I have had similar experiences with writing, teaching, and preaching. My best work, or at least the work I am most happy with, comes out at such times.
How about you? What activities give you this feeling of satisfaction and freedom? What does being “in the zone” look like for you? Is it possible that God is interested in this? Might it have something to do with our redemption and salvation? Might the church - and the Kingdom - benefit from your output in such states?
Daniel Pink spends most of his “mastery” chapter talking about flow in his ground-breaking, best-selling book on motivation, “Drive.” Flow maximizes productivity and enhances innovation, driving up profits and increasing happiness along the way. Flow has been called “the experience of being in a perfect zone of seemingly effortless high-level performance.” Amid today’s creativity and connection economy, anything advancing high-performance output is pure competitive gold.
Flow works. Flow adds value and increases the bottom line. Flow releases gifts, empowering happy and productive people who are loving their jobs, escaping their ego, and producing amazing things at exponentially higher rates. Find out what people love and are good at, give them freedom to do it... and amazing results occur.
In his TED talk on motivation, Daniel Pink mentions “20% time,” a practice of companies like Google and 3M where one full day a week, employees work on dream projects that are not their assigned company tasks, capitalizing on intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivation. Afterward, results are shared and discussed. Some of the greatest - and most profitable - new innovations are the fruit of this time, much of it coming out of “flow” states.
As I learn more about flow, I have started asking: Does flow belong in churches? Are churches “flow-friendly” environments? Should they be?
Some would say “no.” Jesus proclaimed the sacrifical love of the cross, which is painful and difficult. Jesus bids us renounce ourselves and take up our cross, and lay down our lives in service of others if we are to be his disciple. We have all eternity to flourish in heaven.
Others, however, say Jesus came to bring us “life to the full.” Hence, it is conceivable that we might perceive a flow-friendly gospel encouraging maximum human flourishing in service of others, provided it does no harm, adds real value, and benefits the Kingdom.
Nietzsche criticized Christianity for its “profound suspicion” of joy and its life-denying character, calling it nothing but “life’s nausea and disgust with life, merely concealed behind, masked by, dressed up as, faith in ‘another’ or ‘better’ life.” There is no room for flow in Nietzsche’s version of Christianity, that’s for sure. But is his version the real version? Based on the traction his arguments have gained, it seems to have resonated with many.
One interesting question might be: Did Jesus experience “flow?” When he was healing, teaching, preaching, glorifying His Father, fulfilling the mission he was sent to earth to fulfill - did he experience a flow-like satisfaction in his humanity as he exercised His redemptive dominion and freed captives? Or how about before his ministry, in his labor as a carpenter?
How about us? Do you think God is glorified when his children experience flow and produce fruit “in the zone?” What spiritual or moral parameters are required? What does flow look like for a Christian engaged in practices of ministry, evangelization, discipleship, education? Do faith leaders offer 20% time to people working in the various ministries and apostolates? Should they?
Or... is it irreverent to even ask such questions?
One thing is certain: outside of church, data reveals effective organizations realizing that 'flow' is where it's at. Flow-friendly work cultures capitalize on people's God-given gifts while encouraging freedom and creative intelligence.
Flow cultures tap into true 'human resources' by valuing what makes people human. They advance organizational mission effectiveness by releasing massive reservoirs of problem-solving, value-adding human creativity that bureaucratic, busy-work cultures stifle.
In today's church, many ministers suffer from serious flow deficiency. Few benefit from this. Administration fatigue and institutional servitude often keep ministers from giving their best in ways that would make them happy, fuel their passion, and truly help their congregations.
In Catholic circles, we often rationalize the suffering of no-flow drudgery through theologies of suffering and 'the cross' - which have their place. But these offer a too-ready default response to the drained, sagging laborer in the vineyard such as: 'Quit your whining. Offer it up. Jesus died on the cross for you. Go and do likewise.” I have heard messages like this at countless priest retreats and assemblies. While well-intentioned, for me they have become de-motivating cliches and seem to miss the point.
Yes, suffering is necessary. Sacrifice for the sake of the mission is precious indeed. But sacrifice for the status quo? I am no longer so sure. It doesn’t help that the line between is often fuzzy. But one can at least ask: Are the sufferings caused by deficits of organizational health, institutional ineffectiveness, and “the way things are done,” even when they are failing - are these really so pleasing to God? Is He happy when His Kingdom is thwarted due to ministers and people who rarely, if ever, tap their true potential and share their real gifts?
Many people work jobs they neither like nor are suited for, including church ministers. Such a sacrifice is no doubt pleasing to God. But might God might also be happy - and the Kingdom advanced more effectively - if his children were matched to tasks that most tapped their gifts and potential? What if we encouraged church cultures that actively sought to discern people’s gifts and match them to needs, allowing them to share the best of themselves in service of the Gospel?
Imagine church cultures where flow-fed ministers, doing what makes them shine, oversee flow-fed people doing likewise. Such cultures might well honor people and glorify God by effectively stewarding people’s greatest gifts. Fully alive people are happy and attractive witnesses to the joy and value of the gospel. Modern era hagiographical excess aside, the saints bear witness to this.
Imagine ministers and disciples advancing the Kingdom out of “flow” states. Imagine a Spirit-led freedom which encouraged creativity and personal responsibility in ministers and congregation members. Imagine relinquishing a little control and assuming Kingdom-seeking risks like “20% time.” Imagine being attentive to matching each gifted member of the “body” with their optimal and God-given function and contribution.
By seriously considering and investing in flow, we might see a new generation of disciples: freed for creative Kingdom contributions; poised for maximum influence; released for advancing the movement of the Kingdom in exciting new ways.
- What does flow look like for you?
- How can or do you channel this towards advancing the Kingdom?
- What would a flow-friendly local church look like?
- How can leaders equip and position disciples for flow within their unique domain of apostolate or ministry?
Perhaps the best entry point for further discussion of the place of “flow” in Catholic thought is in the idea of ‘development' proposed by Pope Paul VI. He first wrote “On the Development of Peoples” (Populorum Progressio) fifty years ago, and development has been the subject of subsequent major encyclicals by both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI.
Church teaching insists that promoting development - which is different than mere “salvation” defined as getting to heaven after death - is an imperative of charity. Development is more than material assistance: it includes not just having more, but being more, beginning with oneself. We are called by God to develop ourselves and others. “In the design of God, every person is called upon to develop and fulfill himself, for every life is a vocation.” Development itself is a vocation, say recent popes. Vocation means a call from God – something God desires for us.
Catholic social doctrine teaches about the personal dignity of every human being. Because every person has dignity, we love them, and we want to see them thrive, flourish, and contribute their unique gifts with maximum impact. Jesus Christ reveals man to himself and makes his transcendent calling clear, insist Vatican Council II and Pope John Paul II, repeatedly. St Irenaeus once famously said, 'The glory of God is man fully alive.'
The church promotes an “integral humanism” in which God is man’s friend, not his rival. Christ sets us free. He came that we might have life. This life is to set us free to flourish and contribute to the common good. The proclamation of Christ and the advancement of the individual in society go hand in hand. (See Pope Benedict XVI, Charity in Truth, #15 & 16)
There is a wealth of insight to be mined here that might well advance the understanding of the ideas of this little essay. It’s part of the church’s treasury of“Kingdom thinking” that merits much more attention than has thus far been given.