<<< this article first appeared in Reality Magazine, August/September 2001. Mark Pierson >>>
I’m anti excellence in church life.
And I’m particularly anti excellence in worship. It’s not a popular opinion to express in some churches today. In fact excellence has become such an important value in these circles that they sponsor and attend expensive conferences devoted to the theme.
I don’t know much about what happens at these junkets for pastors, but I did come very close to attending one earlier this year. I even had my ticket, but when I looked at the programme and discovered that the creative-arts-in-worship track consisted entirely of an exhaustive treatment of every aspect of vocal technique and worship-band performance I decided that staying away would be my contribution to excellence that week.
I wonder if excellence is a cultural value rather than a biblical one?
I’m sure someone will quote a First Testament verse referring to the excellence required of artisans working on the temple in King Solomon’s time, but I think they’d be hard pushed to squeeze one (even that tenuously linked) from the Second Testament. Particularly from the lips of Jesus.
I don’t think excellence in worship is a goal that has any biblical support. Which isn’t to say that excellence in church life is always bad. It doesn’t have to be, but a preoccupation with it is never good - particularly when those promoting it have been reading books like In Search of Excellence1 and A Passion for Excellence.2 Here’s what the latter of these widely read and revered books has to say about excellence.
“Even a pocket of excellence can fill your life like a wall-to-wall-revolution. We have found that the majority of passionate activists who hammer away at the old boundaries have given up family vacations . . . birthday dinners, evenings, weekends and lunch hours, gardening, reading, movies and other pastimes. We have a number of friends whose marriages or partnerships crumbled under their devotion to a dream. There are more newly single parents than we expected among our colleagues. We are frequently asked if it is possible to ’have it all’ — a full and satisfying personal life and a full and satisfying hard-working professional one. Our answer is: no. The price of excellence is time, energy, attention and focus. At the same time the energy, attention and focus could have gone toward enjoying your daughter’s soccer game. Excellence is a high cost item.”3
That sounds like a description of some Christians I know, responding to the vision and expectations of their churches. It doesn’t sound much like a statement you’d find Jesus making to his followers.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not against excellence per se. Just its elevation to the level of doctrine. In fact I’m really not so much anti excellence as pro participation. I reckon participation is what church life should be about. Participation rather than performance, and a pursuit of excellence always, always, ends up being about performance.
If excellence is a primary goal, then the weak, the timid, the depressed, the disabled, the unskilled, the sick, the introverted, the overweight, the less attractive, the poor and the untalented aren’t going to get a look in. They’ll be relegated to being spectators for someone else’s worship performance.
From this perspective excellence doesn’t look so good. In fact it sounds quite unChristlike, almost evil. How can a process and a value that excludes large sections of a worshipping community from active participation be named in any other way?
Jesus had some pretty harsh words for those in his day who devised ways of making it tough for ordinary people to worship God. Something about them being as spiritually alive as painted up tombs, and not being able to see clearly because they had something in their eyes.
It seems to me that basically church must be about supporting people in their following of Christ in the world. Everything else flows from that.
We come together as followers of Jesus so we can share stories of the successes and failures of our life in the world, find encouragement and support in being with each other and in worshipping God together, and separate to follow Christ through another week. What we need to value most is community - our relationships with one another.
That’s why I’m pro participation, regardless of how excellent or poor that participation might be. It’s only in being open to as much participation as possible that community can be built. The prayer of confession I lead the church in may not be the best theology, it may not be the most polished performance, it may even offend some people with its awkward language, but it will reflect who I am and where my relationship with God is at and you’ll get to know me a little more than you did before, and maybe you’ll even get to make your confession.
During the week the pastor or some one else may talk with me about how I did, and offer some encouragement and some other perspectives on the theology of forgiveness, and next time I’ll do an even better job. Our community will be strengthened, and most importantly, I’ll have taken a little more responsibility for my own spiritual maturity.
I’ve said I’m anti excellence in church life, but I’m pro excellence in my life and in the life of every person in our congregation. I want to be the best I can be at what I do and who I am. I want the same for everyone at Cityside Baptist where I worship. I want what we offer as worship to be as good as it can be, but I’ll take participation over excellence every time.
Our worship is made up of a set liturgy that we follow pretty closely most Sundays, but variety and creativity comes from having eight or nine different people lead a segment each service. Each person can do her or his segment in whatever way they choose, eg setting up a paddling pool to throw stones into, playing a secular music track, having us paint, or singing a hymn.
We have talked together and agreed that no matter what anyone offers as worship we will support that person and participate appropriately, even if we don’t like what is being done. We will do this because we are first and foremost a community at worship. We trust each other and care about each other. We want to see everyone growing in Christ-likeness. We want everyone involved who wants to be - regardless of his or her ability or training.
There may be some robust discussion after (or during!) the worship, but the intended outcome of the discussion is a greater understanding of the variety of perspectives shared by the congregation, not conformity to a prescribed view. I may not like everything we did in worship last Sunday, but next week other people will be doing things differently and chances are it’ll be more to my taste. At least I can be sure it’ll be down to earth and real and will model for me that I too can be involved here.
At Easter our church produces an art installation consisting of 14 pieces of art, one for each of the Stations of the Cross. Any Citysider can participate by contributing art. No qualifications are required. No standards are applied. No checking of content or quality is carried out.
Artists are trusted to be involved in honest reflection on the biblical event and to produce the very best art they can in the media of their choosing. The art always comes in a wide range of media, and standards vary considerably - from the technically poor through to technically excellent. Pieces that move me through to pieces I’d like to see moved!
This year over 600 people used this installation to reflect on the Easter story. Many recorded comments to indicate they had found it a profoundly moving experience and some named specific stations that God had spoken to them through. Technically poor art can be as effective a medium for the Spirit of God as the technically excellent. (This is not to excuse shoddy work or lack of preparation. I have never been let down in my trusting the commitment of the ’artists’ to their art. They all take it very seriously).
Some of the most profound statements have come through the work of young children. The impact on the ’artist’ of being able to participate is incalculable.
I hope our worship and wider life together at Cityside will produce confident, maturing followers of Jesus Christ who live creatively and courageously in the chaotic emerging culture. Maturing followers of Jesus Christ able to interpret their faith in the market place of life.
If we produce excellence in some of our services along the way, that’s excellent, but it’s not our goal.
1 Peters, Thomas and Waterman, Robert. 1982. New York: Warner Books.
2 Peters, Thomas and Austin, Nancy. 1985. New York: Warner Books.
3 Peters and Austin p 495-496. Quoted in Schaef, Anne and Fassel, Diane 1988. The Addictive Organisation. San Francisco: HarperCollins.