On May 10, 1869, crews from the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads converged at Promontory Summit in northwest Utah. Their purpose was to connect their two railroads into the first transcontinental railroad. It was a phenomenal feat of engineering that had taken six years to complete.
You might think the key to their success was skilled engineering, cartography, and a detailed blueprint. But the real key to their success was their ability to constantly make mid-course corrections.
There was no way they could follow a detailed route. The maps of that day were too primitive. Confronted with a constant barrage of unforeseen obstacles, tunneling challenges, unstable soil, and harsh weather, they had to constantly change their plans in light of their realities and their mission.
The Clarity of the Mission
Their success wasn’t due to the clarity of their plan; rather, it was due to the clarity of their mission. Everyone on both teams knew where they were headed. They knew that no matter what, they had to meet up at some future point with their rails perfectly aligned. Otherwise, all of their hard work, tunnels, bridges, and miles of rail would be for naught.
Ministry is not all that different. We too have a mission—to reach the lost and mature the saints for the glory of God. And like the crews that built that first transcontinental railroad, we also face a constant barrage of obstacles and unforeseen challenges that can easily push us off course.
If we’re willing to constantly readjust our methods, priorities, and programs to align with the mission, we’ll hit the mark. But if we stubbornly stick to yesterday’s route, we’ll end up laying lots of tracks without ever getting where we want to go.
Just One Degree
It doesn’t take much to get off course. Even a mere one-degree variance makes a huge difference. That’s why it’s so important that we maintain a ruthless focus and devotion to our primary mission (and a willingness to do whatever it takes to realign with it), or it won’t be long until we’re headed off in the wrong direction without even knowing it.
Imagine you’re assigned to stripe the sideline of the local high school football field for the big game. If you’re out of whack by just one degree, you’ll be out of alignment by over five feet by the time you get to the far end zone. Even if you’re just .01 degree off, you’d still be out of alignment by half a foot or more. That might not seem like much. But on a close play at the pylon, it would be a game changer.
Now stretch that same subtle shift over a longer distance. A flight from San Francisco to Los Angeles would miss the airport by six miles at a one-degree variance. A seemingly tiny .01-degree mistake would put your plane in the Pacific Ocean, over a half-mile off course.
When it comes to alignment and mission—little things matter.
Jesus gave us a mission. It’s crystal clear. It’s not the least bit ambiguous. We are to make disciples among all nations, baptizing them and teaching them to obey everything he commanded (Matt. 28:19-20).
To do that, we have to align (and constantly realign) our churches, our ministries, and ourselves towards the task. Now obviously, that doesn’t mean that everyone is supposed to pack up and head overseas. It doesn’t mean we’re all called to professional ministry. But it does mean that every one of us is called to contribute to the cause. We’re all supposed to play our role, use our spiritual gifts and fulfill our calling so that together we can make His glory known, reaching the lost and discipling the saved (1 Peter 4:10-11/ Col. 3:17).
Two Things That Throw Us Off Course
Unfortunately, we’ve had some mission creep. A series of subtle shifts in focus have thrown us off course. And though these shifts are minor and unintended, over a long period of time they add up. We’ve missed the mark. So much so that many churches report few converts and few disciples growing to full maturity (Col. 1:28-29).
Now I want to be clear. I am not saying that we aren’t trying to reach the lost and disciple the saints. We are. Most churches and Christians I know genuinely want to fulfill the Great Commission. They work hard at it. They have pure hearts. They have the best of intentions.
But like a pilot trying to fly from San Francisco to LAX with a miscalibrated flight plan, they keep missing the landing strip.
I’m also not saying that we aren’t reaching the lost and maturing the saints. We are. People still come to Jesus all the time. They grow to maturity. Jesus promised He’d build His church. He keeps His promises (Matt. 16:18).
But in many cases, we are incredibly inefficient and ineffective. It’s as if we’re trying to fight the spiritual battle with one hand tied behind our back. One of the biggest problems we face is simple inertia. Once we’ve gotten off track by even the smallest degree, we tend to stay off track.
It’s human nature to keep heading in the same direction, even if it’s a wrong direction. It’s also a law of physics. No wonder it’s so hard to get back on track.
Factors of Misalignment
Two things make it particularly hard to stay in alignment.
First, it takes a while to even notice that we’ve drifted. The smaller and more subtle the shift, the longer it takes for the consequences to show up. If we aren’t vigilant about constantly checking our progress against our mission, we can go a long way before anyone notices that something is out of whack.
Second, by the time we do notice that we’re no longer on target, many of our programs, patterns and structures are so well established that it’s easier to proclaim a new target than to make a hard turn to the left or right.
We’re like an archer who consistently misses the target two feet to the right but doesn’t worry because he’s happily painted a new bull’s-eye exactly where his arrows keep landing. In fact, not only is he happy, he thinks he’s an Olympian. After all, he never misses the bull’s-eye.
Throughout this blog series, we’ll look at the bull’s-eye God gave us and five subtle shifts that have caused our arrows to land elsewhere. We’ll discover how these subtle shifts have unintentionally sabotaged our best efforts at evangelism and discipleship and what we can do in practical and real-world terms to recalibrate our focus to fully align with the mission of making disciples and teaching them to obey everything Jesus taught.
This article is based on the FREE eBook Mission Creep: The 5 Subtle Shifts That Sabotage Evangelism & Discipleship by Larry Osborne. Download it here.
About Larry Osborne
Larry Osborne is one of the Senior and Teaching Pastors at North Coast Church in Vista, California. Under his leadership, weekend attendance has grown from 128 to over 10,000. Recognized nationally as one of the Ten Most Influential Churches in America and one of the most innovative, North Coast Church pioneered the use of Video Worship Venues and is one of the leaders in the Multi-Site movement with over 31 local worship options each weekend – each one targeted at a different missional demographic. Over 90% of North Coast’s average weekend attendance participates in weekly Sermon-Based Small Groups, a concept that is spreading across the nation as an alternative to traditional small group methodologies. Larry’s book’s include, Innovation’s Dirty Little Secret, Accidental Pharisees, Sticky Teams, Sticky Church, The Unity Factor, A Contrarian’s Guide to Spirituality and10 Dumb Things Smart Christians Believe.