I haven’t ever taken the train anywhere. I want to, but as yet I’ve never put a train trip together. As I talk to others, most are like me, or if they have traveled by train, it was a onetime novelty experience. The few who regularly travel by train have much good to say about it, and highly recommend that I put such a trip together. Some of my friends say they’ll choose the train over any other method of travel whenever possible. They cite the comfortable and less frantic pace of train travel, as well as the fact that it’s often no more expensive than flying. But, if cross-country train travel’s so great, why is it that it has all but died in America?
We could point to detailed mistakes within bad management, like a failure to modernize, advertise, or control costs, but this week I read where Peter Steinke (Healthy Congregations, 2006) cited Harvard Professor Theodore Levitt’s discussion of a failure we often overlook. This got me thinking.
At the turn of the 20th century, the Railroad owned transportation. Whether you were needing to move boxes, livestock, or people across this vast land, it was the railroad that would make that transportation possible. The railroad industry was king, and completely displaced the marginally reliable Pony Express. In the century that followed, we saw increased competition from trucks, plains, and even shipping. What happened?
When things were going just fine, and it seemed that their competitors could never measure up, the railroads focused on being what they saw themselves as… The Railroad business. The problem was, all the others saw themselves (and marketed themselves) as being in the “Transportation business.” As transportation needs grew, they grew with the demand, while the need for railroads, and the railroad business declined.
My “industry” is often called “Church.” And while yours may be different, we all must be wary of making the Railroad’s mistake. You see all too often churches find themselves stagnant, shrinking, and irrelevant in their community, simply because they have been focusing on doing “Church” to the best of their ability. I think where we have gone wrong, is that we forgot what our real mission was. Whereas the Railroads were to be sources of transportation (not more railroads), Churches are to be sources of hope and spiritual growth (not more church programs).
Many churches, businesses, and individuals get so focused on what they are doing, that they forget why they are doing it. Individually we can be so focused on what we do, that we let it define us as a person. Many retired people will say they have lost their identity upon leaving the workforce. Athletes say they have lost their reason to get up in the morning when no longer able to compete. Businesses shutter their doors when the product or service they offered is no longer fashionable. Churches waste away and crumble when the people who were once actively involved with their neighbors find their community has changed and its people now have completely different needs.
As leaders, no matter what our industry, we need to help our people not get locked into defining ourselves merely as what we did to get where we are. We need to learn to define ourselves by how we can be beneficial to those we want to serve. What do they need that we provide, and how can we let them know we want to serve them?
To discover your new identity together, ask yourselves different questions than you have been asking. A church needs to stop asking questions about themselves like: “How can we be the best Church in town.” We must start asking things that relate to the greater community: “What is our mission? What do we offer those we want to serve? How can we add value to their lives? What are they looking for, that we actually have?” By applying this concept (no matter your industry or place in life) you can find what God has in mind for your immediate future, and avoid falling into irrelevancy like much of the railroad industry.