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The Trouble with Excellence

In an ever-growing list of words that annoy the living daylights out of me, excellence has clawed its way to the top. It's everywhere, and I'm sick of it.

Funny, because I used to love this word—when written in perfect grade-school-teacher cursive atop a worksheet or when my piano teacher (rarely) scrawled it on top of a page of a songbook. It meant something then because it didn't always happen—because it recognized something rare and wonderful: achieving excellence.

And yet now in leadership circles this word has become synonymous with how we are to always be, how everything should look or feel or be perceived. While I'm sick of hearing about it in secular leadership circles, I'm actually troubled by how often I'm seeing it pop up among church-folk.

More and more I hear how churches strive to do everything with excellence or how Christian organizations seek excellence in all their products or services. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying I think we should go out of our way to offer shoddy products or services or that churches should always eek out the bare minimum.

And I am familiar with the verses like Colossians 3:23 that say, "Work willingly at whatever you do, as though you were working for the Lord rather than for people." I get why people use this to justify excellence. But I think we've got it backward. Because our view of excellence is different from God's—many times, at least.

I'm troubled by excellence in churches because—at least in my middle-America leafy suburb—excellence tends to mean we spend a lot of money on it. That we get only the best and the brightest to work on something. Or that we don't do something until it can be done excellently.

And that's the biggest problem. We live in a world—even in smack dab in leafy suburbs—of need. Of people who need help. Now. Who can't wait for things to be done excellently; they just need things done.

Take my friend: She founded a huge social service agency in Chicago, and she started the whole thing by serving spaghetti out of a big pot from the side door of her church. I've never had her spaghetti. It might not even be good. The big pot was probably pretty plain. That side door entrance nothing special, I bet.

But my friend saw a need in her community—hungry people!—and she met it. She fed them. Not with excellence, as we understand it. But she certainly did it as if she was working for the Lord, rather than people.

I think, in fact, that this is how Jesus operated. I don't picture him sitting around with his disciples talking about how they had to do everything excellently (and they didn't tell us he did). It seems to me, he just wanted them to do something. While of course he was perfect so therefore did do everything "excellently," I suppose, his contemporaries mostly found him shocking. His sort of excellence wouldn't have been appreciated.

Jesus' allowing Mary to sit and listen instead of rush and cook? Not excellence in rabbi-ness. Jesus' allowing a woman of ill-repute to wash his feet with perfume at a dinner party? Not excellence in etiquette. Jesus' stopping for a chat and a drink with the Samaritan woman at the well? Not excellence in just about every possible way for a good Jewish boy.

And yet, in each of these things, lives were changed and God was glorified.

It's the same thing we as church leaders should be after: changed lives and a glorified God.

I'm not meaning to say that we shouldn't give things our all, that we shouldn't seek out the right people with the right gifts for projects or programs, or that we shouldn't make quality a prerogative.

But I worry about where a constant quest for excellence takes us. It seems we become more driven to work as though we were working for people, than working for God. Especially when work stalls or fails to happen because we can't do something excellently.

Am I wrong? What do you think?

June16, 2010 at 6:52 AM

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