While at the airport yesterday, I was watching the systems and procedures and protocols. And I realized something.
There are many areas that the airport can be incredibly efficient. But the more efficient it is, the more dehumanizing it is. It got me to wondering: is this a strict, almost mathematical relationship? As we grow in efficiency do we necessarily shrink in how much we make each other feel like real people?
More importantly, what ramifications does all this have for the church? I have this fear that we’ve made an idol of efficiency. Brought it in to a place where it doesn’t belong. In order to make this point though, consider the airport:
I arrived and stood in the first incredible line. One person directed me the clueless about where to go. At the end of that line a second person printed out boarding passes. He sent me to a third person who sent my bag through the x-ray machine. If something had looked funny a different person would have searched my bag or put it one of those Jimmy Neutron chemical-sniffing devices.
On my way to another a line: the next worker surveyed my I.D. and boarding pass. One set of eyes watched the screen that x-rayed my bag and shoes. Another person watched the metal detector I walked under. At the gate one attendant makes announcements, another takes my boarding pass, another stands in the plane pointing me to my seat.
Something like 7 people in less than an hour. Each person had this little tiny job to do: checking ID’s over and over again all day long. Screening bags all day long. Each person only dealt with me for a matter of seconds.
It occured to me that the airport is effectively a massive conveyer belt. It is an enomourous factory. It churns out travelers who appear safe and pointed in the direction of their destination. The job of getting people to their destinations has been dissected into impossibly small bits. People engage in only one of these bits all day long. Like a worker, tightening the same lug nut on an endless line of cars all day long.
This is not a blog about how annoying airports are. I am not saying that I want somebody to be my airline-provided friend who walks me through every step of the way. The truth is, I can’t imagine how you would make airports work other than by turning passengers into a product, dehumanizing them. There are simply too many people with too many things to do.
There are some unfortunate pieces of fall out from all this, though.
How many of us have been lied to because people know we’ll never see them again? I remember this nightmarish day several years ago of traveling with my three young children and my wife. We ended up with boarding passes all of the plane for the five of us. The guy at the ticket counter smiled and said, “Don’t worry about it. They’ll get it all straightened out on the plane.” Once on the plane as they split us up from our young kids they smiled and said “This should have been straightened out at the ticket counter.”
Two days ago I was supposed to fly home. Our flight was cancelled. Surprisingly, the airport was going to put us up for the night and provide some meals for us. Because (this time) I was flying without kids, this was not particularly a big deal. It was more annoying than exciting, but the idea of being put up in a hotel in a strange city is kind-of exciting.
My fellow-travelers pushed for everything they could get. At the end, the lady promised them rooms that were suites and 24 hour hotel restaurants that they could eat at as soon as they arrived. Coincendtally, these people ended up at the same hotel as me. Niether suites nor 24 hour restaurants. I smiled wryly: my fellow travelers treated the airline worker like a commodity. In my opinion they were unreasonably pushy. The worker pushed back: made promises she probably new (or atleast suspected) were bald-faced lies. But it wasn’t people she was lying to. It was just the product that she was responsible for moving down the metaphorical conveyer belt. The belt wouldn’t be likely to bring them back to her, so she did what she needed to do in order to move them along. She couldn’t care less about the right thing to do, or about how these people felt about her. The whole action was a-moral, personality-less, dehumanizing, on both ends.
Churches and ministries that are succesful by a variety of different measuring sticks have adapted methods that popular in the business world. I think maybe at the sizes they’ve reached this is unavoidable… Or perhaps they reached these sizes by adapting these practices.
At any rate, we have mission statements, wins, organizational flow charts… maybe I’m niave and these have always been around. Certainly the Catholic Church can look more like an organization than an organism. But it seems like we ought to be careful.
It might not be good that business turn everything into a commodity, but at least it’s consistent with what they are supposed to be doing. In the very act of dehumanizing people, the church sells out it’s very reason for existence.
How do we balance efficiency and humanizing people? Is it even possible on a grand scale to mantain a focus on the fact that others are human beings, not products? I know that it is for God: scripture tells us that we’re not headed back to a Garden but that we will enter into this amazing city. It seems like imagining how this city is going to work is a much better model to imitate than the current business models…