Is Efficiency Godly?

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…


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The stories that speak to our soul begin at a home where things are good. Cinderella is happy with her father. The three little pigs have grown up and are ready to move on. Bilbo Baggins knows his shire. Adam and Eve walk with God in the garden. My story isn’t much different. There was a time and a place where it was so good. There was a community for me. And there was joy. We were filled with a sincere desire to do what God wanted us to do. We possessed explanations and understandings that went a certain distance. We offered security and tradition and laughter. For a lot of years, that was enough. I have this sense that it was also necessary. I have this surety, now, that it certainly wasn’t everything. There were some things that became increasingly problematic as time went by. There was a desire to package things up so very neatly. Sunday morning services were efficient and strategic. Responses to differences of opinion were premeditated. Formula began to feel more important than being real. A real desire for everybody to be one of us, but also a real sense that there is an us, and there is a them. They carried a regret that it has to be this way, but deeper than this regret was a surety that this is how it is. I began to recognize that there was a cost of admission to that group. There were people who sat at the door, collecting it. Those people wished they didn’t have to. But I guess they felt like they did have to. They let some people in, and they left others out. There was a provisional membership. My friends did possess a desire to accommodate people that are different… But it would be best for everyone concerned if they were only a little bit different. I did make many steps forward in this place. Before I went there, there were lies that I believed. Some of the things that I learned there, I still hold on to. But that place is not my home anymore. Those people are not my community anymore. There were times it was hard. I am engaged in a different community now. And I am working hard at finding a place in many different places now, embracing many different kind of families. I don’t always get it right. I am trying and I am learning and I am moving foreward. I have this sense that I am not alone in these experiences. I believe that we are tribe and we are growing. We are pilgrims, looking for a new holy land. Perhaps we won’t settle on the same spot of land. But if you’ve read this far, I am thinking that we are probably headed in the same general direction. I have begun this blog to talk about where my journey is taking me. In every space, we find people who help us along. And maybe we can get to know each other, here. We embrace ideas that provide a structure for the things we believe, and perhaps we can share these too. Maybe we can form a group, a tribe, a community, if we can figure out a way to work through the shadow of these kinds of groups, if we can bigger than the us-and-them ideas that have caused so much trouble in the past. As important as they are, I think the very nature of online interactions will lend itself to something equally powerful. I am stumbling onto these practices that my grandfathers and great grandfathers in the faith engaged in. I am learning about these attitudes and intuitions are so different than the kinds of things we call doctrine today. I don’t know about you, but I am running out of patience, and even interest, in conversations about doctrine. I hope that maybe you’ll share a little something about where your journey is taking you, and maybe our common joys and challenges might help each other along, and we might lift each other up. Thanks for doing this journey with me.

One thought on “Is Efficiency Godly?”

  1. I’ve been following Christ for over 40 years. Maybe it’s just me but the megachurch experience always depresses me. And I think your comments offer a good clue as to why. I just have a hard time imagining Christ or the apostles creating these corporate gospel personality cultures.


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