The Ikea Effect, Slow Church and Laboring Our Way Into Love

A man buys two dogs to live with him in his apartment. They drive him and his neighbors crazy. They bark at all hours, get sick all over the place and cause rifts between him and his neighbors. And yet he insists that, despite the tremendous amount of work and inconvenience they present, he loves them.

So the question is: does he do all the work and put up with the nonsense because he loves them, or does he love them because he’s invested so much of himself in them?

Researchers looked at this question, particularly with regard to the wild popularity of the DIY furniture store, Ikea. Basically, you pay them to give you some furniture in a box that you have to take home and build. Sometimes you screw it up. Sometimes it takes a lot longer than you expected. Sometimes you scrape the skin off your knuckles and call the furniture names that would make your mother blush. In the end, if most of us assessed the value of our time against the money we’re saving by buying the furniture unassembled, it’s a net loss for us.

So why do we do it?

I was talking to my friend, Andy, about this very thing just last week. He is quite the pro at home brewing, and he brought a couple of bottles of his homemade imperial stout over for us to sample. It was great, but the fact is, none of us can brew something better at home than the stuff we can find at a fine artisan beer shop, can we? Even if we can, how can we possibly justify the time it takes to buy the ingredients, prepare the equipment, monitor the fermentation, bottle it and store it, when we could just go to the market and buy a six pack of some great beer?

Put another way, why would anyone set out to prepare a garden bed, plant the seeds, pull weeds, water and tend to a few rows of vegetables when we could go to any grocery store or farmers market and get the same quality organic produce for a few bucks?

It’s the same reason my kids’ Christmas presents are shoved somewhere under their beds right now, despite their voracious desire for those things a few months ago. They asked for it, and they got it. The most they had to do for it was sit on a fat man’s lap at the mall and ask. Yes, the trinkets and toys offered some momentary distraction or entertainment, but they don’t mean anything. They don’t care about those things because they haven’t been required to invest in them.

Most of our lives are filled with things we consume without having anything to do with creating them. Just try, for one day, to list all of the products and services you enjoy – from clothes and milk to roads, computers and radio programs – but for which you din’t have to labor, aside maybe for paying for them. Now, consider which would mean more to you, even if they cost you the same: a car you drove off a lot, or one you built yourself by hand?

That’s the Ikea Effect.

This is nothing new. Our grandparents spoke of the age-old dignity of work, but post-industrial-revolution, that idea became kind of silly. Why, after all, would we break our backs anymore when we don’t have to? If we can make something easier, why not do it? And so it went, until we found ourselves literally surrounded by things with little or no meaning. And although we’re comfortable and most of our needs and wants are satisfied, there’s something missing: meaning.

We want to care. We want to have a stake in our lives. We want more from existence. We want love, but it seems that love requires something of us. Love is work.

This is precisely where so many religious institutions have fallen short. We have succumbed to the trends of the surrounding culture, employing professionals to prepare the perfect space and the ideal services to accommodate all comers. All you have to do is show up. We’ll take care of the rest. We don’t want to require too much from you because then you might be scared off. You might look for something easier, and we’d rather have you here.

But if I don’t have to invest anything into the community, the community doesn’t really matter that much to me. That’s because there’s not really any of me in it. I want to see a part of myself in the world around me, and that requires something of me. It’s counter-intuitive, particularly in a post-industrial and affluent society who doesn’t have to do for itself unless it chooses. But if we look around us at the growing popularity of do-it-yourself practices, we within the institutional church stand to learn a lot from what people are showing us they really need.

About Christian Piatt

Christian Piatt is the creator and editor of BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT THE BIBLE and BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT JESUS. He co-created and co-edits the “WTF: Where’s the Faith?” young adult series with Chalice Press, and he has a memoir on faith, family and parenting being published in early 2012 called PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date.

  • Evelyn

    I feel bad putting mustness and oughtery into anyone’s life, but not bad enough to stop myself saying I really really strongly recommend you read “Love’s Endeavour, Love’s Expense” by Vanstone. It’s a little old fashioned… but well worth the extra labor to read ;-)

    http://www.amazon.com/Loves-Endeavour-Expense-Response-Being/dp/0232527113/ref=ntt_at_ep_dpt_4

    • Ryan

      Along the same lines, “Cost of Discipleship” by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In it, Bonhoeffer rails against cheap faith. It’s incredibly convicting and seems to speak directly to 21st century American protestants despite being published in 1937. It’s one of those books that makes you acutely aware of your passivity and apathetic faith and makes you want to sell everything you own and start living exclusively for the least of these.

  • David Starner

    Wal-Mart furniture is the same way, but no one swears by Wal-Mart furniture. And for some of us, it’s not like we could economically buy preassembled furniture; our labor is valued so low that it’s not expensive to assemble it, and I never could get something preassembled home without paying a delivery fee.

  • Paul Freeman

    There’s also a growing population that is known as “Flea Market Captialists”, according to Arthur E. Farnsley II is the author of Flea Market Jesus. These are people who “see themselves as isolated individuals struggling in a forbidding environment. They may be close to a few family members or friends, but they eo not see themselves as belonging to any community, certainly not any community marked out by a government…congregation, or civic group… They experience institutions as centers of power and control that do things to them not for them.”

    I could go on but if you want to can read his article in Christian Century, January 8, 2013. My point is there is this other segment of our population that our churches need to engage in, or should we?


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