June 20, 2009 by

I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means (or, Why I Split Hairs)


Categories: creativity, food for thought

So I’ve spent a couple of posts now rambling on about things like creativity, performance, and excellence. Don’t know if you are bored with it yet, but it’s entertaining me plenty. 🙂 So…

I have to admit, as a creative type, musician-type person, I feel a little bit like a crybaby when I start defending things like performance and excellence in the setting of church. Like, “Hey, don’t mess with my stuff!” But really, honestly, although some might think I’m splitting hairs over what words like these mean, there’s a legitimate reason why I do it. You see, miscommunication mainly happens not over what people say, but over what people mean by what they say. And when certain words mean different things to different people, we can send the wrong message without even realizing it.

I know that a lot of the people I contact on this blog are in different places of re-thinking church as usual, and come from a variety of backgrounds and a diversity of beliefs. But at heart, it seems like most of us have two basic shared desires in common:
  1. We want our expression of faith to be authentic (real, approachable, believable); and
  2. We want our expression of faith to be inclusive (reflecting Christ’s love to all people without condition and without regard to the state of their soul).
These two priorities fly in the face of most of what we see in the institutional church, especially in the evangelical/charismatic branches of it. Too often, our super-polished services and cliche-filled rhetoric seem anything but authentic; and our celebrity-status platform personas (not to mention our unspoken rules of protocol) seem anything but inclusive. So I completely understand and agree that we must take tangible steps to distance ourselves from that scene. We want to welcome people into active participation in our gatherings (whatever form that takes), and we want to let people know it’s okay if their contribution is unpolished or messy, because it’s okay that we are messy Christians. If we want to be authentic and inclusive, it’s absolutely necessary to free people from the unfair expectations of polished professionalism and super-Christian spirituality.

But here’s the problem. Because we are a task-oriented, performance-oriented culture that wrongly measures one’s value by one’s ability–we tend to use words like “performance” and “excellence” as comparison words that measure how “good” a person is at doing something. “Performance” and “peformer” become words that negatively represent the phony, slick, polished churchy image; and the word “excellence” comes to mean perfect and flawless (which is unattainable to nearly all mankind, and therefore exclusive).

In other words–performance becomes the antithesis of authentic, and excellence becomes the antithesis of inclusive. Meanings unintended for either word.

In the words of the great Inigo Montoya of The Princess Bride: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” 🙂

Now, to clarify, I understand why people use these words this way–they are viewed as comparison words, words that measure people by their abilities, words that make us feel like we mustn’t goof up…words that (when misunderstood) intimidate the heck out of the very people we’re trying to include. I also understand that when people say we should do away with “performance” in the church and not demand “excellence” of people, what they generally mean is that we need to be authentic and inclusive! And…I agree with what they mean! In that sense…we’re basically saying the same thing.

So what’s the big deal? Why split hairs over this?

Because one of our goals is to be inclusive…and that includes people in the creative community. And that includes people who want to be creative as more than a hobby…who want to excel at their art. When words like performance and excellence come to mean things that should be avoided–even in the name of being inclusive of everyone without regard to skills or staus–we run the risk of alienating some people while trying to include others.

Let me make it just a little more personal. When performance and excellence become negatives…I feel like the one excluded. I become the one marginalized. I, and many other creative people like me who constantly seek excellence in the things we perform. These things are part of who we are, part of our underlying passion. When these words come to mean something else, something comparative, something negative…it sends the unintended message that we might have to deny part of ourselves–to become, well…inauthentic, in order to be included. I hope that makes sense.

By affirming and defending the concepts of performance and excellence, I’m not suggesting we keep church as usual. (What has the last year and a half of writing this blog been about again?) I’m not suggesting that ministry and music should continue to be the exclusive territory of the best performers. I don’t believe that at all. If it seems that way to you, it is because you are still thinking of these words as comparison words. And I do not think they mean what you think they mean.

So what do these words mean? Or at least, what do I think they mean? 🙂

  • To perform means “to excecute or do something.” That’s basically it. (In this, I am right there with dictionary.com in my definition. We all perform.)
  • Excellence means “virtue or pre-eminince; to excel.” (In this, the dictionary actually does imply comparison; but from a Biblical standpoint, it speaks of that virtue of spirit that brings forth the best of itself–like Daniel’s “excellent spirit.”)
Taken together–to perform something with excellence simply means to do your best, and do it with all your heart. No comparisons with others; only yourself. How does this exclude anyone? Shouldn’t we all be this way?

And when we approach our tasks this way…is this not just about as authentic as we could be?

So if my hair-splitting troubles you, I hope you’ll extend me some grace. And regardless of what these words actually mean, or should mean…I understand that so many people perceive them as intimidating. So if you want to shy away from using words like these to keep from intimidating people, I understand. But at the very least, please don’t use “performance” and “excellence” as words with negative meanings. For at heart, these words really aren’t in opposition to an authentic faith, or an inclusive one.

And neither are the creative people who hold these values so dear.

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.

7 Responses to I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means (or, Why I Split Hairs)

  1. Steve Oberg

    Jeff – I haven't been here an awhile – feel a bit like a party crasher – but I just have to say a hearty "Amen, amen and amen!" (And I am sure that word means what I think it means…) As a fellow musician/singer/song-writer type guy myself, this post really struck a nerve.
    Why is it that in Church we allow and settle for mediocrity – we let people sing and play who have no business singing and playing – it ain't their gift – and we're not doing anyone any favors by pretending to enjoy it.
    This is in contrast to the "spit & polish" image that so many wish to attain- a very valid point. Putting it a little more plainly, it doesn't have to be 'bad' in order for it to be "authentic – or from the heart." The Psalmist exhort the musicians to "play skillfully" – it's in the Word!
    Excellence at one's calling and craft does not equate phoniness (sp?) or exclusivity, as though one can attain perfection and somehow earn favor in God's eyes with a great performance. Spot on! Thanks for being here!

  2. J. R. Miller

    Good post. I like how you summarized this contrast of how we see these words… "In other words–performance becomes the antithesis of authentic, and excellence becomes the antithesis of inclusive. Meanings unintended for either word."

    Now the challenge is to not just value excellence and performance in the things you love, but in the things other creative types love too. In the process I hope folks start to treat the "institutional" church less like an "enemy" and more like a part of the family that is working out their faith with the same kind of fear and trembling.

  3. Amy

    I have really been enjoying this "series" of blogs you have posted on excellence! I fully agree and completely understand where you are coming from.

    Truly, I believe that some have thrown the baby out with the bathwater, so-to-speak, with regards to doing our best.

    I do believe Papa delights when we do the things He places on our hearts "to our best" with the God-given skills, gifts and education. To our best, in that we put our heart, passion, and produce whatever it is with quality and fruitfulness. In doing so, we actually are setting a message that we care…we care to create, serve, make and produce beauty in whatever creation/production/activity/relationship.

    ~Amy 🙂

  4. Jeff McQ

    Steve, good to hear from you again. And thanks for the "amens". I'd like to respond in particular, though, to one sentence:

    "Why is it that in Church we allow and settle for mediocrity – we let people sing and play who have no business singing and playing – it ain't their gift – and we're not doing anyone any favors by pretending to enjoy it."

    There was a time when I would have wholeheartedly agreed with that statement. But I have to say my attitude has been changed considerably on this particular point, because I'm making the shift from seeing church as an event to church as a community. In an event people are observing, sure, you put your best foot forward. But in a community, especially a community centered on worshiping Jesus, we encourage and celebrate offerings of worship regardless of skill level. To me, this is not settling for mediocrity, or even pretending to like something…because I am not the audience. As I said in a comment to Erin in the previous post about this…nothing done from the heart is mediocre. Not that I don't like for things to be done well–I certainly do. And certainly we should steer people toward their gifts. 🙂 But when someone does something in a gathering that is from the heart, I don't worry anymore about how "good" it is. That, to me, is a safe place for people to explore, and even to stumble over themselves, without judgment. Just my thoughts here.

    My point in splitting hairs over the words "performance" and "excellence" was simply out of concern that in our trends toward a more open participation, we don't want to inadvertently alienate those who are more skilled, or start assuming that skillful performances are inauthentic or exclusive. That's why I emphasized that excellence and mediocrity are ultimately matters of the heart, not necessarily having to do with skill or talent.

    Good to hear from you, too. 🙂 On your point about not seeing the "institutional" church as an "enemy", but as part of the family that is working out their faith…this really plays to the understanding of what the church is. The church *is* a family, and the family members within an IC are just as much part of that family and are not the enemy. On that matter I completely agree. But it's important to me to differentiate that the institution *itself* is not family. It contains and houses some of our family, but it is not part of the organism. My point is simply that the institution is not the church, but contains a part of it. I am not loyal to man-made institutions, but I am fiercely loyal to the Body of Christ, both in and out of the IC.

    Always good to hear from you! 🙂 Amen to what you have said here.

  5. J. R. Miller

    I agree with you brother that our loyalty is to the family and not the "institution". At the same time, that applies to the "house church" movement as well… or any other movement. They all have structures, they all have forms, they both have their books, their conferences, their "leaders," but any of these that are not rooted in the teachings of the Apostles must come second place.

    Again, I think in that we are in agreement.

  6. Steve Oberg

    Jeff – I completely agree with you that it depends on context – I certainly appreciate an authentic expression of worship in any setting. My point though is that I am sure that we can ALL relate to sitting in an IC service and having to "endure" someone's rendition of 'He walks with me and He talks with me….." In that context, though I am not one to judge, it too often has become a performance, (and not a good one….) But I heartily agree that it really is not our job to play judge – but in truth, particularly in the context of a "very public song, or offeratory" – in a more formal church setting there are certain people who are gifted for that sort of thing, and there are those who are not – we should help steer people towards their calling. As a worship leader and musician, I am sure you have had to aid in this matter in the past, as I have. This is of course much different than judging a person's heart of worship – which I would never advocate. In more intimate contexts it is awesome just to eperience someone's sheer joy and passion – you don't even think or care about how it sounds – In that regard, I agree with you. That is something to be encouraged.

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