Soap Box Derby Cars

Michael Metzger

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?

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7 thoughts on “Soap Box Derby Cars”

  1. There are some interesting points here, but the mixed metaphors don’t bridge the logical gaps in your argument (for example: the goal of soap box racers is not the same as that of a car company is not the same as a “ministry”).

    By the time you get to sustainability, I’m not sure whether we’re talking about sales, fund-raising, gravity or production plants, let alone how that relates what the ‘church’ can – or should – do, instead.

    I also note that you do not mention ‘fallen-ness’ in connection with the difficulty of flourishing in this world, as opposed to aiming at least towards a sustainable existence (instead of one that leads to depletion, which is where we seem to be heading).

    How that relates to gravity as opposed to an engine is yours to cipher, though! Perhaps throw in another metaphor: that of the soap box car on a ski jump. . . .

  2. I love it when people make reflective comments only through the reality that they see. I run a ministry and your blog nails the reality of where ministries are in our culture.

    We seem to jump from idea to idea based on its effectiveness in either getting more donors or raising awareness of our brand. I also sit on the board of another ministry and am very active in two others. We are beginning to see the importance of sharing donors, as well as vision. It goes against everything that we have been taught from business standpoint and a ministry stand point.

    GREAT BLOG!

  3. Mike Metzger

    I would counter that the aims are roughly the same – to win. Sustainability is simply one example drawn from three different arenas. Sustainability has nothing necessarily to do with sales, fund raising, etc. I think you have confused categories, marble. For Patagonia, sustainability has to do with saving the rainforest – a notable and noble goal. But it is not enough.

    Apart from the example of sustainability, the larger issue is faith communities lacking a vital link to sound academic ideas. They only coast and gather momentum by riding the cultural trends. They cannot buck – or add – to any issue, since they lack sufficient horsepower to be taken seriously. There is no suggestion here that we ignore depletion. But depletion and sustainability are not the only two options. Life is more than sustainability, as Jesus noted: “I came that they might have life and have it abundantly.”

  4. Interesting perspective on the topic of sustainability. If I read this correctly you’re proposing that we need to go beyond sustainability. So does that mean we should at least start from the position of sustainability as a goal for a fallen world and as an antedote to rampant greed and excess that will deplete many resources within a couple of generations?

    Another thought to throw into the mix is the definition for sustainability. I offer the environmental statement from the Water Corporation as they are proponents of seeking to not only reduce environmental impacts, nor only to prevent impacts (perhaps the typical view of sustainability), but to improve environments so that they are more resillient. Their view on sustainability seems to be to want to improve things, not just preserve them. Is this the concept of “flourishing” that you mention? Can we define sustainability to mean flourishing and so engage in the discussions, or do we need to use new words?

    http://www.watercorporation.com.au/E/environment_index.cfm?uid=2032-1245-6754-5347

  5. As always, very interesting!

    Two questions…
    (1) I love the way you think, and most of what you say above seems intuitively true for me, but I’m having a difficult time pinning down what you mean by “academic ideas.” For example, I think first of Dallas Willard, who explains some old (ancient) ideas about faith and transformation, but does so in a novel way that has made these ideas more accessible to many. While he’s clearly an academic, perhaps he falls more into the role of “translator” or transmission? Or perhaps Daniel Pink (who is clearly not an academic), but who has summarized some fascinating, recent psychological research regarding motivation in his book “Drive.” Or are you talking about innovative (thus similar to an academic?) business people, like Gary Hammel, that have new ideas about how corporations can be more effective? I imagine you’ll say all of the above?

    (2) If you were to summarize what you think are the top three academic ideas that need/could be applied in various ministries what would they be? If it’s too difficult to generalize this widely, how about the top three ideas that you’re thinking about these days. Thought experiment…that if you had unlimited resources and power (scary!), ideas you’d work on putting into practice?

  6. Mike Metzger

    Andy:

    I think you have the hit the nail on the head. Now we need to keep sinking the nail deeper and deeper. Flourishing would mean fresh water for all – the plus-seven billion people on the planet. Flourishing would mean fresh water for agriculture, industry, etc. Sustainability is a subset of flourishing since sustainability – left to itself – often overlooks the complexity of overlapping, dense layers of institutions required for flourishing. This reality is essentially why Jared Diamond, in his excellent book, “Guns, Germs, and Steel,” cites the famous first sentence of Tolstoy’s great novel Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Diamond goes on to write, “By that sentence, Tolstoy meant that, in order to be happy, a marriage must succeed in many different respects: sexual attraction, agreement about money, child discipline, religion, in-laws, and other vital issues. Failure in any one of those essential respects can doom a marriage even if it has all the other ingredients needed for happiness.” In the same way, societies flourish when overlapping networks of institutions work the right way.

    Mark:

    Your observation regarding Willard is close to the mark (many still find his work a bit dense). Pink is a translator, as is Jonah Lehrer and others (notice that few if any of the best translators are part of the faith community?). Your last question intrigues me. I have given it a great deal of thought over the past two decades. Here it is:

    In my opinion (and I could be off) the effectiveness of the Western faith community is crippled by a faulty take on human nature. The “two-chapter” present a big theological problem, but not as big as our anthropological problem. Here’s why. First, there are many “four-chapter” gospel churches and ministries. However, in the opinion of people such as Lesslie Newbigin, Western churches (be they “two-” or “four-chapter”) are essentially blind to the fact that they follow an Enlightenment set of assumptions. This is evidenced in our preaching, the way we evangelize, the way we do apologetics, the way we try to disciple, and the way we conduct our corporate services. As a result, the American church transmits a great deal of information but the studies reveal a startling lack of transformation. No amount of additional information will solve this problem. It is a problem that’s the product of a bad paradigm. This is why Penn State professor of church history Philip Jenkins says the Western church is an aberration. Gulp. Big gulp. The solution is a paradigm shift – something Thomas Kuhn said rarely happens. It would take at least one generation and require many overlapping layers of institutions as well as costing many hundred of millions of dollars.

    As I said, I’ve given this some thought. So have a handful of others. Want to join the fray?

  7. In my own experience of working on sustainability in the context of engineering, it is actually forcing folks to consider the overlapping that you consider a part of flourishing. The approach I see used most commonly for sustainability is the “triple bottom line” that defines sustainability as something that covers social and economic considerations as well as environmental aspects. Reading between the lines of your article it seems that you would define this more as “flourishing” and reserve “sustainability” solely for environmental sustainability.

    Have you read “Beyond Growth” by Herman Daly? My reason for asking is that he includes a chapter on “Ethics Religion and Sustainable Development.” It has been a while since I read it and I loaned out my copy so I can’t check it but I recall that he had a distinctly Christian perspective on sustainability that inspired me at the time.

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