today we continue our conversation about the book, the abundant community: awakening the power of families and neighborhoods by john mcknight and peter block. i contend that even though this is not a “christian book” (i don’t know what that means), there are some powerful lessons here for the church.
block and mcknight go to great lengths to differentiate between systems and associations. we will examine systems today, and associations in my next post.
a system, according to the authors, is described as follows:
We made the leap from being citizens to being consumers in a culture that successfully sold the idea that a satisfied life is determined first by defining and promoting needs and then by figuring out how to fulfill them. We created a larger market by collectively determining that families and communities are filled with needs that are best serviced by systems. This is the essence of a consumer society.
The expanding desire for universal education, the growing expectations of government support, the medicalization of health, and above all the dominance of the corporation as the driver and deliverer of the good life–all create the need for increasingly large institutions and systems, and the management to make them work.
What is attractive about systems is that they seem to make the world safer and under control. In adopting system life, people choose to yield sovereignty in exchange for the promise of predictability. Systems are good for making automobiles and fighting wars. But as soon as you create a world that ensures sameness and predictability, you have created conditions where the real humanity of citizens and employees is marginalized. The management mindset takes over. Providing efficient, consistent, and predictable services becomes a matter of aggregating the deficiencies of the people in the target market.
Here’s the rub: Systems that are constructed for order cannot provide satisfaction in domains that require a unique and personal human solution. The effort to find a fix for our humanity only forces us into counterfeit promises and unsatisfying results. Often we believe that if we do more of what does not work, it will finally work. This is the dilemma of the system economy. It leads us to the place where, if only we had more, we would be successful or satisfied. More police, more physicians, more services, more teachers, more stuff. This is not a solution. It is an addiction.
another accusation the authors make in reference to systems: What was a condition (normal human limitation) is now turned into a problem that can be solved. Systems are designed for, and therefore their existence hinges upon, finding solutions to problems. Need it faster, better, cheaper? Design a system, hire a good manager, and your problems are solved. This type of thinking has gradually become quite acceptable in our culture, but has caused irreparable damage.
The point is that the condition we are in is being human. To be human means to be fallible. How do you deal with limitations and the suffering that goes with them? You can try to fix it or accept it. In general, this is a key system-community contrast. The system way, in an institution, is generally organized to pursue a cure. The system mindset thinks of the human condition as a problem to be solved. The competent community treats troubles as a condition. They cannot be solved. However, they can be accepted, and the person is valued for their gifts that build community.
Systems aggregate people who are aging and market it as the golden years. You can move from independent living to assisted living to nursing home to hospice without ever having to leave the property. Does life get any more efficient than that? The same dependency goes for other family functions, like physical health, entertainment, nutrition, employment, mental well-being, and stewardship of the land. All have been outsourced to professionals. All are organized in systems designed to deliver these functions in as efficient, low-cost, and consistent way as possible.
Before the onslaught of consumption and services, our families had no secrets. When Peter was young, his mother’s family lived on the four corners of an intersection. Everybody knew that Aunt Fannie drank too much and was overweight. Aunt Rose’s husband left her when she was thirty-one. Aunt Martha was sweet but a little daft. Uncle Joe lived off the generosity of his brothers.
The advantage of en extended family like this was that there were no secrets, and the gifts of all were needed to hold it all together. Peter and his siblings were required to spend time with Aunt Fannie, to tiptoe around Aunt Rose, and to endure Aunt Martha when she stayed too long and forgot where she lived. In this way, each family member was a teacher of what it meant to care for someone and not try to fix them.
so here is the discussion topic for today…
have we (the church) come to see lostness as a problem to be solved, rather than part of the human condition? have we become so consumed with productivity and efficiency, that we’ve taken ministry out of the hands of the people and outsourced it all to ministry professionals? could the contemporary church be described as a system?