JR wrote posted some excellent thoughts on leadership and excellence, you can read it here.  Below you’ll find my 2cents on the subject (warning the post is looooong).

With the slightest alteration we can change the nature of something completely. A few years ago I backpacked with one of my best friends in Africa and we prepared Pasta Alfredo. Night had already fallen and in the dark I reached for what I thought was the powdered milk, mistakenly I mixed sugar into the recipe, small alteration – huge alteration. No wonder Christ gave us a very big warning about very small alterations to Scripture:

I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 5:18-19

It happens so subtly without drawing a lot of attention to itself. “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” Wait a minute! God did not say that, he said: You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.” It is the same today. Small twists lead to huge detours.

The mantra of the modern church is the following cry: The church is the hope of the world. The statement sounds great but it’s one of those dangerous alterations. Nowhere in Scripture do we find the concept of hope and the church together. In fact hope is always linked to the person of Jesus Christ, ‘but that’s the same thing’ you might contend! NOT.

A few years ago my wife and I were in a service of one of these churches.

A handful of people shared how their lives were changed. Without exception they all gave praise to the fact that the church changed their lives. The stories all went something like this: “My life was in shambles and then someone invited me to the church and the church absolutely changed my life! This church is wonderful and I can’t imagine my life without it. The pastor is wonderful, the music excellent and the programs really bless me. I thank God for this church.” Scary! Where was Christ! Isn’t Christ the one who changes our lives? Can a social structure have the capability to save someone? Why don’t we read in Scripture about a church having such saving powers in an individual’s life? Small alterations lead to dangerous results.

Instead of Christ receiving the honor, the church receives the honor – and we all know that God doesn’t like sharing His glory! The church becomes an idol. Pasta Alfredo with a very sweet taste (by the way, we couldn’t eat the pasta – it was horrible!)

Let’s focus on one of the other mantras: ”Excellence honors God and inspires people”. This value is used to enforce a sense of intense professionalism in the church. Excellent singers; excellent and flawless preachers; excellent buildings and also excellent programs are what we strive for. The problem with this hunger for excellence is that it breeds an intense competition – we constantly compare, analyze and get drawn into comparison by this value. Worship services become smooth productions – perfect, and slick. In some of these churches people are omitted from the worship team because they’re too fat or old which translates into being evaluated as not excellent.

In desperation one of our friends confessed to us the other day that she can’t go to her church anymore. Her life is a complete mess and compared to the worship service that is a “tip-top without mistake performance” the dissonance of her life echoes from the walls and she couldn’t relate with the perfection of it all (that is without putting on a mask). It reminds me of a quote by Bonhoeffer in his book Life Together:

“He who is alone with his sin is utterly alone. It may be that Christians, not withstanding corporate worship, common prayer, and all their fellowship in service, may still be left to their loneliness. The final breakthrough to fellowship do not occur because, though they have fellowship with one another as believers and devout people, they do not have fellowship as the undevout, as sinners."

I’m a recovering excellence freak! I mean no-one likes something that is not excellent; take for example the singer that is so false that you cringe for her part. Or the preacher whose sermon makes you feel so embarrassed because he sucks! Recently I watched a rerun of an episode of “Everybody Loves Raymond”. Raymond got invited to be on television, he excitedly invited his whole family to watch him. He performed, and well…, he was pathetic. When he came home his whole family encouraged him and told him how wonderful he was doing (until they found out that he was going to do it again). They then told him that he was definitely not excellent. Raymond was severely offended that his family was not honest with him about his performance. After the second interview his dad made this comment, which made me laugh so hard that I almost waked the neighbors. “I could have eaten a bag of pretzels and farted a better interview than that!” I wrote that comment down in my journal, asking why I laughed so hard? Why did that appeal to me?

There is something good in seeing someone doing something with excellence – that’s the paradox of excellence. But there is another side to this coin. Scripture gives us a picture of the most Excellent. Jesus Christ. Paul paints a wonderful picture of our Most Excellent one in 2 Corinthians 4:

For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.

Church, according to the Bible consists of a broken jar. If our definition of excellence involves polishing or changing the jar at the expense of the treasure then we need to heed the warning of Scripture! With a wrong definition of excellence we change this passage to something like this:

What a great job we are doing, people are being saved by us the church and they become members, members of the wonderful church. The church gave us the practical answers to life and gave us the programs through which we could connect and become purposeful! For the church is a wonderful treasure, the church truly is the hope of the world!

Note that Paul explicitly states that they do not preach themselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord. In an excellent environment we preach on the seven habits of highly effective people and tag Christ along at the back – it’s dangerous! Principles become our gods and church our idols. The jar should stay the jar in order that we will show that the “all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. As a recovering excellence freak I must confess that there is something very appealing to living in a way where we pretend to be the wielders of all-surpassing power. Eugene Peterson once made the remark that if we work with God’s people and God’s word the temptation is to think we are God. J.R.R Tolkien commented about this temptation in the following way:

“Being a cult figure in one’s own lifetime I am afraid is not at all pleasant. However I do not find that it tends to puff one up, in my case at any rate it makes me feel extremely small and inadequate. But even the nose of a very modest idol cannot remain entirely untickled by the sweet smell of incense”

Is there something wrong when we hear statements like “Our senior pastor is the best teacher I’ve ever heard” instead of “Christ is awesome”. How did this sudden shift happen? Could it be in the way in which we are going about doing ministry? Are we outshining Christ? Is this the unfortunate great reversal where the church is now the treasure and Christ the jar?