WJGTD: Would Jesus “Get Things Done”

I am a little bit sick of the Getting Things Done (GTD) evangelists pushing GTD as the only way to live. GTD does not fit with my personality type. And it’s not something that is Biblically mandated. At the very least it falls into the category of wisdom. But it’s possible to be productive without having a “to do” list with the methodological ticking off of checkboxes.

Here’s a Mark Driscoll sermon on the barren fig tree. Now, I don’t want to get into the finer points of Mark Driscoll’s preaching here, but I think it’s fair to say that what he does with the figs borders on allegory, and if he’s preaching as though he’s speaking God’s word to God’s people, then this is just wrong. I don’t need to conform to the GTD view of productivity to be doing good kingdom work. Here’s the passage he’s preaching from:

6 And he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. 7 And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?’ 8 And he answered him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. 9 Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’

It’s bizarre that he opens up this sermon with this quote:

“That being said, I want to give you a few principles for interpreting parables in general and then we’ll look at today’s parable in particular. Now, when it comes to interpreting the parables, one thing I will say is that they are frequently abused and misunderstood. They are mistreated, misinterpreted, misapplied. So we have to be careful with them.

One way that this happens is that people will use the parables to teach doctrine. The parables are simple stories. They’re not intended to introduce new doctrines. They illustrate, illuminate existing doctrines, they’re extended analogies. So the Bible teaches a propositional truth claim and the parable illustrates it. It helps to expand it, illuminate it. It gives us new perspective on it.”

Now. Here’s where he starts veering into the “you must GTD” territory that I find pretty harmful, and based solely on what has worked for him, in his circumstances, with his personality. Here he starts with his conclusion, and then essentially begs the question. He defines fruitfulness before he says that God cares about fruitfulness. But who says his definition of fruitfulness is right?

“Here’s the question that is seeking to be answered by the parable: Does God care about results, yes or no? Yes, God cares about results. God cares about effectiveness. God cares about performance. Here the word that encompasses all of that is “fruit,” “fruit.” God cares about fruitfulness. Fruitfulness here is good works. Good works, obedience, a changed life, living a kind of life that makes a difference, that when your life on the earth is done, people miss you because you were a gift to them. You were a channel of God’s grace to them. You provided wisdom or generosity or help or service or rebuke or encouragement. That you were giving. That you were fruitful. That your life counted. That you weren’t just a consumer, you were a producer. You didn’t just take from everyone and everything, but you gave and they were blessed by you.”

He doesn’t tie salvation to fruitfulness – in fact, he explicitly says that we’re different from traditional religion that does do that, and that we’re saved by grace, but his exhortation to live wisely borderlines on mandating his personal approach to life as normative Christian behaviour.

“It’s not about just belonging to Jesus and going to heaven. It’s about belonging to Jesus, living a fruitful life, and then going to heaven for an eternal reward. Your life counts, your life counts, your life matters. God has fruit for you to bear. He has good works for you to do. He has things for you to accomplish. Not so that you can become a Christian, but because you are. Not so that you’ll become pleasing in his sight, but because through Christ you already are.”

Ok. With you still.

“And so, to extend the analogy, Mars Hill is a vineyard. He’s a tree, she’s a tree, you’re a tree, I’m a tree, we’re all trees. This is God’s vineyard. We’re all fig trees. And it’s a good time for us to look back on the previous year and celebrate and rejoice. Say, “You know what? Insofar as a vineyard goes, what a great vineyard Mars Hill Church is. So much to celebrate, so much to rejoice in. Biggest harvest ever, praise God. Look at all the figs.”

Hmm. Ok. So fruit is how big your church gets. One thing I will say about Driscoll is his opening, middle, and closing statements about Mars Hill are always on message and reinforcing the brand. They do this so well. Have a look at some transcripts. Somehow joining the City, the social network they use, signing up for a small group, and getting your life in order so that you can contribute to church life, is an application of every passage. Be part of us. Join us. Serve the community. That stuff is great. But before the end is some more middle – and we’re now being asked to hold two truths central to our interpretation of this passage. We’re building a syllogism baby. One – God wants you to be fruitful and effective, two we are to identify the figs that weren’t appearing in this parabolic man’s vineyard as our own works and productivity.

Here’s where we get a little bizarre. The application, well, one of them (and this is the tip of a pretty deep iceberg)…

“Some of you, your big problem is you don’t count your figs. You’ve got to measure, count. Some of you are naturally administratively gifted and organized. You’re so freakishly tidy, you actually need to calm down, okay? But some of you need to get a label maker and you need to get a plan, right? You need to put some plans together.

Let’s say, for example, you want to lose weight this year and you want to be healthy. First thing you need is a scale. “How many figs do I weigh? Okay, how many figs do I weigh? I got to count my figs.” And then you got to read the boxes and labels. “How many calories, how many figs am I eating?” You’ve got to track it.

Some of you say, “I don’t like numbers. I’m not good with numbers.” You got to learn to count your figs. You won’t make changes in your life unless you’re tracking it, keeping an accounting and a reckoning of it. That’s the point of the parable. He’s got an idea of where his figs are coming from and where there is fruitlessness.

And some more…

Number four, measure fruitfulness, not busyness. This one’s huge. Some of you say, “I’m busy! I’m active! I’m so busy, I’m committed to every—” but are you fruitful? There’s a big difference between busyness and fruitfulness. Some people, they are filled with coffee. They’re returning e-mails, talking on the phone, texting while they’re driving, doing their make-up and their hair while doing Pilates on their way to work. I mean, they’re multi-taskers, they’re busy, they’re active, they’re rushed. They’re always late, they’re not emotionally present when they’re there with you. They’re taking calls over dinner, I mean they—stuff’s falling through the cracks. They’re not sleeping enough, they’re stressed out and shaking. “I’m so busy!” And what they want is compassion. What they need is fruitfulness. Some of you need to learn to say, “I can’t do that, I can’t do that, I can’t do that. I need to see three things through to completion rather than seven things through to incompletion. I need to be fruitful, not just busy.

Then you have to get a mentor, like the guy in the parable did. And use your manure. Like the mentor in the parable said to – and the whole way through Driscoll is peppering his talk with examples from his own life.

GTD is the new prosperity gospel

If you order your life it’ll be better. That’s the line we’re being fed by those who’ve read and conformed to David Allen’s Getting Things Done. Mark Driscoll is a disciple, and one of his points of application in this sermon is basically the “capture everything” mentality of GTD. I can’t imagine spending my life trying to write down everything I think and do. So that I’ll do it better next time. Here’s my tip “Just do it”… it worked for Nike. All this reflection seems bizarre. And I don’t think Jesus spent each evening meditating on his day. He just kept doing the stuff he had to do. I’m not sure he was ticking off a list either. Because he was happy enough to change his plans and be distracted when people came up to him in crowds.

“So I spent a little time working on my life, not just in it, putting together my schedule for this year, my travel schedule for the next eighteen months, my preaching schedule for the next twenty-four months. Plans for Mars Hill, plans for my family, trying to tee it all up. Yeah, there will be adjustments, nothing’s perfect. I sat down with Gracie and we took a whole day, just us, laptops, paperwork, put it all together.

What’s an ideal week look like? What do you need from me? What’s working? What’s not working? How can we help? How do we need to adjust the kids’ chores? How did the holidays work? What do we need for vacations this year? What are we going to do for the kids’ birthdays? What about sports? You know the complexity of life. And Gracie and I spent a whole day putting the year together. We made a plan. We made a plan. And by the grace of God, we’ll take notes along the way and we’ll make adjustments and next year will be better than the year that we’re looking forward to right now, I hope and pray, by the grace of God.”

It’s great that GTD works for some people – but preaching it, from the pulpit, without any alternatives, is just a little too “conform to my way of thinking” for my liking. It’s wisdom, it’s not an imperative. There’s no 11th commandment.

This quote is pretty cool though, it may contain traces of ninja:

Soren Kierkegaard, a Danish philosopher who was a Christian, he had a great insight regarding parables. He said that parables sneak up on you. They’re like ninja stories. All right, you don’t seem them coming. Because if you’re confronted with the truth—let’s say for example you’re in sin and you’re confronted in the truth, you may bristle and fight and defend yourself, and a story, a good parable, sneaks up on you because you don’t see it coming.

I don’t think Jesus was a GTDer – what are your thoughts? Should I be breaking out the label maker and starting to systematise my life (my wife isn’t allowed to answer this question)?

The author

Nathan runs St Eutychus. He loves Jesus. His wife. His daughter. His son. His other daughter. His dog. Coffee. And the Internet. He is the campus pastor at Creek Road South Bank, a graduate of Queensland Theological College (M. Div) and the Queensland University of Technology (B. Journ). He spent a significant portion of his pre-ministry-as-a-full-time-job life working in Public Relations, and now loves promoting Jesus in Brisbane and online. He can't believe how great it is that people pay him to talk and think about Jesus.

14 thoughts on “WJGTD: Would Jesus “Get Things Done””

  1. funnily enough, my copy of GTD arrived in the mail this morning! I’ve been acutely aware for a while that I need something to help structure my work flows. Point being, I need it – I’m with you that it’s not mandated.

    I’ve not experienced any GTD’gelists here, as it happens.

    What concerns me even more is Driscoll’s butchering of the parable of the fig tree. Surely the one and only point is that Jesus’ ministry of 3 years is coming to a close and there’s not much time left for Israel – they have simply failed to respond to Him as they should. One last effort could be made but, let’s face it, we all know how it’s going to end up. Israel should, Jesus implies, expect a final uprooting.

    How Driscoll gets from there to GTD is beyond me – except to note that Jesus and the Father guarantee to GTD!

  2. Driscoll seems to be confusing stewardship with repentance. I thought the point of that parable was “if you see a disaster (verses 1 to 5), you should take that as an opportunity to repent.”

  3. I know you didn’t want to get into the finer points of preaching…

    But I think this sort of thing emerges whenever we’re preaching ideas, using Scripture as a launch-pad for topical points, which seems to be the bread and butter of guys like Piper and Driscoll.

    Promoting GTD may be a useful part of a discussion about productivity, but at the end of the day that whole discussion might just belong in a midweek workshop or a church conference. Launching into that discussion by equating biblical fruitfulness with efficiency is one step forward, two steps back.

  4. I actually don’t mind getting into the finer points of preaching from this – this sermon was one we looked at in our preaching lecture today. We listened to it to note the way Driscoll uses his voice (pitch, pace, projection etc).

    I think using the Bible as a launchpad for ideas is fine. I’m all for preaching wisdom – but I think it needs to be framed with a little more nuance, and I’d like it if the wisdom were drawn from the passage you were preaching from – he essentially breaks his rule for interpreting parables almost as soon as he starts.

    I’m also not against extracting ethical points from parables, because if Jesus is affirming the behaviour of a character in a parable I think we can assume the behaviour is ok. But I don’t see how you can get from this passage about the fruitlessness of Israel (which I agree with David is the point of the parable).

  5. I couldn’t care less about the personal managment system du jour. Run it up the flagpole and see if it floats your boat.
    It wouldn’t matter who preached this, on the basis of what you’ve described that is a wretched hermeneutic and apalling exegesis.
    It is not legitimate to claim that a bible text teaches a truth that clearly has nothing to do with what Jesus was teaching, what Luke intended as he structured his gospel and what the Holy Spirit wants to impart to us.
    To take a text illustrating how the longsuffering mercy of God should be received while there is still time and make it about personal managment strategy is an abomination.
    Maybe there’s something that I’ve failed to understand in what you’ve written above.

  6. Agree with the above; I won’t bother to reiterate the same ideas.

    Still, Mars Hill isn’t the only church around that pushes the “Be part of us, because anything less isn’t Being The Best Christian You Could Be” agenda. Nor is Driscoll himself the only christian leader around who is convinced he’s doing God’s work, and (possibly) detracting from it.

    Well ok, Driscoll definitely detracts from it on occasion – such as with the video-game rant – because he paints the rest of us who own the label “Christian” as believing in the same petty interpretations. This one, though, is probably relatively harmless in terms of bad PR to potential Christians, so I’m less annoyed by it.

    (I especially enjoyed the part where he mixed the fig metaphor with actually losing weight. And eating figs. Hah.)

  7. @Gary – you should see what he does with the manure bit if you haven’t read the whole sermon already.

    @Richard – I actually really like his branding stuff. That was a positive reflection on the sermon, not a negative. I think staying on message with regards to what you’re about as a church and how people can get involved shows a conviction that church is about more than just the Sunday gathering. So that stuff was fine. And I think living in community with other Christians is part of living your “best life now” – in that gathering with the family of believers is an expression of our identity as God’s children. I also think there’s a place for “life coaching”/teaching wisdom. I just don’t think it’s the pulpit, well, certainly not the pulpit with such a bizarro allegorical reading of a parable that has nothing to do with the purpose Jesus had when he taught it to begin with.

  8. Hey Nathan,
    1. Agreed it’s bad exegesis/application principles… but we keep on listening to him, don’t we :-)
    2. Agreed GTD fanatics can be annoying as Monty Python fanatics. But anti-GTD can be annyoing too.
    3. I don’t think Driscoll especially has GTD in mind in this sermon. I have never heard him advocate a peculiar GTD mindset. Which brings me to
    4. The basic principles of GTD are similar to most personal organisation systems. And to be effective you need to match these systems to some extent or another. If you don’t think you are, you’re either kidding yourself or not actually effective.
    5. GTD people don’t spend all their time writing to do lists. They write to do lists to free up more time to ‘live in the now’.
    6. ‘Productivity’ thinking has always been key to the prosperity gospel. That is the secret to most of it: I became a Christian, quit smoking, quit drinking, bought classier clothes, wrote a budget and got organised – wow I’m richer!
    7. I don’t push GTD on people, am happy for them to do whatever they like. I try to bite my tongue as much as possible.
    8. Great fun post!

  9. Hey Mikey,

    Thanks for the comment. I’m glad a GTD Disciple joined the fray. Here are the bits in Driscoll’s sermon that I think are GTDesque:

    “But some of you need to get a label maker and you need to get a plan, right? You need to put some plans together.”

    “Number four, measure fruitfulness, not busyness.”

    “I need to see three things through to completion rather than seven things through to incompletion. I need to be fruitful, not just busy.”

    “So I spent a little time working on my life, not just in it, putting together my schedule for this year, my travel schedule for the next eighteen months, my preaching schedule for the next twenty-four months. Plans for Mars Hill, plans for my family, trying to tee it all up. Yeah, there will be adjustments, nothing’s perfect. I sat down with Gracie and we took a whole day, just us, laptops, paperwork, put it all together.”

    Now, I might be showing my cards by admitting that I’ve never read the GTD book. I have a natural aversion to that sort of thing. But my understanding is that it’s about maintaining a fairly efficient schedule, capturing everything, and processing and prioritising tasks, measuring outcomes, and ticking off complete tasks.

  10. “that it’s about maintaining a fairly efficient schedule, capturing everything, and processing and prioritising tasks, measuring outcomes, and ticking off complete tasks.”

    Capturing everything and processing everything is the only thing in that list that is especially GTD.

    All of it is true of any orgnaised person.

    And it is probably true of you too, my friend ;-)

    ‘Natural aversion’. Meh.

  11. GTD sucks all the fun, chaos, and spontaneity out of life. What if, instead of capturing and processing I just marked stuff that comes from other people’s initiative as “things I’ll do if they excite me” and I just focus on doing the stuff that I initiate…

  12. Oh come on, you don’t even believe that.

    The logic of GTD very much suits someone who wants to be spontaneous. The logic is that you get a system to take care of all the insignificant irritations in life – like an email inbox with hundreds of emails.

    This then frees up your time and attention to be as visionary or spontaneous or laid back or deliberate as you please. Your mind is now free from the clutter.

    Besides, a system can be implemented in an OCD, pedantic way, or in a more laid back way. That’s hardly the system’s fault.

    The great thing about you not having read GTD is that you may possibly be very pleasantly surprised if you are ever humble enough to dare to read it.

    Yes. That’s a challenge.

  13. “GTD sucks all the fun, chaos, and spontaneity out of life. What if, instead of capturing and processing I just marked stuff that comes from other people’s initiative as “things I’ll do if they excite me” and I just focus on doing the stuff that I initiate…”

    Amen.

    Haven’t read GTD. I already get quite a lot done without it.

    But to silence the critics, I’m thinking of blogging my way through a chapter or two. Should I?

  14. You totally should, Simone. That’d be great fun. Maybe you and Nathan could start a group blog especially to that end!

    fwiw, I think the strengths of GTD are especially beneficial for those who ‘already get quite a lot done without it’. That’s where it is at its most powerful.

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