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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

We Need to Quit Inhaling Our Own Exhaust

We Need to Quit Inhaling Our Own Exhaust

Recently I heard the phrase, “We need to quit inhaling our own exhaust.”  Unfortunately, I don’t remember the originator of this statement, but bless him.  How true this is when we try to innovate or solve problems.  I tend to always go back to what worked in the past.  My response is usually, “Well, that’s not the way we do it here.”  Wrong!

During the course of my studies toward becoming a mechanical engineer at what was then called Missouri School of Mines & Metallurgy, I had the privilege of taking a class led by Professor Emeritus A. Vern Kilpatrick.  The story was told (I can’t vouch for the accuracy) that Professor Kilpatrick had been with Henry Ford when his first Ford came off the greased iron rail.  As you probably know, Ford was the originator of mass production and was known for “putting America on wheels.”

Professor Kilpatrick said one thing that has stuck in my mind.  He said that when facing an engineering challenge, remember that there are seven ways to solve the problem.  Now, are there always seven ways to solve an engineering problem?  I don’t know, perhaps the number is 17 or 27, but for certain, there is always more than one way to solve a problem.

This doesn’t mean that the rules of math or physics or chemistry can be changed.  It just means that you can apply these laws in multiple ways to solve your problem.

Too often we tend to think that there is only one way to write a fund appeal, fix a leak, deliver a sermon, build a house, get in shape, etc.  We get in a rut and we begin reading only our own literature, talking only to each other, and evaluating by our own standards.  We are, in short, “inhaling our own exhaust.”

This doesn’t mean that we should alter our standards or principles, but it means that we should open our mind to look at ways that other people approach similar challenges.  After all, it would be pretty arrogant to think that God gave me and only me the ability to understand and solve a particular problem.

But, aeronautical engineers primarily read aeronautical engineering literature.  Maybe they ought to take a look at the literature in another engineering field or even outside that field.

Here at the Eberle Communications Group, we think we know the best way to write a fund appeal.  We tend to look down our nose at the offerings of other agencies.  But you know what?  Some of those agencies have been around longer than we have.  I like it when I interview a prospective new copywriter and he or she says, “I don’t write fund appeals that look the way yours do.”  That’s good news—I’m going to learn something new from this person.  Or, as the old saying goes, “There’s always more than one way to skin a cat.”

But the religious field is even more adamant about “doing it our way.”  For instance, I’m a Lutheran and we Lutherans think we know everything.  I’m not talking about doctrine (although we are absolutely sure we are right on everything when it comes to doctrine).  I’m referring to how we conduct a worship service, how we reach out to those who don’t know Jesus, how we keep our members, how we activate leaders, etc.  And when we can’t figure something out, we go to other Lutheran churches and read Lutheran literature as if Lutherans are the only Christians to whom God has given an understanding of how to touch the hearts and lives of others.  We think we are totally unique and singularly blessed.

But you know what?  I’ve talked to Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Catholics, etc. and they all think the very same thing!  Again, I’m not referring to doctrine as practiced in these churches, but rather to the “way things are done.”  It’s nuts.  We all want to reinvent the wheel so that it will be a Lutheran wheel or a Baptist wheel or a Pentecostal wheel, when in truth the best wheels are those that are round and turn fast and reliably.

No matter what business you and I are in, or what volunteer activities we are involved in, we can reduce wasted time by finding out how others (even with whom we may not agree) made their wheel turn fast.  I’d sure like to know how the Obama campaign executed such an efficient and effective fundraising effort.  It was nothing less than fantastic.

If you are a pastor, I’d think that you would have the same attitude about finding out how other churches reach out so effectively, rather than just dismissing them as “apostate” or some other slur that has absolutely nothing to do with the processes and approaches they use for reaching out.

May I be so bold as to suggest that Lutheran pastors should (gasp!) visit a Pentecostal church or a Baptist church on their vacation?  Or that Baptist pastors should (gasp!) stop by a growing Episcopalian church one Sunday?  Or possibly that Presbyterian pastors should unfreeze at a rocking and rolling independent Christian church?

We need to quit reading our own internal studies, quit talking to each other, and start looking at empirical studies of Christian churches in general to find out what works, and what doesn’t.  Don’t hyperventilate!  You’re not going to be poisoned by visiting another church.  Just open your mind to the possibility of doing things differently.  Try for just a day to push tradition out of your mind and look at methods and processes (consistent with your doctrine) that work.  Then go back and apply what works to reaching those who don’t know Jesus and keeping those who are already members.  You might be surprised to find out what you can learn if you are willing to open your mind.

And by the way, the next time you are on vacation, you might try this when you stop at a new restaurant for lunch.  Let everyone else order their hamburgers and fries, and then when the waitress gets around to you, have Rhubarb pie à la mode for lunch.  It’s less greasy and the calories are about the same.  Thinking outside the box can be fun, and inhaling fresh ideas can invigorate the mind.

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