For a couple weeks earlier this year, cable news channels had us glued to the mysterious disappearance of a Boeing 777, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. Answers appeared imminent as “Breaking News” flashed repeatedly across the screen.
But with no new discoveries, reports on this disappearance also disappeared. Our shallow attention spans wanted to quickly discover answers and solve the mystery. Months have now passed without resolution, so we move on to other mysteries of life, while others patiently comb the deep ocean floor.
One year ago you may have seen video footage of the first fatal crash of another Boeing 777, Asiana Airlines Flight 214 from Seoul to San Francisco. While shocking and closer to home, this story fell off our radar more quickly. It was not an unsolvable mystery. With three fatalities, though, it was both heartbreaking and miraculous.
As the story of this San Francisco fair-weather crash unfolded, it was hard to miss parallel flight patterns we see in some American churches.
Unfortunately, too many churches crash and burn in many ways similar to Flight 214. Mistakes are inevitable but don't have to end with fatalities.
When local churches come up short of the runway, are we vigilant enough in learning the hard lessons? Given the high number of repeat incidents, it doesn't appear so.
We can learn something from the painstaking, independent approach of the National Transportation Safety Board. In the end, they are less consumed with finding a singular scapegoat and more about discovering multiple solutions that could have helped avert such a tragedy.
Young Apprentice With the Wrong Approach
The inexperienced pilot landed just short of the San Francisco airport runway, clipping the landing gear on the seawall and performing cartwheels on the runway, before the aircraft stopped and then burst into flames.
Although pilot error was involved, the crash assessment didn’t focus entirely on young pilot ineptitude. He had technical credentials to fly that aircraft, but better in-flight mentoring and other safeguards could have helped prevent the fatal crash.
An NTSB representative observed, “The flight crew over-relied on automated systems that they did not fully understand.”
And, similar to failures we see in some churches, it wasn’t an immediate nosedive. It was a slow descent and a sustained pattern of downplaying vertical relationships. The horizontal coordinates were spot on. They were headed for the center of the right runway at the correct airport. But the aircraft was losing altitude too quickly and not making speed adjustments. Last second corrections were too late.
We're blessed with opportunities to trust young pilots and young pastors. This crash assessment didn't give up on youth and inexperience but highlighted related factors that contributed to the shortfall:
- Overreliance on technology,
- Vertical relationships ignored over a sustained period of time, and
- Inadequate mentoring and monitoring.
Some churches lose altitude because young leaders lack engaged mentors with significantly more accrued flight time. This can lead to over-reliance on peer counsel, autopilot technologies, and figure-it-out-on-the-fly strategies. Each of these has value but should not stand alone in navigating.
Predictably, when vertical relationships between generations are ignored or under-valued, neglected generations begin jettisoning their engines. This often leads to losses of resource, power and momentum. Last-minute efforts to save the descending church may come too late.
Approaches outside Biblical best practices that ignore the value of vertical relationships and over-rely on latest technologies can be fatal to our churches. Let’s address those blips on the radar early−−−before clipping our landing gear and triggering disaster.
Safety Slides Nearly Suffocate Flight Attendants
Even after all the mandatory evacuation drills, disasters don’t go as planned. Two flight attendants, the ones who show passengers how to apply air masks in an emergency, nearly suffocated.
Two safety chutes inflated inside the aircraft, instead of outside, enveloping two flight attendants. Using a dinner knife and an axe from the cockpit, flight crew members punctured the slides and saved the attendants’ lives.
Things meant for good, turned inward, can begin smothering people in our churches. Key leaders may be suffocating inside the Christian bubble we've inflated.
If we get too full of ourselves, even great worship and teaching can leave us oxygen-deprived. Let's free leaders up to serve in the marketplace---as our friend Jon Sharpe instructs, "commissioning not capturing." We may even need to axe some programs inside our church walls, encouraging people to fill their lungs with fresh outside air as they fulfill the Great Commission.
Emergency Vehicle Runs Over and Kills Crash Survivor
In our zeal to save others, are we inadvertently running over people?
In the most tragic twist of fate from this crash, a young woman from China, lying injured on the runway near the aircraft, was run over by a rescue vehicle. How terribly sad, after surviving this horrific crash, for this young woman to be killed by a vehicle dedicated to putting out fires and saving lives.
Our specialized ministries are important, but we must avoid tunnel vision. Others we encounter along our way are hugely significant. Let's sit up and take notice. We have a mission that is broader and deeper than our specialized calling.
A Veteran Hero
Fortunately, in the midst of tragedy, we end with the heartwarming heroism of a veteran flight attendant, Lee Yoon Hye, who refused to leave the plane until she was sure all 305 survivors had safely exited.
We live in a turbulent world filled with needs, danger, grief and pain. Thank God for selfless believers of any age who look beyond just their own welfare and the welfare of their family, peers and closest friends---and care about the welfare of the whole Church---as well as those outside.
Let's be among the heroes whose eyes are fixed on Jesus and His flight plan, not willing that any should perish, but that all come to eternal life.
[When writing this in early July, we had no idea that there would be yet another tragic crash of a Boeing 777---Malaysian Airline Flight 17 on July 17. Thirteen months ago there had been no fatal crashes involving a Boeing 777 since their introduction 18 years earlier---now three fatal incidents since last July.
With 298 deaths, the crash of MH17 is the deadliest aviation incident since the 9/11 attacks. Our hearts break with all the friends and families involved in each of these three separate tragedies.
The two Malaysian Airlines crashes are clouded in mysteries yet to be unraveled. This article focuses on lessons learned from the less deadly of the three Boeing 777 crashes.]