Henry Ford Christians

Something I’ve observed in American church culture is an obsession with scale and efficiency. Somewhere along the way, we got the idea that the best way to bring about the Kingdom of God was mass production of disciples. Get enough people in the seats, fill those pews, and we can claim victory over the Devil. We want Jesus to come back soon, and that means making disciples of all the earth, and the best way to do that is churn out more baby Christians faster and faster!

It’s strangely reminiscent of Henry Ford’s Model T production line. He sagely observed in 1908 that the best way to save money on building cars was the production line. It lowered the price of his product by two thirds. Production went from 11 cars per month to 10,000 cars per day. By the close of production after 19 years, 15 million Model T Ford cars had been produced. By any measure, Ford’s innovation was a roaring success, and it set the standard for efficient industrial mass production that still defines American – and worldwide – production methodology.

A central key to Ford’s insight was that the bane of existing production processes was customization. Everything was hand-crafted. Ford eliminated this methodology, and ensured that every car produced was identical. Ford famously told his board in 1909 that “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black.

Ford certainly wasn’t the first person to conceive of standardization – for example, Eli Whitney, the storied inventor of the cotton gin that revolutionized the textile industry in 1793, is also credited with the idea of standardizing parts for military muskets. He demonstrated the efficiencies of scale in 1801 with an unfortunately faked demonstration of supposedly-interchangeable gun parts, effectively lying to keep a government contract – although he did solve the problem later and ultimately delivered on his promises. But Henry Ford was truly the first to do so at a truly relevant, world-changing scale.

And inevitably, Ford’s much-celebrated industrial success inspired and informed all manner of other American thinking. Even today, we Americans practically worship Ford’s innovations. The byline of modern industrial America – and a lot of corporate practice as well – is “faster, better, cheaper.”

Unfortunately, we have also applied Ford’s industrial techniques to people. And “better” usually takes a back seat to “faster” and “cheaper.”

And just as unfortunately, the American church culture is trying to do that, too.

A church I used to attend had briefly flirted with the “cell church” model created by megachurch pastor David Cho in Korea. At its peak in 2007, Cho’s Seoul assembly had 830,000 members. Its practices were carefully organized to rapidly grow and multiply small-group “cells” so that members could have meaningful meetings at a small scale, yet gather for stadium-sized mass worship events. While the cell church model wasn’t fully adopted in most American assemblies, the passion for giant gatherings certainly made its way into America. The list of American megachurches is long – Wikipedia lists 114 congregations of at least 10,000 members, and there are at least 13,000 more congregations with weekly attendance over 2,000 people.

Now, scale and size are not inherently bad. There’s nothing wrong with a congregation being large. The problem arises when the goal is size, not depth. Henry Ford’s principles are wonderful for metal. They’re not so good for humans.

It’s noteworthy that Jesus chose 12 men with whom to live intimately (and despite the cultural pressures of patriarchy, the Gospels imply that He also had a somewhat larger surrounding group of close followers including women). He could easily have scaled up: there are a couple stories of Him ministering to 3,000 and 5,000 men and the associated women and children. But after each such event, He retreated with his core followers and sent all those other thousands back home.

The thing discovered by American evangelists, however, is that you can definitely scale up a meeting and the resulting “conversions” to a sports-stadium-sized event. And the more emotion and compelling words you pour into the event, the better it appears to do. Billy Graham indisputably perfected that art. His largest event, in 1973 in Seoul, gathered over 3 million people. During his ministry he held 417 stadium-sized events, and it’s estimated that 215 million people attended his meetings. Tens of thousands of people would respond to his “altar calls” at the larger events. Just like Henry Ford created an expectation in American industry for the right way to grow a business, Graham created an expectation in the psyche of American Christians about the “right” way to grow the Kingdom.

Unfortunately, I don’t think that scale and efficiency and mass production are the right model for the Kingdom. It works for steel and guns and cars and computer chips, but not so well for people.

There are many questions about the real effectiveness of stadium conversions. Billy Graham’s own ministry estimates that about 1% of them made a decision for Jesus, and I’ve read estimates that 3-6% of people responding to an altar call are any different a year later, implying a very low net effectiveness despite the huge visible numbers. The truth is that while events serving tens of thousands of people in a city may invigorate existing Christians, they simply never result in tens of thousands of new members of local congregations – even a particularly positive article about a large Billy Graham Seattle revival crusade in 1976 at the height of his ministry estimated that “only 15 percent of the converts were added to the church rolls” and remained connected three years later. And data from African missions crusades show that many of the respondents are the same people every time, doing what is necessary to get the physical-life-saving handouts given to “converts.” In other words, it’s a ton of energy and money for relatively modest results. Some might say “even one soul saved would be worth it,” but is that really true? Where ought the energy and money be spent?

The thing about Jesus, which I think we tend to miss in our Americanized “churchianity,” is that He poured His life into just a couple handfuls of His closest followers, truly a discipling model. As I wrote about in “Exponential Christianity” I simply don’t think that mass production of converts will be able to change the world anywhere near as well as devoted and intimate discipleship of just a few people at a time.

Basically, while the raw NUMBER of Christians has been rising across the globe, the PERCENTAGE of Christians on the earth has been stagnant at about 30% of the global population for decades. In other words, it’s only growing with the addition of people, which to me indicates that families that are already Christian are producing Christian offspring. And that numerical growth is coming in a few key areas, mostly Africa, but there’s not much other growth going on. And in America, the percentage of Christians has been DROPPING fast. Worse, even as the American population has been steadily climbing, the total number of self-identified Christians has been stagnant since 2005, and actually took a sharp dive from 2018 to 2021, and recent data shows that sharp drop has continued in the last few years. As such, the Church, and especially the American church, has become shockingly ineffective at making true progress in the world. It continues to process a staggering amount of money – approaching 75 billion dollars per year in America – spending about 95% of that income on itself and its internal ministries. And yet the number of committed members continues to fall.

Perhaps the problem, especially if we really do have The Truth and it’s as compelling as we want to believe, isn’t the message, but the method?

As I wrote in “Exponential Christianity” if each disciple really truly creates four disciples and takes five years to do it, and if each disciple fully demonstrate the character and nature of Christ, and if each of those four disciples does the same with four of their own disciples, all 8 billion humans alive today would be true disciples in just – get this – 90 years. Within one human lifetime.

How shockingly different that is than the current trends in Christianity!

So in a nutshell, almost perversely, if you want Christianity to scale, I believe you have to do it small. You have to focus on quality, not quantity. It simply must be bespoke. The discipleship must be tailored for each human being. You can’t (like Eli Whitney) create millions of one-size-fits-all “body-of-Christ parts” of interchangeable humans. You can’t (like Ford) make everyone exactly the same style and with the same features.

In short: you can’t mass-produce disciples. It’s going to be messy, complex, and slow… but doing it right can change the world.

So I think that means being okay with just making a handful of disciples each, and doing it excellently. And we have to trust that God will take care of the rest. Remember, Jesus didn’t say in Matthew 28:19-20 “make converts.” He said “as you go, make disciples,” “teaching them to keep all that I commanded you.” That’s a lot harder – but much more effective in the long run.

And if we do it that way, we’ll be doing it like Jesus did. And I think that’s a really good goal.

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