Spontaneous Order and the Gospel: Avoiding the Chicken-McNugget Church


TED Talks recently posted a lecture on the origins of Chinese food by reporter Jennifer 8. Lee.

In the video, Lee explores how Chinese food has emerged across the world, from America to Italy to Japan. In each case, Chinese food has been altered according to the local tastes of the given culture.

Watch the video here:

I came across the video from a post by Jeffrey Tucker, who offered his reaction with this simple headline: “The Spontaneous Order of ‘Chinese Food.’”

Tucker is referring to the Hayekian notion of spontaneous order, which proposes that human ingenuity and creativity — when left alone by centralized forces — will lead to a much more efficient and specialized economy than any central planner could imagine.

Although Hayek is not mentioned explicitly in the video, it’s easy to see where Tucker sees the connection.

As Lee says in the video:

We [can] think of McDonald’s as sort of the Microsoft of the culinary dining experience. We can think of Chinese restaurants perhaps as Linux — sort of an open-source thing…where ideas from one person can be copied and propagate across an entire system. Where there can be specialized versions of Chinese food depending on the region.

As an example, Lee compares McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets with General Tso’s Chicken. Where Chicken McNuggets were centrally planned, researched, and rolled out to consumers nationwide, General Tso’s Chicken spread across America spontaneously after originally appearing in an obscure New York City restaurant.

I think Friedrich Hayek would agree that the evolution of Chinese food is indeed spontaneous order.

As Hayek says in The Road to Serfdom:

The fundamental principle that in the ordering of our affairs we should make as much use as possible of the spontaneous forces of society, and resort as little as possible to coercion, is capable of an infinite variety of applications.

I understand that the innovative efforts made by McDonald’s involve much less coercion than those of the government, but there is something to be said about the achievements and innovations we can make through unorganized and uncoerced efforts. Whether we’re talking about the emergence of American-Chinese food or Facebook, it is clear that order does not necessarily require centralized control.

So what can we take away from this as Christians?

I’ve often thought about the Church in Hayekian terms. We have many denominations that could be seen as centrally planned (e.g. the Catholic Church), and we have many movements that are not bound by denomination or any other systematic authority (e.g. various Evangelical, charismatic sects). Particularly within the last century, there has been an explosion of spontaneous activity within the Church.

I think much of this spontaneous activity is healthy and can lead to new and better forms of order, but I also think it can lead to failures that may have been prevented by having the proper infrastructure or central authority in place. I struggle with understanding where the balance is when it comes to the Church.

On a governance level, Hayek certainly didn’t believe that spontaneous order was the only form that was healthy or acceptable, but he did think that individuals should by and large be left to their own devices.

As Hayek says:

An international authority [i.e. government] can be very just and contribute enormously to economic prosperity if it merely keeps order and creates conditions in which the people can develop their own life; but it is impossible to be just or to let people live their own life if the central authority doles out raw materials and allocates markets, if every spontaneous effort has to be “approved” and nothing can be done without the sanction of the central authority.

How then can the Church keep order and create conditions for ingenuity and flourishing when it comes to reaching the Lost?

How can we maintain a Church that provides solid and consistent fundamentals (i.e. proper doctrine) without dogmatically suppressing innovations that may be beneficial?

I’m interested in your thoughts.

(Note: The image above is provided by Fritz Saalfeld/ / CC BY-SA 2.5)

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  • http://twitter.com/remnantculture/status/18941152012 Remnant Culture

    New post: Contemplations on Hayek, Chinese food, and the chicken-nugget church. http://bit.ly/cG4ZQL

  • Anon

    I think there are some aspects of the modern Catholic Church that are getting at what you're talking about, at least somewhat. In particular, I've been learning more recently about the different Catholic religious orders. They often focus on one particular issue, like poverty, and dedicate their lives and their order to addressing that issue. Others might focus on education, building schools and learning environments. These operate with the blessing of the Church, but semi-independently. Thus, they can innovate, but within some guiding ordered situation.

    Of course, we have the wonderful situations like the Church investigating some nuns in the US, basically for being too liberal (http://www.upi.com/Top_News/2009/07/02/Catholic…). And there's the obvious past Church abuses of indulgences, some current pronouncements by the Pope (I think of his comments about AIDS in Africa that were Church doctrine but still a little iffy), that still keep things from being as innovative as they might be.

    But, I think one can learn some from looking up how different Catholic orders go about their work in the world. They are bound to respect and promote the solid fundamentals you mention, but provide the pathway for innovation.

    There are also the different lay groups like the Knights of Columbus that focus on community service as well as life and other insurance for their members. Again, under the umbrella of the Church (priests often serve as leaders of KoC councils), but innovating and meeting particular needs on the side.

    On the non-Catholic side of things, I'm somewhat familiar with Lutheran Social Services, which is definitely church-affiliated and promotes church doctrine but also innovates to provide needs.

    Very interesting article!

  • http://www.terrypearson.com/ Terry Pearson

    That was an extremely interesting video. I love Chinese food! It was fun to see the origins of “Chinese” food…

    The fundamental theme of Hayak's Road to Serfdom was that organizing on a mass scale eventually stifles innovation and productivity under the weight of the infrastructure that supports the system. Friedrick Von Hayak pointed out that it is humanly impossible to organize and make the best decision for all people from a centralized power structure. If it is not humanly possible, we can only hope to achieve our goals by follow someone who is able to plan on such a large scale. God uses the church, but we are ultimately “Christ Followers” and not “Church Followers.”

    My thought is that the churches should help organize, but not monopolize the Christian Message. Look at the New Testament church. Paul outlined several areas where the body should hold each other accountable, help each other with needs, etc. But, you'll notice that Christianity spread like wildfire when the early Christians sought God's direction rather their fellow man's direction. They each went their own direction preaching the good news and sharing the message of Christ around the world.

    Could you imagine what our world would look like today if each one of us acted by what God led us to do rather than what man led us to do? The world would be a much different place. While the body of believers is essential to spiritual growth and outreach, we have to be careful that it does not become a firewall to those who wish to spread the gospel.

    You are right that there is a balance. I think it is best attained by individuals seeking God. Sometimes He will have them work with the local church, sometimes He will have them go on their own. But seeking God is the key.

  • http://www.remnantculture.com/ Remnant Culture

    Thanks for your thoughts. I've never thought about the Catholic orders that way, and I agree that they seem to have some great potential for maintaining a good balance. I'm interested in learning more about the ways various orders have innovated in the past (and continue to). Thanks for the lead.

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  • http://twitter.com/josephsunde/status/19004331732 Joseph Sunde

    My thoughts on Chinese food, Chicken McNuggets, Friedrich Hayek, and spontaneous order in the Church. http://bit.ly/cG4ZQL

  • http://caveatbettor.blogspot.com Caveatbettor

    I think Ephesians 4 connects the two extremes–empowered individuals vs. a single authority–quite well. But I also think that the church has and continues to struggle with the idol (addiction, in postmodern terminology?) of individualism. When an issue threatens to split the church, we create deacons (Acts 6) locally, and we council globally (Acts 15). It seems like the Church has effectively cut out some key scriptures, a la Thomas Jefferson, to fit God into our shoes. And we want more shoes than ever. I find the proliferation of 501(c)3's with murky accountability and governance connections back to churches to be another dilutive and risky trend.

  • http://caveatbettor.blogspot.com Caveatbettor

    I think Ephesians 4 connects the two extremes–empowered individuals vs. a single authority–quite well. But I also think that the church has and continues to struggle with the idol (addiction, in postmodern terminology?) of individualism. When an issue threatens to split the church, we create deacons (Acts 6) locally, and we council globally (Acts 15). It seems like the Church has effectively cut out some key scriptures, a la Thomas Jefferson, to fit God into our shoes. And we want more shoes than ever. I find the proliferation of 501(c)3's with murky accountability and governance connections back to churches to be another dilutive and risky trend.

  • http://twitter.com/remnantculture/status/19091862396 Remnant Culture

    If McDonald's is like Microsoft and American-Chinese food is like Linux, what is the Church like? Comments, welcome. http://bit.ly/cG4ZQL

  • http://twitter.com/remnantculture/status/28512861426 Remnant Culture

    Can Christians learn something from Chinese food? How do we avoid a chicken-mcnugget church? http://bt.io/GCtx