Our view of our church members: People, Machinery, or Scenery?

From what I’ve been told, (which I haven’t been able to verify personally), a study was done many years ago by a student at a University in the North Western part of the United States.  As I understand it, the study was undertaken in order to discover how the people that live in that part of the country view other people.  The study was conducted by interviewing a variety of people and asking them to express their views about their family members, friends, acquaintances, and also those people that they observe but don’t interact with.

The conclusion of the study was that these “average” Americans basically placed people into one of the following 3 categories:  People, Machinery, or Scenery.

PEOPLE:  were those people that the interviewees had “real” realtionships with.  This included immediate family members, close friends, and a few others.  They knew the “stories” of those they considered PEOPLE, shared their own story with them, and were genuinely concerned about what was going on in their lives.

MACHINERY:  were those people that they interacted with as part of just living day to day life and who usually were fulfilling some kind of function that the interviewee needed in order to live life, (like the teller at the bank, the gas station attendant, the waitress, the lady behind the counter at the DMV, and so forth).  The MACHINERY were the people that they interacted with out of necessity, not out of choice.   The service or utility or function these people provided and that was needed by the interviewee was all the interviewee was interested in.  There was no interest in getting to know them, making themselves known to them, or showing care for them in any way.  What mattered was whether this person accomplished the task that the interviewee was deriving a benefit from.  And if that task wasn’t accomplished to the satisfaction of the interviewee, then even less thought was given to that person as a person and a mental note was made to discover someone else who was more competent at completing the function.

SCENERY: were those people, usually culturally or socio-enomically different than the interviewee, who were visible to them at different times, but usually at a distance.  In other words the interviewee knew they were out there and that they occupied space in the same little part of the world that they lived life in, but they didn’t have reason to interact with or engage them.  In many cases, they said that the distinction between these people and the actual scenery that surrounds day to day life such as trees, stop-lights, billboards, fences, etc., had been blurred to them.  Every now and then something would trigger a thought in them that forced them to recognize that these people really were people and not scenery, but that didn’t happen that often.

In my own travels and my ministry to Americans and those of other cultures both here in America and in other countries, I’ve come to the conclusion that placing other people into one of these categories is pretty much an expression of our self-knowledge that we are limited and can’t know at a real level all of the people that make up our day to day lives.  It’s beyond our capacity.  But because of our sin nature, we are generally content to leave people in those categories and never make an effort to personalize them.  We’re content to leave them in one of those two non-person categories.  This is universal, it exists in all cultures.

This really isn’t surprising to me.

What is surprising is that this universal, sin-influenced cultural trait, hasn’t been abandoned by those who are new creations in Christ.  And because this cultural trait either hasn’t been thought about or examined and compared to what God has to say about the person hood and value of each person created in His image and likeness, local churches inadvertently end up interacting with and then treating their own attendees the same way those in the world do.

As pastors and leaders, do we view the majority of those people sitting in the sanctuary at each of our church services as really nothing more than beautiful SCENERY that we enjoy with our eyes alone?  SCENERY that we love to view as a beautiful forest each week, but a forest whose trees we really don’t care about considering individually?

As pastors and leaders, do we view those that make the service run, (ushers, the audio & visual guys, parking lot attendants, even Children’s ministry servants and so forth), as just MACHINERY that is essential for the functioning of the service and really nothing more?

As pastors and leaders, do we only view our families and fellow staff as PEOPLE?  Are we content with viewing everyone else as either MACHINERY or SCENERY and then being satisfied with the minimal level of interaction that is required for relating to MACHINERY or SCENERY?

Even though there are those who attend our services and are content being viewed as SCENERY for a while–content to be viewed as part of the overall forest, they eventually will desire to be viewed and interacted with as an individual tree that is not only a significant member of the forest, but also significant to those they consider Godly.

Even though our faithful members who perform functions for the good of the whole operation know they are a part of the MACHINERY of the service, they probably also believe that they are viewed by their church leaders as PEOPLE.

Do we as leaders stop treating them as PEOPLE if they no longer perform the function that is necessary for the operation of the church service?  If we stop interacting with them as PEOPLE because they no longer serve as a part of the MACHINERY, maybe we never viewed them as PEOPLE in the first place?

And if that is what we communicate to them, either intentionally or unintentionally, we shouldn’t be surprised if they move on, wounded as they depart.

Even though our capacity for personally interacting with others as PEOPLE is limited by our finiteness, we should regularly question ourselves as to whether we have inadvertently been expressing to others in any way, shape, or form, that viewing other people as MACHINERY or SCENERY is acceptable to us, to our fellow leaders, and or to God.  We definitely don’t want to go there.  But has that been where we’ve been?



And one last thought.  How about asking 4 or 5 PEOPLE that we do interact with as PEOPLE, (and not just paid staff, but others who serve in some capacity in the church), on a regular basis whether in their opinion, we have been treating others as something other than people?  And then…..humbly accept their perspective of us as valid and respond appropriately.




5 replies
  1. Tim Brown
    Tim Brown says:

    WOW! Great post, Jeff. What an eye opener! I was with a gentleman at breakfast just this week. He went up to the waiter/busboy, shook his hand and called him by name. Then he sat down at my table and told me something about our waiter. I was impressed. The one I viewed as MACHINERY was a real PERSON to my friend. I thought to myself, “That is the way of Christ.”

  2. John Snoderly
    John Snoderly says:

    Jeff,great reminder that Jesus always viewed everyone as PEOPLE and not just as MACHINERY or SCENERY.If that was true of Jesus surely it should be true of us. I am challenged to change how I view others, especially those that serve in church.

  3. Bill Holdridge
    Bill Holdridge says:

    I love this post, Jeff!

    I so much need to adopt its application. As my wife and I have been doing more of that lately, we,ve seen more doors open for sharing Christ’s love for them.

    I’m going to go back now and re-read it. Thanks!

  4. Leslie Salazar-Carrillo
    Leslie Salazar-Carrillo says:

    Love this Jeff….the Lord has recently put on my heart that we read so many times of Jesus speaking, but how many times while walking down a road, or eating did He just LISTEN. When Tom and I started doing outreach a good friend told me he used to do prison ministry in the yards, he said the guys in there just want to tell you their story. He went on to tell me, “Leslie just listen, really look at people, they just want to be heard.” I have carried it with me these past few years and it has been invaluable advice when trying to convey to people that they have value, by valuing them enough to really see them and really listen.

  5. michael schreck
    michael schreck says:

    great post jeff…i remember this teaching well…i remember clearly being in a local supermarket here with the woman scanning my items and packing my bags…not a cog but a person…as i started a conversation with her…discovered she was from pakistan and had the normal cultural family questions…after spending a few moments with her, i started to walk away when the manager of the store stopped me…i thought maybe i got the woman in trouble for talking to much, but in actuality he wanted to know what she said. been working there for 6 months and hasn’t seen her have the long of a conversation with anyone. sure her english isn’t up to par,but she can communicate and make herself known…not a cog but a person…so fascinating that as you can attest to, most of the “cogs” in our society are the unreached that God has placed amongst us to know and to make Christ known to….blessings

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