Jesus & "excellence"

jesus and excellenceevery so often i start to feel a little bad about some of the things that i write because i know it can be mis-perceived as a continual negativity toward typical church systems.  i doubt myself and think “maybe it’s not as bad as i think?  maybe i’m exaggerating?” but then i end up in a conversation with a new church planter or an up-and-coming-leader and i am yet again reminded that i’m not crazy and yes, there are some buzz words that are worse than nails on a chalkboard.

“excellence” is one of them.

hey, i’m all for doing a good job, and i’m a perfectionist at heart.  but when i read the gospels and see the ministry of Jesus, “excellence” is not a word that i’d connect to him, at least not in the definitions we seem to use.

to most leaders, “excellence” means top-notch, focused, seamless, entertaining, powerful, inspirational, compelling, squared-away, strategic and organized events, gatherings, structures, and teams.  and excellence sells.  people are strangely drawn to it.  the bar keeps getting higher and the need for “excellence” keeps increasing.  no one means bad by it, but i also think we need to be aware of how much damage “excellence” can cause to the body of Christ. i really do think it does more harm than good overall.  it creates a false sense of what’s really important in the “christian” life.  it makes the less-excellent feel less-worthy & valuable.  it perpetuates power & strength instead of humility & sacrifice.  it feeds egos.  it creates an “us and them.”  it reflects the culture & not the kingdom.

yet, it’s incredible ability to have permeated typical christian culture should not go unnoticed.  the pressure for leaders & churches to “raise their game” and perpetuate excellence can’t be underestimated.  the competition is stiff out there & survival of the fittest requires the strongest swimmers to bring it, and bring it hard to “take it to the next level.”

Jesus did not model “excellence”; in fact, in so many ways he is the antithesis of all of the nutty things we build churches on.  he chose the oddest, least likely, least qualified people to be in his inner circle, he was completely unpredictable, he continually interacted with the people everyone else looked down on, he was very fuzzy & confusing in much of his communication, teaching in parables.  people looked to him to be the triumphant, powerful king, and he ended up hung on a cross instead.

when i think of kingdom values i think of equality, generosity, mercy, sacrifice, justice, freedom.  i do not think of “excellence.”

and in fact, i believe that “excellence” gets in the way of so many of these critical values that Jesus spoke about, modeled, and embodied.  here’s why:

  • “excellence” usually means that the pretty & strong & focused people get to hold all the power. it is more pervasive than any of us think, the subtle ways that we use “the need for excellence” to weed out the second stringers.  this means that those who maybe aren’t quite as pretty, don’t have quite as good of voice or musical skills, have skills or talents aren’t quite as evident or useful to the church so often get overlooked.  in my opinion, so much dignity gets stripped from people in the name of “excellence.”   but Jesus chose the unlovely, the outcast, the ignored, the less-thans, the un-excellent–to speak into their lives, to invite to the table, to be part of the story.  not just to tolerate them.  not just to throw them a bone.  but to restore their dignity and include them in the beautiful tapestry of his ministry.  i think we are so afraid to actually do this in churches because the “excellent” people pay the bills.
  • “excellence” feeds the consumer mentality that christians demand. i do think people like a good show.  they like to be inspired, entertained.  they like things to “work.”  they don’t want to be too inconvenienced or annoyed.  so we create ways to feed that monster.  work out the kinks, smooth the road, make “christianity” more accessible for people. to create a “religion” that works. but Jesus, over and over again rallied against feeding religion as-it-worked and perpetuating faulty systems. he didn’t give religious people what they wanted; instead, he turned his energy to connecting with the ones that the religious system ignored. he fed the hungry, the needy, the desperate.
  • “excellence” focuses on sacrifice, not mercy. when there’s a focus on excellence, all the energy goes into what we’re doing, what we’re accomplishing, what the results are.  when Jesus said he came for the sick, not the healthy, that he desired mercy, not sacrifice, i think he was speaking against our tendency to focus on following the law, the program, the system, the structures, the “healthy.” he called us to and give our energy to mercy & grace instead, to receiving it and passing it on.  they’re not mutually exclusive, but i do believe that “excellence” is about the sacrifice of upholding standards that are self-serving, which distract us from receiving and giving mercy.  it’s a convenient & noble way to stay safe, protected, and “above” the fray of real authentic relationship in the family of God.
  • “excellence” builds churches, not communities. (more on the difference here). i do think that excellence “works.”  it will draw people, get butts in seats, and provide an infrastructure.  but when the bar is so high, when every little detail is nitpicked to be improved upon, when only the best and the brightest get a shot, when whoever-has-the-power-gets-to-ultimately-decide-what’s-excellent, the average person can’t feel fully part.  program supersedes relationship.  the weak or the quiet or the contrarians don’t ever feel part.   in the gospels, Jesus’ call to us was to model his ways of love–not to build “excellent churches.”  and  we all know that real love, sacrificial love, in-the-trenches love, love-that-fans-others-still-unknown-giftedness-into-flame is anything but “excellent.” it is messy, tiring, unmeasurable, and hard.

in my lent reflections i have been reminded, yet again, that my ways, the world’s ways, the contemporary church’s ways, are often so counter-cultural to Jesus ways.   living in the tension between them is definitely easier said than done.

and i admit it, i sometimes miss “excellence” in the sense i am describing it here (and i’m sure some friends at the refuge probably miss it, too).  it’s so much freaking easier to pull off than living in the low places of real people’s experiences, of  actually needing to rely on God instead of our skills, of entering into the messy, wild, unknown, unexcellent-and-filled-with-mercy ways of Jesus.

there you go, rant over.

what do you think about the word “excellence” when it comes to church?

* * * * *

a few links i wanted to pass on:

  • at communitas collective, all the contributors are sharing their faith journies in a series called “getting personal.”  mine went up yesterday & is called getting personal: a journey toward an undivided life.
  • my amazing & talented friend pam has yet another kick-tail post up about missional & practitioners & women at shapevine called missional power
  • i really appreciated this post by julie clawson called women, humility & worth
  • next weekend i am going up to portland to convergence to hang out with a bunch of my cool-lovely-wise-powerful-supportive friends who are leading, stepping out, dreaming in all kinds of different contexts.  i think registration is still open.
  • and lastly, since it appears i’m unintentionally on a women-kick in this list of links, check out this video from recycle your faith called missing half of what God has to say.  oh how i hope that more and more women & men learn how to work together side-by-side, not just husband & wife, but as true brothers & sisters in Christ.  (i also hope that small groups consider buying these videos as excellent discussion starters.  they are so good!)

Kathy Escobar

Kathy Escobar co-pastors at The Refuge, a Christian community and mission center in North Denver and is the author of Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart and several other books.

41 Comments

  • As you know, Kathy, I was a pastor in a Willow Creek style megachurch for nine years. Excellence was one of our core values. It made so much sense to me then. But it became a bit of a battering ram on employees and volunteers instead of an encouragement to strive for the best we can offer. I used it many times myself, regrettably.

    Recently I have been attending a really small church in town. Maybe 30 people. Crappy little building, music from a midi file off a laptop, bulletins with typos (and photocopied), no powerpoint, no stage, no lighting, no greeters…nothing, and I mean NOTHING that made up what I considered critical to being an excellent church in the past. Someone forgot to bring bread for communion, so they had to use rainbow colored “Goldfish” crackers. I wept the entire way through my first visit, because it occurred to me that people aren’t coming to this church because of all the stuff i thought was important enough to fire people over. The came because this was their family, and this was where their family came together to worship Jesus together each week. Nothing else really seems to matter to them.

    They take Jesus very seriously. But they don’t take themselves so seriously that the small stuff ever really bothers them. Good enough is all we really need.

    Reply
  • “Excellence” and “consumer church” go hand in hand. There is no place for a not-excellent person like me in that kind of environment.

    I’ve heard all of the arguments from pastors and worship leaders about the excellence of the musicians and priests when Solomon completed the Temple. I’ve had “study and find yourself approved” used as an excuse to beat people up because they are “just not quite good enough.”

    The “Pursuit of Excellence” leaves far too many bodies laying in the aisles of “beautiful church buildings.”

    Great post as usual, Kathy.

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  • Thanks for your post, Kathy.

    What pastor hasn’t felt the tug of worldliness masquading as excellence for Jesus? Your four bullet points are well-aimed at our justifications.

    Perhaps if the North American church embraced the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit, excellence wouldn’t feel like a requirement for ministry. Jesus drew crowds of people because he healed all of the sick who came to him. He cared for the well-being of people who desired his teaching more than they desired food, and fed them supernaturally. He had mercy for the oppressed and touched the untouchable–making them clean in the process. And in very case he challenged his disciples to do the same.

    Sadly, even “Spirit-filled” churches feel the press of excellence instead of hunger for the manifest presence of God.

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  • I’m still in the process of washing this kind of gunk from my soul. Things that for so many years I thought were synonymous with Christianity have been revealed to me as nothing more than modernism-cloaked-in-Christian-culture. It’s been 9 years now, but I still get a bad taste in my mouth with the whole thing. But it’s a hard habit to break. Even though I know better, i find myself struggling to *do* and *be* better. As a charismatic, I find it ironic that we, who trumpet the loudest about the Holy Spirit and the supernatural, often resort the most to the consumer-esque type of “Church” (probably better referred to as a club). Anyway, all of that rambling to say, thank you. I appreciate your writings so much.

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  • Yes, unfortunately we have been caught up in a ‘management’ focus on excellence – which I do believe has good points. i would hate to do less than my best for God. but the focus on our ministry should not be excellence per se – but rather it should be effectiveness for the king and his kingdom.

    Shalom

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  • I don’t think outsiders are looking for churches with excellence. I think they are looking for relationships with people who try to live out following Jesus in authentic ways. So, when churches focus on excellence, aren’t they really just trying to woo people from other churches who don’t do “it” quite as well as they do? After all, don’t only seasoned church goers really know what an excellent church experience is?

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  • Kathy it amazes me once again I don’t visit for a bit and come in and you are speaking to exactly what I’ve been dealing with in my own heart. Matter of fact once it again I’ve come here tonight, because I’ve been thinking about something and it is this very thing and I didn’t even know this was your current topic.

    Father’s Love blows me away and I’m amazed at how more often than not in my experience most of those I have know to who claim to live for him and in his ways do not reflect his love.

    Just before coming here I happened to visit some web pages of people of I know from the last “church” I belonged to peoples whose lives are driven by “excellence” and I was reminded how those same people though they left that “church” because of blatant corruption are now popular and have always been popular both in church and the world for the same reasons. They are pretty, charismatic, successful, talented…

    Everyone of them ignored me except when they couldn’t, because Father chose to work through me in a way they couldn’t ignore. Matter of fact as one of those who has never been popular I have to admit I take some satisfaction in that Father has often used me in ways that have proven that He has little or no interest in our excellence and has worked through me in ways that they never experienced, but talked about a lot. I am truly proof that God can and will use anything/anyone including the biggest screw-ups maybe thats all he uses.

    I mentioned before that I’m going through somethings and this year I have committed to learning about neuro-biological “disorder” I have had since childhood that has negatively effected me educationally, socially, and vocationally my whole life to this very day. Yet I have seen God work powerfully through me… more consistently in the past than currently. I am still working on that.

    However since I have left traditional/institutional church I am very lonely, but as I said to a friend I was just as lonely in “church” regardless how big or small it was. The only places I wasn’t lonely is those where I was doing the things that Father allowed me to join him in…

    However one of the things that I have been dealing with in my own heart lately is the fact that I keep everyone at arms length, because I expect people especially “Christians” to use me and betray me and ignore me unless they want to use my gifts and talents or to do something they either they don’t want to be bothered with or are too afraid to do themselves. You know what the ones that do that as I look back are the ones who are living by the idea of excellence.

    Sorry if I got to personal. However another thing I’m struggling with is that the only people I know outside of cyberspace that seem to be willing to get to know me and listen to me and get to know the heart beat of Father in me are people I pay or those that want to use me for something.

    Sorry for going on and on…

    Tom Wilson

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  • Thanks, Kathy, for once again drawing us back to what matters most–relationship–with our Father and Lord first and (as Jesus said) second, like it, with our fellow humans.

    What drew my attention was the phrase second stringers, speaking of those whose talents and gifts aren’t on par with others. Before I understood that, however, I thought, “What’s wrong with second stringers?” because I envisioned a symphony, not sports. The other violinists and musicians are needed too, even though their best efforts, their skills and expertise are not as great as the first violinist. Otherwise there is no symphony, just a lone individual playing by him/herself.

    Does God ask us to do our best? Yes; but it’s always a personal best, not in comparison to someone else.

    All of Heaven’s best to you and yours,
    Margret

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  • Jim,
    While it may be true that some churches have sought excellence in order to “woo” other church members away from their less excellent church (now I’m sounding like Bill and Ted), I can say that most churches I was associated with (and certainly the one I worked for) believed we were creating an environment where a seeker would be wowed enough to come back…you know, give them more and better experiences than they expected. This actually worked for a while, but then a LOT of churches starting doing this and then there were turf wars and entire new churches popping up and being filled with people from other cool churches who were looking for the new, even cooler, worship experience.

    Sigh…

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  • Randy, I agree with you. Probably not a churches intention (wooing other churches members), but does seem to be a result of pushing excellence. I just think the experience seekers are really looking for is knowing, being known by others and truly accepted for who they are. That is unless they are just looking for a theater type experience where they can sit and watch with no involvement…but then they aren’t really doing much seeking that way IMO.
    Thanks for the Bill and Ted reference! Now I will forever chuckle when someone mentions church excellence.

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  • I agree with most of what Kathy has said, but would like to offer another perspective (since I value hearing/presenting different perspectives). I think it’s easy to see the harms of excellence and then dismiss anything that is excellent. What if excellence is more of a symptom than a disease. It seems that churches who focus on excellence are often consumeristic and shallow, but what if excellence is a result of the emphasis on consumerism rather than the cause of it? I’d argue that there are churches out there who value authenticity, justice and compassion and are also excellent (one that comes to mind is Crossroads in Cincinnati). I just want to be careful not to dismiss churches/organizations because they are excellent. Have any of you had experiences in settings that were excellent in a way that agreed with your values?

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  • Very challenging as always Kathy…. almost too challenging for my 36 week pregnant self haha. I’m gonna have to start saving the links to these blog entries and come back and read them in a few months when I can think and process better.

    This is a hard one for me since I come from such a ‘school’ of excellence. I think somebody mentioned it above – but I guess I gotta figure out for me how to never give less than my best for God yet at the same time… not focus on *my* effort. not focus on the ‘doing’ because He really doesn’t care so much about the outside skills/talents as much as He does the heart/relationships. so much beauty in simplicity…

    yet how do we keep it simple but still allow people to pursue the talents they do have?

    I’m torn as usual because I see in our current community (yes – we are still plugged in!) that these people have the talents (marketing, business background, graphic design, music, what else…) .. so I think well – they were given that talent so why not use them for God….. but then I also realize that the way we “use” them….. and the talent/excellence simply attracts people. It attracts people to the show of excellence and then they get a sidedish of Jesus…. versus allowing God to work through us in our skills/talents to bring Jesus to people’s hearts and daily lives. so I guess it’s about focus, priority…. the heart. So saying that – I guess I can’t judge where their hearts are…

    but I guess maybe to find out the priority, we should look at what the talents are doing — if they are leading to a close knit, real community full of authentic relationships with God & others and helping people take steps in their faith then I guess the priorities are right…. but if the talents are simply leading more and more people to ‘come and sit’ or even join in on the excellence….without an emphasis on relationship or spiritual growth/strengthening – then the priority is probably the excellence and not Jesus.

    see now I’ve gotten myself all confused though – I hope that made sense. I will try to come back and reflect on this in a few months 🙂 hehe maybe it will make more sense.

    either way – love ya!! and I definitely do hear what you’re saying and now I just gotta figure out how that truly looks like and how to take that ‘argument’ and apply it to situations I see.

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  • p.s. I thought it was funny that I sent this link to my husband wrote, “check this out B – excellent post on excellence”

    I think I over-use the word excellent

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  • P.S. Sorry for 3 in a row…. but as I was reflecting still — a few examples of how focus on excellence truly is so negative. well basically it puts the focus on US instead of the Holy Spirit! but also specifically:

    A) ya know I really think you are right on…. because let’s just admit it… to be “excellent” — we mostly are talking about the sunday morning once a week ‘experience’ since that is where the church’s “storefront” is…. and when it comes down it it —- if we focus on excellence and make it a priority – that automatically means we are taking away time & resources from other ‘areas’ — like relationship during the week! relationship with each other as a ‘team of leaders’. Most importantly — Jesus and all He is doing in our lives/sharing that with each other and others.

    So point A – excellence takes a lot of time & resources… a lot of time & resources that should be spent on cleaning out the INSIDE not just our storefront!

    point B) when excellence is such a priority — we actually begin to believe that THAT is what our leaders are contributing and what is most important. We see people’s contributions to the church being a) good at sound b) good singer c) good teacher for children’s ministry…. rather than seeing THEM. We totally miss out on the relationship because of what they contribute. We think THAT is what they bring to teh table – not their heart…. which leads to ONE person (preaching pastor) sharing his heart/what God is doing — and the rest supporting him.

    and another thought C) by making excellence a priority in our churches — we are teaching people what is important. What we make important – becomes important — whether God wants it that way or not. We may ‘bring’ people in (attract) because of the excellence and then a “good” church will try to convince these people that nothing else matters but Jesus, loving God & others — but we are “training” them opposite. training them to lean on smooth transitions, flawless music settings and shows to “set the spirit” and bulletins without typos along with smiling pretty (always well dressed and even trendy) greeters are the door —-

    we are creating them to be consumers and training them to focus on these little things rather than focus on the big thing – HIM

    that’s all my rant for now – gotta run

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  • Great post! More and more I’m realizing that I want more of Jesus, not church. Broken people are drawn to real, authentic believers, and don’t need any more “excellent” people preaching at them. I’m glad to see others living out the same beliefs!

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  • Randy,
    You said in your response…”I wept the entire way through my first visit, because it occurred to me that people aren’t coming to this church because of all the stuff i thought was important enough to fire people over.”…What a humbling and awesome experience for you to have had. Thank you for you honesty.

    Kathy,
    Maybe excellence like beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I think The Refuge embodies excellence. We don’t have a big fancy church building, our service usually doesn’t start on time and the bathrooms (well I won’t go into that).

    The excellence that I see in The Refuge is the committment to seeking the truth, dedication to community, boundless love and generosity, offering and accepting grace, and respecting everyone’s voice regardless of whether we agree or not. Oh, and the occasional cake we have instead of bread for communion is pretty excellent as well.

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  • There are many churches out there that do can seek excellence in the pursuit nof brining the uncommitted to Jesus. There is a culture out there that exists, especially in the younger generations that expect to see a certain kind of “show” when they come to church. The real point is that they ARE COMING TO CHURCH! For a lot of people they do come the first time because of the “cool” factor. I have been a part of several big production churches, served on technical teams running sound and also directing the “show”. And now I am in a rural area of Colorado where there are no megachurches close by. The closest would be New Life in C.Springs but it is over 2 hours away. And I find Jesus here in church. And I found Jesus at the “cool” churches. And I found Jesus at most every church in between. The only difference is how connected to the church and the body there due to size. It is really really easy to get lost in the shuffle at larger churches. Smaller ones are more intimate and personal. But here is the REAL question. Who is mostly responsible for YOUR relationship with Jesus? Do you seek Him out in everyday life and in every breath? Or are you passive-resistive and need the “buzz” of a large production to get you close to God? Everybody needs something different in a church experience. That is why there are so many churches out there and so many different kinds. Jesus was Jesus to the lepers and the tax collectors as well as new believers and Pharisees. Don’t be too quick to discount ANY church based on the production quality or lack there of. Both types of churches can feed the sheep. And every church in between. The real proof of the pudding is if JESUS is there. And if they follow scripture to the best of their ability. Like a very wise paster of one of the biggest and most affluent church in Boulder once advised me when I was complaining about finding the right church – “If you find the PERFECT church and then join it, it is no longer perfect.” Says it all. If you find Jesus in your church and it is meeting your needs, then who cares what size it is????

    Jess

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  • Craig asked-
    ” What if excellence is more of a symptom than a disease? It seems that churches who focus on excellence are often consumeristic and shallow, but what if excellence is a result of the emphasis on consumerism rather than the cause of it? ”

    A big ol’ provocative question, Craig- and a good one.
    I think you are right, but diving into your question would involve exploring consumerism- what it is, what it means. I think that there are deep issues which underlie consumerism as well (manifestations of “sin” if you will) such that consumerism isn’t even our root problem.
    I think the most glaring result of misplaced excellence (related to this post) is the attitude of exclusion over inclusion. This by itself brings up assumptions of identity, whether we are set apart from others. In what ways are we “set apart”? From whom? Is that good? Does it serve the kingdom of God, or are we just serving our ego?

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  • Wow! I am torn.
    I so believe in pursuing and recognizing excellence–I like good theatre, good music, good art. I am bored when I go to see or listen and it is not good. My husband likes a good ball game. An over abundance of fouls and fumbles is frustrating. And, it has been possitively painful to watch my children try to play ball but not have a coach that teaches them how to do it well. A good book is hard to put down but a poorly written one is difficult to force myself to plow through. And, my grandma’s homemade fudge recipe is worth the extra time and effort; it is so creamy it melts in your mouth.
    Yet I get the message in this post. I want to include and not exclude. I want to value the person not just their gifting. I am enriched, the body is enriched, when we recognize the need, purpose, and value of all our parts. I have personally never done well with the Sunday morning show especially when it lacks a relational component. The Church is wrong if we make people afraid to share or not good enough to share because THEY aren’t adequately polished. Truth be told–none of us are adequately polished but God love us anyway! And THAT should be our primary message in our words, our actions, our attitudes, and our policies.
    Perhaps, rather than throwing the baby out with the bath water, we need to try and figure out when, where, and how the pursuit of excellence is honoring God and when it is just giving ourselves “bragging rights”.

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  • hey all, thanks for your thoughts & perspectives. it’s been a busy week so i’m just now responding, but i want to let you know i am really glad you took time to share out loud what this thought stirred up. to me, the comments are my favorite part of the carnival…

    randy – that is such a beautiful story! years ago when it first came out i read “messy spirituality” by mike yaconelli, remember that one? that is what your story reminded me of, and of course the refuge, too. it is us. the weirdest wildest simplest most beautiful things happen when we’re just together, that’s all. i like what you said about not taking themselves too seriously. i know all the arguments but “we need to take God seriously” my guess is God was really taken seriously a lot of places would look a lot more like what you are experiencing in that little nutty community. i don’t think want to put words or feelings in God’s mouth, but i do think it’s kind of a stretch to think God would be super-excited and proud of a slick program that resulted from a slew of people feeling left out, less-than, and unimportant just to “please” him. who are we really trying to please? come on. i look forward to more stories about your experience & what God keeps stirring in your heart. july’s around the corner….

    bill – you are one of my favorite bloggers & voices in this conversation & i agree with you that i know all the scriptural/practical/whatever you want to attribute it to arguments but it just doesn’t line up for me, sorry. too much carnage, too many left out, too many fed something other than the gospel, in my opinion. yeah, it’s just not for me and i think that the “missional’ conversation needs to consider all of this a they move forward especially since so many attractional-y models are trying to dedicate themselves to mission-on-the-side while spending serious amounts of energy on a mixed message. the world “we’re going out into” (note the quotes) isn’t excellent. the place that the average person lives in their day-to-day isn’t excellent. the majority of the population of this world isn’t “excellent.”

    ray – thanks for stopping by and sharing. i really like your thoughts & the reality of the “tug” that so many leaders feel. i get that. i also agree with you that it’s so hard to just trust God’s spirit at work, period, without the lights, the programs, the inspiring message. that takes an awful lot of trust that doesn’t typically come from church-planting-leadership-books. i think a good question for every church to ask is “if we took it all away, what would we have left?” i think they’d be surprised that they have more left than they might think (amazing people) but it’s all so covered up by the “excellence” that they don’t even know it’s there. hope to hear from you again.

    phyllis – couldn’t do this without you…

    sarah – thanks for sharing. i totally hear you on that need to “do” and “be” better message that is so infused into some of the christian cultures we came from. i was not raised in the church and i had it before i entered it, but i think then it just got cemented even more deeply instead of the other way around. the striving and then always falling short thing and the continued focus on our depravity i think kept creating a perfect little storm inside for many years. i stlll struggle with it, even in my lovely little “unexcellent” context, but that is mainly because of the place that i came from–i sometimes filter it through their eyes and feel the mocking. i often say i wish i had those “men in black” glasses where i could just forget. if i didn’t have that baggage, maybe all the doubts i sometimes have now about what we’re doing at the refuge wouldn’t even be there. but then i came to the conclusion that even if i got zapped, i would be just fine for a while in my own little non-remembering world but then i’d look around at what was around me in terms of “church” and see it anyway and begin to feel the confliction that we were somehow following short because it looks so different from the norm. thanks for sharing. ps: your “separation” post is seriously the best one i have ever read. it captured the essence in a powerful, powerful way. thank you.

    gordon – thanks for stopping by the carnival. how did you hear about it? i think you bring up a good point, though, about excellence in the kingdom. what is it? i have seen some brutally ugly things happen in churches because we will do whatever we have to do “for the sake of the kingdom” – real quotes. i am wondering more what values of generosity, mercy, grace, equality, compassion, justice, love would look like if they were practiced “excellently” in the kingdom instead of the thing that are a little easier to measure?

    jim – i have a feeling it’s both. i definitely agree that what happens when there’s a new “excellent” program in town, that it’s a magnet for all the other on-the-fringe churchgoers who are kind of bored. i always joke that it’s like a magnet that sucks the life out of all the struggling churches, so many of whom are really trying to “do it differently” but are stuck in that weird gap of trying to be excellent but not really being and having a heart for something more but not being willing to let it all go to get there. when it comes to those “outside the typical church system” i think what randy is saying is the prevailing thought & probably kind of true–what happens is the odds go up that people have a safe place to bring their friends, the wow factor is high & good, and it is somehow “outsider-friendly” (at least initially). i still think what you are saying is so true–down deep what so many want are real authentic true relationship with people & to learn the ways of Jesus. the problem is that there aren’t a lot of “containers” to teach it. excited to see you guys this summer and get to have some of these convos in real life…

    tom – you never need to apologize. i always appreciate your heart and thoughts so much. what you are saying is exactly what makes me so sad about the whole “excellence” thing is that many dedicated, beautiful, amazing christ-followers who are on the margins somehow, don’t get included, because they’re not “excellent enough.” that is just plain wrong. the body of Christ is for everyone, everyone. an open table & a place to learn to love and be loved. i don’t think we learn to love and be loved by weeding out who’s better and whose worse, who “gets” to do what and who doesn’t. who is more worthy and who isn’t. and even though no one would say that is what they are doing, that is what tends to happen in systems that are concerned with “excellence” more than love and relationship. anyway, sending love and hope from colorado to you on your beautiful and sometimes lonely journey.

    margret – thanks for your thoughts & yeah, that is a big one to me. in business, it doesn’t bother me at all that the “best one for the job gets the job” but in the body of Christ, whatever is in someone’s heart, their passion, their gift, their talent, their-thing-that-God-is-cultivating-in-them should have a place to come out. it’s church, people, not a business. it’s a learning ground, not a business. it’s a healing place, not a place to inflict more damage that life has already given. it’s a growing & stretching place for everyone, not just the pretty & the most talented.

    craig – thank you for your thoughts & i think you bring up an excellent point, ha ha, about what cause or the symptom. i do think that churches have a sincere desire to “reach” the people in their community. i really think this comes from a pure place in so many ways, a true heart for God and what can happen when people’s lives intersect with Jesus. i think they are serving up what many people want & i never want to dismiss that cool amazing life-changing things happen in people through many of these programmed churches. at the same time, i agree wholeheartedly with ray that amazing things would maybe happen without them, too, we just don’t have very many great models for that level of trust and depth. i never want to dismiss excellence as “bad” because it’s not. i think my issue is that excellence in business is one thing–there’s a bottom line, a profit, a job-to-be-done. in the church, to me, the bottom line should be freedom & healing & empowerment for all. i don’t think gifts should be elevated but that everyone should have a space to use theirs, even if it’s not as excellent as the next person. it should be a counter-cultural model in my opinion, not one consistent a “survival of the fittest”mentality that was so counter to the ways of Jesus, in my opinion. i dig your question & would love to hear from others: “Have any of you had experiences in settings that were excellent in a way that agreed with your values?” for me, i’d say it depends on what “excellence” is. that is a big piece of what i am saying. excellence in love & generosity & equality–yes, no question. my friends in portland at the bridge & home-pdx exhibit that in amazing ways. but they are definitely “unexcellent” in all of the ways i have described earlier. i can think of my friends company who somehow pull off incredible excellence while maintaining so many amazing values i agree with (intuit) and use them as a great example all the time of what is possible; they are a business not a church. i haven’t looked at the site of your friends church in cincinatti & i do have hope that it is possible so hearing stories about that always makes me happy. but my litmus test for “church” (not business or nonprofit organizations) is “does everyone and i do mean everyone have a chance to participate in the way that they might want to?” or is that limited by people who feel called by God to make sure that a standard of “excellence” is maintained?

    randi – thanks for always letting it rip and processing out loud. it’s great and i love that you are wrestling with all of this in the context that you are living in now. you said what i am getting at–excellence isn’t bad per se. but the reality is that we use it as a tool to build & conquer and it becomes the more important thing. learning how to do healthy loving relationship in and outside of our circles is much harder than learning how to pull together a band, a program, a good message, and a good kids program. none of those things are bad, but i do think they are a distraction to the other thing and if we keep perpetuating them, we’ll never get to the stuff underneath.

    michelle – thanks for taking time to comment. welcome. yeah, that’s what i want. more Jesus. more real. period.

    mimosa – oh i would never survive in finland, i am a whiney baby when it’s in the 30’s here. i am so glad you’re reading from afar. love & hope to you!

    julie – thank you for your thoughts & i am so with you. i love our messy little excellent church, ha ha. love & grace & compassion, etc. are the things i want to try to be excellent at, but imagine if we ruled out people on their “inability to do relationship well” or “they weren’t improving in love fast enough” or “they’re still too disconnected from people” or “they weren’t generous enough when they could have been.” of course, we would never do that, but that’s what the other model perpetuates. let’s face it, we have a lot of people who are “unexcellent” in terms of healthy relationship (just like every other group of people, it’s just more open and honest about it here). at the same time, we are all learning the excellent ways of Jesus in love and it is muddy & messy & unmeasurable & doesn’t look very neat and tidy most of the time; yet, there’s this incredibly beautiful things going on underneath that are amazingly excellent. i love you my friend and sister. you teach me more than you know.

    jess – thanks for your thoughts. how did you find the carnival? i have no doubt jesus is alive and well in all kinds of churches big and small and everything in between. that’s not what i’m talking about here at all. of course, God is bigger than our limited little structures. i am talking about a model of churches that is perpetuated that i personally think is inconsistent with the upside down ways of Jesus. i know many people know and love them; there are also many who don’t but unfortunately don’t have alot of other great options because the model is so pervasive.

    sage – yeah, for me, that’s the biggie-inclusion vs. exclusion. i remember when we planted the refuge several pastor friends who live in a different world than me encouraged us to “get some studs around us” and to “build a power team”. we clearly knew what that would mean for you & so many others in our community who have an amazing beautiful powerful voice but would never get a chance to use it in that kind of a system. yikes, it creeps me out just thinking of those conversations! the question i have is “why? why do we need to do that?” the only reason i can think of is to “get people that pay us money and make us feel important” and that’s not a good enough reason. i remember them saying “but the refuge is a model that needs to get out there, more people need to have access to it and you need to find a way to make it more accessible, give them a better door to it.” but i firmly believe that once that door is created, then what’s inside radically changes.

    minnow – yeah, i am with you. i am all for excellence in certain areas of life. if i pay good money, i want something from it. and i don’t want to dismiss “doing a good job” as very important. the problem is whose measure are we using? what if for one, just even attempting to try is a small miracle even though they kind of stink at it? that’s the part that an “excellent” model will tend to never open itself up to because it will compromise the model. or when people have giftedness that doesn’t serve the ministry they don’t get to do anything. do you know how many amazing people i know that hand out programs to feel a part of something? that makes me sad. i have a friend who always says “what if there is no baby?” hmmmm.

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  • Loved it all, but especially “the ‘excellent’ people pay the bills.” I see this in the church we currently attend–and may not be attending for much longer (long story). I think it wears on the pastor and staff, forcing them into a position where they feel like they have to cater to a certain clientele whether they really want to or not. They get stuck in a rut and The Nice Welcome Table, or signage, or whatever becomes a “necessary evil” to “building the church”. When I questioned our pastor about some of these things, his reply was, “That’s Church Building 101.” Sigh. The people in our church all have good hearts and I’m sure they have the best of intentions, but I think the Strive For Excellence as you have presented it here really rubs a lot of outsiders the wrong way and excludes those it is intended to reach.

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  • After reading your responses Kathy, I get a better idea of what I think you are driving at here. This is my take on it-
    There is nothing wrong with doing things well, and that should be encouraged. Excellence is very appropriate in business, and other organizations. What I hear you saying is that the nature of Church is not a business, and not even as an organization, but the heart of the church is something else. Perhaps it is in the way of church as verb instead of church as noun. Church is as church does, relationally at least.
    Should church-as-action bother us in the “saved by grace thru faith (and not thru works) crowd? Not really, unless you believe that we are saved by grace thru church. Church does not equal faith. Church does not bring salvation- only from God the father does that come.
    The Church is the bride of Christ- we are given over to relationship, the way that Christ revealed. Happy are we who know our need of God. It is not that excellence is wrong, but that it has no central place in the fruit of the spirit that is the church. If we bring excellence with us as we go, great, but that is not what God requires. Sometimes that can get in the way of the humble heart that God does require.
    Do we trust God to be with us? Do we trust that he will help us be together as he desires? Faith is a solitary walk in one way, but the kingdom comes alive when we can bring our walk alongside of another, and share in the Joy of the Lord. That is what Church is all about for me.
    .
    I come to the garden alone,
    while the dew is still on the roses.
    And the voice I hear, falling on my ear,
    the Son of God discloses.
    .
    And He walks with me,
    and He talks with me,
    and He tells me I am His own;
    and the joy we share as we tarry there,
    none other has ever known.
    .
    He speaks and the sound of His voice,
    is so sweet the birds hush their singing,
    and the melody that He gave to me
    within my heart is ringing.
    .
    And He walks with me,
    and He talks with me,
    and He tells me I am His own;
    and the joy we share as we tarry there,
    none other has ever known.

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  • Freedom to fail – thankyou Jesus … I’m done with excellence … I give up ….. the Joneses win!!! or have they?

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  • I too understand better after reading your response to our comments. I agree there is a place for striving toward excellence and having excellence a goal which is NOT the Body. My questions inside the body are these: How then do we continue to love on the parts of us that are not too good with this relationship thing and at the same time encourage those parts of us to do the relationship thing better? Or, should we not do that? Is there a way to recognize the seedling gifts and interests in one another and encourage individuals to grow in those areas so we all can celebrate and enjoy the growth without putting the strive toward excellence pressure on one another? I agree with not excluding. And, I certainly have learned more from many of the students “I have taught” than from most of the professors who have taught me, so I know personally what a gift small voices are. I just don’t understand leaving people in their pain while I see joining them in their pain as a first encounter.
    Maybe I’m just stretching the topic beyond its intended meaning.

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  • james – thanks for taking time to comment, welcome. sigh, always makes me so sad when i hear things like this because it is such good people with great hearts and yet it keeps perpetuating such a mixed message. peace & hope to you as you discern where you fit into it all, really glad you stopped by and shared.

    sage – ah, always such beauty. thanks, sage.

    mark – yep, lost to them a long time ago, ha ha.

    minnow – thank you for your questions and always feel the freedom to expand the thinking far beyond what i am sharing because it’s all relevant. you asked about the tension between letting people be who they are and also challenging to continue to grow, at least that’s how i interpreted it..i hope that any faith community, no matter what shape or size or type or ? always is a place where all parts of the body have freedom and challenge to keep “growing” whatever that looks like, learning how to do relationship with God, others, ourselves in new ways that stir and challenge and continue to transform. my big beef really comes down to the difference between a professional exclusive model & a community-based inclusive model. there are so many variations of that, no doubt, but i get really sad at how many people tend to be “left out” in the one place they should be most included.

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  • I thought “excellence” was a bit passé now — haven’t they come up with a new abstraction?

    Back when I was young the fashionable buzzword was “relevance”. The church must be relevant, people would say. And I always wanted ask “relevant to what?”

    And the same with “excellence”. If my job is a torturer in the political police, is it so important that I should be “excellent” at it?

    I’m sure con men and burglars strive for “excellence” in their chosen livelihood too.

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    • “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect”. That scripture always confused the lights out of me. Until I found out that the meaning translated means something akin to ‘wholeness’, rather than our modernist understanding of perfectionism. Wholeness, integrity – that’s something I can strive towards. But not clinical, shiny-on-the-outside perfectionism. Maybe we can reclaim words like excellence too?

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  • So beautiful, Kathy. I am in the midst of writing report cards, the time of year when I feel like I’ve sold my soul, and have to judge my beautiful, dear students. Instead of the rest of year, when I see my dear ones as creations of the Father who loves them to bits, and I live to watch and help them develop. I love that: child development. It reminds me of my faith. I think God is totally into child development. 🙂 Every year, I get these kids who don’t know anything about the solar system, or Bernoulli’s principle, or what an onomatopoeia is, and do I look at them as losers? Frustrated by their lack of excellence? No, it’s a kick to see them grow and learn and develop as the year progresses. But then, three times a year, I have to write the harsh grade one their report card, and the holistic approach is chucked for a cut-and-dried-comparison-to-the-curriculum where only a few kids get A’s (even though almost ALL of them want A’s). i tell my students you’re a superstar! You’re beautiful! You’re such a good friend to others! Does this make it’s way onto report cards? No room for that self-image b.s. that teachers are in to. 🙂 That whole obsession with excellence is in so much of the culture, in sports, music, entertainment, education (we just climbed out of 17 days of watching the Olympics 24/7). It’s every where, but it’s not real. You’re number one, the rest of us are losers. I don’t buy it, and I’m glad you don’t. I LOVE your counter culture approach, Kathy!
    I’ve been dealing with another bout of perfectionism this week (wonder what brought THAT on? 😀 ) and when I feel shame for STILL dealing with the same issue at a deeper level, I hear God saying, I’m not a perfectionist. You’re doing better than you were last year! Are you into development or perfection? 😀
    Thank you for writing!!

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  • steve – that made me laugh. i think it is actually passe in some circles but it’s still alive & well..the new one is “missional”, which makes me sad because it’s such an important word, far more important than those other 2 you mentioned & it’s just getting that annoying buzzword feeling where it’s real meaning is lost….always good to hear from you from across the miles. i miss the synchroblog….

    jan – thanks for sharing a piece of where this all intersects with you. love the analogy. so good…and oh boy do i know that perfectionist thing. trying to learn kindness & gentleness and quit taking myself so seriously. applying it to “church” is a pretty good idea, too, eh? peace & hope to you..glad you are here.

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  • i’m working on my MA in Philosophy and Religion at CIIS. Post-Modernism has take the rational/material perspective to its logical conclusion – perfection is unobtainable. the power of Lucifer – the light bearer – is that of the rational/material world – to deconstruct everything into nothingness. Wisdom with out Love.
    truth – The Spirit – is not rational. it is indivisible. it flows. it just is. the rational/material approach can only compare and contrast two things. it is relative. it can not provide a beginning point – truth – or draw a final conclusion – meaning.
    the problem with ‘the church’ is we have bought into a systematic approach to our Christian life allowing abstract method and doctrine to replace faith and compassion instead of being an expression of them. the secular world is already abandoning it. it only offers existential emptiness. how long before we let it go? who cares? the Church is made up of individuals. we can not save it. we are not called to. we are called to be present in communion with our God. we ARE the Church. it IS and expression of US. i am not excellent, but i am loved.

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  • Caleb-
    Yup. Nicely said.
    I guess the thing that bugs me is how we have not lost the unstated faith in reason which we carry, or our unexamnined faith in the dialectical structure of greek thought which seeks to make everything into a dilemma. Christianity is in large part an Eastern faith, and instead of getting good at what that means (learning to live with paradox), we have instead insisted upon digging even deeper into the last tatters of rationalism. Postmodernism is a kind of intellectual hole (IMO). We should remember the first rule of holes- When you find you are in one, stop digging.

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  • caleb – thanks for taking time to comment. i remember when i was in some of the spiritual formation groups interacting with philosophy of religion students and thinking what a terrible fit that program would be for me because my little brain just couldn’t get around some of those big thoughts, ha ha. i so appreciated the conversation, though, and learned a lot in those experiences. i agree with you, buying into a systematic approach to the christian life has gotten us into an awful lot of unnnecessary trouble. it was so interesting, i was with a lovely friend who has been all over the place on her faith journey and really met Jesus in a powerful way in these past years. she could never, ever, defend so many of the things that we christians would think she would need to in order to be a “valid christian” yet she has a pure and beautiful faith in him that is extremely powerful to see. it always reminds me of the story of the blind man Jesus healed when asked to defend what happened to him: “i don’t know, all i know is i was blind and now i see” we have lost that in so many ways as part of the fabric of our faith…i didn’t mean to diverge from your thoughts but that came to mind as i read i thought about the systematic approach to church. thanks for sharing. how did you hear about the carnival:

    sage – you and caleb could have some fun conversations 🙂

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  • Ooh, touche. This is quite a challenge for me to grasp as a musician and a worship leader, but I definitely can’t fault your reasoning. I’ll have to meditate on it for a while (and probably come up with a post of my own eventually!).

    Offhandedly, I’d say that it’s OK to want to do your best, but wrong to want to make someone else do your best. The widow’s best gift was only two pennies, but Jesus said she gave a bigger gift than the rich people did…. (yes, I feel a post coming on…)

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    • hey eric, thanks for taking time to share. yeah, it is tricky, that is for sure. i think that’s what it is for me–when the bar is so high, then those who want to give two pennies aren’t welcomed, but their two pennies are their very best. i get that in the business world, etc. it’s okay to want the shiny talent but in the kingdom of God we should be looking beyond that and be willing to sacrifice excellence for the sake of the “widow.” lmk if you write a post about this!

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  • This scripture always confused the lights out of me: “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect”. Until I found out that the true meaning translates to something akin to ‘wholeness’. Wholeness, integrity – I can strive towards, but not clinical, condemning, shiny-on-the-outside perfectionism. Maybe we can reclaim the meaning of ‘excellent’? Another word that rubs me wrong sometimes is ‘refine’…especially when it promotes reductionist thinking i.e. when it only connotes ‘less’.

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