Jesus & “excellence”

kathyescobar church stuff, crazy making, jesus is cool, rants 41 Comments

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!)