The Russian Factory and the Evangelical Church

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Author: 
Dennis McCallum

As the Soviet Union disintegrated, Xenos Fellowship was confronting reorganization and the dangers associated with building a bureaucracy. At the same time, we were in dialog with other churches about how they organized their ministry. McCallum offered these thoughts to the church in the Xenos Exchange, our internal newspaper.


Developments in Eastern Europe during the past two years have gripped the attention of the whole world. To the amazement of Westerners, the entire system of centralized socialism is coming unraveled. As countries under communist rule have succumbed to despair in their economic and governmental system, the bankruptcy of Marxism as an ideology has been unmistakably revealed. Meanwhile, capitalism and democracy continue to flourish wherever they are practiced.

Biblical Christians are not surprised at the demise of Marxism, because we have known all along that Marx and Lenin failed to come to grips with the truth about the human race as revealed in Scripture. The Bible reveals that people were created with the urge to creatively accomplish something significant. Even before the fall, God placed humans in the garden to "cultivate it and keep it." He also ordered humankind to ". . .fill the earth and subdue it, and rule. . .." Here we see that even in paradise, people were not left to sit around and exist. Created in God's image, people looked forward to ownership, sovereignty, and accomplishment. Telling a human to pedal an exercise bicycle daily for the rest of his/her life and ignore the question of whether there are any results is contrary to the image of God built in from the beginning.

The fall of Adam and Eve has not made socialism any more likely, but in fact, even less. The socialistic idea--"from each according to his ability, to each according to his need" -- sounds nice as an ethic. But to make this kind of ethic a reality in human society, we would have to eliminate all human selfishness! People who are in a fallen state would have to be willing to produce as much as they could while settling for no more than what they need. Also, an elite would have to be trusted to administrate the whole system without taking any more than they needed.

Unfortunately, the Bible says that the heart of man is "deceitful above all things and beyond cure" and that "There is no one righteous, not even one." (Jer. 17:9; Rom. 3:10) Neither the factory worker at his machine, nor the bureaucrat at his desk can be relied upon to do all they can regardless of whether they receive personal benefit in the process.

As a result, under socialism, factory workers and bureaucrats have developed an apathetic chore mentality that has gradually bankrupted the economies of all of the countries operating under that system. This apathetic mentality develops when work is not exciting, challenging or rewarding, because the individual doesn't stand to gain anything from hard work.

The really sad part to the Christian observer is that the problems of socialism not only affect communist countries; they also afflict the modern Christian church. A moment of reflection will reveal that many churches today have a lot in common with Russian factories, including the same unmotivated mentality in its members.


Motivation

In businesses that are privately owned, success results in increased wealth. But success in a socialist factory will probably result in nothing, unless perhaps the worker receives a meaningless medal or a plaque on the wall. More recently, factories have been issuing "coupons" for hard work, which are supposed to help the recipient buy consumer goods, but there aren't enough goods to buy even with coupons. As a result, Russian workers and managers are generally less creative and less motivated than their Western counterparts. Since the advent of Glasnost, Western audiences have been treated to TV reports showing Russian restaurant workers standing around smoking while their customers wait for service.

When factories and businesses are not owned by individuals operating on a profit motive, there simply is none of the entrepreneurial spirit that so animates Western business. This is to be expected when we remember the Bible's description of human nature. When we cannot perceive any immediate goal or significance to our task, it becomes tedious and burdensome. This will break down motivation over the long haul, even for the committed.

In Russia, workers are admonished to excel at their labor for the glory of world socialism. But even for those who believe in socialistic ideals, this turns out to be too distant and theoretical to stimulate hard work day-in and day-out. Here, Christians are urged to witness and engage in ministry based on biblical command. Unfortunately, the frequent reliance on biblical imperative leads to a chore mentality. We may dutifully jab at the job, but whether there are very many results is not really important. After all, the Bible calls on us to witness, not necessarily to succeed. Like their Russian counterparts, American Christians end up standing around chatting while their customers wait for service.

Like the Russian factory worker, the average church member finds it difficult to say, or to feel, what the real immediate benefit of successful evangelism and discipleship is. Even the benefits they can name are (like Russian coupons and plaques) of comparatively little value in their eyes. The proof of this is the fact that so little successful evangelism goes on in most of our churches.

Of course we get to see people attain eternal life and we can meditate on the fact that we will someday receive eternal reward. These incentives should be adequate from an idealistic standpoint, but they are long-term. They need to be supplemented by near-term benefits. Even authentic Christians with the power of the Holy Spirit and the Christian world view have to fight the inertia of our lower natures. Besides, the Spirit can and does use goal orientation and a sense of fulfillment and accomplishment to help us with flagging motivation. We will see the help God has offered us here when we turn to the biblical evidence later. As far as the here-and-now, Christians need to answer the question, "What are the real incentives for becoming involved in hazardous Christian work?"


Innovation

Managers in Russian factories have little incentive to update designs and methods as long as quotas are met. Russian and Eastern European car manufacturers, for instance, are still using designs that are long obsolete because there is no incentive for up-dating. Quality also suffers. Quality workmanship is not necessary beyond the level that will keep the worker out of trouble. We are amazed to see people in a modern technological country waiting years to receive a car that is far below western standards. One recent newscast showed East German factory workers using a breaker bar to straighten crooked doors on brand new cars that would not close.

When watching the weakness of socialistic factories, one is sometimes reminded of some churches in America. Recently, leaders like Os Guinness have charged that American Christians are shallow, ignorant, and intellectually lazy. [Lecture at the ICBI, Washington, D.C. 1988] It is probably safe to say that only a fraction of the potential of most local churches is ever really developed theologically or practically.

Change is usually uncomfortable and often unpopular with the old guard as well. In Russian factories, little change or originality is ever evident, and the resulting products are hopelessly obsolete and slow in delivery. American church leaders and members are also very resistant to change, especially if it goes beyond the most superficial area. There is probably no institution in the western world as conservative as the church. Of course, we hope to see conservation of the pure gospel message. But our conservatism goes even into areas having nothing to do with the gospel. Our meetings, modes of communication, and cultural practices may be grossly obsolete, but there simply isn't sufficient reason to change.


Accepting Risk

Risk taking is particularly unlikely in a setting where the premium is on staying out of trouble rather than on maximizing profits. Observers of eastern block countries have consistently reported lack of initiative and innovation (particularly in the practical areas) in the work forces and governmental departments. Russian scientists tend to be theorists who don't care about applying research. For instance, Russians have had laser technology as advanced as western scientists for about the same length of time, but are only now beginning to apply any of the technologies to factory construction.

The Evangelical community in America is also sometimes paralyzed by fear. The dangers that may accompany authentic delegation of ministry responsibility and decision making to lay leaders has been enough to deter most leaders even though the price has been high. Evangelicals will even refuse to countenance active participation in culturally normative activities because it might be too risky, notwithstanding the loss of outreach that may result.


The Alternative

The beauty of capitalism is that it harnesses the built-in features of the human race to the task of production of wealth. Even fallen tendencies such as greed are not antithetical to success in a capitalistic economy. Especially in an environment where excesses are curbed by a responsible government (and this part is important), capitalism seems to have been able to turn the nature of the human race to its own advantage, at least in economic terms.

Interestingly, Jesus also seems to have made concessions to the human desire for wealth. He said, "Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven. . .." Many students of scripture have been disturbed by this admonition. Doesn't this seem to be suggesting that Christians should do the right thing for the wrong reason? Isn't Christ suggesting that we should be selfless so that we can enjoy rewards for self?

Clearly, there is a puzzle in this teaching. But the bottom line seems to be that Jesus did not consider it bad to have added incentive for doing the will of God, beyond merely doing the right thing. A number of other passages reiterate the teaching (I Cor. 3:10-15; I Cor. 9:23-27; Mt. 25:21 and parallels; II Tim. 4:7,8). In one of the most intriguing formulations of the idea of incentives, Paul says "The hard working farmer should be the first to receive a share of the crops." (II Tim. 2:6) He also says, "Reflect on what I am saying for the Lord will give you understanding into all this." (vs. 7) Many Christian leaders are reflecting on the statement, and wondering how to understand it.

In missions, the power of forming truly indigenous churches has been discovered during the past few decades. The local workers are more motivated when they truly take over control of the ministry. When mission workers refuse to import professional outsiders, and insist that the locals take possession of the task and the goals of the church, a more vigorous church takes shape. Yet in developed Christian countries we do not insist that the local church develop its own leadership. We repeatedly see situations where members are urged to take on ministry roles, but when we need a new professional, we hire in an outsider. What does this say to our members?

On the other side of this discussion are the legitimate worries that people in the church "take possession" of ministry as though it belonged to them. Some churches, including our own, have reported provincialism--a lack of concern for any part of the church other than our own particular ministry. At other times, we may see pragmatism in ministry--unprincipled acts calculated to "get the results" even if by the wrong means. We steer a delicate course between the chore mentality and rampant greed when, as leaders, we try to determine how to motivate our people.

When will the church in developed countries realize the meaning of what Paul is saying and begin their own Perestroika (restructuring)? When will we turn away from symbolic gestures of lay-leadership and allow lay Christian workers to emerge as true leaders in the church? When we do, they will begin to exhibit a new kind of creativity and energy. But this energy cannot be the energy that is seen when people know they are building their "own ministry," not "someone else's ministry." Instead, both lay people and leaders must waive their ownership of ministry, and agree that the church is God's ministry.

The challenge that faces the leadership of the Western church today is to discover how to make members feel that they are directly benefiting from Christian work, especially when it is successful. As in socialistic societies, such delegation will require the leadership to make a painful decision to relinquish control. People will have to be allowed to build their own ministries without the deadening effect of overly controlling supervision. All too often, a church member no sooner gets a successful home Bible study or other successful ministry going, than the church shows up to take over leadership of it.

The opposite extreme of anarchical capitalism, however, is not the answer. The church leadership should provide what government does in the West: a good infrastructure (facilities, training materials, equipping opportunities) and restraint from some of the worst (but not from all) abuses. We, as leaders, have to provide the structures and guidance that allows people to formulate and pursue ministry ideas with the help and encouragement of the rest of the church. This we now do through our ministry team accreditation and assessment processes. Today, it is possible for anyone with a good ministry idea to set up and do ministry with the assistance of the church, as long as they have a good plan and their idea is not contradictory to the vision of the church.

At the same time, we have to teach entrepreneurial ministry leaders to not forget the rest of the community or the ethical principles of altruistic service. This is no small task. In Xenos, we now limit leadership to ethical and principled people who are prepared to put God's interests before their own through the Servant Team. The rest will be up to the free spontaneity of the Holy Spirit gifted Christians as they truly discover their role in the Body of Christ.

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