June 16, 2009 by

Excellence, the Widow’s Mite, and the First Church of the Mediocre


Categories: creativity, food for thought

My previous post, which was initially inspired by some interaction on Communitas Collective, has deepened my stream of thought on some things. So I’m going to launch out and paddle my rowboat (read: blog) into the current, and let it ride, to see where this stream goes.

(Translation for anyone who might be totally lost by my elaborate and over-dramatic use of metaphor above: I want to jump off the previous discussion about performance, showiness and authenticity, and do a few posts exploring the idea of creativity in the church.)
The first stop along this stream comes courtesy of Erin, whose comment on the last post mentioned a worship-leading couple who left their church because of the excessive “demands for excellence.” Toss the anchor, mateys (oh, wait, this is just a rowboat)…but anyway, let’s stop here and talk about excellence for a bit. Specifically, the demand for excellence in the church, and its implications.
I’ve talked about the concept of excellence quite a bit in sharing with different worship teams and church musicians over the years, because it’s a concept I think is largely misunderstood. In recent years, in the attempts of many institutional churches to be more relevant, respected, or culturally accepted, a lot of emphasis has been placed on the need for “excellence.” Only the most skilled musicians are allowed to play on the team; only the most dynamic speakers get to talk into a microphone; often every element of the service is planned down to the minute, like a television show, so the meeting is executed flawlessly; and of course, everyone needs to be happy. Spit-and-polish. (I know a guy who runs the PowerPoint program at his church who is required to attend the worship team rehearsal, to make sure he synchronizes the song lyric projections as they run through the worship set.) And in the interest of disclosure–for many years I was right in the middle of this way of thinking.
This show-must-go-on mentality has (understandably) provoked a negative reaction from those whose hunger is driving them toward more authentic expressions of faith. These people realize that so much of what is projected from church platforms is neither real nor accessible, and that the true church (i.e., believers) should be participants in the gatherings, not spectators watching a bigger-than-life production. And I really get this–especially as in recent years God has reshaped my view of “church”, and moved me into a more relaxed, organic expression. I really like open participation in church gatherings, and I believe it most parallels what the early church looked like. It is good and right for people to be welcomed and encouraged to engage one another, and their Lord, regardless of how “good” they are at doing a certain thing. And although, as I mentioned in the last post, anything we do is technically a “performance”–that doesn’t mean church itself should be a performance, or that we are performing for one another. In other words…church is community. Church is not a show.
I get all that. Buuuuuttt….
…as some regular readers might have already figured out, I’m one of those people who wants to be careful to toss only the bathwater, and keep the babies. And I think we take it too far when we start downplaying excellence, acting like it’s a negative thing. I know why we do that–we want to draw in the people who are self-conscious and intimidated by all the church shows they’ve seen. But I think when we extend that to mean excellence is not something to be desired or expected, that swings the pendulum too far the other direction, and a baby gets lost. And here’s why…
“Excellence” does not mean “perfection.”
The definition I use for “excellence” is doing the best you can with whatever you have. It has nothing to do with skill level. Excellence doesn’t mean being the best; it means giving your best. Excellence doesn’t compare one person’s performance to another; excellence compares our own performance with our own potential.
And unless I’m reading this Book totally wrong…it seems to me the Bible is replete with admonitions to give God our very best at all times. A couple of times it is worded this way: “Whatever you do, do it with all your heart.” That is excellence. And that should never be discarded, either in a public gathering, or in our personal life.
How does this look in real life? As an example…if a man who is prone to stuttering stands up and reads a prayer in a church gathering, and mumbles and stutters through the whole thing with great difficulty, but does so with all his heart because He loves Jesus…I believe that is excellence in the eyes of God. (In fact, I think He would find that absolutely beautiful.) But let’s say a professionally trained musician gets up and plays a worship chorus, and does it half-asleep with no energy or sense of meaning, forgets the words because he just didn’t care too much about learning them, and is obviously flying by the seat of his pants and bored with the whole thing. Even if that guy’s half-hearted performance was more skillful than anyone else in the room could have done, that is NOT excellence. That is mediocrity, because he was capable of much more, but he brought to God that which cost him nothing.
For that matter, when it comes to talents and abilities, raw talent alone does not equal excellence. Excellence is what compels a person to take that raw talent and work and shape it to be all it can be. I have personally known musical geniuses at the level of Mozart or Bach who doomed themselves to mediocrity simply because they didn’t regard their own gifts enough to cultivate them.
So when the worship-leading couple Erin mentioned left the church because of the “demands for excellence”–and realizing I don’t know them and can’t say for sure–I would venture a guess that what they were really leaving behind was the church’s demand for perfection.
Because excellence in God’s eyes really isn’t about polished performances. Just like authenticity–excellence is more a matter of the heart. I think specifically of Daniel, whom the Bible says possessed an “excellent spirit.” I believe it’s that kind of excellence that God honors and memorializes. It isn’t the excellence of the rich man who gives an offering equivalent to a year’s pay for most of us; it’s the excellence of the widow’s mite.
So in our continuing quest for authenticity in our faith, I think it’s important to remember this. It is right to question the modern church’s current fixation on polished productions and professionalism. It is not right to allow this to become an abdication of excellence or an invitation to mediocrity. We aren’t called to be the First Church of the Best Show In Town; but neither are we called to be the First Church of the Mediocre of Heart.
It’s important for us to remember what excellence really is, and where it resides. May we continue to challenge ourselves, and one another, to be free–but not driven–to offer God “widow’s mite” excellence, the very best of ourselves at all times. No matter what form our gatherings may take, now or in the future–may we always pursue the excellence of spirit.

Musician. Composer. Recovering perfectionist. Minister-in-transition. Lover of puns. Hijacker of rock song references. Questioner of the status quo. I'm not really a rebel. Just a sincere Christ-follower with a thirst for significance that gets me into trouble. My quest has taken me over the fence of institutional Christianity. Here are some of my random thoughts along the way. Read along, join in the conversation. Just be nice.

6 Responses to Excellence, the Widow’s Mite, and the First Church of the Mediocre

  1. Erin

    I suppose from my perspective, I think it has to be authentic more than excellent. If it's polished just for the sake of being flawless as a production, then it's not authentic anymore. But if it's polished because people are using their talents, but their motivation is authenticity, then fabulous. Likewise, if it's mediocre because maybe the talent isn't there but the heart is, then that's fabulous too.

    Clear as mud? 🙂

  2. Gary Delaney


    I agree!! Worship is not about professionalism. It is a matter of the heart, to worship God from the heart in Spirit and in Truth. And do it with the best that we can offer.


  3. Jeff McQ

    Randi Jo,
    Good to hear from you. Thanks!

    Again, I think it's how you define excellence and mediocrity, because for me, both are more about the heart and potential of the individual than holding it up to someone else's performance. One person's excellence can be another's mediocrity, because it's relative to one's ability and potential. If we see excellence as flawlessness or perfection, that is what creates the exclusive clubs. (The only ones who are allowed to do anything are ones who can do it the best.) True excellence, imho, doesn't make such comparisons at all–it simply challenges each one to do their best, whatever it happens to be. In this way, I think we can be inclusive of people without judgment, and encourage authenticity without compromising excellence as a virtue.

    However, with regard to what you said about authenticity being more important than flawless performance–I agree 1000 percent. If you are talking priorities, authenticity is far more important than polish. From a certain point of view in fact…it is the authenticity that *makes* it excellent. To me, *nothing* is mediocre if done from the heart. (Clear as mud?) 😀

    BTW, I'll be explaining why I split hairs on these definitions in a future post, b/c it really is important.

    As I alluded to with Erin, I think it is the heart worship that makes it excellent in the eyes of God…not the professionality of it. You betchee. 🙂

  4. Jen

    Having been a part of a couple that did this very thing, I can tell you that the reason we left was the expectation that we would do "what we were told" not necessarily "what we were called to". The other reason we left was what their concept of worship was. In a nutshell, I believe that worship is your whole life focused towards pleasing God. For the church we left, it was only the stage music. Or, at least it seemed that way. I am happy to say that we have found a church where we feel like we will be able to contribute our gifts and talents without fear of censure.

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