so we all can cover what others lack and together create an organizational system that corporately shines.

I developed the initial framework for the Opal Encounters simulation game in the very late 1990s and early 2000s. Editions of an introductory version and of the first of seven levels were run in the early 2000s. There is a significant amount of development work remaining, but that should be far easier once the Opal Design Systems Curriculum has been completed, because the simulation game needs to reflect the finalized set of concepts and ministry skills found there.

Along the way of developing all these other Opal components, I have brainstormed learning experiences that don’t rely just on words and books. Culture includes so many other elements, that it makes sense to explore them, too, as a way of understanding the complexity and impact of cultural systems. And so, in various stages of completion, are a large number of experience-based learning opportunities.

These Opal Immersions and Expeditions are in various stages of development and completion, but they do range across the entire scope of the Opal Design Systems Curriculum and help give it a much richer learning texture. The final selections might include studying a film and all the products that are created from it – press kits, action figures, posters, manga, games, etc. Or it might be a guided field trip to a Holistic Health Fair in order to observe, analyze, and interpret the paradigms and cultures of people who present teachings or run exhibition area booths.

All of these products and experiences contain marketing messages, and marketing is, in part, about cultural contextualization … or at least about consumer customization. There is much to learn from them without our ministries pandering to spiritual consumerism.