One of my favourite geekiest ways to pass the time is to visit other church’s websites. It can be a mixed bag of encouragement or despair, to be honest. One thing I see a lot, though, is reference to excellence:
Explicitly - ‘We will excel at [insert name of ministry]’ or implicitly – ‘We will be the very best at [insert worthy mission activity here]’.
It was my conviction that excellence is a worthy goal; something to aim for and aspire to. A ‘stretch target’ for the local church. The human logic went something like this: The world sets excellence as a standard, the church shouldn’t settle for less… Surely our musicians should be excellent; our youth work excellent; our welcome pack an example of excellence, our website,… you get the point! Excellence at all costs.
The more I ponder, however, the less enamoured with ‘excellence’ I am becoming.
If we’re not careful, we can idolise excellence, and it becomes something which enslaves rather than inspires. Without care in our approach, excellence rather than God’s glory becomes our motivator.
Further, excellence becomes one of two unhealthy things: An unachievably high bar which excludes people from engagement in church life and ministry, or a low bar which some find easy to reach, meaning their offering is less than costly or sacrificial. I wouldn’t advocate that anyone who fancies strumming along should join the worship team, but if the level required for joining in is so high that it switches people off, then that may require some reflection. Similarly if someone is a grade 8 musician, for instance, then playing in the music team won’t stretch them. Excellence in this regard is easy and not at all costly.
Given, however, that ‘excellence’ is a biblical idea, we mustn’t simply rush to abandon it. Instead, we need to be clear about what the bible teaches. There are 26 references to excellence or excelling in the bible (ESV). Some, understandably, refer to God – his character or his activity (“praise him according to his excellent greatness!” – Psalm 150:2; “…know his will and approve what is excellent” – Rom 2:14; “…that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you…” – 2 Pet 1:3). Others are a response to the evidence of the Spirit in a man (Dan 6:3). Others yet are deferential towards those in power (“Most excellent Felix”, “Most excellent Festus” - Acts 24:2 and 26:25 respectively).
There are some, however, which do refer to the actions of the believer.
Closer examination reveals that excellence is not the target for church ministry and mission per se, but for the lifestyle and conduct of the individual in the following: the way of love (1 Cor 12:31), prophecy and edifying the church (1 Cor 14:12), generous giving (2 Cor 8:7), discernment (Phil 1:10) and the renewed mind (Phil 4:8). Let’s relentlessly pursue excellence in these things and not settle for mediocre.
The closest we come to Scripture requiring excellence in ministry, however, is in Titus 3:8:
“The saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works. These things are excellent and profitable for people.”
Note that the devotion to the doing of the good works is excellent; the good works do not need to be done to the standard of excellence. A subtle yet significant difference.
What, then, do the Scriptures reveal as a standard for ministry and mission? Brokenness and contrition (Psalm 51). A pitiful amount of fish and bread compared to the size of the gathered crowd (Mark 6). An ‘I don’t have silver or gold, but I know the name of Jesus’ (Acts 3). A jar of perfume cracked open and poured out (Matthew 26). Each account shows that the offering brought was the best the individual could offer.
‘Best’ is a better goal. Bring your best. Bring the very best you’re able – whether it’s excellent or not - and place it on the altar before God. If you find excellence easy, don’t settle for excellence, bring your best. If you find excellence prohibitive, don’t strive for it, aim to bring the best you can. That, to my mind, honours God in our offering and creates a community whose offering may look very different in terms of quality, but is exactly the same in its motive: Our best for the King.
Of course there will be times when a minimum standard is required. My ‘best’ cooking may not meet health and safety standards for sharing and ‘enthusiastic’ isn’t the best standard for those involved in publicly leading music, so this isn’t a call toward ‘anything goes’, but when we begin to create a space where everyone’s best is encouraged, appreciated and valued, we step towards being deliberate about presenting an offering the Lord may love to multiply and use for his glory.
God’s blueprint is still to use the weak and foolish things of this world in pursuit of his own glory. Let’s not let the pursuit of excellence rob us of our usefulness in our less-than-perfectness.
Soli Deo Gloria,