How Good Systems Create Conditions for Flourishing

Recently, we introduced a new blog series focused on clarifying the meaning of the words we use. Over the next few months, this series will aim to redefine some of the most frequently-used language at the heart of the faith and work conversation.

Flourishing can occur in many different contexts. In our next few posts, we will focus specifically on three:

  1. Flourishing as a leader
  2. Flourishing as a system
  3. Flourishing as an organization

Jay Slocum has written an excellent article about the importance of flourishing systems.

It was the mid 1970’s and my dad was driving our green 72’ AMC Gremlin up a steep section of road in Poughkeepsie, NY that we referred to as Reverse Hill.

“Why is it called Reverse Hill?”, I asked watching my dad take a drag of his cigarette and flick the ash out the driver’s side window.

My mechanic-father said, “The name comes from the old timers who drove Ford Model T’s with gravity-fed fuel systems. The gas tanks were mounted under the driver’s seat and fed fuel down to the engine’s carburetor. The system worked until the car went up a steep hill causing the engine to be situated above the gas tank. With gravity, everything wants to go downhill not uphill. So the engine would stall. Drivers started going up this hill in reverse to guarantee that the fuel tank would remain above the engine. That’s how Reverse Hill got its name.”

The story of a flawed fuel system that gave a road its nickname can teach us three important lessons about what it means for a system to flourish:

  1. Systems flourish when all the parts cooperate
  2. Humans build systems with varying degrees of flourishing
  3. You can’t fight gravity, or we must cooperate with God’s system if we want to flourish

Systems flourish when all the parts cooperate

The wonder of systems is that they have the ability to make our individual work more effective, more efficient and more beautiful. Genesis Chapter Two describes God’s desire for man to flourish by working together. He places Adam and Eve in the garden and human society is created that we might, “be fruitful, multiply, fill the whole earth and subdue it.”

It is true that the individual work that we do rearranges the world of particulars and gives shape to life; musicians rearrange sounds that form songs, moms and dads help to rearrange the hearts and minds of their children that form citizens, water treatment plant workers rearrange the elements of creation to nourish humans and cleanse the world. But, when our work combines in a vast web of cooperative effort, we get systems. From mechanical systems like the fuel system that drives a car to systems of exchange that drive economies to systems that allow people to produce goods and services that we call corporations. What makes a fuel system or a business system or a church system a sort of miraculous wonder is that systems can bring about flourishing when a whole bunch of parts work together toward a common end. A fuel system is a little miracle under the hood of a car that can propel you down a highway at 80 miles per hour, warm your home, or allow you to cook a gourmet dinner. When a business scales from “mom and pop” to corporation it can go from giving meaningful work to a few people to employing a whole town. When a church empowers each of its members to use their gifts as Apostle, Prophet, Evangelist, Shepherd, Teacher, the world witnesses the Body of Christ here on earth.

“What makes a fuel system or a business system or a church system a sort of miraculous wonder is that systems can bring about flourishing when a whole bunch of parts work together toward a common end.”

Humans build systems with varying degrees of flourishing

When we arrange of bunch of related parts to work together to form a system, flourishing can occur. The creation of gasoline, fuel tanks, carburetors, and Model T’s is a sort of miracle that has allowed humans to navigate the world with ease. However, the story of Reverse Hill teaches us that not every system works well. Your car’s fuel system can either get you to the church on time or leave you on the side of the road waiting for AAA to come to your rescue. Our systems can appear flawless and our systems can be flawed. Human, mechanical, or biological cooperation can create great societies, great machines and great species but these forms of cooperation can also create things like the Nazi party, Apartheid, The Tower of Babel, and the 1972 Ford Pinto. In order for flourishing to occur, we must use our God-given creative capacity to get “a whole bunch of parts to work together toward a common end” but that end does not always benefit the created world.

You can’t fight gravity, or we must cooperate with God’s system if we want to flourish

When my dad told me the story of Reverse Hill, he said, “With gravity, everything wants to go downhill not uphill.”

There is an important lesson about systems in that statement: namely, if we want our systems to bring flourishing we must create them so that they cooperate with the larger system that God has placed us in within the cosmos. A mechanical system that does not consider the effect of a hill on a gravity feed fuel system is going to really put a stop to traffic. Can you imagine Reverse Hill at rush hour or in the dark and all of those cars having to stop and go up backwards (a quant story but not a picture of a flourishing system)?

Civilizations that think that they can engineer a perfect society by annihilating the family system that God designed or the church system that God Instituted (See Communist Russia in the 20th Century), will do great harm to a world designed by God for flourishing. Whether we call it Natural Law or Sphere Sovereignty or simply say, “with gravity, everything wants to go downhill not uphill,” when we acknowledge a moral order and a created order, we will have our best chance to create systems that flourish.

Systems can be a sort of miraculous wonder with all of their moving parts working in cooperation with one another. And, when we create systems that cooperate with the larger design within which we have been placed, the world can flourish.