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The Invisible Gorilla in the Room

29 Mar Leadership, Student Ministry | Comments Off on The Invisible Gorilla in the Room
The Invisible Gorilla in the Room

Maybe you remember this story from your days back  in Intro to Psych…

Inattentional Blindness

In 1999, a behavioral scientist named Dan Simmons set up an experiment at the University of Illinois in which participants were asked to watch a short film. In the film, six people half dressed in white t-shirts and the other half in black t-shirts were seen moving around a room passing two basketballs back and forth. The participants were told to count the number of times the basketballs were passed by one team.

Partway through the film, a person dressed in a gorilla costume walks calmly through the group, briefly pausing in the middle to pound their chest. All told, the gorilla was on screen for nine seconds of a 90 second video clip. Afterward when participants were asked about the gorilla, 54% of people had no idea there had been a gorilla in the film.

Over half of the people missed a life-sized gorilla right in front of their eyes!

The researchers labeled this behavior inattentional blindness or perceptual blindness and described it as our tendency to miss something fully visible simply because we didn’t attend to it. Just to prove it wasn’t a fluke, another group of scientists had similar results with a study in which a brightly colored clown on a unicycle rode past people while they were using their cellphones.

When I think about the gorilla story, I can’t help but ask, “What gorillas have I been missing in my own life because of inattentional blindness?” Are there dangers, conflicts, problems in my life that have simply gone overlooked?

And before we get too pessimistic, those gorillas needn’t always be bad things, sometimes we’re missing very good things. What divine appointments, sacred moments, or burning bushes have I walked past simply because I couldn’t see them in plain sight? It reminds me of Jacob at Bethel saying, “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I was not aware of it” (Gen 28:16).

The Invisible Gorillas in Student Ministry

It also begs the question, “What gorillas have I been missing in my ministry? What big, hairy animals have gone completely overlooked in my youth room?” (And don’t say the Jr. High guys!) Of course, if we could answer that question they wouldn’t be invisible gorillas, would they? So perhaps, we should be asking a different question.

Why do we get so fixated on some things that
we completely miss other things that are in plain sight?

The behavioral scientists responsible for the study concluded that perceptual blindness was the result of too much input. They said that as human beings its impossible to pay attention to every single input that is presented to us. As a result we start to selectively see what’s around us.

Consider this in the context of a margin-busting, perpetually busy ministry calendar and add in an ever-changing, constantly redefining youth culture and you’ve got a recipe for a lot of invisible gorillas in your ministry.

Opportunities for transformation, threats to health or safety, divine encounters and sacred moments, sparks of renewal and foreshadows of burnout… all kinds of things right in front of us that simply go unnoticed.

3 Ideas for Seeing with New eyes

We could say a lot more about inattentional blindness and identifying the invisible gorillas in the room, but perhaps a good place to start changing is by learning to see with new eyes. Let me share 3 simple ideas that I’ve found helpful, but then please add your own ideas in the comments section below.This is the kind of issue that can only ever be addressed well within a community coming to the conversation with a lot of different perspectives.

1. Be intentional to step out of your mental box on a regular basis.

It’s easy to find yourself with mental blinders on when you’ve allowed yourself to fixate on the one thing in front of you. My wife refers to it as being in a box. “Oh, Aaron’s in his grading box… you might want to wait to ask your question.” While focusing on one thing is sometimes great and completely necessary to get the job done, at other times it fuels our inattentional blindness. Make a habit of regularly stepping back and looking around, you’ll be surprised what you might notice for the first time. It might mean disengaging from students during your Wednesday night service and for 2-3 minutes to take a walk around the room and notice what is and isn’t happening.

2. Invite in an outsider to be a fly on the wall.

Invite someone into observe your ministry who comes from a completely different context. Ask them to simply observe the night and make mental notes of what they notice. What excited them? What confused them? What questions were they left with? A lot of things that we assume to be obvious or clear, might not be, and the honest feedback of an outsider might be one of the best ways to bring it to light. Perhaps you invite in a local high school teacher – they see your students in a very different context every week. Maybe its inviting in the parent of a 4th grader – they don’t have teens yet, but they’ve got questions. It might even be to invite another youth pastor in to observe – its a far more common practice in other professions.

3. Lead your ministry through a SWOT analysis.

On a broader level, inviting your youth ministry team into the conversation can be a huge benefit. The addition sets of eyes can help see things that you’d otherwise miss. SWOT stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats, and a SWOT analysis is a processing tool designed to identify the key factors facing your ministry. For more info on the SWOT analysis, check out this Wikipedia Article.

Without giving your answers first, ask your volunteers, parents, and key students to list out what they think your ministry’s top strengths and weaknesses are, what huge opportunities and important threats might be looming on the horizon. Fill a white board with ideas and then ask them to narrow it down to their top five and then their top three in each category. You might be surprised with what they come up with. You might never look at your youth ministry the same way again.

What would you add to the list?

What are some ways by which you’ve been able to stretch your perspective, return your perceptions, and identify the invisible gorillas in your room? We’d love to hear your thoughts, please add them to the conversation below!

Aaron Brown
Professor of Student Min at Lancaster Bible College
Aaron Brown is an Assistant Professor of Student Ministry at Lancaster Bible College in Lancaster, PA. He attended Biola University and Talbot School of Theology. Before coming to LBC, he was the Sr. High Director at Living Word Community Church in Red Lion, PA. Aaron serves as the Project's editor and web guy.