The Parable of Woolworths and the Micawber Principle

I saw a headline in a Christian magazine recently which read “The best ideas come from Jesus” and I thought – that’s right they do, especially I have found in the business world when I worked with a consulting engineering company. In such a company, a mid-sized one, the central issue was that we always had to make a profit, that is income always had to exceed expenditure. This, what might be called a ‘no-brainer’, was not purely just for the sake of money, although the stakeholders demanded that, but for the sheer survival of the company, and also the staff. For if no profit was made staff had to be, in that quaint euphemism, ‘let go’.

Woolworths, the large supermarket chain, understand this income exceeding expenditure profit-essential of business as they recently demonstrated with their decision to close a large number of low profit or loss-making stores. It seems that they have learned from Jesus who was pretty big on maximising profit, profit that is for ‘Kingdom Enterprises’ and its primary investor God who has invested so much, namely the enormous cost of the sacrifice of His Son Jesus. Jesus demonstrated this ‘profit motive’ at many points in His ministry e.g.

• In the parable of the Fig Tree (Luke 13:6-9) about the man who planted a Fig Tree for fruit but it didn’t produce any. So he said to the gardener, give it another year, pour resources into feeding it, and I’ll see if it produces fruit. When, despite the reprieve and the additional resources the tree still didn’t produce fruit, the man said “Cut it down!”, and added the so-telling question “Why should it use up the soil?” i.e. why should this non-profitable tree continue to use up resources but with no fruit.”

• In the allegory of the ‘True Vine’ and the Vinedresser’s commitment to ‘prune’ i.e. cut off unfruitful branches. John 15, and to even prune ‘fruitful’ branches so they would produce even more fruit.

• In the parable of the ‘Tenants in the Vineyard’ who get thrown out because they want to keep the fruit of the investment for themselves rather than yield it to the owner of and major investor in the Vineyard. Matthew 21:33—48.

It seems that Jesus taught it, Woolworths gets it, and businesses use it but we in the church ignore it. Why else when we are so short of resources, when our mission for Kingdom fruit (namely disciples) is failing badly, do we continue to pour resources into hundreds of local churches that just “use up the ground” and haven’t produced any ‘fruit’ in terms of disciples for years.

Charles Dickins expressed it in terms of the ‘Micawber principle’, in the words he put into the mouth of his character Mr Micawber-

“Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds nought and six, result misery.”

Misery comes when income (fruit) is less than investment, so too ‘missional misery’ results when the resource amount put into churches is greater than the Kingdom ‘fruit’ they produce.

Arguably 80% of the resources the church has goes into the standard, what I call elsewhere SIC (Sunday Centric, In-Drag, Christendom-form), model churches most of which, as the statistics tell us, produce very little or no gospel fruit. Why should Jesus’ question ‘why should it use up the soil’ not be asked of them. Why also does not the ‘cut it down’ action apply?

The principle Jesus taught could not be clearer, yet it is largely ignored as we continue to pour resources into unfruitful ‘fig trees’. These often have more the characteristics of religious social clubs, a heritage society for old buildings and museums for ancient religious rituals, rather than live.

Giving the ‘branches’ opportunities to thrive, and providing resources to help them to do so, yes certainly we should. However, we cannot afford in these missionally unfruitful and resource-scarce times to ignore the ‘Parable of Woolworths’ and keep on allowing the chronically unfruitful ‘fig trees’ to keep on “using up the ground”. Rather the resources locked up need to be ‘unbound’, set free to be invested in the new missional ventures required today.

One thought on “The Parable of Woolworths and the Micawber Principle

  1. I think the principle applies to time as well as money, and I guess you mean both. In a previous church (being an engineer also) I did a rough estimate of the total hours going into the church’s activities by all members, and it was about 75% on self and 25% on others – and we were a church with quite a large social welfare/outreach program. I don’t think 25% is enough time for mission.

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