Buttons, Churches, & Rigging the System Against Change

As a part of her job, my wife Cara does a fair amount of commuting. She’s recently taken up the habit of listening to a variety of podcasts including one called Radiolab. The latest episode of Radiolab focused on the topic of buttons. It contained an interesting factoid which she shared with me.

The episode in question, Buttons Not Buttons, referenced the word ‘button’ from several different angles. One of the buttons discussed was a historical person with the odd first name Button. Apparently this individual, Button Gwinnett, signed the Declaration of Independence but due to a confluence of events, his name only appears on a limited number of copies. He has gone on to star in a popular video game franchise and has been name dropped by none other than Stephen Colbert.

But it was a factoid involving an altogether different button story from the episode that caught my attention. Cara referenced a quote by an individual Radiolab interviewed, a man named Patrick Carr, who works at an elevator museum. Carr shared the following statistic about the Door Close button that is found in many elevators:

“About 80% of them are non-functional because they are never wired up. Most of the time we don’t do it. About 80% of [Door Close buttons] don’t work.”

If you are like me, the first thing you do after entering an elevator is hit two buttons. You press one button to choose your desired floor and then, almost reflexively, you hit the Door Close button – repeatedly. We do this for absolutely no reason it appears.

Regardless of how many times you press that Door Close button, nothing is going to happen that wasn’t already going to happen.

Carr continues on to explain that most elevators are programmed to meet the demands of people seeking to enter and exit the building, particularly during high volume times. The efforts of individuals to preempt this process (by mashing buttons repeatedly) would actually get in the way; thus, the Door Close button is often left unwired.

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“Descending Memories” by Alexander Boden via Flickr.

I’m not sure why this button is so attractive to some of us. Perhaps we are in a rush, or have that sense that time spent in an elevator is somehow wasted. Maybe it is some subliminal desire to remain in control, even as we have placed ourselves in the small, confined space of a suspended box which seems to crash with such great frequency in the movies.

But regardless of any positive psychological effects, your action in pressing that button, 80% of the time, is essentially meaningless.

Most every time you get in an elevator, you are participating in a system that is completely rigged; even if the manipulation is for your benefit.

Upon hearing this I immediately said to Cara, “that would make a great blog post about the church.” You may be asking yourself at this point, how exactly would this make for a good blog post about the church?

The answer is simple. Ask yourself this question:

How many Door Close buttons exist in the church you attend?

How often is it that people are presented with a fiction that they are in control of what happens while the pastor, or a select group of long-time members, make all the decisions in the proverbial (or literal) parking lot?

How likely is it that a new member, a young person, an ethnic person, or any other individual representing a different voice, might be invited to participate, but not really invited to deliberate on serious matters?

Ask yourself, would change really be so hard to imagine, in some churches, if it wasn’t for the fact that the same people are really pulling the strings year after year? Is your decision making system, the way change happens in your church, essentially rigged in favor of the status quo?

The engineers that design elevators could choose to remove the Door Close buttons in those buildings where they are destined to remain unwired. But I suspect that they’ve considered that and decided against it. Giving people the sense that they are in control is useful in managing the emotions of those who are impatient and/or need to retain some sense of control – even if that control is illusionary.

Some of the same motivations might be in play for those churches with Door Close button practices.

When Door Close buttons are found in the church, I suspect it is a symptom of a certain uncomfortable timidity in our leadership. Like any organization, churches need to change. In today’s world that required adaptation often comes at a pace that isn’t always well served by models that seek to build consensus. This poses a difficult challenge for nice church people who like to avoid conflict.

Why confront a stuck group of people with hard truth when you can try to build something new around them? Even better if you can convince them that it is their idea. Right?

It’s not that our use of metaphorical Door Close button is illogical. After all, it is less likely that the people will revolt if they believe that someone is listening to them, that in some small way they control their destiny. Again, conflict avoidance at any cost.

But in situations where risky change is needed, wouldn’t it be more ethical, and practical, for leaders to assume both the mantle and responsibility of leadership? Haven’t we accrued enough inertia already by avoiding conversations that are often so long overdue?

In some elevators, the Door Close buttons work exactly as advertised. And in some churches, decisions are made in ways that truly honor the diversity of opinions, including the voices of those who are new to the community. Hopefully this number is greater than 20%.

Let us work diligently to remove any deceptively placed Door Close buttons that we may encounter. And let us each find ways to lead boldly, without even well-intentioned deceit, as we do the difficult work of transforming, dismantling, and rebuilding churches so they might better engage the lives, and feed the souls, of people today.

Questions to consider:

  1. Have you encountered a Door Close button in a church you have attended? What did it take for you to realize that you weren’t really being heard?
  2. Have you ever attempted to remove a Door Close button from a church you belonged to? What happened?
  3. Are there legitimate reasons for the use of practices equivalent to Door Close buttons in church ministry? Why or why not?
  4. Do you see our democratic aspirations getting in the way of necessary change in the church? Have you witnessed a leader who managed this well? What good practices did they engage in?
  5. How might happen if more lay and clergy leaders saw their role as Door Open button installers?

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