What Your Church Can Learn from Early Railroads

The railroads thought they were in the transportation business, but their mission was also connecting people, Harrison says.

The story of American railroads in the 19th century is a focal point in Bob Johansen's book, "The New Leadership Literacies."

Telegraph companies came to the railroad owners - ambitious people we often refer to as "robber barons" - and asked if they could string telegraph wires along the tracks. The railroad people thought this would help them keep up with their trains and agreed.

If they had been able to "see beyond the edges" of their business, they could have done this themselves and controlled wired communications. They could have become AT&T.

Why did they miss this opportunity?

Johansen writes, "They missed it because they loved trains too much. Also, their centralized organizational structure made it hard to see to the edges of their own businesses. Shape-shifting organizations will make this much easier since there is no center and they grow from the edges."

I won't take the time here to discuss "shape-shifting organizations," but I do suggest that our churches and organizations miss opportunities for ministry and growth for a couple of reasons.

First, we limit the scope of our mission.

It is easy to engage in "mission drift" and move beyond the mission to which we are called, but we can also limit the possibilities of what we might do in fulfilling our mission.

We love what we are already doing too much. The railroads thought they were in the transportation business, but their mission was also connecting people. This could be done not just physically but electrically as well.

As churches, we are part of the "missio Dei," God's mission in the world. Too often, we limit ourselves to the methods and techniques with which we are familiar, failing to take advantage of the rich heritage of the church and possibilities that will stretch us.

There are people out there on the edges of our ministries who might respond to these tested but unfamiliar means of growth and outreach. There are those who would welcome the church's stepping outside its self-imposed boundaries and blessing new ways of ministry as well.

Second, we don't listen to those out on the edge.

Our churches have people who are engaged in society every day. They are medical professionals, educators, business people, factory workers and service providers.

How often do we ask them to tell us what they are seeing and hearing? How often do we ask them for ideas about expanding our ministry in the community?

These people are our trailblazers and could be our apostles. They have fresh knowledge that could inform and empower us to do something new.

The failure to take advantage of all the resources that God has provided limits our kingdom work. We need to look backward, inward and outward to enrich our involvement in the missio Dei.

Ircel Harrison is coaching coordinator for Pinnacle Leadership Associates and is a supplementary professor in contextualization at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. A version of this column first appeared on his blog , Barnabas File, and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @ircel .

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