by Mark Atteberry
Bob Gibson was one of the greatest pitchers ever to lace up a pair of spikes. In the 1967 World Series he won all three of his starts, pitched three complete games, compiled an earned run average of 1.00, struck out 26 batters in 27 innings, and even hit a home run for good measure.
And the next season, just when it seemed he couldn’t get any better, he took his game to a whole new level. His ERA for the 1968 season was 1.12, which still stands as an all-time record and probably will never be equaled.
One of my favorite sports quotes is from Tim McCarver, who was Gibson’s catcher for several years. He said, “Bob Gibson is the luckiest pitcher I ever saw. He always seemed to pitch when the other team didn’t score any runs!”
McCarver was kidding, of course. He knows excellence is never a matter of luck. It happens only when a real commitment is made to it.
Sadly, too many churches aren’t making that commitment. My travels have taken me to a number of congregations in recent years, and while many of them have been shipshape, some of what I’ve seen has been downright embarrassing.
I’ve pulled up to church buildings where the grass was 10 inches tall and the shrubs looked like they hadn’t been trimmed in a year. I’ve sat in Sunday school classes where the teacher confessed he hadn’t studied his lesson and asked class members to talk a lot so he wouldn’t have to say much. I’ve listened to musical numbers where the singer forgot the words or sounded like one of those pathetic American Idol rejects. I’ve visited churches where the greeters were sullen and irritable. I’ve attended churches where none of the people spoke a friendly word to me until they discovered I was the guest speaker.
Not long ago I visited a church where the elder who got up to give the Communion thought had a little meditation book hidden inside his Bible. He was trying to read from his meditation book and turn to some Scriptures at the same time. As you might expect, he got all fumble-fingered and dropped the meditation book. It fell on the floor and closed.
Naturally, he didn’t have his page marked, so he picked it up and went flipping back and forth through the book trying to find the right page while we all sat there and waited. That morning, if anyone had a meaningful Communion experience it was in spite of the meditation, not because of it.
And in case you’re wondering, yes, less than excellent things happen at the church where I preach, too.
I’ll never forget the time a new guy joined our parking lot team. The first Sunday he was on duty the team leader put him out front and told him to direct people into the main lot. He did a great job, except for one thing: he had a cigarette dangling out of his mouth.
I happened to walk by the front doors, glanced up, and saw a cloud of smoke around his head. I stopped to take a closer look and sure enough, when he turned around I saw him take the cigarette out of his mouth and flick away some ashes.
I went flying out the door and told him as gently as possible that it didn’t look good for him to be smoking while he was directing traffic. I ended up carrying his half-smoked cigarette inside and throwing it away, hoping all the while that none of our visitors saw me and thought it was mine.
Obviously, it’s a less than perfect world populated by less than perfect people, so less than perfect things are always going to happen. But I believe we ought to be fighting a constant battle against shoddiness. God gives us his best and he deserves our best in return, in addition to the fact that he has commanded us to make excellence a priority. Ecclesiastes 9:10 says, “Whatever you do, do well” (New Living Translation).
Here are four things I have learned:
Excellence attracts people. When two championship contenders are playing, it’s hard to get a ticket. When you decide to go to the best restaurant in town at the dinner hour, you know you’re going to have to wait. It amazes me so many church leaders still have not figured out that excellence is a people magnet. They say they want their churches to grow, but they content themselves with mediocrity.
Excellence runs downhill. That is, it always works its way down from the leadership. If the people in charge are passionate about doing things right, they will instill that spirit in their employees and turn out a great product. I’ve never seen even one case where it worked the other way around.
The difference between excellence and shoddiness is often miniscule. Remember the guy I mentioned earlier who fumbled with two books and dropped one during his Communion meditation? If he had taken just five minutes to copy his reading and his Scripture references onto a piece of paper, he could have avoided that embarrassing fiasco. I learned years ago that just a little extra effort often makes a huge difference.
Routine is the enemy of excellence. When you slip into a routine, you start doing things on autopilot. And when you’re doing things on autopilot, you’re not going to deliver the quality you would if you were really concentrating. Nor are you going to notice when the quality starts to slip because autopilot is just another name for blindness. This is why it’s so important to keep things fresh by conducting regular training sessions, adapting the model to meet changing needs, rotating personnel, and recruiting new people.
I live about 20 miles from Walt Disney World, which is either a blessing or a curse, depending on whether or not you’re out in traffic when the parks close. One of our members who works at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Park recently gave me a small card with something called The Disney Difference printed on it. It’s a motto of sorts that gets drilled into every cast member from the first day he shows up for work. It reads as follows:
The Disney Difference:
• It’s what sets us apart from other companies.
• It’s the way we do things at WDW Resort for our cast and our guests.
• It’s the pride we feel because we’re a part of this special family.
• It’s an environment where people feel comfortable and welcome.
• It’s a place where people care about their jobs and each other.
• It’s that feeling of being a part of something really special.
• It’s the basis for everything we do.
If you’ve ever wondered why Disney theme parks are always crowded, there’s your reason. There’s no way people would come from all over the world and spend ridiculous sums of money to have a mediocre experience. People flock there because they know they’re going to get their socks knocked off.
If you’re looking for a way to jump-start your church, don’t just change, upgrade. Improve. Sharpen. Tighten. Elevate. You may get a little resistance from people who are all nestled down in their comfort zones and operating on autopilot. They’ll growl and bellyache when you ask them to dig deeper and give more effort. But if you do it in a nice way while communicating a new vision—if you set the example, and if you stick with it—they’ll come around.
I look at it this way: We have an excellent God and an excellent message; it would be a shame if we didn’t offer them both to the world in excellent ways.
Mark Atteberry has served as senior minister with Poinciana Christian Church, Kissimmee, Florida, since 1989. He has written six books, including Free Refill, The Samson Syndrome, The 10 Dumbest Things Christians Do. His latest book, So Much More Than Sexy! (Standard Publishing) was published this summer.