Gods of This World: Efficiency
One of the prized values in commerce since at least the Industrial Revolution is efficiency. The drive toward efficiency, in fact, often powered the Industrial Revolution, leading to the assembly line among other innovations that has led to quicker production with fewer costs. Companies are willing to spend a lot of money to find ways to become more efficient, reducing waste and increasing productivity.
Efficiency is also a prized value when it comes to energy consumption. We have seen significant movement toward making homes, offices, and automobiles more energy-efficient. Energy efficiency is seen as a “win-win” situation: the consumer saves money by cutting down on waste, and there is correspondingly less demand for oil, gas, and electricity.
Thus there is no doubt that efficiency is valuable and has its place. In many senses, efficiency is an indication of good stewardship since it cuts down on waste (cf. 1 Corinthians 4:2).
Yet there can be a darker side to efficiency, as everyone who has ever attempted to call customer service for many products and services knows. It is more efficient for the company to have automated systems answer the call; it is hardly efficient for the consumer. The consumer is often left to feel flustered by the circumstances and more like a number than a person.
While efficiency may work wonders for processes and in mechanical terms, it poses more challenges in the realm of interpersonal relationships. Efficiency tends to be a cold, heartless master, often leading to lost jobs, inhumane conditions, and a contributor to the loss of community in many places.
Nevertheless, efficiency has become a “god of this world,” a self-evident standard that is to be accepted as good in every circumstance. Since it has worked so well, by all appearances, for industry, commerce, and business since the Industrial Revolution, it must therefore be a higher good in any situation. Few will come out and say such things; their actions and reasoning behind various actions demonstrate its fruit.
In the spiritual realm, the quest for efficiency is most evident in how assemblies are turned more into performances, the popularity of fellowship halls, and the practice of churches giving its financial resources to benevolent organizations.
Many churches want to keep to a set schedule and frown upon anything that may take longer than is expected. While it is true that everything done in the assembly should be accomplished decently and in order (cf. 1 Corinthians 14:40), there is no indication that this means that everything must be timed precisely and given the feel of a performance. The assembly is designed for the encouragement and edification of its constituents, not their entertainment or display (cf. 1 Corinthians 14:26, Hebrews 10:25).
Giving church resources to benevolent organizations and the building and use of fellowship halls became strongly popular in waves in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in the heyday of the Industrial Revolution. Such practices are often justified either by an appeal to the ability to do so, or, more often, because that way more people can be fed with fewer resources.
Now, if efficiency were the standard for feeding saints and non-saints, then perhaps that would be commendable. But the point has never been to just feed as many people as possible with as few resources as necessary. It also has to do with showing love and compassion and reflecting Christ to others (cf. Romans 8:29), and systems and organizations cannot do such things.
Christians sharing meals has never been just about food. It represents an opportunity for Christians to associate with one another and be strengthened in their relationships, and God has charged individuals with the task of being hospitable (1 Peter 4:9). It is not as efficient but it will lead to stronger relationships, just as God intended!
James 1:27 is a justly famous passage regarding the need to help others. But notice what it says: pure and undefiled religion involves visiting widows and orphans in distress. It does not say to create an organization charged with the care of widows and/or orphans and for the church to fund such organizations. Instead, God intends for Christians themselves to sacrifice their time, resources, and energy to assist those in need!
There can be value in efficiency in terms of energy consumption, time management, and business practices, among other things. But the Bible never enshrines efficiency as the ultimate standard for anything, and we should never overrule what God has commanded us to do in the way God showed us to do it because, in our estimation, it is “inefficient.” It may very well be inefficient: and perhaps that is how God wants it to be. Let us not be coldly efficient in all things but willing to expend time and money to love and show care for one another and for all!
Ethan R. Longhenry