[ 5 minutes to read ]At least, I hope so. [B]efore iced coffee was a thing, there was a spilled cup of coffee and a lawsuit. Aside from millions of dollars, the lawsuit resulted in a more prominent warning label on cups: “Caution: Handle With Care I’m Hot.” The very cup that was spilled had a warning imprinted on it: “Caution: Contents Hot.” That warning was deemed insufficient, so a larger, bolder, more obvious warning had to be used.
I am referring to the 1994 Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants suit, perhaps one of the most famous product liability civil suits. The lawsuit became the darling of politicians stumping for tort reform and decrying frivolous lawsuits. It has been the subject of special reports and the butt of many jokes. The woman in the case was severely burned. She was hospitalized for over a week, followed by two years of treatments for her injuries. Nothing about the burn injuries suffered by a woman in her seventies is funny. It’s awful.
McDonald’s refused all attempts at settlement out of court, resulting in the court case and the large compensatory and punitive damages awarded, which made this case so famous. McDonald’s had not broken any laws that governed their coffee service. The case was about whether the restaurant chain had taken sufficient measures to ensure the safety of their customers and the extent of their liability in personal injuries resulting from the use of their product. That’s where the warning labels come in and warning labels can be funny.
Some labels seem too absurd to be true. Some signs make us wonder about the story behind them. You know somebody tried the ridiculous thing the sign tells you not to do. The packaging for iron-on transfers for t-shirts often includes a warning about not ironing clothes while wearing them. Somebody, somewhere, probably did that.
Not the Problem
Warning signs can be helpful, can be the result of self-protection, and sometimes can be an attempt to fix a problem without dealing with the real problem. The picture with this post is of a hand-written sign taped to the inside of the door of a small pedestrian bathroom in an office building. The author of the sign attempted to give instructions on locking and unlocking the door. The instructions were somehow not sufficiently clear, so trouble was taken to manually revise the verbiage.
I don’t know the story behind this sign, but it amuses me to speculate about it. The door knob has a push-button lock. It is not a safety knob, so a key is required on the outside to unlock it. My three-year-old can operate push-button locks, so why do we need written instructions for adults? Most push-button locks operate only one way. You push the button in to lock the door and twist the knob to unlock the door and open it.
This particular doorknob is a little different. If you push the button straight in, it operates like all normal push-button locks. However, if you push the button in and turn the button to the right, the door will open when you turn the knob from the inside, but will stay locked. You then have to use the key to open it from the outside. I’m sure this happened quite often and is why the sign was made, put on the door, and later revised for clarity. I imagine the author of the sign grew tired of going to the door and finding it locked, though no one was inside. He probably also tired of interruptions when people came to him about the locked door. He wearied of hearing everyone’s complaints about the door, so he made a sign.
That sign, after the edits, may have purchased him some peace, but does it really address the problem. What is the real problem? Office workers complaining? Needing to use the facility and finding the door locked? While those are problems, they are not the real problem. The real problem is that door knob. The additional feature of turning the button to keep it locked is unnecessary and makes the lock confusing to operate, or at least easy to leave locked by mistake. The sign is not a real solution. It’s like covering a hole in the wall with a picture. A real solution to the real problem would be to change the doorknob to one that works the way that is needed.
Churches and Pastors
If some piece of furniture is in the way and people are always bumping into it, you could paint a yellow boundary around it on the floor and hang up signs warning people to be careful. This would reduce the number of bumps and if anyone still bumps into it, you can at least rest easy knowing you’ve warned them about it and it’s their fault if they get a bruise. Or, you could step back and try to get to the root of the problem. Maybe the piece doesn’t need to be there and could be moved out of the way. Maybe the walking traffic could be re-routed some other way away from it.
Problems abound in churches and too often we attempt artificial fixes like signs, and not the kind usually accompanied by wonders. Maybe the spirit of our services is too dull, our evangelism is lagging, our people are apathetic, the attendance is down, participation is down, etc. We are doing nothing more in these cases than tacking up a sign when we just spruce up the service with lively songs, make emotional appeals for more giving, or implement programs. Churches love to hang a program over every hole in the wall.
As pastors, it’s easy to be so wearied that we just want the problems to go away. It’s tempting to find quick fixes or go ahead and grease that squeaky wheel. Pastors need to be able to get to the root of problems and address them appropriately. Maybe evangelism is waning because the church has drifted away from a Gospel focus and centeredness. The answer is not a shiny new evangelism program to get everybody excited, but rather a return to Christ and him crucified. Maybe the church needs a clearer Gospel presentation and permeation of everything the church does.
It would have been easy for the Apostles to just want the complaining to stop in the problem with the widows in the Jerusalem church. Instead, they got to the root of the problem and addressed it at the root in Acts 6:1-6. Rather than just easing their headaches, the Apostles led the church in actions resulting in the growth and better health of the church (Acts 6:7). The real problem was not that widows were being neglected, though that was a problem. The real problem was not that Hellenists were complaining. The real problem was that the Apostles were so overworked with what they were trying to do, the congregation was not being served as it needed to be (Acts 6:1-2). The solution was to appoint other men over that matter and free up the Apostles to focus on the ministry they were called to (Acts 6:3-4).
Just because somebody is complaining about something doesn’t mean that something is a problem. Pastors must not only deal with symptoms and hang up warning signs. Pastors must get to the root of problems and address them in ways most beneficial to the long term health and growth of the church. Pastors must also remember they have been given to the church to mature the saints and equip them for serving (Ephesians 4:11-12). Sometimes we really do need to be careful because the coffee is hot, or the knife is sharp. Sometimes we need to change the doorknob, or rearrange the furniture. We always need to find the real problem and apply the appropriate solution that keeps the church being about what the church is supposed to be about.