Practices of Fruitful Living: “Exellence and Fruitfulness”

These notes are intended for distribution to members and friends of the Kirk of Kildaire Presbyterian Church family. While effort is made to give credit for work done by other, the notes may use material for which appropriate credit is not given. Also, the notes may differ from the actual sermon as it was delivered. Remember, sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation; the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.

Philippians 4:8-9
John 15:1-11

In the year I was ordained to ministry, in 1982, a management book by Tom Peters and Robert Waterman…  became a best seller: “In Search of Excellence”. It sold 3 million copies in the first 4 years. It was the most widely read library book from 1989 to 2006. They explored 8 themes… that would guide who knows how many managers and executives searching for excellence.

In 2001, Jim Collins wrote a book called, “Good to Great”—describing how companies transition from being average companies to great companies and how companies can fail to make the transition. Another massive best seller.

He described seven characteristics of companies he studied that took them from good to great. Some of those characteristics included

  Leaders who are humble, but driven to do what’s best for the company. (Jesus would like that—humility and would say that he would want his disciples to be humble and to do what was best for the kingdom of God)

  First Who, Then What:

Get the right people on the bus, then figure out where to go. Finding the right people and trying them out in different positions.

Wonder if Jesus ever questioned whether he had the right people on the bus… I mean… would you have chosen those 12 disciples?—fishermen, tax collectors, people who would deny or betray him? Not a clergy among them! Turns out, looking back…they were the right people!

  Confront the Brutal Facts: The Stockdale paradox – Confront the brutal truth of the situation, yet at the same time, never give up hope.

Surely Jesus did this with the Scribes, Pharisees and Saduccees… telling them brutal facts they didn’t want to hear… He did this with his own disciples—remember how he would tell Peter hard truths— like when Peter wanted nothing to do with a suffering messiah and he said, “Get behind me Satan”… or when Peter says “O, I’ll never deny you”… and Jesus tells him—“yes you will…” In fact all of you will deny or betray me…” Jesus told hard and brutal truths when necessary- and paid with his life—but never gave up hope on God…

  Hedgehog Concept:

Three overlapping circles:
What lights your fire (“passion”)?
What could you be best in the world at (“best at”)
What drives your economic engine?

Here, one has to think of Jesus—with a passion to preach the kingdom of heaven… to teach, to forgive, to heal, to care for the poor… and  Paul— a person of passion for sharing the gospel… who wanted Christians to discover and use  spiritual gifts… and using them for the work of ministry… all the disciples—ordinary people with extraordinary passion—especially after the resurrection who were driven to take the gospel to the world…

In Search of Excellence… from Good to Great… Would Jesus not want his disciples—us– move from good to great? … not as a matter of earning God’s love… or making sure we get a good performance appraisal from God when we get to heaven… but as a matter of glorifying God… and of participating in helping God’s kingdom to come on earth as it was in heaven…

Jesus didn’t talk about excellence or good to great of course, but he did talk about bearing fruit…  that there are those who bear no fruit versus those who are fruitful.

As part of Jesus farewell address to his disciples—as he prepares to leave them to carry on his work, he tells them:

5I am the vine, you are the branches. (see the connection?) Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit…. 8My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and becomejavascript:void(0); my disciples.”

God is glorified, honored, pleased, when we become his disciples and bear much fruit for the work of his kingdom. God is glorified not only when we pray, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done”—but when we pursue that kingdom with passion.

Discipleship is not just about accepting the benefits of faith… forgiveness, grace, and love… If that is all it is, then what we have is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace”. “Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.”

Discipleship is also about sharing the faith – carrying on the ministry of Jesus… bearing fruit.

Paul picks up on this theme in his own way, but uses language more familiar to us: excellence…

“8 Finally, beloved,javascript:void(0); whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think aboutjavascript:void(0); these things. 9Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

As graceful and loving and forgiving as Jesus was… as much as Paul preached about how in Christ we are reconciled with God… sins no longer are counted against us… Neither one sees that as an excuse to offer God less than our best…

Can you imagine Jesus saying something like, “Since God loves you so much, since God forgives you so much…  it is okay to give God your leftovers and second best. It doesn’t really matter. God will forgive you anyway.” Can you ever hear Jesus say that?

I can see my next sermon now: “From Great to Good”— or “In Search of Mediocrity”— give God your leftovers and rely on grace to make it through.

I cannot imagine Paul telling any of his friends in those churches: “You know what… since we are already reconciled to God in Christ… it doesn’t really matter… just do what you can… cut some corners if you have to… God doesn’t really care.” I cannot imagine that.

But sometimes Christians can develop that attitude— what I would call functional mediocrity…

We settle… amid all the demands of life that come at us—and there are many—we decide faith is the one place we can settle and cut corners…

And then we wonder as time goes on why we aren’t growing spiritually or why we don’t feel connected to God or seem to be bearing much fruit.

Churches can develop that attitude as well. Rather than seeking excellence… or fruitfulness… we settle… And then we wonder why some ministries are on life support… or why we aren’t thriving.

One of the insights from Collin’s book was interesting to me:

“Good is the enemy of great. And that is one of the key reasons why we have so little that becomes great. We don’t have great by Text-Enhance”>schools, principally because we have good schools. We don’t have great government, principally because we have good government. Few people attain great lives, in large part because it is just so easy to settle for a good life.”

I fear that too many churches have settled for the good life… Some might say, “We don’t have great churches because we have a good church.”

Maybe many Christians are unable to develop a deep and mature faith because it is easier to settle for an okay faith.”

Again, and I know I am repeating myself here… this does not mean God loves us less… but it may mean that we should not expect great spiritual results with little effort.

As I think about many of the practices we’ve been exploring this summer, this is what I’ve begun to wonder…

If we are mediocre in offering hospitality, why would we expect different results… why would we expect people to feel welcome?

If we are mediocre in mission or caring for the environment or caring for justice and peace, we’ll find our missions “okay”… I guess. Do we want more than to be “okay” in caring for those God cared passionately about?

If we are mediocre in offering opportunities to grow spiritually or in our faith development… and if we mediocre in our personal commitment for growth… what kind of results can we expect?

Of if we decide that mediocre commitment is enough… then why would we expect more than mediocre results…

If we decide that we can offer God a pretty good worship experience…and if you come and show up without really being present—that’s okay, isn’t it? At least you are here! What kind of experience will you have in worship?

But now, I’m sounding too negative. I don’t like that. And neither do you.  I might be making some of you a bit uncomfortable or mad. I apologize.

And I don’t want you to think for a moment, again, lest you hear me incorrectly… that any of this is about a performance appraisal so we can win God’s approval or love. It is not. God already loves us and there is nothing we can do or not do that will ever take away God’s love.

What I am trying to say is that our response to God’s love… a part of our discipleship… a part of what it means to be a connected to Christ… is to offer God our best… our first fruits… as a way to honor and love God… and to discover the joy of carrying on the ministry of Jesus Christ… and if we are blessed, with the help of the Holy Spirit, see it bear good fruit,

So let me stop being negative and tell you where I have seen this at work.

 Since the writing of the book, “In Search of Excellence”, this is what I’ve learned from serving several congregations now. And it is not that complicated.

The Christians I know with a deep and abiding faith— who are spiritually mature—have this in common… they are an active part of a community of faith… involved in prayer and study… they are devoted to spiritual practices that connect them with God. So many of you are here. We have good models at the Kirk.

Churches with active, vital and excellent ministries and missions have this in common: Each mission or ministry or activity that seems to bear much fruit—has people who have answered a call to serve… they have found their passions… used their gifts and gotten involved.

At the Kirk, long before I got here, so many of you poured out your passions and gifts into the Rotation Model Sunday school program. You wrote your own curriculum. You won an award for excellence. Just a couple of weeks ago I was at a meeting at my seminary and an education minister comes up to me and says, “Oh, I go to your website on a regular basis to use your material.” That story is repeated more than you know. Bearing good fruit for the work of the Kingdom, thanks to people sharing their best…

Our church has produced more ministers in our short history than maybe any other church in the same time period. Why? Because at the very beginning of the life of the Kirk, members of the Kirk decided to commit themselves to building an excellent youth ministry. What you may not see are the ones who didn’t go into ordained ministry and yet are in ministry in other vocations and volunteer activities. They live to serve.

Our mission has grown—because people have committed themselves to reaching out to those who hurting… Our most vital missions are those where members are giving their best: WIHN (ministry to homeless families) would not happen without you being committed… Our mission trips to Appalachia or in Charlotte—doesn’t happen without commitment. Our mission team returned from Guatemala—reporting wonderful results of new efforts–  We invested in an agricultural engineer to work with our partners and guess what—Those families are now growing their own food… vegetables… they are moving to better health and self sustenance… why? Because a group of people are committed to that mission. Show me a vital mission (and there are many at the Kirk) and I can name the names of those who want to make them happen…

In recent years our music and worship ministry has grown. Now Larry can drive some people crazy—but most of it is because Larry is demanding the best out of those in worship and music ministry…and choirs offer their best– and when we offer our best in worship, not only is God glorified, all of us are blessed.

Why do you think we have a wonderful Stephen ministry? It didn’t just happen… people committed themselves to that ministry… to make sure we did it right in the beginning and continue to do it well.

I think are blessed with people who have the gift of hospitality. This is one of the places where many churches seem to fall down… or at least settle. I think it is our growing edge in the life of the total church. Churches that are growing often excel in sharing hospitality. Not settle… but excel.

Again, what I have learned is a simple principle… the ministries that thrive and bear good fruit, are the ones who have people committed to those ministries… offering their best…helping us to be at our best as the church.

This is what happened with the community garden. The only reason we have a thriving community garden that is becoming the talk of our neighborhood is because a few members of the Kirk decided a few years ago that this is where they were being called to ministry. And they offered their best.

We are about to offer Leadership training so that those who want to thrive as leaders can have the opportunity to do so.

You get the point. Excellence… fruitfulness… good to great… those are not only what describes healthy and vital churches… it describes heathly and vital disciples.

The author of the book Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations wrote:

“The disciples of Jesus much kingdom fruit. They healed, taught and served. They confronted evil, sought justice and acted with mercy. They offered God’s forgiveness and proclaimed God’s reign. They changed lives, carrying in their words and work the message of God’s love in Christ, and forming communities of followers. The gift of the Holy Spirit was in them because they were connected to God through Christ. Life in Christ, and fruitfulness are inextricably bound together”

Reminds me of what Jesus was telling his disciples:

“5I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit…. 8My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and becomejavascript:void(0); my disciples.”

May we stay so connected with Christ, that we are eager to offer the Lord our best… may be stay so connected to God through Christ, that our lives may bear much fruit and in doing so bring honor and glory to God. Amen.