Amazon Culture, the Church, and the Ikarians: Cultivating a Faithful People

History was made this past week. According to the New York Times, the recent exposé on what it means to be an Amazonian (someone who works at Amazon) became “the most commented-on story at The New York Times.”

Why Has a Story about Amazon Culture Generated So Much Reaction?

So why has this story drawn so much attention and so many comments? Was it the catchy title: “Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace”? Many people have an interest in getting an inside look at the online retailer whose worth recently surpassed Walmart, even though Walmart remains the largest retailer. Most of us have an interest in people, companies, and organizations that are successful.

For some people, it was the summary under the title that peaked their interest. The summary reads, “The company is conducting an experiment in how far it can push white-collar workers to achieve its ever-expanding ambitions.” Many of us like to learn about experiments. And apparently this experiment isn’t with mice, but “white-collar” workers.

I suspect that one of the bigger draws to the article lies in identification; when read the summary statement, most of us can identify with the word “pushed.” We feel like a pushed people. We tend to get “pushed” in the workplace, whether we happen to be employees or employers. As someone who has the freedom to make “my own” schedule and set “my own” goals, a lot of the “pushing” that I experience is self-inflicted. We all know what it feels like to get pushed.

But, as many who commented on the article have implied, there is a big difference between the self-inflicted, sacrificial lifestyles of athletes and an others-inflicted sacrificial lifestyle. It is very different being the person(s) responsible for creating a culture that feels like a sweat shop to those who work for you–a culture where toxic tactics create dehumanizing environments that produce frantic people with many fears, including the fear of losing your job if you don’t meet excessive demands.

As Matt Guest read the New York Times article, he shared his fears. “One real concern that many of us share is that some of Amazon’s most soul-crushing ideas are coming soon to our workplaces. On paper, what Amazon does works for the company, particularly its upper echelon executives; it does not work for almost anyone else there because human lives are more than names or numbers on a sheet of paper. Ruthless efficiency is at times admirable, becoming a slave to its seductive force is not.” The fact that his comment has received thousands of recommendations speaks to the fear people have, or the experiences people currently face in their workplace and lives.

Some employees have come to the defense of Amazon, while others are confirming the report given by Jodi Kantor and David Strietfeld after six months of research into the Amazonian lifestyle. In a shareholder’s letter written in 1997, Jeff Bezos wrote, “When I interview people, I tell them, ‘You can work long, hard or smart, but at Amazon you can’t choose two out of three.” Does Jeff still hold to this, or has he changed? We will likely learn more as the story continues to unfold.

Inside the Church: Cultivating Frantic or Faithful People

While we should all have an interest in how companies treat their employees and consider our buying decisions based on this interest, I want to bring this conversation inside the church. I want to ask you, does the church you serve cultivate frantic or faithful people?

Too often the church has uncritically adopted the practices of the business world, baptizing them with Christian language, then wondering why we are becoming less like Christ in the process. I’m thankful for people like Tim Suttle. In his recent book Shrink: Faithful Ministry in a Church Growth Culture he brings needed and helpful critique to leaders in the church who worship at the idol of bigger and greater.

Instead of following the message of Jim Collins Good to Great, Tim makes the case that as leaders, great can actually become the enemy of good. “I say that Great is the enemy of Good in Christian leadership. The drive to be great (read: bigger, more celebrated, and more talked about) is crowding out goodness and virtue as the central focus in Christian leadership. Christian leadership has too often become about pragmatism (what works, makes us grow, gets me predictable results, is most effective), while faithfulness has taken a backseat. Pastors have morphed into CEO’s, and the worth of leaders has become intrinsically tied to the success of their congregations or ministries.”

Our job is to abide in Christ. God’s job is to produce the fruit. Whenever we get these mixed up it leads us to live frantic lives and create cultures that lead to burned out, impatient, frantic people. We need to avoid the temptation to make our worth dependent on what we produce. Instead, we need to anchor our worth in who and whose we are–God’s beloved. The Father told Jesus that he was well pleased with him, even before he started his ministry. This no doubt helped Jesus to fight the temptation to be relevant, spectacular, and powerful.

Some church leaders are seeking to create churches filled with Amazonians by literally applying Amazon’s 14 Leadership Principles to the church. In this, we are tempted to bow to the alter of speed and efficiency, which leads to living frantically. Thankfully some sane voices, like those of Christopher Smith and John Pattison in Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesusare calling us to slow down and abide in Christ and his ways.

Christopher and John remind us that “The character of God thus stands in sharp contrast to the modern era’s idolatrous affair with efficiency, which is driven by the conviction that the end justifies the means – or, in the famous words of Malcolm X, that some vital ends should be pursued ‘by any means necessary.'”

“Slow Church is inspired by the language and philosophy of the Slow Food Movement as a means to rethink the ways in which we share life together in our church communities. Just as Slow Food offers pointed critique of industrialized food cultures and agricultures, Slow Church can help us unmask and repent of our industrialized and McDonaldized approaches to church. It can also spur our imaginations with a rich vision of the holistic, interconnected and abundant life together which God has called us in Christ Jesus.”

In other words, in a culture that worships speed, efficiency, being bigger, and being greater, maybe the question we need to ask each other when we gather as Christian leaders is not, “How many people come to your weekly service?” But rather, “In what ways are people in the congregation you serve becoming more like Christ?” “In what ways are people becoming more loving, more patient, more faithful, more joyful?”

The Apostle Paul warns us, “Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you” (Rom. 12:1-2 The Message).

It is easy for me to get caught up in our current culture, which has the underlying assumption that our worth is determined by our ability to produce and achieve.  When I believe this lie, it causes me to be enslaved to production. In the first church that I helped to plant, it was rare for me to take a day off. I was like the rat running in the wheel with no rest. The problem is that when we enter the rat race, we often become rats in the process. I had little patience, which, according to I Cor. 13, means that I had little love. I thought patience was for underachievers.

Go to the Ikarians to Learn Sustainable Living

While Solomon tells us to go to the ant to learn about diligence, I think he would tell us to go to the Ikarians to learn patience, joy, and how to live long and sustainable lives.

An article in the New York Times that got one-tenth of the responses of “Inside Amazon…” was “The Island Where People Forget to Die.” It was written by Dan Buttoner, who for over a decade now has studied populations around the world that have longer life expectancies. Buttoner has studied many of the places that have the most centenarians, people who live to be a hundred or older. For this article, Buttoner’s primary focus was on the Ikarian people, who live on an island that is 99 square miles and is home to around 10,000 Greek nationals. His research revealed some key reasons why Ikarians live longer and more enjoyable lives than most people in the world.

Although you will need to read the article to get all the helpful information, one could sum it up by saying that the Ikarians know how to refresh themselves physically, recharge themselves emotionally, and renew themselves spirituality.

Refresh Physically

Dan tells us that Ikarians sleep in and take afternoon naps. They eat locally and walk up and down many hills daily. They basically have a good diet, get proper rest, and live active lives.

When Dan interviewed Dr. Ilias Leriadis, one of Ikaria’s few physicians, Dr. Leriadis said, “We wake up later and always take naps. I don’t even open my office until 11 am because no one comes before then.”  After taking a few sips of his wine he tells Dan, “Have you noticed that no one wears a watch here?”

The psalmist writes, “It’s useless to rise early and go to be late, and work your worried fingers to the bone. Don’t you know he enjoys giving rest to those he loves?” (Ps. 127:2 The Message). We need a more robust theology of rest, because God gives to us, even in our sleep. When we are tired, we tend to be more moody. When we are properly rested, we tend to be more loving people.

Part of the reason we have lost the ability to have proper rest is that we live in a culture that views time in a warped way. Our culture views time much like Pharaoh did. He wanted people to produce as much as possible as fast as possible. “More bricks, less straw.” Productivity was his goal. It’s interesting that it wasn’t until the 17th century that the clock was invited. Since then we have looked at time as a resource, a commodity.

Philip Kennison in his brilliant book Life on the Vine says, “because of our increased consciousness of time, we are encouraged to think of time as simply one more resource. Or more likely, it now becomes the most important resource in our possession. I naturally think of ‘my time’ as my own. It is mine to control. It is a possession, a commodity. This conviction is so rooted in our culture that we often hear people saying, ‘Time is money.’ Think about how we talk about time: we spend time, buy time, save time, manage time and invest time. And because we view time as our own resource to ‘spend’ as we see fit, interruptions in our daily agenda are inevitably viewed as intrusions.” With this view of time, it is no wonder most of us have little patience.

When we read the story of God, we see a patient God. When we reflect on the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, we can have great confidence that God’s future will come about, so there is no need for us to be frantic people.

One of the ways we display our hope as a people of God is by taking the Sabbath seriously. Sabbath is not just taking a day off. Eugene Peterson helps us understand the nature of Sabbath is his book Working the Angles. “Sabbath means quit. Stop. Take a break. Cool it. The word itself has nothing devout or holy in it. It is about time, denoting our nonuse of it, what we usually call WASTING time.” Peterson goes on to talk about how Biblical Sabbath is about praying and playing. While the Puritans eliminated “play” and secularists eliminate “pray,” engaging in both replenishes the soul.

Here is Peterson’s definition of Sabbath: “Uncluttered time and space to distance ourselves from the frenzy of our own activities so we can see what God has been and is doing. If we do not regularly quit work for one day a week, we take ourselves far too seriously. The moral sweat pouring off our brows blinds us to the primal action of God in and around us.”

Diet and being active were other elements discovered in studying the lifestyle of the Ikarians. Regarding their diet, they eat locally, seasonally, and sparingly. They have two to four glasses of wine a day and drink a decent amount of coffee. (Read the article to learn more about the Ikarians’ diet.)

Regarding exercise, the Ikarians don’t approach it as we do. They have no gyms. They don’t look at exercise as something that must be willfully engaged. They just live active lives. They walk. They garden. They dance.

Recharge Emotionally

Although Ikarian unemployment is high (around 40%), people live relatively stress-free lives because they have learned to take care of each other. Writing on the pace of Ikarian life in her recent book Ikaria: Lessons on Food, Life, and Longevity from the Greek Island Where People Forget to DieDiane Kochilas reveals that pace to be “slow, deliberate, unhurried, but with enough time to observe and live in every moment.” People tend to be easygoing, forgiving, and unstressed. If you have seen the film My Big Fat Greek Wedding, you have seen something not far from how people live communally.

Ikarians love to have feasts and festivals. As Greek Orthodox people, they love to celebrate the different lives of the saints. They know how to party and enjoy life. Diana reports, “dancing has a lot to do with it. So does the strength of the local wine.” They enjoy long dinners and eventually push the table to the side and start dancing.

Ikarians are not only a social people but a sexual people as well. As Yagana Shah writes in her article 5 Things the Greeks Can Teach Us About Aging Well, “In a study of Ikarian men between ages 65 and 100, four out of five claimed they were still having sex regularly. What’s more is a quarter of those men said the sex was pretty darn good, with them being able to last a considerable amount of time. With the immunity boosting, stress busting, and anti-aging benefits of sex, it’s no wonder they’re living so long.”

And the people in Ikaria know how to laugh. Solomon tells us that a cheerful heart is good medicine. Studies have shown that laughter increases the number of T-cells in your body, which raises your immunity level. Laughing is good for your health.

Renew Spiritually

The Ikarian’s social structure is important for their well-lived and long-lived lives. The New York Times article says, “In Sardinia, a cultural attitude that celebrated the elderly kept them engaged in the community and in extended-family homes until they were in their 100’s. Studies have linked early retirement among some workers in industrialized economies to reduced life expectancy. In Okinawa [another community with greater life expectancy], there’s not this artificial punctuation of adult lives. Instead, the notion ikagia — ‘the reasons for which you wake up in the morning’ — suffuses people’s entire adult lives. It gets centenarians out of bed and out of the easy chair to teach karate, or to guide the village spiritually, or to pass down traditions to children…As Dr. Robert Bulter, the first director of the National Institute on Aging, once told me, being able to define your life meaning adds to your life expectancy.”

As we get into the scriptures and let the scriptures get into us, we will better understand our purpose in life, and it will not only let us live long, but also live well. For in addition to offering plenty of information about reality, the scriptures actually give us energy for the task to which God is calling us. The inspiration of scripture means that energy comes from the wind of God’s spirit through His Word. “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work” (II Tim. 3:16,17).

Paul reminds us that the reason God breathed the scriptures is that we might be transformed into the kind of people who bring goodness into our world. As we live in communion with the Father, Son, and Spirit, we will be inclined to spread the joy and love we experience in living daily in our Triune God. Every moment can be a miniature reflection of life in the kingdom of God.

“So we do not give up. Our physical body is becoming older and weaker, but our spirit inside us is made new every day” (II Cor. 4:16). No matter how old our bodies get, God says we can be renewed inwardly, spiritually, daily. Every day, I make sure to practice communal or personal prayer. And every day, I make sure to practice communal or personal listening, seeking to hear God through Scripture and various spiritual writings. By practicing these spiritual rituals, my heart has grown younger as I have grown older. If you feel overworked or overstressed, check out Sean Hall’s ministry. He turned me on to the Ikarians.

The Punctuated Life

Let me sum things up by asking again: Is the culture you are creating in the congregation you serve cultivating frantic or faithful people? Does it resemble an Amazonian culture or an Ikarian culture?

If we want to cultivate an Ikarian culture, we need to learn to live punctuated lives. In other words, life can become one long run-on sentence. But life was not meant to be lived that way.

We need commas in our lives, times where we pause, reflect, have long lunches, and take afternoon naps.

We need to bring periods into our lives, taking ten minutes at the end of each day to reflect on it and see where we walked with God and where we failed to. We need to reflect on what gave us life and what drained life from us. The period also stands for Sabbath, stopping once a week from our work in order to pay attention to God and recharge ourselves emotionally.

We need exclamation marks in our lives. We need to know what stirs our passions. We need to learn to play with our communities in our neighborhoods.

The question mark reminds us to have an ongoing curiosity about God, the world we live in, our neighborhood, and life in general.

The hyphen between words reminds us of our need of soul friends, people with whom we share intimate space; people with whom we can be completely unfiltered.

If we want to create a culture where people live long and well, if we want to build communities that are a sign, foretaste, and instrument of God’s coming kingdom, then we need to learn from the Ikarians more than the Amazonians. The Ikarians teach us to live more locally, to laugh more, to look at time from God’s perspective, to eat well and rest well, to drink more wine, to have sex often, and to dance through life.

Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28).

So, do people in the congregation you serve live life as one long run-on sentence? Or do you help them live punctuated lives? Are you creating a culture in the church that cultivates frantic or faithful people, who know how to rest? What kind of life best describes your own? After all, people tend to imitate those they respect.

“Learn more at The Praxis Gathering!”

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JR Woodward
JR Woodward is a church planter, activist, missiologist and author of Creating a Missional Culture (IVP, 2012). He co-founded the Ecclesia Network and Missio Alliance. He currently serves as the National Director for the V3 Church Planting Movement and is pursuing a PhD at the University of Manchester (UK).
JR Woodward

4 Comments

  1. Pamela Aug 26, 2015 Reply

    Please may I also recommend ‘The Day is Yours’ by Ian Stackhouse (Paternoster, 2008)? The title echoes Psalm 74;16. The description on the back describes it as ‘a protest against the culture of speed both in the culture at large, but also, more ominously, in the church itself.’ It is firmly rooted in a biblical perspective of time and purpose, and as such brings far more to the table than ‘protest’.

    • JR Woodward
      JR Woodward Aug 26, 2015 Reply

      Thank you so much for the recommendation. Sound like a great read!

  2. Jonny Rashid Aug 27, 2015 Reply

    I appreciated your response to the NYT’s Amazon expose. I wrote one too (http://www.circleofhope.net/jonnyrashid/2015/08/25/toxic-it-may-be-but-theres-more-to-amazon-than-that/), mainly because I was inspired by how hard-working Amazon and its leaders are. Thanks for sharing.

  3. JR Woodward
    JR Woodward Aug 27, 2015 Reply

    Nice article Jonny. I appreciate your angle. Thanks for the HT

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