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From Great to Good

Thomas J Parlette

“From Great to Good”

Micah 6: 1-8

1/29/17

 

In 2001, business and leadership writer Jim Collins wrote the best-selling book “Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t.” Collins conducted research on 11 Companies that had “made the leap” and chronicled why “good is the enemy of great.”

Business leaders and even church leaders gobbled up this book and had their organizations read it in order to move them toward “greatness.” Collins defined greatness as “distinctive impact” and “superior performance” shepherded by a “level 5 leader.”

It’s no wonder the book was so popular. Americans love greatness. It’s no coincidence that one of the major campaign slogans of the recent presidential campaign was “Make America Great Again.” Americans love the idea of greatness. We tend to adopt the same attitude in the church as well. We often think that the measure of a great church is in the distinctiveness of its impact and it’s superior performance in all the metrics that business organizations use – bigger numbers on the role and in worship and in Sunday school, a healthy percentage growth every year, more money coming in and a building with all the latest bells and whistles. If you have all that, you are a great church.

The idea then, is that if you are not yet great, you have work to do. As the old saying goes – If you’re not growing, you’re dying. But is that really true?

The problem is that greatness defined by these kinds of metrics, is very difficult to sustain. It’s interesting that of 11 of the “great” companies that Collins profiled in his wildly popular book, most are not so great 15 years later.

Circuit City, one of the most successful companies profiled in the book, went out of business in 2009.

Fannie Mae, the Federal National Mortgage Association, had to be bailed out by the government during the mortgage crisis, and is seen by many as contributing to the cause of the crisis in the first place.

Pitney Bowes is worth half of what it was in 2001.

Five of the companies – Abbot Labs, Kimberly-Clark, Kroger, Walgreens and Wells-Fargo – have done OK but with only modest gains

One of the companies, Gillette, was sold.

Only two, Nucor (a steel producer) and Phillip Morris, the tobacco company have remained “great” according to Collins criteria.(1)

It is indeed difficult to remain great.

Today I’d like to pose a question. Is greatness really the best goal for an organization, a nation, a business or, in particular, a church ? Should we use the traditional metrics of numbers and money to measure greatness in the church?

The prophet Micah did not seem to think so. When we turn to the scriptures, one of the things we realize is that greatness, as the world measures it, is vastly overrated.

In fact, rather than the good being the enemy of the great, biblically speaking – greatness is actually the enemy of goodness.

In Micah’s day, things were definitely not great. Judah had fallen on hard times. The Northern Kingdom of Israel had already been conquered by the Assyrians and now Judah was just barely functioning as a sovereign state. The people recalled how great they used to be in the days of David and Solomon, but they weren’t able to sustain that greatness. In Micah’s time, the Kingdom of Judah was but a shadow of it’s former self.

Micah is a chronicle of how the nation had gone off the rails with the oppression of the poor, corruption in it’s courts, dishonest economic practices, false prophets, greedy priests, loss of order and a rejection of both God’s justice and God’s commandments.

Micah comes to plead the Lord’s case against the people. In verses 4 and 5 of our text for today, we are given a slide show of the Lord’s past with the Hebrews,

–         Remember how I brought you out of Egypt,

–         Remember how I sent you Moses, and Aaron and Miriam,

–         Remember how I saved you from King Balak,

–         Remember what happened at Gilgal,

–         I did all that so you may know the saving acts of the Lord.

Then in verses 6 and 7, Micah assumes the voice of the people as he considers the question – How do we please God? How do we get back to greatness? What does God want?

Micah anticipates the people’s response with a list of extravagant, impossible sacrifices – burnt offerings, thousands of rams, 10 thousand rivers of oil, my first born – is that what God wants? Will that make God happy? Will that make us great again?

In our modern parlance, we might as things like – Will great buildings, filled pews and million dollar budgets please God? Will God be pleased if we show that we are successful?

Is bigger, better stronger and richer the sign of the kind of church that God blesses, the kind of nation God blesses?

Is greatness what God desires?

Well, Micah says No.

In verse 8, he says, “God has told you what is good.” And then, in what some have called the bumper sticker of Christian ethics, Micah says, “What does the Lord require? Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.”

That’s it. That’s what God wants. That’s how you become great – do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. God doesn’t need us to be successful by the metrics of the world. God needs us to be faithful. In other words, we become great by becoming good.

For Micah, goodness means that we order our lives, including our interactions with others, in accordance with God’s will. Being good means that we maintain faithfulness to God in all things. Being good means that we pay attention to God – that is what it means to walk humbly with God. When we focus on doing God’s will, being faithful to God’s covenant and being attentive to God’s leading, we have done all that we were meant to do – regardless of whether the results impress anyone. That is being good in God’s eyes, instead of being great in the world’s eyes.

The early Christian church seemed to have embraced a goodness over greatness strategy for its own growth. In his book, The Patient Ferment of the Early Church, historian Alan Kreider looked at the rapid growth of the early church and wanted to see what exactly caused the church to grow during a time when it was underground and persecuted. We would expect him to find that it was about measures of greatness – great evangelism strategies, great preaching, attractive worship, superior leadership, better methods – all things that we measure and value in our good to great culture.

But the truth is that, in every case, Kreider discovered that the real virtue that caused the early church to grow was patient faithfulness. They spent up to three years examining people before admitting them to membership, during which they trained them in faithfulness and to represent the character of Christ. Interestingly, their documents reveal that they didn’t have much of a focus on evangelism or on preaching. Worship was very basic and plain – held in homes with singing, reading scripture, offering some insights and praying – nothing fancy. Instead, it was all about cultivating faithfulness and building up people who looked like Jesus.

They attracted others not because of their success but because of their character.

In other words, they focused on goodness, instead of greatness. They measured success by growing good people rather than growing a great church, with state of the art facilities, over-flowing pews and a multi-million dollar budget.(2)

Over this holiday season, we went down to Florida to spend a few days with my parents. Everyday, my dad would go out for a long walk. At first, I thought nothing of it, but then my mother started referring to it as his “training” walk. I wondered, what was Dad training for – he was never one to run 10k’s or anything. Turns out my dad was training for his volunteer role as a spotter in a program called In-Stride. This program offers horseback riding to people as physical therapy. Some are developmentally disabled, but others are recovering from some sort of injury – this is part of their physical therapy. The therapists have the participants ride the horses, sometimes facing forward, sometimes backwards, sometimes side-saddle, sometimes with hands raised over head or outstretched side to side – all different positions – so different core muscles are engaged in ways that they couldn’t be with other kinds of exercise. My dad volunteers as a spotter, walking alongside ready to steady anyone as they ride.

It strikes me that that is what a church does. We walk alongside each other, spotting each other as our spiritual cores are strengthened. That’s how we grow good people. That’s how we grow good disciples.

One night after a session meeting, I was approached by a new elder. He told me how grateful he was to serve on session again because the church had played an important role in keeping his son out of trouble. In his pre-teen years, this young man had been on the road to becoming a juvenile delinquent. Had it not been for the friendships he developed through church, with his peers and with other adults – in Sunday school, youth group, church basketball leagues – this young man’s life could have turned out much different that it did. This elder was grateful that the church was there to walk beside this young man, act as a spotter so his spiritual core could fully develop. That’s how we grow good disciples.

Today is the day when we review where we have been as a church over this last year. Today we look over our annual reports, we celebrate what we have done together, and we look forward to new things we can undertake. It is an undeniable fact that we are smaller than we were – but in the pages of these reports, I think you will see that we have been faithful. We have continued to do what God calls us to do. We have continued to worship, sing, and pray together. We have sought ways to interact with our community and our world in ways that will show God’s love for all people. We have continued to build good people and good disciples.

May we continue to abide by Micah’s words:

“Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God”, as we move from great to good.

May God be praised. Amen.

 

1.    Homiletics, Vol. 29, No. 1, p 36-37.

2.    Ibid…p 39.