Creating Church: Excellence

photo credit: angel.a.acevedo via photopin cc

Aristotle called it the golden mean. I had a professor in college who went by the nickname “Doc” who called it “Doc’s parabola.” The idea is pretty simple. For any virtue, there are two extremes that are generally not the way you want to go.

In church production, these two extremes are “good enough” and “perfect.” The center point you should aim for is excellence.

For years, the Church has suffered under the weight of “good enough.” The problem is that “good enough” is slippery. When you’re really excited, “good enough” is much better than when you’re tired and just want to give up. It really depends on how the artist feels, not on ability, time, money, etc.

This idea is why Christian art is widely considered inferior to secular work. For years, we had a monopoly on the hearts and minds of a majority of people, at least nominally. This bred a complacency that led to sanctification of worship styles and instruments instead of continually stretching to become better.

While the cult of “good enough” thrived, secularism snuck in and stole the culture from the Church, replacing outmoded art forms with exciting new ones. “Good enough” to keep people in the church became “good enough” for the church’s low standards. I’ve even heard people say, “Why are you trying so hard? It’s just church.”

The institutionalism of inadequacy leads to ball teams with “cultures of losing” and in the church the results were the same. Instead of expecting God to show up and do something miraculous, people even built their theologies on the idea that God was no longer doing miracles.

Not all segments of the church suffered from this idea. Youth and children’s ministries were often very relevant to their young constituencies. Even in the late 80s and early 90s when I was a teen, youth ministry was alive and vibrant with new, creative ideas.

This made it all the more startling when an 18-year-old would leave high school and join “big church” only to find a service stuck in time where little had changed since the 1880s or even the 1780s. I remember wishing that my church would embrace the music I listened to and engage my senses in the awe I felt at youth events.

The idea of excellence burst on the scene, led by Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago. Of course, it was criticized and rejected by people who didn’t understand the concept.

One of the biggest criticisms came from the misunderstand the idea of “excellence” as the opposite of what the church had adopted. When people heard “excellence,” they’d often think perfection. This idea of perfection wasn’t limited by the best something can be given a certain level, but something much more like “ultimate perfection.”

The Biblical idea of “perfection” is more like completeness, wholeness, or maturity. That’s why Jesus is referred to in Hebrews 12:2 as the perfecter or completer of the faith, depending on the translation. Both are true, but the 21st century idea of perfection being the best that’s logically possible must refer only to God because our efforts can never be the best that’s logically possible.

We can be excellent, though. We can do the best we can with what we have, including time, talent, and resources. After a decade of doing tech at my church, the best I can do in my church now with the resources we have today is vastly different than the best I could do with the resources I had over a decade ago.

It’s not really a new idea. I have a 6-year-old who is in kindergarden. She’s just learning to read and every time she completes a six-page book I’m so proud of her and I make sure she knows it. Five years ago, her big sister was in the same place, struggling to read short books. Now, my oldest daughter routinely finishes 350-page Nancy Drew books. Both girls are wonderful readers. I don’t expect the kindergardener to read like her sixth-grade sister. I do expect that my 6-year-old will improve, just as I expect that her sister will.

Excellence is the same way. A new volunteer can give his all and not be as good at a given task as the volunteer who’s been doing that same task for a decade. Excellence isn’t that the new person does as well as the veteran. Excellence is trying your best and trying to get better.

Don’t step toward comparison. It’s asking for trouble to look at yourself in light of someone else. The result is often jealousy or a hypercritical thoughts. Look to others for inspiration or help in getting better at what you do, but be careful not to criticize them or become jealous if what’s hard for you is easy for them.

At Willow Creek Community Church, they say, “Excellence honors God and inspires people.” I agree. “Good enough” honors and inspires no one. Perfectionism dishonors people and distrusts God. God doesn’t want perfection from us. How do I know that? We’re not capable of it.

Mistakes will happen when you’re creating church. The person in charge will mishear what the church is supposed to do. Team members will sleep late. The guitarist will think he practiced enough, but find out during church he didn’t. These are opportunities to show grace.

Grace in tough situations doesn’t say, “it’s okay” when it’s not. Grace acknowledges when something wasn’t okay, when a bad choice or mistake causes real problems for people, but forgives anyway. It does no one any good to beat someone up for their mistakes either. Forgive easily because you’ll soon need that forgiveness in return.

The atmosphere at a church striving to do her best needs to be marked by grace and forgiveness. People shouldn’t serve walking on egg shells, afraid of messing up. It’s a delight to try and become the best you can be. It’s okay if the best you can be isn’t as good as someone else. You need to have permission to do what you can.

This isn’t to say that a creative church should be one that doesn’t take seriously her responsibility to be salt and light in the world.


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