From the Archives – Pursuing Excellence Is for Ministry, Not Just for Business

“Excellence” might not be the business leadership buzzword it once was, but it’s far from dead. A quick search at Amazon shows plenty of recent business titles with “excellence” in them, and even if the term isn’t the biz word of the day anymore, the concept has never waned.

This is because the business world understands that making what they do, and how they do it, better is essential for their survival in a competitive marketplace. Maybe that marketplace mentality is partly why ministry leaders sometimes view excellence as a “a business thing.”

But they shouldn’t.

A Christian view of life and ministry has the pursuit of excellence at its very core. The flipside is also true: to the degree we accept shoddiness and haphazardness in our churches and ministries, we’re embracing a deeply unchristian way of thinking and acting.

A Culture of Excellence

It’s not unusual these days for something to move me to tears—or at least to a noticeable dewy-eyedness. But it was rare when I was in my 20s. That’s why this memory stands out so much in my mind. It was during my first school teacher job, where I taught mostly junior high at a Christian school in Georgia. The teachers, students, and families all gathered one evening for a program in which the elementary school students were performing. I was up in the balcony, and the entire elementary school student body was seated in chairs on the gymnasium floor, with a lectern facing them. There must have been more than two hundred of them. A teacher walked to the lectern and just stood there.

The way I remember it, all 200-plus kids became instantly silent and still, in unison. The audience quickly did the same. There was a dramatic pause. Then the director gestured, and 200-plus kids stood to their feet in one smooth motion like a single living creature. I was already deeply moved, but then they stood there like that, full attention on the director, for a full second until the director signaled the instruments then queued the choir to sing.

At the time, I couldn’t figure out why that got me all choked up (and still does). I know now. It was unexpected beauty, unlooked-for excellence.

I still don’t know how they got that many kids to do that! What I do know is that there was a lot of hard work flowing out of the conviction that what they were doing needed to be done as well as they could possibly do it. There was a belief that nothing less would do.

The school had lots of problems. All schools do. What it had going for it was a long-nurtured culture of excellence, with two vital features: (1) a vision for what could be achieved (because they had mostly seen it before and could imagine the rest), and (2) a belief that what could be achieved should be achieved.

A Theology of Excellence

Perhaps the churches and other ministries that have a culture of shoddiness are that way because they’re lacking both of those essential features. Too few have had the opportunity to observe just how well things can be done, and/or too few possess the imagination to envision how well they could be done. Secondly, too few are mindful of the biblical reasons that what can be done ought to be done.

There isn’t much I can do to help with the first problem, but I can chip away a bit at the second one. The argument couldn’t be more simple. Our God is all about excellence, and we’re called to demonstrate His character in what we do and how we do it. For brevity, I’ll note two early acts of God that are formative of our understanding of the excellence of His character, then touch on the New Testament call to be like Him in our own pursuit of excellence.

1. Our God didn’t choose to create the world in a “just OK” way.

In Genesis 1, we read of God doing in six days what He could have done in six milliseconds. There’s a reason He went for days—besides the lack of a Hebrew word for “millisecond.” The repetition of “there was morning and there was evening, the Xth day” allows the act of creation to unfold in recognizable, orderly stages, full of unrevealed—but clearly evident—purpose.

As the recipients of this revelation, we’re meant to notice the excellence of God’s creative work. He repeatedly declares it “good” and “very good,” and then rests. He only rests because He is satisfied with what He has done. It is worthy of Him. It expresses His excellence—not just as the One who excels beyond all else (which is why we speak of His “perfections” not just His “qualities”), but as One who values order, purpose, design, execution.

When we’re first introduce to God, there is nothing at all random in even the smallest thing He does.

2. Our God didn’t choose to organize worship in a “just OK” way.

Some years ago, the men’s Bible study at the church I pastored worked through the book of Exodus little by little. My already-strong love for the book went up another notch. If you take it slow and look at it closely, it’s amazing what’s there.

One of the most astounding things there is how God establishes the worship of Himself through the centrality of the Tabernacle. There is no way to adequately summarize the beauty and genius of it. The quickest way to absorb the spirit of it might be to read (or re-read) a few portions in an easy-reading paraphrase like the New Living Translation. A good sampling might be Exodus 28:1-21, 31:6-11, and 35:31-36:2.

A few brief observations:

  • God designed and commissioned a mobile worship structure that was far more beautiful and expensive than it needed to be. It went way, way, way beyond mere functional necessity.
  • Every bit of it was “glorious and beautiful” (NLT), right down to the outfits of the priests (Exod. 28:2).
  • God used human beings with top-notch skills to do the craftmanship, either providentially or miraculously gifting them for the work (Exod. 28:3, 31:6, 35:31-35). A whole team of first-rate materials professionals (so to speak) was raised up and trained for the work.
  • God ensured that many people were involved first hand in this excellence encounter.
  • Every detail of the structure and its accessories was bursting with meaning for observers (though we should avoid speculating about the meaning of many of those details today).

What made the Tabernacle excellent was its relationship to its purpose. It would have made a horrible stable, home, or fortress. It was excellent as a teaching tool from God as He launched His fledgling people into the world to be His representatives.

3. God commands us to be His imitators … and to be people who don’t settle for “just OK.”

Among others, these passages establish the point:

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. (Eph. 5:1, ESV)

Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more. (1 Thess. 4:1)

I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. (Phil. 3:14)

But as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in all earnestness, and in our love for you—see that you excel in this act of grace also. (2 Cor. 8:7)

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. (1 Pet. 2:9)

To be sure, local and personal excellence is relative to what you have to work with. Often our absolute best can look cheap and lazy in the eyes of others. We can’t measure up to their standard of excellence. Fortunately we don’t have to. A culture of excellence in ministry isn’t a race to have a bigger, or more exciting, or more polished, ministry than someone else. We aren’t trying to impress a quality-control team or score a ten from a panel of judges. A Christian culture of excellence has at its center a joyful pursuit of ways to do everything better and better, as defined by God’s specific purposes for us—driven by the desire to better demonstrate His character.

Photo: Ashley Knedler on Unsplash.

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