An Alternative to “Excellence”
Should the church be striving for excellence, or is it time to abandon the loaded term?

Last year I met with a team of leaders from my church. Our task: to rethink and rearticulate the guiding values of our congregation. The work was relatively easy. Upon investigation we determined that most of our core values hadn't shifted. We still believed in the centrality of relationships to ministry, our bent toward creativity, and the importance of participation. But then we came to "excellence."

For years our church has listed "excellence" as one of its core values. Support for this word, if not the idea behind it, has been slipping for years. A growing number of leaders are uncomfortable with excellence for a number of reasons. Perhaps the most common objection is that it's a more subtle way of saying we are perfectionists. Others object that the word is off-putting to people in the church that cannot achieve "excellence." It's exclusionary.

Defenders of the term say it has nothing to do with perfectionism or elitism, but a desire to "do our very best for God." And one person's very best may differ significantly from another's, but both are upholding the value of excellence. In the end the decision was made to change the articulation of the value and drop the word "excellence." But what word should we use?

Daniel Schantz recently wrote an insightful, dare I say excellent, article about the increasing discomfort with the notion of excellence in the church. You should read the entire piece at the Christian Standard website. Here is a brief excerpt:

The term excellence is often spoken by church leaders in condescending tones, as if to say, "Others may be content with being average slobs, but not us. We must have only the best." This can be a slap in the face to members who don't have the capacity or means to be excellent - the "good," the "fair," the "poor."
Can only good-looking, gifted singers serve on the worship team? Must church buildings resemble palaces in order to be useful? Do all preachers have to be Madison Avenue models, professional comedians, celebrities, best-selling authors, and able to speak five languages? The gospel was targeted to the poor, not just to the exceptional.

Schantz's article reads like a transcript from one of our church leadership meetings. He captures the arguments surrounding the term "excellence" perfectly. But the question remains - is there a positive alternative? What word should replace excellence in our ecclesiastical lexicon? Or, are you a true believer in excellence who is willing to fight the slippery slope of mediocrity? Read Schantz's article and come back with your comments and suggestions.

January 02, 2008

Displaying 1–10 of 35 comments

Jey Gifford

February 13, 2008  4:09pm

I might say that Excellence can be replaced with Earnestness. Let's look at the Pharisees who doubtless were EXCELLENT at knowing scripture, following regulations, etc. It wasn't wrong to do these things, however these practices replaced God in a sense. Too often today, church leaders use "excellence" as a mask for laziness. "Well, we've got the best sound system money can buy" is an excuse to relax on the earnest pursuit of the Lord. Conversely, look at the widow who gave her mites. She was EARNEST. It wasn't a huge pile of money that she lobbed into the church treasury. But she was earnest and the Lord commended her. She gave all she could. I believe that the Lord would rather we had an earnest Pastor in front who was difficult to hear because of little-to-no sound reinforcement, than someone who said a lot of nothing but was loud and well-lit.

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January 11, 2008  5:30pm

Semantics. It's a pretense to say excellence is just a shade of "slick," "exclusive," "elitist" or even "professional." If you really want a better word, try "effectiveness." We aim to do our tasks heartily to the Lord, and trust we'll be effective in accomplishing the task. If you spent this much energy efficiently being patient and inclusive of the "excellent", you might find a desire to see things from both sides.

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January 11, 2008  1:18pm

Sam Andress, we are called to excellence. God does require excellence all over the bible. He is picky- See story of Cain and Able in Genesis, any of the levitical laws (especially regarding sacrifices), the building of the tabernacle, the building of the temple, or even Jesus life on earth. He didn't live a life of mediocraty (sp?) he lived a life of perfection. Granted he has grace and mercy on us sinners- but that does not excuse us from not doing things excellently. I believe the parable of the talents was mentioned earlier as well. Don't bury your talent or it will be taken from you! I think God does sometimes "slam the door" on people. You're right, God on a cross is not excellence. It is perfection. While it does confound the "powers and principalities and success markers", it also confounds the lazy. I really don't see how the teachings of Jesus would prevent mega campuses. Jesus fed 5,000 men (not counting women and children) so you might call him a Mega-church pastor... I do agree with you on the Crystal Cathedral preaching a false gospel of prosperity though!

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January 10, 2008  11:47am

I can see both sides of the "argument." The article seems to point out hardly any problems with excellence, but more an issue with embracing change, pointing out issues with "the current generation" and how they "do" church. As a worship pastor in a small church, I don't expect the same level of musicianship in the local church as I do when I'm invited to a conference with skilled musicians. I do, however, expect them to be pursuing their best...pursuing excellence, if you will. This doesn't mean that they'll be cought up in strife and never be good enough. I have some people on my team that have problems with what I consider basic technique. I don't kick them off because they're not excellent. I expect them to take lessons so they can learn to be excellent...not prefect. If someone has been playing, preaching, or teaching for 10, 20, or 30 years, they should be growing, developing and becoming better at what they do. If we stop growing or realizing our need to become more like Christ, to become more skilled at the gift he's given us, etc..., then we're robbing ourselves of God's best. Excellence is not a term of exclusion. Not in our church anyway. However, there no doubt must be some sort of standard to minister before God's people. This will vary by capacity. Of course we are all called to be ministers of the gospel and that concept should be fostered in the church. However, we're not all given a platform to do this in front of a congregation. Ultimately, one should wait on the Lord for direction on this. Everybody has a different opinion about what kind of standards, both in skill and spirituality, we should place on a minister. We could make the whole thing simpler: If the word excellence is offensive, then do away with it. Try, at the same time, not to place judgment on those who feel it is an appropriate term.

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January 10, 2008  5:41am

I understand that we are called to do our very best. I think my struggle with "excellence" in the church is that it seems to be focused on activities within the walls of the church. If every church in your city lived up to the definition of "excellence" would every person in your city be touched by the gospel?

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January 07, 2008  9:14am

"Excellence" usually devolves into "trying to impress." A more biblical concept is to work "heartily, as unto the Lord." Let's hear it for whole-hearted effort.

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January 06, 2008  1:20pm

Core values? We know them as Faith, Hope, Charity and we are told which is the Greatest. Excellence? How would we tell a new convert to seek excellence? Surely in the Excellent One Himself that resides within. The very one who shed His own blood for that very privilege. The very One that Lives and is not dead. Seek ye to make the church excellent and you will find that the Church is excellent because of the Excellent One. Do you seek to be Fishers of men? Then you will be placed on the hook as bait, crucified yet alive. The bride of Christ shines brightly and doesn't need make-up to compliment her husband since she is beauty par excellence, the chosen of God. The harvest is plentiful but there are few workers. Pray that the Lord will send out workers into the field for it is the sick that need a physician. Don't judge a church by it's cover. Poor Jesus must have not been aware of the talented resources available at the time to enhance the Good News He is; or maybe He just didn't have the money. My heart goes out to the many pastors of both small and large congregations who find themselves wrestling with views of "profit" or "fruit." We find ourselves in middle management seated with Christ Jesus at the right hand of the Father. One hand on our neighbors, and the other in our Fathers.

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Casey Taylor

January 05, 2008  2:32pm

My final comments on this. Thank you, Shaheen, for your firsthand insights on using "excellence" on the ground. I have to respectfully question some of your assumptions. I've heard this argument before: "the world is slick and stylish - we should be to." There's no way we'll settle here how far is too far in cultural accommodation. That conversation is and should be ongoing both now and in every generation. Yet we should note that as a culture in the US, we are slowly dying from our obsession with image. Image is important and can be good. Denying the importance of material beauty - or musical beauty - is foolish and ultimately a denial of creation and incarnation. But we're all well aware that some churches sacrifice substance for style. We know it. Evangelism trumps holiness, which seems so odd because we ask, "What are we inviting people to?" I admit: I agonize over how to evangelize the teenagers I work among but the expectations, locally and culturally, are that I grab the attention of non-Christian students with something flashy. Will students respond to the gospel as is? That's not to say we shouldn't have appropriate venues into the society beyond our little ecclesia, nor that we shouldn't do those missional engagements well, but we should constantly ask what we're unintentionally communicating when we make worship, for example, like a rock concert. Casey Taylor

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Tim Hallman

January 04, 2008  9:06pm

Like most good words, "excellence" can be abused. If God is as glorious as he claims to be, and the obedience he requires of us as intense as Jesus makes it out to be, then excellence is a good word. Especially since the normal drift of normal people is away from what is good and beautiful towards what is convenient. People left to themselves tend to diminish the quality of their work, the intensity of their effort. So we use the word "excellence" to remind us of the quality of fruit we seek to produce. But excellence devoid of humility, kindness, patience, love, joy, etc is worthless. Excellence in worship, teaching, serving,etc won't produce the Fruit of the Spirit if Excellence is not done with the Fruit of the Spirit.

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January 04, 2008  5:26pm

I like the distinction provided just above: "slick" vs. "substance." Slick? Kill me now. So often, when people talk about a service that's excellent, what they really mean is one that adheres most closely to the style of Christian kitsch most popular at the moment. But that style - hyper-choreographed more often than not, perfectly transitioned, with colorful nebulas drifting behind song lyrics on plasma screens - sickens me, and I'm willing to bet it sickens a lot of non-Christians too. Not only does it seem unutterably fake, but I can't help wondering just how many meals for the poor could have been bought with the cost of those beautiful powerpoint graphics. Now, substance - give me a guy on the stage with a decent voice and decent guitar skills and the willingness to worship honestly and keep himself out of the spotlight - that I call excellence. If he doens't possess those prerequisites, let him sing in the audience, but don't give him a mike. God loves tone-deaf singing; I don't. I do believe there is a place for true artistic excellence in a Christian service, and I believe we should strive for that. For too long Christianity and the arts have seemed enemies, because art is elitist and the church, not so. The task for Christian artists is to let our search for excellence be tempered by appreciation of those not capable of it. And perhaps when we can't love the singing, we can love the heart of the singers. In the end, though, excellence means too many things to too many people. The only thing I count excellent is that which is also real. So perhaps a better word would be ... ... authenticity?

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