Just prior to WWII in the doldrums of the seemingly inescapable Great Depression, Robert K Merton popularized a concept from his position as a research assistant at Harvard that has become orthodoxy in the field of sociology – that of the law of unintended consequences. His basic thesis, like so much fundamental truth, reflects spiritual principles that are informative to the Christian life if observed in the light of scripture (which would probably seem like an ironic affirmation to an Americanized Russian Jew like Merton). He suggested five sources of unintended consequences…
- Imperious Immediacy of Interest (Willful Ignorance)
- Basic Values
- Self-defeating Prediction
With all due deference to his original intent, let me borrow his framework with some new observations. One of the frustrations of sharing the faith, building disciples, and advancing the cause is the alarming predilection of men, when left to their own devices, to blow up what they intend to build up. The gutters of modern history are filled with the spiritual corpses of ministries that imploded under the weight of good intention coupled with self-reliance, and something of a post-mortem seems to be in order. Merton’s rubric is as good as any. Five reasons that ministries fail to accomplish their originally intended mission are as follows…
- Ignorance – know the Word
- Before the sting of this insult wears off, please know that this is possibly the most insidious source of unintended consequences. While many in this information soaked culture are voracious readers, it is absolutely alarming how much Biblical illiteracy exists among the most visible (read…most influential) Christian ministries. A quick glance at a popular program on Christian TV recently left me spiritually nauseous at the dismissive, cavalier treatment of the misquoted, misapplied Word being used to promote a profoundly unbiblical teaching, unmolested by the unfazed doting host. We’ve become experts on leadership, financial management, building and sustaining relationships, marketing, psychology, and a host of other competencies, all of which are necessary adjuncts to a well prepared leader’s skillset. In contrast, many have left scholarship of God’s Word to professional academics and have begun to sustain themselves on the ‘Cliff Notes’ versions provided in Twitter-fied simplifications. In true ‘Evelyn Woods’ speedreading fashion, information in pursuit of tools for the tool chest can be accumulated like so, but it is dangerous in the extreme to apply such tactics to God’s Word. If we truly believe that the Word is alive of it’s own volition (Hebrews 4:12), it is absolutely essential that we ENCOUNTER the Word in it’s entirety rather than condense it into conceptual snippets. The discipline of study is as fundamental to effective Christian leadership as is the content of that study, and it is the crucible in which authentic, undistracted deputational service is maintained. With the benefit of the doubt given to those who choose to build visibility over truly victorious Christian living, it is doubtful those who pander in the shadows of scriptural devaluation originally intended to produce the powerless, feckless, self-absorbed pseudo-Christians that populate the broad path to destruction so contentedly in today’s culture.
- Error – do the Word
- The messaging of a church that knows the Word but doesn’t do the Word is engaged in nothing more than what Paul called ‘vain jangling’ (1 Timothy 1:6). The cause is hindered when the messenger doesn’t appear to believe his own message. Even the pagan philosopher Socrates understood that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’, and the foundation of modern deductive reasoning is the ‘if-then’ proposition. As such, it follows that ‘if’ the Word is true, ‘then’ there must be quantifiable evidence – something that can be seen. If not, the Word must not be true, or so is the supposition of the unbelieving observer. Said another way, we are commissioned to be ‘doers of the Word, and not hearers only’ (James 1:22). If the Word is not adhered to in practice, then it won’t be accepted in concept. That’s one reason why it matters if the saints are sipping, the singers are shacking, or the preacher is pocketing the proceeds – not only does it imperil the soul of the one guilty of such sin, the conduct gives tacit approval for those who follow to make the same ‘mistakes’ with impunity. In a church culture of ‘greasy grace’ and ‘unavoidable sin’, it is doubtful that anyone even considers such impact when they ignore the clear mandate of the Word and do as they please. It is, however, a grave error to assume that sin’s only damage is to the one who commits it – the lasting damage is to the ones who trip over it (Hebrews 12:12-15).
- Imperious Immediacy of Interest – prioritize the Word
- This one is also referred to as ‘willful ignorance’ – the sort of ostrich mimicking, head in the sand avoidance of conflict that allows contradictory behavior to go un-confronted in hopes of not being distracted from the ‘main thing’. One lesson I learned from some very competent leaders while serving in the Navy was the importance of paying attention to the little things. The crew would complain mercilessly about having to ‘field day’ the boat, even when the place was already spic and span. Emily Dickinson said that ‘if you take care of the small things, the big things take care of themselves’ – she would have made a good skipper. On the flip side, ignoring things that seem relatively unimportant in light of the glaring primary priority only causes an accumulation of frustrations that will eventually (an unintendedly) overwhelm that priority. Another submarine era aphorism that comes to mind is that ‘it’s hard to eat a T-bone steak from a dirty ashtray’. No matter how much attention is paid to preparing the steak, it won’t be palatable unless it’s presented in a properly prepared container. If the Word says something matters, it matters! Paraphrasing Dr. Lamar Vest concerning worship and the things of God ‘it’s sometimes alright to be informal, but it’s never alright to be casual’. Details matter! Turning a blind eye to sin in favor of apparent talent and usefulness in the purpose of ministry is a recipe for unintended failure (see Achan’s tent in Joshua 7).
- Basic Values – share the Word
- In Merton’s original context, he describes the dampening effect on economic productivity brought on by individual accumulation of wealth, and that it is counterproductive in direct measure to the amount of that accumulation. In other words, when workers get all they need to live comfortably, their incentive to work decreases and their productivity suffers (oversimplification, but in a nutshell). Why am I having a Johnny Paycheck flashback here? In a curious way, that describes what happens when the church, even in a modest sense, begins to accomplish the great commission in a quantifiable way. Once the church begins to grow, increasing amounts of energy and resources are consumed sustaining that growth – often at the expense of the core mission. It’s like the story of the grease factory. At the end of a public tour, one of the visitors, obviously impressed with the complexities of the modern production equipment and interconnected systems, asked the tour guide about one thing that was missing. Where was the shipping department? “We don’t have one” said the host without a hint of embarrassment – “it takes all the grease we can make to keep the machines running”. That’s descriptive of many modern church’s in today’s size obsessed spiritual economy. The basic purpose of the church is not accumulation – it’s distribution! When we spend more time polishing the megaphone than using it, the unintended consequence is the irrelevance of our message to those who aren’t impressed with our process. The real peril to the modern church is not in being opposed, it’s in being ignored!
- Self-defeating Prediction – speak the Word
- At the turn of the 20th century in America, sociologists began to cry out warnings of overpopulation along with dire predictions of insufficient food supply and mass starvation if something weren’t done about it. Two streams of study were spurred on by the panic – agriculture and eugenics. While perceived necessity was indeed the mother of invention in the case of research and improvements to crop yields in the case of agriculture, it is doubtful that those sociologists’ warnings were intended to feed the warped ideology of ethnic genetic manipulation as they did. The Margaret Sangers of the world were glad to get a little wind in their sails. Obviously the planet is not starving for lack of food today thanks to those incredible advances (modern famine is an issue of distribution, not production). Equally obvious is the persistent devaluation of human life, evidenced by the scourge of socially acceptable infanticide (abortion) in favor of a perceived quality of life along with the looming acceptance of euthanasia. The problem was not and is not too many people – it was not enough food – but the parroting of panicked, unreflected predictions fed both narratives. The good news of the Word is not the Chicken Little ‘sky is falling’ message, but that there is hope in Christ! Likewise the good news of the Word is not finding fulfillment in temporary prosperity, but in eternal Kingdom purpose and promise! It’s vital that the church be neither naysayers nor gainsayers. We’re called to one thing and one thing only – lift up Christ (John 12:32) – and every word we speak should be in light of the promise that His redemption brings. The unintended consequence of panic theology is distraction of the vulnerable, obsession over possession, and escapism over discipleship. Preach the Word!
Whew! It sure sounds complicated, but it’s really not. The key is staying prayerfully in the Word. The weak link is always us, but he Word is forever settled, always trustworthy, and thoroughly reliable. We don’t have to be like hapless Steve Urkel, bouncing from one unintended consequence to another. We can and should live with purpose, focus, and consistency. We have the road map right before us. The Word is not comprehensive in it’s content, but it is complete in it’s counsel. We, like David, have the answer…..Thy word have I hid in mine heart, that I might not sin against thee (Psalm 119:11).