Horses, Power, and a Good Salesman

The term “horsepower” is one that is commonly used in our culture to refer to the power of one engine in comparison to another, but many are not familiar with the history of the term or the way in which it was originally decided upon. Essentially horsepower is a measurement of the amount of work an engine is able to do over a period of time. When it comes to engines, one horsepower means the engine can exert 550 foot-pounds of force per second or 33,000 foot-pounds per minute.

The person responsible for making this measurement of power standard in our culture was a man by the name of James Watt (for whom the later measurement of energy conversion would later be named). Watt was a remarkable inventor and entrepreneur whose most significant contributions came in the development and refining of the steam engine. Ultimately, the engine would replace the horse, but in the late 1700s, convincing people to replace their horses with engines was anything but a simple matter.

Thus, as Watt sought to market his engines, he needed a way not only of comparing the engine with a horse, but also a way of showing how his engine was better than the horses that people had so long relied upon. Hence the development of the term horsepower. Watt began a series of experiments with work horses and seeing how far they could move a millstone over a given period of time. He then began to compare those numbers with what his engines could produce. In principle, this sounds like a simple measurement, yet different horses will be capable of different amounts of work. If Watt was going to market his engines as a replacement for the horse, he had to ensure that no farmer or miner would come to him and say, “my horse can do more work than your one-horsepower engine.

Various numbers were being kicked around. John Smeaton estimated that a strong work-horse could move 22,916 foot-pounds per minute over a reasonable duration of time. Another scientist, John Desaguliers, estimated this number slightly higher at 27,500 foot-pounds per minute. Watt found that some brewery horses could produce as much as 32,400 foot-pounds per minute, yet this seemed to be a top end. Wanting to protect his product, Watt was able to get the measurement of horsepower standardized at 33,000 foot-pounds per minute, a number that was 50% higher than most work-horses were able to produce, thus ensuring that one of his engines would not ever be outdone by the equivalent number of horses.

Watt was a good businessman and the decision to standardize a unit of power in this way was a prudent move when seeking to ensure his market-share. Yet, if you apply the same principle to the Christian life, you end up with disastrous results. How often we seek to make ourselves the central hub of all ministry in the church. Everything revolves around us and our personality. This mindset seems to be especially true amongst clergy, but it is certainly not limited to the full-time pastoral office.

In doing so we do two injustices: first, we run ourselves ragged and second, we end up making a name for ourselves rather than making a name for Jesus Christ. To begin with, ministry is not about running ourselves ragged; it is about serving Christ out of who we are in every area of our lives. Ministry may tire us, but it ought not burn us out. What we do in ministry needs to be an integral part of our lifestyle, not just one more thing we add to our plates. It also needs to be something that brings us satisfaction as we reflect back on what God has done through us in our lives. And every ministry of the body of Christ is not for every member of the local church (though every member has a vital ministry).

One of my former mentors used to say that we need to identify those things that we cannot not do and then to pursue those things because they won’t feel like work, but they will build you up and “energize” you as you go about life. That is how church life should be. The liver does not contemplate the way it detoxifies things we put into our bodies, it simply does that work because it is a liver. As a member of the body of Christ we all have those things that we would do simply as an outworking of who we are. If the liver seeks to do the job of the pancreas or the gall bladder it will fail miserably as well as burning itself out; the same principle holds true in ministry.

Yet, just as the liver is not given glory when we have a healthy body, so too, the pastor, the church leader, and the church member, should not be seeking to glorify themselves in the ministries to which God has called them. When we say, “look at me!” we distract people from looking at Christ—and he is the one upon whom we all must be looking.

So what is the solution? The solution is to nurture a culture around the life of the church where people are willing to lose themselves in Christ’s ministry. It is not about what “I” am doing in the church, but it is about what Christ is doing in the fellowship as a whole. In other words, the ministries we start can rise or fall or be handed off to another in a moment—it is the body doing the work, not me. It is not “my ministry in this church” but it is “Christ’s ministry in this church that I am fortunate enough to participate in. Just as when you look at a body you focus on the whole, not the individual parts, the same thing ought to hold true with the church.

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