Magazine article The Christian Century

Excellent Adventure. (Faith Matters)

Magazine article The Christian Century

Excellent Adventure. (Faith Matters)

Article excerpt

GOOD IS THE ENEMY of great. And that is one of the key reasons why we have so little that becomes great." So Jim Collins begins his book, Good to Great, a study of how 11 companies made the transition from being merely good to great.

Convinced that the book has profound relevance for the church and its ministry, I assigned it as a text for my course on "Leadership and Discipleship." But when students saw it on the syllabus, not everyone approved. As an African-American student put it, "Dean Jones, I thought you were saved and everything, and here you are having us read a book about business."

She had solid reasons to be skeptical about a book focused on moving from good to great, especially for followers of One who criticized James and John for their pretensions to greatness. Invocations of greatness in our culture often emphasize exceptional effort, intentionality, competence and skill. Yet Christian communities are called to follow a crucified Savior. The kingdom seems to privilege "the poor, crippled, lame and blind." And Christians are called to welcome "the least" to our tables and into our congregations. We are also called to recognize the persistent reality of human sinfulness.

Even so, the threads of Collins's argument press in theologically interesting directions. He writes, "Those who turn good into great are motivated by a deep creative urge and an inner compulsion for sheer unadulterated excellence for its own sake. Those who build and perpetuate mediocrity, in contrast, are motivated more by the fear of being left behind." Pursuing excellence for its own sake, overcoming mediocrity and being shaped by a creative desire to do whatever you do as well as you possibly can--could that mean practicing discipleship, following a crucified Savior as well as we possibly can, and holding ourselves to a desire for unadulterated excellence in our ministry for the sake of Christ, even with the least, the last and the lost?

The Letter to the Philippians offers a significant context for reflection. After all, the letter is shaped by a profound sense of the cost of discipleship, the centrality of Christ's self-emptying life, death and resurrection, as well as the awesome gift and task of the body of Christ to discern the "mind of Christ." Yet it is here that Paul also urges the Philippians to think about excellence and anything worthy of praise (Phil. 4:8).

Paul urges us to renounce "selfish ambition." The use of the adjective would seem to suggest that we not renounce ambition per se, but ambition that diminishes and destroys life because of its selfishness. Instead, we are invited to a life shaped by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth (2:5-11). We are to be ambitious for the gospel. …

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