I have always had a fascination with history and especially with innovators and inventors who have changed the course of history with their creativity, skill, and just plain stubbornness in sticking to their principles and goals. That fascination, and appreciation, was sparked again this past week when I had the privilege of visiting one of my new favorite places in the world – Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan. If you have never been there, this is a must-see! For those who are unfamiliar with this gem of Americana – and I was until a year ago – it is a place put together by Henry Ford where America’s past can be experienced in the present.
Ford’s idea was that “we ought to know more about the families who founded this nation, and how they lived. One way to do that is to reconstruct as nearly as possible the conditions under which they lived.” And that’s exactly what he has done at Greenfield Village, an enchanting place where there are “83 authentic historic structures, from the lab where Thomas Edison gave the world light to the workshop where the Wright Brothers gave us wings…[to] the farmhouse where Henry Ford grew up.”
As I walked through these “authentic historic structures” and listened to the actors portraying these giants of the past, it struck me that these great historical icons weren’t just technical geniuses; they also possessed a huge amount of wisdom that is still prudent for us to apply to our world today. And, I believe that is especially true for small churches.
One of the greatest minds and inventors in American history was Thomas Edison. While probably best known for inventing the light bulb (although what he really invented was a practical, long-lasting filament made of carbon fiber) and “electrifying” America, he also held an amazing 1,093 patents, which included the phonograph, movie camera, storage battery, and the electric generator. He was truly a remarkable and talented man!
But here’s the thing: the biggest reason for his success wasn’t immense talent and intellect, although he certainly possessed those traits; rather it was hard work and belief in himself. So…with that in mind, here are five great truths we can learn from the likes of Thomas Edison and other great inventors.
Lesson #1: Success Begins with Hard Work
Edison understood better than most how important hard work is in reaching one’s goals. It was not uncommon for him to work hours and days on end – often without a break –until a task was completed. He even had a bed installed in his library at his lab in Menlo Park, New Jersey, so that he wouldn’t have to take the time to go home if he was in the middle of an important project. Now that’s an extreme that we are not recommending for pastors and church leaders, but you get the point!
Great churches don’t just happen. Certainly, anything we accomplish in life and ministry is through the grace and power of God, but there is also a huge correlation between the amount of work put into something and the results that are achieved.
Small churches are no exception. They are not going to get larger (or better) without a certain amount of sweat equity, beginning with the pastor. Anyone who thinks that a small church is an opportunity to coast or take it easy or ease into retirement or that it simply won’t make any real difference (or throw in your own excuse for not giving your best) is sadly deluding himself.
“Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.” — Thomas Edison
Lesson #2: Never Give Up
Edison was once asked if he felt like a failure, because his thousands of attempts to invent a usable light bulb didn’t work. His reply: “I haven’t failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that didn’t work.” Well, by not giving up, he finally found a filament (and a bulb created by using an innovative vacuum pump) that did work and, as they say, the rest is history. He literally changed the way that people lived and worked in America and around the world!
In a small church setting, it can be pretty easy to feel like a failure, especially when we start comparing ourselves to larger ministries around us. As a result, there is a tendency to give up, or more likely, not give our full effort. That is a huge mistake! The fact is we reap what we sow. That’s a biblical truth! (Galatians 6:7) Therefore, we need to continue to sow ministry and gospel seeds, if we want to have any hope for good results in the future. It may not happen right away – in fact, it usually doesn’t – but eventually there will be fruit! That’s God’s promise (John 15:5), and the experience of Edison, Ford, and other great inventors!
“Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.” — Henry Ford
Lesson #3: Believe in Yourself
Henry Ford was a man who came from humble beginnings and a tough childhood. He was born on a farm in Greenfield Township, Michigan and his mother died when he was 13. And yet, he went on to form his own multi-national company, set the record for most cars built of any one model – the Model T – and revolutionized the manufacturing industry by perfecting the moving assembly line.
Like Thomas Edison, the reason for Ford’s success wasn’t that he was smarter than everyone else. It was because he worked hard and believed in himself. And others believed in him, as well. While working for the Edison Illuminating Company, Ford approached Edison with his ideas about gasoline-powered automobiles. With Edison’s encouragement, Ford went on to create his own car company. Ford always believed that he would do something important with his life and work, and he did!
As a small church pastor or leader, your life and ministry is important, too! There are people who are looking to you for leadership and direction. They expect competence, character, and consistency in everything that you do. They believe (or they should) that you have been called to serve them and their community as God’s servant and undershepherd. To behave and think in any other way than that would be a disservice to those following you and a discredit to the divine office to which you have been called. So believe in yourself, believe God has called you to where you are for a reason, and others will, too!
“Your worth consists in what you are and not in what you have.” – Henry Ford
Lesson #4: Experiment: Try Something New
We have already chronicled the importance of hard work and never giving up. These truisms naturally coalesce in another life lesson, the importance of experimentation. Edison demonstrated his belief in this idea by trying over 10,000 different filaments in his incandescent light bulb. Even after he came up with a workable model, he continued to tinker with success, ultimately settling upon a carbonized bamboo filament that would last over 1,200 hours in his new bulbs.
Edison was never satisfied with his inventions. He not only wanted to improve them, he also wanted to move on to that which could be even bigger and better. In the church, it seems that we often do the opposite. Once we find something that works – or more likely, worked once upon a time, but doesn’t any longer – we stick with it no matter what. This is particularly true in smaller churches. If it was good enough for my parents and grandparents, it is good enough for me! And yet, the reality is that over 80% of our churches are not growing, in large part, because we are still using methods and strategies that haven’t worked in decades.
Why not try something new? What’s the worst thing that could happen? It could fail just as miserably as what we are already doing. What’s the best thing? It might actually work! Remember Einstein’s famous definition of insanity? “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Maybe it’s time to try something new!
Lesson #5: Trust God for the Results
When Henry Ford was asked if he ever worried, he replied: “No. I believe God is managing affairs and that He doesn’t need any advice from me. With God in charge, I believe that everything will work out for the best in the end. So what is there to worry about?” Another wise man once said, “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about…what you will wear. But seek first [God’s] kingdom and [God’s] righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:25, 33) Oh, that wise man was also God!
In the end, we don’t know how all of our hard work, perseverance, self-belief, and experimentation will pay off. (Although I think we would all agree, that things will be way better than if we hadn’t invested in those pursuits!) What we can be sure of is that our great and loving God will be with us every step of the way and that He will give us the results that He desires!
Edison, Einstein and Ford were great inventors and thinkers, and there is much that we can learn from them. They believed that with hard work and dedication to an idea anyone could accomplish anything. In so doing, they accomplished some amazing things.
What about you? What’s your dream for the future? What would you like to see God do in your life and ministry? Whatever it is, if you are willing to work hard, keep after it no matter what, keep believing in yourself and your dream, and willing to try new things, there is absolutely no reason that you can’t accomplish your God-sized goal. Never underestimate the power of God, yourself, or your church!