January 2, 2008
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.