Is Efficiency Always Best?

by Apr 3, 2009

I’m a schizophrenic pastor. Depending on the day, I can either be efficient, cold, and task-driven, or leisurely, relational, and unproductive. Of course, that comes with the territory: people expect a pastor to get a lot done, at least until the day comes when they need to spill their guts in a 3-hour marathon counseling session.

Whenever I’m visiting other cultures, like I did in my recent 3-country tour of ministries in Southeast Asia, I’m always interested to see where people fall on the scale of efficiency. Are they task-driven and time-oriented? Or are they relationship-driven and event-oriented? I’ve consistently found that the more Americanized a culture has become, the more task-and-time-oriented they are.

Most of us Americans worship efficiency. That’s why Lifehacker is such a popular blog. But this interview with one of my favorite authors, counselor (and Kailua boy!) David Powlison shows that the ruthless pursuit of efficiency in the work we do for God is not always going to give the best results:

I’ve had to learn how I work best, and it’s not the cultural ideal of tightly scheduled efficiency. For me, effective and productive often operate in ways that seem quite “inefficient.” I’m more “third-world” in my use of time: event-oriented and person-oriented, rather than time-conscious and to-do-list-conscious. I operate with an inner gyroscope tuned to whether or not any particular experience or interaction is complete – not to how long it takes or whether it fits the schedule. I’m attuned to whether or not any particular thought is actually finished thinking, rather than whether the product is done on time. So I tend to take the time it takes to get something right—whether that “something” is the close attentiveness of getting fully engaged in this conversation of consequence, or how to craft this sentence and paragraph, or whether I’m stopping and actually noticing the hawk flying overhead right now.

During his 20-year sermon series on Romans, John Piper used Romans 12:11 as a challenge to work hard for Christ, but not just for efficiency’s sake:

“Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit.” It seems to me that this is a negative and positive way of saying one thing: Negatively, Don’t be slothful in zeal. Positively, be fervent in spirit. The one thing Paul is saying is: Do lots of work for Christ passionately.

Each of these two statements clarifies and protects the other from misunderstanding. “Do not be slothful in zeal”—do not be lazy in zeal—could be taken to mean: be pragmatic. Work, work, work, and don’t worry about your emotions or how you feel. Getting things done is what matters. Be eager and earnest and zealous to get things done. Laziness is the great vice. The great virtue is efficiency and hard work.

But we can see how lopsided that is when we take the positive, clarifying counterpart, namely, “be fervent in spirit.” The word “fervent” comes from the Latin fervens which means “boiling.” That is exactly what this word means in the original Greek (zeontes): boiling—in spirit. So the idea is clearly not one of mere hard work or efficiency. The spirit is in view, not just the body. Feeling is in view, not just doing. So the point of both clauses together is: Don’t just do lots, feel lots.