In an interview I was asked what was the the most encouraging sign in the church today, and what I told the one who asked surprised him. There are many encouraging signs, not least the zeal and passion of young Christians, the surging presence of women professors and administrators in seminaries, Christian colleges, and churches, the ever-growing scholarly contributions to life in the church … lots of encouraging sings.
But the #1 encouraging sign to me is the faithfulness of small church pastors. The average church in the USA has about 75 in attendance, which means the average pastor has a small congregation. They keep on keeping on, they keep on serving, they keep on loving and learning and teaching and preaching and having coffee and marrying kids who move off to big city churches and burying good faithful folk.
Every day. Under the radar. No fan fare.
Which brings me to Tim Suttle’s incredible book. When I read Tim Suttle’s book on evangelical social gospel theology I saw a skinny jeans kind of guy but his new book, Shrink, which I endorsed wholeheartedly, reveals a pastor who loves the church. I wish he had said more about this in his earlier book.
He has a chapter that I want you to read … no, I want you to buy the book to read this chapter. It’s called “Great is the Enemy of Good.” He has a great story about Tyler Hamilton, tempted as many are in the professional cycling world. Enter Lance Armstrong, enter doping, enter temptation, enter a crisis in his integrity.
Great is not necessarily good. In fact, if we learn anything from stories like Tyler Hamilton’s and many of the others we’ll explore here, it is this: The enduring power of greatness is its ability to entice human beings to trade the good for the great.
Your conscience for a fortune.
Your honesty for a kingdom.
Your friendship for a championship.
Your integrity for a big church.
Your soul for a chance at ministry greatness.
It’s not as far-fetched as you might think. Sometimes the promise of greatness is all it takes to destroy the good in us (35).
This Great is Good mentality pervades the church through leadership guru Jim Collins who wrote Good to Great. Suttle asks, “Is greatness the goal of church leadership? Is greatness good?” He continues with this:
Authentically Christian leadership begins and ends with a conversation about Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of God, not with a strategy for success.
This next line is brilliant: “Best practices” should be a minor side conversation in the world of Christian leadership.”
Suttle’s thesis contradicts Collins’s and the one that is shaping too much of church culture: Great is the enemy of Good. The aim is to be good, to be faithful, to be good and faithful and take what God gives.
Most pastors serve in small churches. Most leadership advice comes from megachurch pastors — something is wrong with this picture.
I see no bitterness nor resentment of megachurch pastors or megachurches in Suttle; what I see is a plea that we see that greatness is not the goal but goodness and faithfulness are. There is, Suttle says, one true metric: faithfulness.
The way of John the Baptist — Suttle says he was Bono, Oprah and Billy Graham rolled up into one man on the shore — who said I must decrease and he must increase. The way of John is the way of faithfulness — do what God has called you to do. Nothing else, nothing more, nothing less.
The difference is between pragmatism and faithfulness. Between what works and what is right.
I’m an unlikely person to write a book like this. I’m not a world-class church leader. I serve a little ragamuffin church of a couple hundred people, twenty or thirty of whom are hard-core alcoholics and addicts who live on the streets, the rest of whom are middle-class suburbanites who struggle every day with what it means to pursue the Shrink way of life in the midst of this world dominated by the upwardly mobile. Most of what I know comes from failure, not success.
John the Baptist is the way of Shrink. The way of Jesus. The way of the cross.