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:
- We want our expression of faith to be authentic (real, approachable, believable); and
- 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.