Wicked Systems


Anyone who reads this blog knows that I have little patience for attempting to run churches by business principles. That’s been weighed in the scale and found wanting every time it’s been attempted.

Last evening, as I was prepping for an interview I was to conduct with a supply chain expert for one of the world’s most notable companies, I brushed up on William Edward Deming.

Deming had a handful of adherents here in the States, but he was practically deified in Japanese corporations. While his ideas on efficiency and productivity were toyed with elsewhere, the Japanese latched on and rode Deming’s ideas to the top. Acceptance of Deming is why Toyota has thrived, while rejection of his principles is epitomized by GM execs groveling on Capitol Hill.

Deming’s theories include 14 main principles, all of which are intriguing. To me, none grabs like this one:

Eliminate slogans, exhortations, and targets for the work force asking for zero defects and new levels of productivity. Such exhortations only create adversarial relationships, as the bulk of the causes of low quality and low productivity belong to the system and thus lie beyond the power of the work force.

Translation: If the system is broken, it’s a waste of time asking more from the laborers. Instead, fix the system.

I look at this statement of Deming’s not as a prescription, but as an astute observation. Therefore, we can learn from it as Christians without trying to run our churches by it.

When I watch the American Church in action, what passes for leadership is little more than slogans, exhortations, and targets tied around the necks of people who cannot possibly meet leadership’s criteria because they labor in a broken system. Yet who is tackling the broken system? Who is that brave?

You would think Christians, of all people, should be, right?

I believe the singular failure of Evangelicalism in our lifetimes can be tied to its leaderships’ inability to speak to broken systems. Those leaders did not address economics, justice, relationships, work, politics, or anything else from a systemic perspective. As a result, despite the fact that our God is a consuming fire, we have brought His powerful Truth to bear on the fringes, not on the core presence of wicked systems. It’s like using a sword to clean under one’s fingernails, or wielding a napalm-based flamethrower to toast marshmallows. The sword and the flamethrower are intended to do battle with dire enemies, not with a clod of dirt or the raw middle ingredient of a s’more.

The culture wars are one example of the resulting massive failure. For instance, teen pregnancy is a serious issue, but have we addressed it systemically? Or have we fought  it with slogans, exhortations, and targets?

Sadly, our leaders neither waged that battle on a systemic level, nor did they even bother to ask the right questions. (Why? Because those tough questions beg for tougher answers, ones that may ask much of the askers.) In the case of the teen left unsupervised at home after school, why not question why both mom and dad are working? Or ask what it is about the way we work that may make for more children born to teens? Instead, unwilling to tackle the systemic issues of why our society labors as it does, Christian leaders opted for the path of least resistance—and least success.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Christianity provides a unified answer for the whole of life.
Francis Schaeffer

I have always enjoyed reading Schaeffer because he tried to speak to the Church about more than just eliminating defects in the individual or boosting spiritual productivity. Francis SchaefferHe understood that Christians must address broken systems. Unless the Christian brings truth to bear on systems, most larger changes will be superficial—or nonexistent.

Kingdoms are built on systems. The world has its kingdom system and God has His. In the clash of kingdoms, systems must be overthrown for one kingdom to displace the other. Yet where are the Christian leaders who are waging war against systems? Where are the Schaeffers of 2009? It’s been nearly a quarter century since he died, and as far as I can tell, he’s had no successors. And the Church continues to suffer for this lack.

Want to truly change the world for Christ? Start asking tougher questions about the way the world systems work, then bring the Gospel light to bear on the very heart of their darkness.

Now, who out there is going to do just that?

17 thoughts on “Wicked Systems

  1. Diane R

    I read Deming years ago and was impressed with two of his ideas. His basic premise was quality control. Too many bad products were getting through the production line and he felt to stop that we needed better control systems. In other words, let’s pay attention to quality for a while instead of quanitity. I think you see how this applies to churches as you yourself, Dan, write about it in many of your posts. The second thing Deming was concerned with was talking to the little guy on the factory floor BECAUSE he or she knew the product and why it was not coming out right better than the management upstairs who never seemed to come down to the factory floor below to see what was going on. So, in Deming’s system the management needed to get on down there and talk to the factory workers and learn some things from them. I will let you use your imagination as how this could apply in our churches.

  2. windblow

    I think that this is a great insight Dan, particularly the link between disengagement by ordinary Christians when they told to meet targets; “everyone invite two people to church this week” when those targets are essentially out of reach because of systemic problems (why would anyone want to visit this congregation?).

    • Windblow,

      It bothers me that church leaders have often been in professional ministry for so long that they have no idea how the “other half” lives. They wonder why no one comes to Wednesday night meetings, but then they fail to see that working ten hours a day often makes the dad in a household unavailable. And if dad is just trotting through the household door at 7 p.m. after a 45 minute commute and dinner is just now being served, how is church night going to be feasible for anyone in that household?

      The systemic problem may well be a work system that takes dad out of the home for nearly 12 hours a day. Worse, mom may be gone just as long at her job. How does the Church speak to that? Too often, it becomes the biggest cheerleader for the very system that is undermining families and their involvement in the church community! Start a work Bible study or prayer group—is that the answer? Meanwhile the daughter’s boyfriend hangs out after school in an unsupervised household, and the next thing you know…

      We need a Schaeffer to speak to the systemic issue.

  3. Dan,

    I’m jumping up and down here in my home office right now and yelling “Yes, yes! Dan has hit the proverbial nail on the head!” In part, I’m feeling this way because I’ve worked in companies like this (“Office Space” anyone?: “Is this right for the company?”) and I’ve experienced this problem first hand. And since I’ve started blogging and reading others’ blogs, this post rings loudly and clearly.

    Schaeffer’s quote is what I’ve been thinking and feeling more and more especially in the last six months or so. It’s especially poignant as it relates to the issues of our day and those that had so much attention during this last election.

  4. David

    Crickets on this one, Dan…I felt for sure there would be a bit more response, but I suppose you’re preaching to the choir…or people just don’t get it.

    Barna came out with another one of their jaw-dropping conclusions the other day: Less than 1% of American young adults (18 to 23) hold a biblical world view. What is a biblical world view according to Barna?

    A biblical worldview, as defined by the Barna study, is believing that absolute moral truth exists; the Bible is completely accurate in all of the principles it teaches; Satan is considered to be a real being or force, not merely symbolic; a person cannot earn their way into Heaven by trying to be good or do good works; Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; and God is the all-knowing, all-powerful creator of the world who still rules the universe today.

    Pretty straight-forward, isn’t it?

    If anything points to a flawed system, it’s that our children don’t believe. And I think that the secularization of church purpose is the reason. Churches exist today to increase membership, not make disciples.

    We aren’t following our Leader.

    And our children will spend eternity in hell because of it.

    • David,

      Yeah, not a popular subject. I suspect it’s too big. Not something most can get their minds wrapped around. I struggle with it too.

      When people keep wondering why certain initiatives fail, even with good intentions, it’s because we’ve missed the system behind the problem. That’s what needs our attention.

      But let’s face it: We don’t have a lot of folks as brave as Martin Luther was. He went after an entire theological system, one of the hardest kinds of systems to fight.

      I just wish we Christians would think bigger and more boldly.

  5. Why don’t our children have a Christian worldview?

    Do you have a TV in your house? Why?
    Do you send your kids to a public school? Why? Are you sure your parochial school is really a good environment? (You might be surprised.)
    Do the other parents in your congregation send their kids to public school? (I used to be a CCD teacher. You’d be amazed at how destructive your kids’ peers are to your message.)
    Do you model your faith in your home?
    Are your kids with you when you are out doing good works? (Works may not get you into heaven, but you ain’t gettin’ in without good works.)
    Are you feeding your 12-yr-old as you would a child? (Think about this one.)
    There are other hard questions, but the hardest is to look your wife and kids in the eyes and ask them about your witness.
    I am a late-in-life convert. There’s a beam the size of a telephone pole in my own eye. Is it a system failure? Oh, you bet. The biggest failure is in delegating our responsibilities to others, no matter how well-meaning we believe them to be.

    • hoosiertoo,

      As someone who examined the issue of why we can’t seem to pass on our faith to our children, public schools and TV are not the prime boogeymen here. What is? We, the parents and teachers, are about as deep as a kiddie pool. We can’t pass on what we don’t possess.

  6. I agree that Christianity offers the best, most accurate, etc… world view. But what I’ve found, at least with most people I interact with, very few are aware of their own world view. I noticed this when I was in college studying political science, very few of my friends could tell me what they believed and why. How much more difficult is it to express something like faith?

    Of course I don’t think the solution is to lament or complain about the problem (not that anyone here is doing that), instead we need to reach out and help people understand who Jesus really is.

  7. Are you sure they have the Faith itself? i am not. If they do why are so many mean? We need a revival, new wine does not go in old skins. If god is letting this old system die, let us start over. the old paradigm failed.

  8. I have often spoken to friends and aquantinces about the wrong headedness of running a church like a business.
    In the West and particularly here in America we elevate business principals to such a high place that we take for granted that they must be good.
    Anyone who has ever had dealing financially with a church knows what I’m talking about.
    The mega churches and the wannabe megas have taken their clues from the marketeers and see nothing wrong with it.

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