Mechanically Mundane?

Michael Metzger

Waiting in the wings…
Lee Iacocca guessed that Ford would sell 100,000 Mustangs in the first year of production. They sold over 100,000 in the first four months. Yet the 1965 Mustang wouldn’t have changed the auto industry without two improvements that were waiting in the wings. This is a story of what faith communities do very well, but what must be waiting in the wings to change the world.

The Mustang prototype was a two-seat, front-mounted engine roadster conceived by Ford product manager Donald Frey. Ford Division general manager Lee Iacocca liked the concept and launched an intramural design contest in Ford’s Lincoln-Mercury Division design studios, won by designers David Ash and John Oros. They reworked Frey’s roadster into a four-seat sports car. With its distinctive “long hood, short deck” style, Ford sensed the Mustang – also called the “pony car” – could be a sensation. It was – yet the Mustang might have tired out without a better version waiting in the wings.

The first production run included cutting down on development costs to achieve a suggested retail price of $2,368. This meant the original Mustang was based on off-the-shelf Ford Falcon parts. Under the sleek pony’s skin, the first generation Mustang was merely the mechanically mundane Falcon, with a 170 cubic inch six-cylinder engine coupled to a three-speed manual transmission. But this didn’t matter to the first buyers, who, in four months, snapped up over 100,000 Mustangs. They loved the lines and disregarded the clunky Falcon gearbox and woefully underpowered engine.

Serious automobile enthusiasts, however, demanded more horsepower and smoother shifting. They waited for what Ford had in the wings – a V8 Mustang with an automatic or four-speed transmission that, with other accessories, cost about 60% more than the basic model. When this model was unveiled, auto aficionados sent sales soaring past a million Mustangs over the next fourteen months. Starting with attractive styling but linking with better transmissions and engines explains how the pony car rocked the auto industry. It’s the same combo for faith communities that want to change the world.

Faith communities are remarkable for the number of attractive ministries they’ve launched to make the world a better place. This is a reality rarely recognized by the New York Times but plain to see if we have eyes to see it. In places around the world, Christians are rebuilding homes, ministering to AIDS patients, distributing food to the poor, and giving Christmas gift boxes to tens of thousands of needy kids worldwide. Christians conduct literacy programs in prisons and drill water wells in parched countries. These initiatives are staggering in their scope and sacrificial in the effort. But they raise a troubling question: why don’t more of the serious players in the world – those who lead the culture-shaping institutions – take these efforts seriously? Is it possible that faith communities are ignored because they’re innovative yet mechanically mundane? In other words, do we produce first-generation Mustangs – attractive yet underpowered?

Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith thinks so. He claims that most faith communities launch innovative ministries that are initially attractive and alleviate pain but lack the horsepower to transform the cultural institutions causing the pain.1 We have nothing waiting in the wings to change the system. This is why, as a parallel example, ABC’s Extreme Home Makeover probably won’t change the world. It profoundly changes one family’s life but rebuilding homes one at a time is an insufficient model for transforming the systems contributing to the problem. It’s attractive but not taken seriously by city planners, zoning officials, developers, bankers, builders, and architects who shape cities.

Faith communities are not taken seriously because they believe, as one evangelical leader put it, “the only way to change the world is to change individuals. Changed people, in sufficient numbers, will produce changed campuses, changed communities, changed cities, changed states and nation – yes, in a very real sense, a changed world. Jesus Christ is the only One who can change people from within. We can help change the world by introducing people to Jesus Christ.”2 The early church believed that introducing people to Jesus Christ was attractive and necessary yet insufficient for changing the world. They recognized that the church’s influence is not measured by the size of our organizations or by the quantity of its output, but by the extent to which our definition of reality is realized in the social world – taken seriously and acted upon by actors in the social world.

Being taking seriously requires that ministry manufacturers be connected to engines (i.e., academic institutions) that transmit more horsepower through smoother transmissions (i.e., translating institutions) so that the vehicle performs better. Serious auto enthusiasts ignore underperforming cars. The serious economic, political, and cultural institutions in today’s society essentially ignore Christianity because our models are initially attractive but don’t perform well. We’re not taken seriously, for example, when our comments on the current economic crisis fail to adequately take into account the complexities of financial systems. We sound like mechanically mundane Ford Falcons with six-cylinder engines. Faith communities need to be more tightly linked to academic institutions.

Of course, a bigger engine doesn’t do much good without a heftier transmission. This is a challenge, since the language of most faith communities “is almost exclusively directed to the internal needs of the faithful,” one cultural analyst comments. “This insularity is quite striking. It is a world that is not only difficult to understand by outsiders but is nearly impenetrable by outsiders. Evangelicals, in other words, offer little by way of a common vocabulary of shared life informed by faith but not exclusive to it.” Teaching the Bible and “worldview” is of little value without transmitting these ideas to the street.

The most valuable 1965 Mustangs today are the V8s with the improved transmissions and matching numbers – signifying a seamless linkage of the car’s body, transmission, and engine. Christianity will be taken seriously when ministries are seamlessly linked to more powerful engines and smoother transmissions. It’s how the pony car rocked the auto industry… and how faith communities can change the world.

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1 Christian Stephen Smith, American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1998), p. 198.
2 Bill Bright, quoted in “Transferable Concepts – How You Can Introduce Others to Christ: You Can Change Your World” published by Campus Crusade for Christ.

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4 thoughts on “Mechanically Mundane?”

  1. I would not diminish the vast impact that Jesus Christ has had through his church since his incarnation. I have often thought, however, along the lines of the seminal question Mike has raised, “how would we raise the percieved value of Christian faith in our communities? How could we win the race with the rampant tide of secularism in real time, impacting the quality of the world we live in? And, how do we keep first things first as we do this?” Offering credible value through service to the people of our communities has been generally accepted and is being practiced through many churches. Should we focus on grabbing more media reporting? What are the “translating institutions” best positioned to do the job?

  2. Interesting metaphor, Dr. Gearhead! In addition to the academics and the translators, however, don’t overlook the importance of the implementers in the local church. Once we have reengineered the Christian message [that sounds really bad–consider rewording] to get more traction with our culture and its institutions, the local church will be where these new ideas get implemented. Just because the local church is (mostly) spinning its wheels now doesn’t mean it can’t be an effective agent of change.

  3. Exactly right, David (or Dr. DesignHead)! The local church is the hope of the world… once it recognizes that its chock full of wonderful practitioners who often only lack the shift stick connecting them to a transmission that connects them to the sufficient horsepower required to be taken seriously.

  4. walter david disney

    Drs. Designhead and GearHead, It seems that the ability to convey an idea/concept is NOT Reengineering(Heir Greusel),but rephrasing to give it relationship to the human life. I am reminded that Jesus quite often said “The kingdom of heaven is LIKE…” thus giving it a tangible character to the listener. It takes being versed in the language of the listener….GearheadEse…Designheadese…etc… even legalese …that takes the local church…filled with translators and lovers!
    If you were wondering,I speak many tongues…mostly Bullshevickese!

    P.S. You both do a good job of relating the Truth in your own respective languages. Keep up the good love. Hmmm, reminds me of a song. Music, another good translator!

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