By Daniel Schantz
An angry young man blocked my exit from my college classroom. He thrust a term paper in my face, and with quivering voice said, “How come I only got a B on this paper?”
“Well,” I replied, “a B is an excellent grade.”
He was not satisfied with my answer. He is one of the self-esteem generation who expects to get nothing but As. To them, anything that is not an A is an F.
Now, the excellence generation has taken the reins of the church. It is a generation with astronomical expectations. “Excellence” is their mantra.
To aim for excellence seems like a good thing, but it harbors some subtle dangers.
1. Elitist. The term excellence is often spoken by church leaders in condescending tones, as if to say, “Others may be content with being average slobs, but not us. We must have only the best.”
This can be a slap in the face to members who don’t have the capacity or means to be excellent—the “good,” the “fair,” the “poor.”
Can only good-looking, gifted singers serve on the worship team?
Must church buildings resemble palaces in order to be useful?
Do all preachers have to be Madison Avenue models, professional comedians, celebrities, best-selling authors, and able to speak five languages?
The gospel was targeted to the poor, not just to the exceptional.
2. Expensive. Whenever I hear a church leader touting “excellence,” I hide my billfold, because it always seems to require large sums of money.
I grew up in the 1950s, so poor that we went to Kentucky Fried Chicken just to lick other people’s fingers. We lived in old homes, drove used cars, and mowed our own lawns.
But not this generation. Only the best is good enough for them. No wonder so many young people are in bankruptcy, and no wonder some churches are up to their steeples in debt.
Nowhere did Jesus emphasize having fine things as the mark of superiority. Never did he say to his disciples, “OK, guys, we are going to cross the Sea of Galilee today, but no more fishing trawlers for us. We will take the yacht, the one with Stormtrack Radar and onboard theater, so we can catch the game between the Nazarenes and the Samaritans.”
3. Acceleration. The bar of “excellency” is constantly being raised, and this creates the impression that God can never be pleased.
In the academic world, where I live and work, accreditation standards are constantly revised “upward.” I think we passed “excellence” years ago, so now we must be into “celestial.” I should be able to see the Starship Enterprise outside my office window.
Many of these new requirements are not actually better, just different. They involve what my students would call “busy work.” More and more paperwork, more and more meetings, more and more evaluations. Am I a better teacher than I was 10 years ago because of these changes? Not that I can tell. I’m just more weary and distracted. Sometimes I have trouble finding my classroom.
4. Inconsistency. The inconsistency of the excellence crusade is what baffles me most. It is all so selective.
I’m visiting a church whose facilities would rival the Hilton. Professional singers are using state-of-the-art equipment. But when I look at the audience, I see people dressed like they just came from a ballgame or a barbeque.
This is the same generation that rented tuxes and stretch limos for their prom, but shorts, ballcaps, and sandals seem good enough for church.
The church landscaping is prize-winning, but where is the moral excellence among the members and staff? Every year it gets harder and harder to distinguish between Christians and worldlings.
The preaching is entertaining, but where is the excellent relationship between the preacher and the members? Many of our churches are in a state of chronic combat.
The musicians are great, but where is the great congregational singing?
5. Exhausting. Some of the excellence engineers I have known are nothing more than perfectionists, and that is NOT a compliment. Perfectionism is a disorder. At best, perfectionism is a bad habit, and, worse, it can be a form of salvation-by-works that leads to a breakdown.
I’ve never met a perfectionist who was any more perfect than the rest of us, though some of them thought they were. Usually their idea of perfection involves doing things their way. The whole point of the gospel is that we can’t be perfect, without a lot of grace and forgiveness.
6. Divisive. “Striving for excellence” is a very popular motto, but a revealing one. Strife is what happens when people have unrealistic goals and deadlines. I suspect this is why so many young ministers don’t last long in the ministry. When the warm front of their idealism meets the cold front of reality, the tornado sirens go off. Rather than adjusting their pace, they pour on the juice, and soon they are sitting on the sidewalk with their belongings.
Alternatives to Excellence
1. Efficiency. Instead of aiming for excellence, we should aim to be efficient. You can be excellent, and still not be efficient.
For example, you can bust the budget to buy those “excellent” mercury lights for the auditorium, then you have to settle for Brand X curriculum for the Sunday school. And you can be efficient without being excellent. You can buy the basic van instead of the luxury van, which gets 9 miles per gallon.
People with average ability can be efficient, even if they are not capable of excellence. I remind my students that, “You don’t have to get straight As to get a diploma or a good job.” Indeed, some of my most brilliant students have made a mess of their lives, and some of the average students are productive for a lifetime.
2. Patience. It’s OK to have high goals, as long as I don’t expect to reach them by Easter. Just because the church down the road doubled in attendance in six months does not mean we can do the same. Every situation is different and requires a different schedule of progress.
I’m always suspicious of rapid growth. The only thing that grows fast in my garden is weeds. Growing too fast does not allow time for people to adjust to the growth, and the result often is conflict and confusion.
3. Inclusion. Instead of highlighting superstars, we need to find ways to include people of average gifts and intelligence. No, that doesn’t mean we have to give Charlie Croak the lead solo in the Christmas musical. Nor does it mean we have to tolerate lazy, sloppy preaching. Yet, some of the most beautiful singing I ever heard came from average singers whose heart overshadowed their technique. And it’s possible for an ordinary preacher to have a growing church because he has the sense to preach the Truth instead of Web jokes.
Conclusion: We live in what some scholars have called the “Second Gilded Age,” a time of opulence, excellence, and showmanship that has affected even the church. The first Gilded Age ended in two world wars and the Great Depression. Let’s hope it doesn’t take that for us to restore a sense of what is really important.
Dan Schantz, widely published book and magazine author, teaches at Central Christian College of the Bible in Moberly, Missouri.