Wednesday, December 12, 2007

“Doing Our Best”

2 Timothy 2:8-15[1]

I grew up pledging “on my honor” to do my best. The Scout oath and the Scout law were so ingrained into me that I can still repeat them both to this day! But promising to do my best was more than just an oath that I repeated every week at Scout meetings. It was a way of life that my family taught me.

I believe most of us would like to think that we are doing our best. These days, however, doing our best is a bit more complicated. “Doing our best” these days is something that has to be tied to measurable results. Everyone from business to teaching to the United Way is looking for “measurable results.” Our “results-oriented” mania has made “doing our best” a lot more complicated.

I’m afraid, however, that for all our measuring, we’re not doing better, but worse. Now, instead of focusing on doing our best, we’re focusing on measuring everything. Take the public school system, for example. In 1991, the State of Texas in its infinite wisdom introduced the TAAS test. The point was to make sure that our children were getting a good education. But what happened was that the test wasn’t coordinated with the curriculum, so teachers began teaching the TAAS instead of their subject. In 2003, the TAKS test replaced it, and it was supposed to correct the problems caused by the TAAS. But while the test itself may be more closely aligned with the curriculum, it doesn’t seem like much has changed.

It doesn’t take a genius to recognize that standardized testing has not improved education in Texas, but rather diminished it. Of course, there’s no question that some under-performing teachers are probably doing their job more consistently. But in the process, the TAAS/TAKS test has stripped the excellent teachers of the freedom to give full expression to their creativity! Instead of approaching their subject with imagination and enthusiasm, they too have to teach the TAKS.

Think of college recruiters, out there looking for candidates for the teacher education program at a local university. Do they pitch the ideal of teaching or the reality? They could say something like, “If you become a teacher you will have the opportunity to mold young minds and shape young lives”—that’s the ideal of teaching. But if they want to be more honest, they would have to say something like, “If you become a teacher you will be chained to a system that teaches to the lowest common denominator and rigidly ties your chances for promotion to ‘measurable results’ in the classroom.” Which do you think will produce more teacher candidates?

Of course, the mania for numbers and figures and “measurable results” has always been a temptation for the church. One of the clichés in church is the story about pastors gathering for coffee every week and exaggerating their attendance and giving figures in order to impress each other! This cliché, however, reveals one of the great challenges in church life and work: just what is the measure of “doing one’s best” in the church? If it’s numbers, then only a small fraction of churches in the world have ever been “successful.” The vast majority of churches of all stripes in this country are just like ours—under 100 members.[2]

If we look to our New Testament lesson for today, Paul urges Timothy to “do his best,” to strive to fulfill his calling, to make every effort to follow Christ and to serve others faithfully. It seems to me that what Paul was trying to do was to encourage and inspire Timothy to be faithful to his calling and to his work. In the Christian life, the measure of success can rarely be reduced to numbers. It has to do with life! We’re in the business of changing hearts! And I don’t think we can rely simply on church attendance or giving figures as a measure of changing hearts and lives. That’s the challenge that faces us all—you can never really know when or where or how far you’re making a difference.

That’s why Paul told Timothy to stick to the plan, to hold onto the vision, to keep working diligently. “Success” in ministry is about perseverance. What makes a church thrive is to keep our focus on following Christ and serving others.[3] Objective goals and measurable results won’t do it. Churches die when they become preoccupied with those things. Churches thrive when they follow Christ and serve those around them. It’s that simple.

So are we being faithful in this congregation? Are we doing our best? I think the answer is a resounding “Yes!” For some “doing our best” means that they are going way beyond the call of duty. To them I say, “Bless you, bless you, bless you!” For some “doing our best” means they would like to do more, but they are doing as much as they possibly can. And to them I say, “Bless you, bless you, bless you!” For some, “doing our best” means that they are only able to show up for worship as the occasion permits. And to them I say, “Bless you, bless you, bless you!”

As Mother Teresa puts it, “God does not demand that I be successful. God demands that I be faithful. When facing God, results are not important. Faithfulness is what is important.”[4]

[1] © 2007 Alan Brehm; a sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 10/14/07 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] John Dart, A ‘census’ of congregations - Faith Communities Today survey results,” in The Christian Century (March 21, 2001); cf.

[3] Jürgen Moltmann, in The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 306-7, identifies the “essentials” as kerygma [proclaiming the gospel], koinonia [fellowship], and diakonia [service]; cf. also 361: “The one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church is the church of Jesus Christ. Fellowship with Christ is its secret. The Church of Jesus Christ is the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. Unity in freedom, holiness in poverty, catholicity in partisan support for the weak, and apostolate in suffering are the marks by which it is known in the world.”

[4] See Jose Luis Gonzalez-Balado, In My Own Words (The Words of Mother Teresa), accessed at

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