No Left Turns: How We Normalize Dysfunction

No Left Turns: How We Normalize Dysfunction October 4, 2014

“All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.”

— Arthur Schopenhauer

NoLeftTurnCoverI’m visiting Las Vegas this weekend, one of several stops on my postChristian book tour. I’m staying with my aunt and uncle, who are also in ministry, and who I don’t get to spend time with nearly often enough.

My aunt JoLynn was reading aloud a story about the shipping company UPS and how their trucks don’t make left turns. Of course my first reaction was, “well, that’s stupid” It seems entirely counterintuitive to send trucks on a roundabout circuit when they could much more easily cut the route short by hanging a left. You need to go right, turn right. Need to go left, turn left for crying out loud. It’s just common sense, right?

Maybe not.

UPS has a proprietary navigation system that helps drivers plot out all of their stops in a day and the most efficient way to get there. And based on their research, left turns result in more wasted time and more accidents than they’re worth. Drivers end up stuck at long lights, when they could otherwise be turning through a red light making a right turn and making another drop-off. Plus, without left turns, trucks don’t have to cross oncoming traffic, which means fewer collisions.

They save time. They save money. All it took was thinking differently about how the delivery routers should be configured without all of those high risk, time-consuming left turns.

It got me thinking about how many other things are like this in my life: habits that, because I’ve simply done them forever the same way, or because society says it’s the way we do things, are actually obsolete or even dysfunctional at their core.

Like why do I keep sitting down to write, when I know that a standing desk helps me burn more calories, increase muscle tone and reduce blood clots?

Or why do businesses largely require all employees to come and go at basically the same time, causing increased pollution, time wasted in traffic and lots of missed appointments, when common sense suggests that staggered work schedules could greatly reduce all of these?

And why in the hell do hot dogs come in packs of ten, while the buns only come in packs of eight???

I could go on, but you get the idea.

We could apply the same line of questioning to church:

Why do we say we want young adults and families to come to church, then have meetings and events at times when kids are in bed, or we don’t offer child care as an option?

Or why do we preach about being humble servants of the Gospel, and then serve deacons communion first, before they serve the rest of the congregation?

Or why do we pour good money after bad into outdated, oversized institutional systems that were built in a time, and for a society, that no longer wants or needs the things it offers?

I think it’s time for a period of mindful discernment. We need to stretch ourselves to consider our own behaviors more objectively, more critically. For everything we do, especially under the auspices of Church, we need to stop and ask ourselves: why do we do that? What would happen if we stopped, or if we did it differently? And why am I so blind to the inefficiencies, right in front of me? Who do I need to welcome in to help me lovingly recognize my own stuck-ness?

It’s time for church to stop making left turns, simply because we can, and we’ve “always” made them in the past. So what are your left turns? How can you imagine breaking out of your own cycles of inefficiency and dysfunction?

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  • LoneWolf343

    The dogs vs. buns quandary is because of a quirk of the different manufacturing processes. Each packet of hot dogs is actually a pound of meat (which is why jumbo-sized franks are only 8 a packet,) where buns are baked in pans of 8.

    • Christian Piatt

      which reinforces my point. Substrate rigid systems or habits yield inefficient results.

      • mteston1

        “Right” exactly “Right” and the structure can never do “Right” turns only human beings acting as human beings can, as you point out, can stop it. But the machinery grinds on.

        • $122284574

          It is, indeed, the Machine, and a psychotic one at that.

          • Jacques Ellul (1954) “The Technological Society”
          • Lewis Mumford (1967) “The Myth of the Machine: Technics and Human Development”
          • Ivan Illich (1995) “Blasphemy: A Radical Critique of Our Technological Culture”
          • Alf Hornborg (2001) “The Power of the Machine: Global Inequalities of Economy, Technology, and Environment”

      • R Vogel

        Not for the bun industry! Follow the money….

  • Ok – What would happen if we stopped?

    The wind-battered ship off of the coast of Malta In Acts 28? is a metaphoric example! When the ship was at the point of breaking apart, the sailors took soundings, then dropped anchor. They chose to STOP sailing and wait for daylight. That’s precisely what the church should do – drop anchor and wait for light.

    I have good reason to say, “God knows what we need and has already responded,” but unless we are willing to stop, we will not hear God’s voice.

    What if we did things differently?
    I think tons of people are open to doing things differently, but I’m of the opinion that we can’t just ‘fix’ the present model. We need to scrap it and start from scratch.

    “The Net – An Organizational Vision for the Church of Tomorrow” replaces the present institutional model with human nets that are cast out over the spiritual waters of small geographic areas. In other words, a socially conscious organization of people become “A Net” for the purpose of responding to the needs of a particular neighborhood – thereby bringing the spirit of Christ to the people.

    “The Net” to which I refer is specific in size, number, function, and purpose. It’s not just a random group of people. It’s also not a Presbyterian, Baptist, or whatever net. It doesn’t own property and it doesn’t require membership or dues to function. “The Net” is a network of humans organized in a specific way for social good – not for the purpose of teaching or preaching. People are free to worship and believe as they please, but when difficulties or needs arise, “The Net” is equipped to respond to the needs.

    This type of organizational model originated with the Mosaic encampment; then the model was repeated by Jesus during the feeding of the 5,000, and wrapped in a covenant of love during the feeding of the 4,000. The model was implemented in Acts 1, before the days of persecution, and described by several of John of Patmos’ visions in Revelation.

    Talk about breaking out of cycles of dysfunction and inefficiency!

    If the net-making vision were implemented today, the kingdom of heaven would actually become a net, as Jesus taught in the parable. “The Net” would be a single-level egalitarian entity that spreads outward to blanket the earth, village by village. Completely different from the way the church functions today. “The Net” reflects “The Way” of Jesus. If we took it seriously we’d all become fishers of people for the purpose of making more and more nets – not for the purpose of converting people to a particular brand of Jesus! In the end – souls are saved because neighborhoods would be saved.

    Most people will not jump ship if no successful model/vision exists to which people can confidently swim. In the analogy of the shipwreck, the passengers jumped ship after they saw land. So, for what it’s worth, I believe “The Net” is an organizational vision worth talking about, because the model is rooted in the words of Scripture.

  • This is such a great point. It helps me to realize how many inefficiencies I myself have. And I love the hot dog reference from the movie, Father of the Bride.

  • Andrew Foster Davis

    A big problem for the church is that our culture has well developed expectations of what church looks like. If a church were to stop doing something that our larger culture expected a church to do, that church would experience pressure from within and without to conform to expectations. Furthermore, as a mostly volunteer run organization, churches depend on these widely shared expectations in order to function. To change, a church would have to first change these broader cultural expectations, and that is nearly impossible.

  • We have definitely normalized dysfunction
    and I am with you that it’s time to see if we should stop turning left. What a
    great analogy, and a fun one! I see that Andrew who commented earlier mentions
    that it is ‘almost impossible’ to change broader cultural expectations. I am
    glad that he said, ‘almost’ because one of the assumptions we make is that it
    IS impossible. I don’t believe that it is impossible anymore.

    The nice/scary part is that as so many of our churches fail we are finally willing to let go of controlling things and take a look at ‘how we have always done things’. There is more than one process for a group to question its assumptions, I use one in my work. I know that when each of us realizes that we need to step up and be responsible, that together we will be able to set each other free to think outside the box! We were created to be very creative! I think it’s a very exciting time!

  • Tim

    Christian; your point is well-made and taken. But how do you explain the fact that I saw, with my own two eyes, a UPS truck making a left turn today. In Portland….

    Nevermind; I read the article. There isn’t an outright ban on left turns, they just use right turns approximately 90% of the time.

  • $122284574

    Talking about dysfunction, let’s consider the automobile itself. With all the time we spend working on it, paying for it, insuring it, etc., we’re not getting around any faster than walking, as Ivan Illich points out, and we’ve got and epidemic of diabetes and obesity to boot.

    The model American male devotes more than 1600 hours a year to his car. He sits in it while it goes and while it stands idling. He parks it and searches for it. He earns the money to put down on it and to meet the monthly installments. He works to pay for gasoline, tolls, insurance, taxes, and tickets. He spends four of his sixteen waking hours on the road or gathering his resources for it. And this figure does not take into account the time consumed by other activities dictated by transport: time spent in hospitals, traffic courts, and garages; time spent watching automobile commercials or attending consumer education meetings to improve the quality of the next buy. The model American puts in 1600 hours to get 7500 miles: less than five miles per hour.

    Ivan Illich on Cars
    excerpts from Energy and Equity
    also collected in Toward a History of Needs