“Excellence honours God and inspires people.”
This nugget of wisdom helped fuel the seeker-sensitive movement and these days it seems more popular than ever! I’ve been a part of some great organizations that affirmed this value, and leveraged it to do some great work with some really great people. But honestly this value statement has always made me a bit uncomfortable.
It can manifest itself in the belief among Christian artists that we should be “better” than “the world” at things like songwriting, film-making and laser-light shows. The conversation plays out something like this:
“Hey, did you see the cool wireless LED DMX-controlled wristbands at the latest Coldplay tour?”
“Sure did! So cool. I wish we had those at our church services!”
“Yeah, I know. I mean, we’re doing this for Jesus, so we should be even better than the world at wireless LED DMX-controlled wristbands. Excellence honours God, you know?”
You may be laughing because you recall this exact conversation from your own circles just two summers ago. Or possibly because you find Canadian spelling funny. Far be it from me to judge any church that budgeted for Xylobands at their next big event, but the example does serve to get the conversation started. Let’s look at some commonly used arguments that support the idea that excellence honours God.
The Temple – excellence honours God: just look at how intense the Temple was!
2 Chronicles takes three chapters to describe the majesty of the temple Solomon built in Jersusalem. No doubt the gold, gemstones and coloured fabric were the Ancient Near-East equivalent of a laser-light show. Because of the magnificence of the temple, Kings from other countries praised the God of Israel too. It’s possible they were drawn to whichever God had the best laser-light show, but let’s not forget that these same kings had just been awarded astronomical construction contracts!
The problem with basing our values on the temple is that God didn’t ask for it. Solomon’s father, King David, had begged God to let him build a temple. God’s lengthy response is found in 2 Samuel 7 and includes these words:
“I have been moving from place to place with a tent as my dwelling. Wherever I have moved with all the Israelites, did I ever say to any of their rulers whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?”
– 2 Samuel 7:6-7
It seems God was content in a tent. David was not content. Solomon was not content. But the Lord of Israel was happy to leave the wireless LED DMX-controlled wristbands to the other gods.
[for more on the Temple and the church, see this post]
The Unblemished Sacrifice – God required Israel’s animal sacrifices to be without flaw, so He must have really high standards.
The highest! God’s standard for holiness is so high that none of us can attain it. Fortunately for us, he sent Jesus to remedy the situation.
But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation.
– Colossians 1:22
The Old Covenant requirement for animals without blemish says a lot about our sin. It points to our need for a saviour. But it has nothing to do with the quality of our laser-light shows. If it did, we’d be in big trouble. Because the standard in this case is perfection and only Jesus could accomplish it.
Do everything as unto the Lord – everything we do is important and God cares, so it must be excellent.
Whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
– Colossians 3:17
Okay, now we’re getting somewhere. This sweeping statement reminds me of the way we end our prayers, “in Jesus name.” My Dad used to tell us that by praying “in Jesus name” we’re saying we believe this is the way Jesus would pray. By extension, if I greet someone in Jesus name, it’s because I believe Jesus would do the same. If I lay hands on someone and pray for them to be healed, I do so believing that Jesus would do the same. Or if I’m programming a laser-light show . . .
Wait–how does this apply to laser-light shows?
If the question is, “how do I create a laser-light show in the name of the Lord Jesus?” the answer will have little to do with the luminaires, rigging plot, power distribution or choice of haze machine. It will have a lot to do with loving God and others and obeying what Jesus commanded. A laser-light show “unto the Lord” would be much more about how we act than what we produce.
I love Dan Wilt’s term “excellence in Christlikeness” from a recent post about worship team culture. He describes a worship team that “celebrates excellence” and “values musical skill.” Their church has done expert job of pairing musical skills with godly personality traits like humility and servanthood.
I think excellence can be a useful organizational value. An up front commitment to doing things well can bring out the best in people and motivate teams to push through to the end. I’m certainly not suggesting we shouldn’t have high standards. What troubles me about an unqualified commitment to excellence is the question of what standard we’re using. Our tendency is to measure our own excellence by what the world around us is doing. When we do this, we effectively let the world decide whether the church is doing a good job, and that’s dangerous territory for people called not to “conform to the patterns of this world. (Romans 12:2)”
There is something the church should be the best at, hands down. We should be the best at following Jesus. But sometimes following Jesus looks nothing like the culture around us. Sometimes it looks downright foolish and we need values that support that too.
So back to our question. Does excellence honour God? I remain unconvinced. Is it wrong to pursue excellence? Certainly not! But let’s start by qualifying excellence the way God does.
Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.
– 1 Corinthians 1:26-29
And yet I will show you the most excellent way . . .
– 1 Corinthians 12:31