How a Construction Crane Helped Me Understand Church

by | Aug 13, 2016

By Gabe Horton

Most mornings, I wake up just before the sun. My new room sits on a hill overlooking downtown Nashville, where I try to catch the sun rising behind the buildings across the river. The light transforms those blurry silhouetted buildings into gleaming reflections of the fire-painted sky.

The skyline is changing rapidly, though. The spindly cranes of construction sites slice the sky, nearly outnumbering the buildings downtown. The cranes evoke visions of their ornithological counterparts, necks fixed in the horizontal “point” of flight.

Walking past one of these cranes at ground-level a few weeks ago, my friend John asked me, “Do you ever wonder how they get those cranes up so fast?”

As it turns out, no, I did not ever wonder that. But now I do. Thanks, John.

He has a point: how do they erect hundreds of feet of crane in only a few hours? The tower cranes are the tallest structure on a construction site, because they need to be taller than the building under construction. But if buildings need a crane to get taller, what makes a crane get taller? Do they use helicopters? Does it expand upward like those toy lightsabers I had as a kid? Do the construction workers bounce small crane segments off a giant trampoline to launch them to the top? I was mystified.

In a lot of ways, a fully constructed crane is as mysterious to me as a successful organization, whether it be a vital church in action, a thriving new small business, or a grassroots movement that takes a city by storm. If you are not a part of these success stories, such organizations seem to appear in full form out of nowhere. Like cranes, their growth seems impossible. How do they accomplish so much with so few visible resources?

To unearth the mystery behind successful organizations, I decided to read an article about how cranes work. And I watched this video of a crane building itself. And this one. As my mind was slowly blown, I began to see how the apparent miracle of cranes can explain the success of thriving organizations, too.

1. Cranes Are Rooted in a Big Hunk of Concrete

Weeks before the crane parts arrive, construction workers lay an enormous concrete pad in the ground, measuring 30 feet by 30 feet by 4 feet and weighing 400,000 pounds – or 200 tons. A car weighs about 2 tons. This concrete pad, in a word, is heavy. Without this sturdy foundation, the crane would not stand a chance of… well, standing.

In the same way, churches and other organizations need a foundation from which to grow. Instead of concrete, though, the foundation of any organization is its mission.

To identify its mission, a church might ask, why does this particular congregation exist? The church will not thrive if it does not know its mission. Most non-profits and businesses understand the absolute indispensability of a mission, but churches have a harder time. One problem is that we have so many good Sunday School answers, like “love people” or “spread the gospel.”

While I hope that loving people is central to any church’s mission, it is not, in and of itself, a mission.

For starters, a mission must emerge from a particular context. Where is the church located, geographically? What is the neighborhood like? Who are the people in the area, and what are their hopes, needs, visions and desires? What gap will this local church fill in the neighborhood? In the city?

A mission is also both specific and flexible. Goodwill’s mission statement, for instance, reads,

Goodwill strives to enhance the dignity and quality of life of individuals and families by helping people reach their full potential through education, skills training and the power of work.”

As you can see, this mission binds Goodwill to the particular task of enhancing dignity and quality of life in three specific ways: education, skills training, and work. Yet, the mission is flexible enough for Goodwill’s leaders to decide the right tactics in each context for living into this mission.

Tactics are not the mission, and churches would be wise to remember this. The mission of Goodwill says nothing about buying and selling used clothing, yet this tactic has proven the best way to fulfill their mission so far. Perhaps they will turn to different tactics in different contexts. Their mission allows this flexibility. Such changes, however, must always filter through a single question: Does this decision further the mission of our organization?

“I think our church needs to start a new worship service!” Great idea, will it further our mission?

“I think we should sell our building and use another church to worship!” A bold suggestion, but if it will further our mission, let’s do it!

“We need to re-copper the steeple immediately!” Yes, it does look a bit green. How will this further our mission?

In the end, a mission is a guidepost for every single decision a church makes, and the foundation upon which the church can thrive.

2. The Crane Needs Help from Other Cranes to Get Started

After the foundation is laid, one or more smaller “mobile cranes” on wheels help assemble the first essential parts of the tower crane. They attach the top horizontal piece of the crane (the “jib”) to the vertical structure. Without the help of mobile cranes at the beginning, the tower crane would have no way to grow any taller.

What does this mean for churches? We need each other, y’all.

Churches in the Wesleyan tradition pride themselves on being “connectional.” We talk about “holy conferencing.” Many are organized into “parishes” for the sole purpose of working together on specific projects.

So let’s use those connections! Let’s share resources and ideas and food and love. Let’s reach out to neighborhood partners who are not faith-based. Let’s truly live as incarnate love in our unique place in the world.

We are not silos. We are not islands. We are a part of the body of Christ. If we continue to pretend like we are anything other than interdependent with one another and the rest of humanity, we will fail.

3. Hydraulics Are the Coolest Thing I have Ever Seen

Did you watch the video? If not, watch it now. It is so cool.

I don’t pretend to understand how it works, but basically this “hydraulic ram” keeps the top of the crane aligned while simultaneously pushing it upward, creating a gap below large enough for a new segment to fit in. The jig then picks up the new segment and slides it into the open space. It is one of the most innovative things I have ever seen.

Like cranes, churches continue to thrive through innovation. We cannot be afraid of new ideas. If we have a solid mission, we need not be afraid of new ideas. The first test of a new idea is, “Does it further our mission?” If the answer is “Yes,” there are few reasons not to give it a try. The worst outcome is that it will fail.

Many people have written on this blog about innovation, including Rob RyndersJustin ColemanHannah Adair Bonner and, well, me.

Take the hydraulic ram, for instance: The idea of the ram is anything but obvious. It clearly took a great deal of imagination. It is also completely sustainable: Once the ram is attached, the crane can continue to make itself taller as long as is needed.

Mind = blown.

These are the kinds of innovations we should be jumping to implement.

4. Many Hands

It was hard to see on the first video, but there are so many people necessary to get the crane up and moving. You need factory workers to build the parts, drivers to get the materials to the site, construction workers to pour the concrete, construction workers to operate the mobile cranes, construction workers to ensure the individual parts of the crane are fastened together at each point, and construction workers to operate the completed crane.

This one is obvious, but like cranes, a local church needs many hands. It is, after all, a church – an ecclesia, literally a “gathering.” The church is the people and the people are the church. Professional staff and clergy are great, but in the end, there is no church without the people.

The most moving, profound, innovative vision of a pastor will mean nothing if it is not also the vision of the church. Staff exist to “equip the saints,” as the old writer said. Staff hand out the hardhats and toolbelts; the people are the ones who will make this crane into the powerful tool it can be.

Who knew that something as crude as a construction crane could teach us so much about being the church?