The cars are sleek—but they only operate by gravity.
In the early 1930s, a Dayton Ohio news photographer watched three boys race cool-looking engine-less cars down an inclined street. A year later, The Soap Box Derby was born. It features aerodynamic cars operating by gravity. It’s the same dynamic that drives many contemporary ministries—and presents a dilemma.
Myron E. Scott was the photographer with the flash of an idea in 1933. His paper ponied up the princely sum of $200 to finance the first Derby. It drew 40,000 spectators and 362 kids racing homemade cars built of orange crates and baby-buggy wheels. Derby popularity peaked in the 1950s and 60s but has waxed and waned ever since. One reason is that Soap Box Derby cars, while sleek, are not very innovative. When it comes to changing the automotive industry, they are inconsequential.
In his book, The Sociology of Philosophies, Randall Collins writes that changing the world requires dense, overlapping networks of theorists, educators, and practitioners. Academics contribute horsepower, or ideas that are taken seriously. But that’s not enough. Ideas are often arcane, so a second layer of educators act as transmissions, translating ideas for a third layer—practitioners—who then make products people buy. The linkage of these three, for example, explains how the 1965 Ford Mustang changed the automotive world.
The Mustang started as an idea: “long hood, short deck.” Ford Division general manager Lee Iacocca liked the concept yet understood people don’t buy ideas. They buy items. Concept was translated to car body and Iacocca bolted it to an underpowered Ford Falcon. Over 100,000 Mustangs flew out the door—but that only started the revolution. Serious automobile enthusiasts demanded real horsepower and smoother shifting. Ford was ready with a V8 engine and 4-speed transmission. Sales soared past a million Mustangs. The muscle car revolution was launched, changing the automotive world.
This dynamic of dense networks presents the faith community with a dilemma. Many contemporary ministries understand what looks sleek and sells. They know branding and what it takes to be relevant. But they lack an engine and transmission, so they unwittingly build Soap Box Derby cars, operating only by gravity. The result is a ministry gliding down the cultural grade, coasting on whatever idea sounds cool. One example is the new cultural catchphrase “sustainability.”
“Sustainability” is the new “cool” for architects, economists, and environmentalists. It is of course a worthy goal—but only for animals. Sustainability is introduced in Genesis, where, over five days, God takes an environment unable to sustain life (“formless and void”) and makes it sustainable. The sixth day starts with sustainable but mandates human beings to upgrade it to flourishing, to improve the planet (Gen.1:26-30). This is the Creation, or Cultural Mandate. Human beings, made in God’s image, are singularly capable of creating a flourishing planet. Sustainability is simply the base line.
This interplay is largely lost on the wider world. When was the last time we heard an economist grapple with fiscal sustainability as well as human flourishing? Sustainability is instead singled out, and that’s a problem since it subtracts humans from the equation. Take the National Geographic’s Aftermath: Life After People. It speculates on the fate of the Earth after all human beings are indiscriminately wiped out by a full-scale cataclysmic event. Starting with the first few hours, it looks 1,000 years into the future and shows how the universe, with people out of the equation, tilts toward sustainability. The series is visually stunning yet essentially correct. Sustainability doesn’t require human activity. This is why coasting down the single slope of sustainability is insufficient.
If ministries built high-performance vehicles instead of Soap Box Derby cars, they’d link sustainability with flourishing. Understanding life after people requires comprehending life before people. The current cultural take on sustainability is Darwinian. But few ministries recognize this reality since they build Soap Box Derby cars. High-performance vehicles on the other hand link activism to an engine and transmission. Building high-performance ministries is not easy, however. It requires dense, overlapping networks of theorists, educators, and practitioners—an assembly plant.
Lee Iacocca turned concept into cars because The Ford Motor Company had assembly plants. This is the American faith community’s Achilles heel. There is a general unwillingness to work in a collective fashion. It doesn’t build assembly plants—and there are a few reasons why. First, many academic institutions are content to operate as engine plants. They publish papers that are the equivalent of mounting engines on engine blocks. Revving these engines sounds impressive, until you notice rpms only measure movement inside the engine. Wheels aren’t turning in the wider world.
Second, the American faith tradition tends to treat finances as a zero-sum game. There is a fear of exposing financial contributors to other ministries. Investors might transfer allegiance and assets. Many ministries prefer to do their own thing and shield their investors from others. It’s an ugly reality that needs to be recognized and rectified.
There is nothing necessarily wrong with aerodynamic ministries speaking the language of the street. There is something seriously wrong with building Soap Box Derby cars. It places faith ministries outside movements that are changing the world. By riding the cultural slope, they’ll glide to a stop when the slope bottoms out. Flourishing requires sufficient horsepower to resist a few cultural trends and climb a few inclines. If this is the case, when will we start building assembly plants?