Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Economies of scale; the limits

One of the chief things that plagues us as a people, in my opinion, is our misbegotten belief that we can follow economies of scale to reduce costs to an arbitrarily low level. To a degree, it comes from Adam Smith's "pinmaker" analogy, but probably more from the steam engine.

How so? Well, consider that it's difficult to make a small steam engine--and was far more difficult to do so 100 years ago. Large factories were built to take advantage of available horsepower, and people began to assume that fine specialization and massive economies of scale were the norm.

(interestingly, the diesel engine was Rudolf Diesel's attempt to provide an engine for smaller factories, overcoming efficiencies of scale)

Now certainly this works well in some areas. As Smith tells us, it's hard to make good pins without making a few thousand (or million) of them. However, it's easy to overstate the benefits, as the example of public transit makes clear.

Two really horrendous mis-applications of "economies of scale," in my opinion, are schools and churches. The logic appears sound; why not let those who are best at teaching or preaching do that full-time? Why not allow teachers, or senior pastors, to concentrate on mathematics, history, or preaching, and relieve them of other tasks?

The results, though, are clear; the one room schoolhouse delivered the equivalent of an associate's degree in only eight years of schooling, and Willow Creek Church near Chicago has just admitted that they've done a far better job of filling pews than of making disciples.

It turns out that real education requires far fewer subjects than you'd believe when looking at a typical high school or college coursebook, and making disciples means a little bit more than sitting them in a pew and talking to them, or putting them in a program.

Again, it's probably not something that's going to be a popular message among those who yearn for positions where a single dumb mistake could, as Dave Barry noted, consign thousands of men to joblessness. And yet it is true.


Uncle Ben said...

I noticed that article and made a note of it. Last semester I took a class and got a little peeved when the message seemed to be church growth as opposed to faithfully seeking to do God's will. If we trust the Spirit and seek diligently to do God's will maybe the church will grow and maybe it won't, but we will know that we have done the right thing. I'm amazed that there is such blindness. Then again, maybe I'm not.

Bike Bubba said...

Well, part of "the right thing" isn't said directly in Scripture, but is inferred. How do we, after all, make disciples, as Matthew 28 notes?

If you haven't experienced one on one discipleship, as is the case with most Protestants (even in "fundagelical" circles), then you're not going to know why it doesn't happen when you're with 20,000 of your close personal friends.

pentamom said...

You want to be careful here, though, because Acts 6 gives warrant to the idea that it's desirable to have some men devoted full time to prayer, preaching, and teaching, and not "distracted" with other cares. Peter actually comes right out and says that giving his attention to what would now be called "pressing issues of body life" would be a distraction from the word of God. That's fairly shocking to our ears in some ways, but there you have it.

The flip side, though, is that does NOT mean that a well paid staff of five puts on a weekly or bi-weekly presentation for the edification of passive hundreds or thousands who are expected to just soak it up and somehow become disciples by that means. The rest of the New Testament makes that abundantly clear.

Bike Bubba said...

I'd actually be cautious about a hasty generalization of that passage; the specific text is "waiting on tables," and the adjacent texts show the apostles attending to all kinds of urgent issues in the body, from rebuking sorcerers to leading Gentiles to Christ. You can stay in Acts, and within a couple of chapters of the appointing of the seven, and figure out that the Willow Creek model is wrong, don't you think?

pentamom said...

Oh, absolutely. That's what I meant about "the rest of tne New Testament makes that clear."

But let's think about that "waiting tables" thing. The problem was that people in the church were fighting over who was getting their fair share. I don't think "waiting tables" was literally what was being asked of the apostles -- it was solving a problem of discord in relationships and "I want mine-ism." And here the apostles go and answer, "This problem of people in the church fighting isn't our job to solve, our job is teaching. Find someone else -- some men full of spiritual wisdom, because we recognize this as a spiritual problem -- to do it."

That just blows me away. I'm not saying it's support for a professionalist model -- the church was supposed to pick from among the laymen to solve the problem. But it is a fair place, I think, from which to make the argument that prayer and study (with the end of preaching) are quite "enough" for the teachers of the church to be doing. In support of your point, not against it, interpersonal ministry and discipleship are what's in view here, not passive absorption of professional educators/entertainers.

LuvIAM said...

Seems to me that what the scriptures were really telling us is that we all need to focus on service at a base level. Humble thyself and demonstrate love and sacrifice through service.