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Plumbline Author: Ethan Brue
Date: August 19, 2002
Topic: Stewardship vs. Efficiency

I’m not old enough to remember a time without the automobile, or the television, or the interstate highways, but I do remember the days before the personal computer and the microwave oven. With that information, you might be able to approximate my age. In fact, listen to any North American tell you of the technological artifacts that they remember using or not using and you can probably guess their age, a testimony to the continuum of technological change in the last 100 years. I think for the most part, we perceive this change as continually providing us with new opportunities. The automobile opened the door to on-demand mobility. The computer & telephone have opened the door to instantaneous global communication. But nothing is gained without something being lost. Take for instance the paradox that as technological artifacts make the world a smaller community, it appears that the epidemic of loneliness is ever increasing in our technological society. Some things cannot flourish in an environment of speed and efficiency. In this modern environment, relationships of depth and commitment are on the endangered species list. So as people who both do technology and use technological artifacts, how can we discern when we are losing more than we are gaining? I’d like to suggest that we begin by changing the typical standard of efficiency by which we reject or embrace technological change. Let me explain.

The home we purchased came with an automatic dishwasher. We rarely use it. For a number of reasons, my wife and I prefer to wash and dry dishes by hand. One reason is stewardship. No, I’m not necessarily referring to saving energy. Even though I have found that in our home we use the same amount of water and energy in a day by doing the dishes by hand as we do by using our dishwasher. And neither am I talking about saving money. Although one could argue that by doing dishes the old fashioned way we save the future replacement cost of a new dishwasher. The reason we roll up our sleeves and plunge our hands into a dish filled sink is because we are created to be stewards of many things, including time. After dinner in our home, our kids run off to play knowing that Mom and Dad have to get dishes done before they will entertain the next round of requests. Taking advantage of this understood cease-fire, we share the details of our day, from the frustrating to the humorous. Sometimes we say a lot. Sometimes we say very little. But always it is worthwhile – inefficient and worthwhile. While I realize that the automatic dishwasher may be faster than our manual method, it is important not to confuse the Christian concept of stewardship with a modern notion of efficiency. This ideal of efficiency demands that we continually get more from fewer resources and do more in less time, while our call to stewardship is a call to use resources and time in the most caring and responsible way. For my wife and I, the manual dishwashing task is simply a time holder that prevents us from becoming so efficient at living that we have little time for relationship building. It is our discipline of time stewardship.

Modern North American families are extremely efficient machines. We can mass participate in more activities from sun up to sun down than ever before. From the day-care center to the soccer field to the dance lessons, family life has reached a systematic perfection. But this mechanization of family life comes with some high costs of relationship maintenance that are far from stewardly. We must recognize that dishwashers, microwaves, fast-food restaurants, automobiles, and cell phones are all technological cogs in this new mechanized family.

I am not advocating that we cease to use time saving devices, what I am suggesting is that we consider what we are saving time for. Stewardship is not synonymous with saving. W need to continually ask ourselves whether our lives are stewardly or simply efficient. In doing so, I believe we will see how the excessive use of some technological artifacts allows us to gain efficiency, but in the process, lose time. For some of us, the 4-minute drive to work gains us about 15 to 20 minutes of efficiency compared to the walk. But in the process, we lose something. We lose the opportunity to see a pair of squirrels playing tag in the treetops, or to greet a neighbor along the way, or to feel the crisp bite of the winter wind as it goes about its task of reshaping a blanket of new snow. While efficiency may be quantifiable, stewardship is not. When stewardship is practiced with all the gifts that have been given to us, the result is not a quantity, but a quality of life as it was created to be.

For Plumbline this is Ethan Brue, Assistant Professor of Engineering, Dordt College