Excellence Overrated?

I’ve been going to ministry conferences for years. I’ve read piles of books and listened to many tapes & CDs. I’ve heard inspiring and informative teachings on how to reach people, how to grow a church, and how to lead a congregation. The Willowcreek Leadership Summit in 2003 was great. The Catalyst Conference in 2001 exposed me to the ministry of Andy Stanley and North Point Church. Reading Purpose Driven Church and going to Dan Southerland’s Transitions Conference gave me great ways to understand the church and how to move forward.

But at the same time these experiences leave me with an emotional high, they quickly lead to depression. We can’t go out and buy the best leaders in the world like Willowcreek. We don’t have the facilities or the budget or the critical mass of people to do children’s & youth ministry like NPCC. We don’t have the large base of new Christians like Saddleback.

We’re a small church, in a small town, in the third smallest county in Texas. The biggest towns in the area, Tyler & Longview, are an hour away. We’re also an established traditional church. The vast majority of our people were raised in church and their formative experiences of what church is about happened 50 or more yeras ago. Willowcreek, Saddleback & NPCC, however attractive they might be to me, are vastly different. All are in high population areas. All are recent church plants still led by the founding pastor. What they identify as “basic principles” that can be transferred elsewhere, may look universal, but are too intertwined with their own local peculiarities to be readily transplanted.

There’s another church planter that seems to have a different approach. Sure, Steve Sjogren has grown a church from nothing into the thousands like the others. Sure, he’s in a major metropolitan area. But he has less of an aura of certainty and perfection. In a recent article he says perfection – we call it “excellence” – is overrated. More important is the willingness to take risks.

There is a general malaise in the Church today that has been brought on by an attitude of perfectionism. “If you can’t do it with nearly perfect excellence, don’t even bother giving it a try.” This is hogwash!

I ascribe to the wisdom of turn-of-the-century Christian writer, G.K. Chesterton, who said, “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.” I love the permission that comes with that paradigm. Of course, neither he nor I nor you would embrace the concept of doing things poorly on a general basis. However, the idea of perfectionism is so insidious it makes us think that if we can’t do a super bangup job all the time, we might as well not even try.

There is a well-known church in America at which I have often been invited to speak over the past decade. I love that church in many ways, but they are overly committed to the concept of excellence. Each time I’m there, I come away feeling discouraged; as if I could never attain their standard of measurement.

I look up to the pastor of that church in a big way. I think he is one of the greatest leaders in America today – both in and out of the Church. But he overstates the value of excellence. What’s worse, they are modeling this set of values to hundreds of other churches eager to learn the best way to do church in the American context.

The truth is, God is looking for people who are looking to take risks. Risks are the way forward in life and in the church world.

We’re a small church in a small town. We’ll never be a mega church and I’m not sure any of us want to be. But if we learn to take risks, i.e., trust and obey God even when we don’t see any way what we’re doign can possibly work – then God can do great things through us to reach our community.

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2 Responses to Excellence Overrated?

  1. Betty Newman says:

    Richard, I am the lay leader/lay speaker in a small country UMC that is a part of a three-point charge. (Yep, when I fill in – it’s 3 services on Sunday morning!)

    I grew up in one of the churches, then married a guy from one of the others and moved my membership, but we’re equally “at home” in any of the three.

    Anyway, I have close friends in other denominations in the area – everything from small, to medium, to large to even a “mega” church, seating probably 800-1000 people. And yeah, sometimes I get discouraged.

    However, yesterday we had homecoming in my “home” church and had a combined service. As I sat in that service I thought about the “Saints” that have gone before (I actually read a poem that I wrote titled “The Saints” for the service.) These were/are good-hearted country folk who would never be comfortable worshiping in a large church.

    And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that my “ministry” is here – to these people, meeting them and their needs where they are.

    We don’t/can’t have huge “programs” but nothing says that we can’t meet needs in other ways.

    I don’t always agree with the UMC, but until God leads me otherwise – this is where I’m serving.


  2. barry hidey says:

    I know what you are saying about how we lift up those success story pastors and we can’t measure up to those expectations. Where are the pastors who have taken a smaller or slow growing church and turned it around. We need to learn from them.
    Bel AIR UMC Bel Air, MD

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