Is Efficiency A Virtue In The Church?

Papa late '70'sMy Papa (Grandpa) was a great handyman. It seemed as if he could fix just about anything. He always brought his tools when he visited and we often had work for him to do. I remember the first time he said to me, “work smarter, not harder.” My first reaction, when he said that, was to think, “that’s just lazy.” Of course he wasn’t lazy and he wasn’t counseling sloth. He was teaching me to use the right tools, the right way. He was teaching me not to waste time. Efficiency is a practical virtue. One of the most difficult things, for me, about living in the UK was (what I perceived to be) their attitude toward work and efficiency. I’m an American. I like efficiency. I like to get things done in (what seems to me to be) good time. In the UK, however, it seemed as if everything took three weeks to get done. The postal service was an exception. That was amazing. Put a note in the local post in the AM, get a reply in the PM.  Please don’t misunderstand. Our British hosts were gracious and kind but that they do believe in paperwork and bureaucracy and it seemed to take 3 weeks for paperwork to go through. The pace of life and work was slower than that with which I was familiar. By the time I arrived, Americans had been traveling to this university for study for centuries nevertheless, more than once I was given to think that we were the first ever to do it. Nevertheless, it was a good experience. It was one thing to know theoretically that attitudes toward time, work, and efficiency are culturally conditioned and it was another to experience first hand those differences.

I mention my Papa and the UK to illustrate how culturally conditioned our attitudes toward time and “efficiency” are. A good bit of what we think of as “efficient” in North America is the product of a movement that developed alongside the industrialization of American business. In the early 20th century companies hired “experts” with stop watches to visit their factories and to show them have to “make economies” of time and motion.

Prior to the industrial revolution, prior to the urbanization of America, we were a largely rural, agrarian people with concomitant attitudes toward time and efficiency. Once a farmer (my other Grandpa was a wheat farmer and a cattle rancher) plants, apart from maintenance, there’s not much he can do to hurry things. A farmer/rancher might go out to check fences, cattle, and crops in the morning and might not get anything obviously productive done all day but farmers and ranchers aren’t lazy by any means. Their experience of time, schedules, and deadlines is not that of the factory manager.

Over the years as I’ve had to opportunity to teach students from across the world and I’ve watched them adjust to our attitudes about deadlines, schedules, time, and efficiency. Indeed, there are cultural differences within the USA and even from place to place in Southern California. People here talk about “coastal time,” which reflects a more relaxed attitude toward time and deadlines than exists 20 miles inland. Certainly attitudes about time and schedules are differ between Southern California and Chicago and Nebraska. Mrs Heidelblog had a band teacher who used to say, “to be early is to be on time and to be on time is to be late.”  On its face this is nonsense but we understand what he was trying to say and perhaps he was right, for his culture but the question for us is whether we should try to baptize that attitude toward time, to make it a Christian virtue or to use it as a lever by which to guide life in the visible, institutional church.

This is a relevant question for a variety of reasons. You might be surprised to learn how much is done in the church in the name of efficiency. When I was in school we had a teacher who was much enamored with the self-described “church growth” movement. At the beginning of a course he gave us a talk about time management in which he tried to persuade us that we should be good managers of our time because God was a good manager of redemptive history. That argument did not sit well with me and over the years I’ve realized why. It confused the common, the natural, the secular with the sacred. There was no need to try to authorize the practice of time management by cloaking it in the history of redemption. All that was necessary was to say, “Here is some practical wisdom that I’ve gained that you might find useful.” Because, on reflection, the history of redemption was hardly efficient. Who knows how many years elapsed from the fall to Noah and Job and from them to Abraham. From that point the chronology is reasonably clear. Even so, is it efficient to spend 2,000 years fulfilling the promise to Abraham? What about the 40 years wandering the desert? Have you ever tracked the path the Israelites took? It’s enough to give an efficiency expert a coronary. What about the exile? Wasn’t all that time “wasted”? Indeed, once our Lord in the flesh came he took his sweet time teaching the disciples. Why three years? What about all their wandering. No, I’m afraid that the stop-watch carrying efficiency expert would be disappointed.

It’s not obvious from Scripture that our Lord is much interested in efficiency. He established an institution (the visible church) to which he gave the keys of the kingdom (Matt 16) and slow, even cumbersome system of church discipline (Matt 18) that, in execution, may take a long time to work out. My argument is that was intentional because the church is populated by sinners who, in an “efficient” system would be more apt to use the church not to love and serve one another but to hurt them. There are benefits to efficiency in business. A product that is produced more efficiently is probably going to be less expensive and more affordable for a greater number of people and government is rarely efficient and that wastes tax dollars and sometimes even human lives. Nevertheless, one of the calling cards of twentieth-century totalitarianism is that it was efficient, that it made the trains run on time. That experiment did not end well.

The church growth movement, however, seems to be much enamored of efficiency. Having read a fair bit of church-growth literature in the 80s, I recall walking into a very famous mega-church for a Sunday service in the mid-90s. The tell-tale marks of the church growth movement were evident to the trained eye from narthex to the worship service, right down to the placement of electrical outlets and the strategic location of books (in the bookstore) containing the latest message the leadership was trying to get out to the congregation. There was a Stepford quality to the whole enterprise. We had to convince our children that yes, indeed, we were attending a church service and not entering a mall on the Sabbath. Once we entered, however, the evidence was against the adults.

I learned some valuable bits of wisdom from the church growth/efficiency gurus. Because they are largely unsupervised during the week, pastors can develop bad habits. There are economies that can be useful but some of what I learned—e.g., writing a reply to a correspondent on the back of the letter he sent to you—also seemed to carry with it the subtle, unstated message, “I’m important and I want you to see that.” By returning the letter that I had it received was I not saying implicitly, “Nice try but what you said to me isn’t really worth keeping”? Mind you, this was before email. I’m not sure what “efficiency” and email have in common but I digress and that’s, well, inefficient.

Loving people, caring for them, takes time. People are sinful and sin results in brokenness and restoring them (e.g., in church discipline) them takes time. The preaching of the Word and administration of the sacraments takes time. In God’s ordinary providence people might have to hear essentially the same message 10 times before it sinks in. The Spirit works when he and where he pleases. Ministry is much more like farming than it is like factory work. Perhaps that’s why Scripture tends toward agrarian metaphors of planting and harvesting.

I also think I understand the attraction of efficiency and church-growth thinking. It’s a subtle form of rationalism. Ministry, after all, is a mystery. Why does that one, who seemed to show so much enthusiasm and so much fruit, suddenly apostatize and how is that the other one, who never seemed to “get it,” who was late for church, who was never going to be a leader in the church, turn out, on his death bed to have been a fundamentally faithful, grace-filled believer? That’s a mystery. There’s no way to fix or speed up the work of the Spirit through the Word and sacraments. So, when so someone comes along with a slick plan that seems to make ministry that much more “rational” (that was a buzzword in government and business in the first half of the 20th century) it’s hard to resist. It’s something that elders, who might also be businessmen can understand and support. It seems to build bridges but it also, subtly perhaps, puts us just a little bit more in control of church and ministry and tends to marginalize the Word, sacraments, and Spirit (were that possible). One place I’ve seen the influence of “efficiency” in P&R churches in recent years is the (to me) surprising popularity of the use of intinction in the administration of communion. Intinction is the practice of dipping communion bread into the wine so that the communicant receives wine-soaked bread rather than the cup in communion. Lane Keister has written a good introduction to this question. What’s the connection between the turn to intinction, efficiency, and church growth? Rick Phillips explains, “more than one minister who emphasizes weekly communion told me that intinction was necessary because the biblical procedure takes too long.” I’ve observed intinction in several P&R congregations over the last 5 years or so and the only rationale I can see for abandonment of the cup in the administration of communion and the use of intinction is that it takes too long. Perhaps there’s another reason. It certainly isn’t because the practice is clearly taught by precept or example in Scripture. After all, Scripture says,

  • “And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink of it, all of you….'” (Matt 26:27)
  • “And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, and they all drank of it.” (Mark 14:23)
  • “and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ And likewise the cup after they had eaten….” (Luke 22:19–20)

I am not suggesting that those who’ve adopted intinction or other efficiencies are intentionally unfaithful but I am suggesting that we are all influenced by our culture in ways that we might not perceive. My concern is less about intinction—though, as a historian I am disturbed by the ease with which congregations seem to be willing to take a half-step toward giving up the cup when that was such a significant part of the Reformation of the church—than it is about what such a move signifies. Instead of thinking that we need to be more efficient in our administration of communion—after all, how much time are most congregations actually saving? 5 minutes? We don’t have 5 minutes to administer the bread and the cup to the congregation? Really?—why don’t we concentrate on the word communion? There’s no biblical evidence that our Lord was in a hurry when he administered communion. In that way it was not much like the Passover feast. They were communing with him and he with them. True communion takes time.

This is no plea for wastefulness. I’ve sat through services and sermons that could have been more respectful of people’s time and faithfulness is no justification for a lack of planning or carelessness in the life of the church. “Good enough for the church” is not good enough but as beneficial as efficiency might be there are virtues higher in the hierarchy.


  1. A friend who had grown up in the Church of England told me that intinction was an invention of the Oxford movement as a halfway measure toward the medieval practice of withholding of the cup from the laity.

    • David,

      Some form of intinction probably dates to the 4th century. It had largely disappeared from the W. Church by the 13th c. (so the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church). According to the ODCC entry the Anglicans did revive it but it doesn’t mention the Oxford Movement.

    • Yes, I Love Lucy is still on the air. Saw ads for it just over a week ago. Mostly on Oldies cable channels these days, but the First of the TV Sitcoms still has Staying Power after 60+ years.

  2. Growing up Lutheran each would drink from the same cup but later places I attended had individual cups. Does it matter? I’m asking because I don’t know. Are these accidents, Dr. Clark?

    • Hi Matt,

      I think whether we partake while standing or sitting, via common cup or individual cups is determined by the light of nature. It seems like a circumstance. In either case (common cup or individual cups), God’s people are receiving the cup. I suppose the disciples received the cup while sitting/reclining but that seems more a matter of culture than principle. When AIDS became in issue, early in my ministry, my congregation moved from the common cup, the old Reformed practice, to individual cups and from walking to communion to a seated communion.

    • I’m more worried about contracting Influenza or Hep. B from a single cup than AIDS.

      And during the Flu season I tend to skip the “pot lucks”, particularly when little kids are allowed to go through the line UNSUPERVISED. And when many do “seconds” with used plates.

      Ah, the light of nature. (That’s why I insist on my sushi being well-done!)

  3. The classic management textbook by Peter Drucker says something like, “Efficiency is doing things right. Effectiveness is doing right things.” The problem is that Christians are called to faithfulness, which sometimes will not be efficient or effective in earthly terms.

  4. Well those who “need” to use intinction because they don’t have the time for the proper administration sure wouldn’t like Scottish Presbyterian communion services which often last up to 3 hours- and that’s short by historical standards.

    Question: Where are they in such a rush to get to? It’s the Sabbath, what else do they have to do?

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