Posts Tagged ‘excellence’

Up to this point in this stream of consciousness, I’ve devoted a fair amount of time talking about offering your best, and I think I may need to unpack that a bit. You see I hear a lot about “excellence” in the church, especially pertaining to creative ministry, and that’s great, but I have a question. What does it mean?

You see in some places, I think we almost idolize talent, to the point where the talented can get away with just about anything, because they’re gifted. In the world, that may be the case, but in the church, it should never be. Honestly, it can even be disastrous in the world, but that’s not the realm I’m exploring. Ask me which is more important, character or talent, and I’ll take character every time. We do ourselves a disservice in the Kingdom of God if we accept any less.

On the other hand, sometimes people minimize the importance of work done in and for the church. You know, “Well it’s not the best, but it’s god enough for church.” Perish the thought. All you need to do is go back to the Old Testament and the requirements for sacrifices to see that the Lord expects our best, and rightfully so, because He gave His best.

I hope you caught those two words in that last sentence, because they are crucial. The words, in case you missed them, were “our best.” This is the key to everything. When churches look for excellence, what they are often really looking for is people who are successful by the world’s standards. I find that a little tragic, because if we are looking for excellence by the world’s standards, the novice, the person developing their talents need not apply. The result is sometimes very glitzy and polished, but sometimes lacking heart and soul. But what if excellence was the best you can do today? What if we just expected people to work in their area of gifting, bringing the best they have today? To my mind this is key.

Look, the arts are subjective and so is excellence. Were this not the case, there would be a massive cleansing of museums tomorrow. Who’s to say what’s good or great or excellent? And in the church, who’s to say what will touch a heart or mind? What if excellence was defined as bringing our very bet to the table? What if we were genuinely seeking our calling, and gave our best at each and every opportunity? Truth is, if we did this, everyone would be learning and growing, and we’d have a lot more participants and a whole lot less spectators in the church.

Isn’t that what we want?

Assignment: Find something you did some time ago and compare it to what you’re doing now. Do you see growth? If not, how could you work toward growth?

When it comes to the arts and creativity, we’ve all see some things that are great and some things that are… well… not great. What is great work, and how can we do great work every time?

Let’s start with the basics. “Great” is a subjective term. One person’s “great” is another person’s “garbage” and there is precious little we can do about that. I know I belabor this point on this blog, but if you strive to please everyone, you will end up pleasing no one, least of all yourself. So it appears we will need to look for “great elsewhere.

Here’s what I suggest. Be your own critic. If you have created the best work you can do today, making the most of everything you can do today, that is the very greatest you can be today, and by the way that is good enough. If you bring your all to a project, you have done great work. Will everyone think it’s great? No, see the above paragraph, but if it is your best, put it out there for the world to see and learn from it. The people who love your work become your audience, your faithful fans and followers. You now have two people depending on you for greatness—first and foremost, yourself and secondly your “fans.” These are two of the best motivating forces for making you do better, and how do you become better? You bring your best to the work every day.

That’s called faithfulness, and by the way, it’s what God desires too. Don’t let the people who think your work is to great to discourage you. Give it your best, share your gift with the world and focus on pleasing yourself and the ones who think your work is pretty great. Get better for them and for the One who makes you great.

I like most people in the world and watching the Olympics. Watching these young people excel at this level is amazing. The things they can do with their bodies are mind-blowing. They literally seem superhuman and from the recliner, I know it’s not something I can do or will be able to do on this side of the grave, but then it struck me.

These people started with some natural abilities beyond a doubt, but they’re not getting by on it. They took that with which they have been blessed and they work it, A LOT. This is what you have in common with the best in the world. You have natural abilities at something, there is something you are gifted to do. From there what will separate you from everyone else is one thing… HARD WORK! Will you do what it takes to be the best you can be?

Bring God your best, do it for all your worth and trust God with all of it. That’s what it takes to glorify God. Remember St. Irenaeus said, “The glory of God is a [person] fully alive. We get there when we take all that God gives us and make the best of it in Him.

Bring greatness to the Greatest!

creativeminI am a member of the community, (and you should be to). In my Creative Ministry Group, we’ve been having a discussion on getting more people involved in the life of the church and in worship. Someone made a great comment about excellence. I didn’t agree with all that he said but some points were excellent. This was my response.

I have to confess something and I don’t to be argumentative here, but I cringe every single time I hear the word excellence, especially in the context of church, ministry, etc. I know this is not a popular position but it is the one I take. I have a few reasons for this. The first is simple, it smacks of the kind of elitism that excludes so many in the art field. Unless you’re a virtuoso, there’s no place for you. The problem is who defines excellence? There are many works of art in some of the greatest museums in the world that I frankly find to be less than stellar (and that’s me being really nice), yet some of the powers that be have deemed these works genius and so they hang in the finest of museums. In the same way, Bob Dylan’s singing voice would not allow him to get a solo in any high school choir and yet people the world over pay millions to hear him sing, because he has something to say. I believe excellence is bringing the very best you have to the project at hand. People who do this continually will improve. In the parable of the talents, the master parcels the talents to His servants each according to his ability and commends the faithful for working to the best of their ability.

I believe this is the key. I know what you may be thinking what about the church soloist who can’t carry a tune in a bucket? I get that, and I do believe that leadership needs to be attentive to helping people to find their way to their best gifting. I also think there is such a thing as appropriate exhibition, creating venues for people of varying ability levels, but I disagree profusely that it’s in excellence that we give God public glory. I remember one day I was worshipping in a small church setting standing next to a young man with Down Syndrome. He was lifting his voice to the Lord with power and passion that I have heard from few people. Was he a good singer? No, he would have been labeled terrible by most anyone who would have listened to voice alone, but that didn’t stop the tears that came to my eyes as I witnessed real authentic worship. The point is I think we have to be careful about insisting on excellence as defined by the world.

My own ministry is another example. I’m a speed painter and then I use those paintings to share the Gospel. My sweet spot for the average painting is about six minutes (for a two foot by four foot painting). Is that six minute painting the best painting I can do? No. It’s the best painting I can do in six minutes and while they may never hang in the Louvre, they hang in many churches as a reminder of truth God used me to bring to the congregation. Sometimes excellence is doing the best we can with what we have.

We have that a lot of places and sometimes sincerity is missing. My philosophy has always been “everybody gets to play.” From there it is up to me as a leader to mold and direct and help a person be the very best that God has for them to be.

As such, I agree with this statement wholeheartedly. “And it’s in our sweat and dedication to our gifts that we give him glory in private.” Sacrifices were always to be the best we have. The reason for that is simple. It’s the best anyone can bring.

I’ve posted several times about why this word “excellence” makes me cringe. I feel like so often it’s wielded almost like a weapon that the gatekeepers use to keep people out and I hate that. I feel it has little to no place in the church of Jesus Christ. How to people become excellent without support and encouragement and what is excellence really? I’m of the belief that excellence is the best I can do today and that if I am encouraged to reach that level of excellence (the only one I can) every day, the level of excellence will rise.

I’m sure some will cringe at this statement. They picture a world where the church is buried in substandard stuff, and artists with a “good enough for church” attitude. That is totally not what I am saying. I heard the most fantastic analogy of this yesterday from my friend and District Executive Craig Smith. While he related it to faith, it applies to creative enterprise as well. Imagine a child just learning to walk. Walking is the standard and the only acceptable objective. When the child takes a few steps and falls, we do not berate him, rather we kneel down and encourage him to get up and keep moving forward. This is how to get excellence out of people, and there is no other way, at least not one acceptable in the Kingdom.

So here’s what we need to do, ditch the world’s view of excellence and adopt the attitude of excellence by encouragement, and while we’re at it church, let’s become excellent encouragers, spurring one another on to love and good deeds (Hebrews 10:24). Let’s provide venues where people can learn and grow. Let’s provide safe places to fail and encouragements to get up and proceed.

Proverbs 22:29 says, “Do you see someone skilled in their work? They will serve before kings.” In the arts we get skilled, we become excellent, by trial and error and trying again. There is no other way in the creative realm. Creativity requires experimentation and experimentation has within it a high possibility of failure. It’s imperative that creatives work each day at becoming excellent, and we need the support of others along the way.

The church has been afflicted with something that will surely cripple our creative efforts. On the surface, it sounds honorable, even essential, but I am here today to call it out for what it is… A crock. Oh I know I am going to make some people mad over this one. I’m okay with that.

I’ve heard it so many times. “We’ll only put the best out there in front of the congregation.” “We have a culture of excellence.” If you’re a church leader and you have spouted things like this, please know, you’re shooting yourself in the foot. Think about it. One of the biggest things we church leaders are constantly lamenting is the consumer mentality so pervasive in the church, and it is a HUGE problem… one we’re perpetuating. What do I mean? Well if only the “excellent” can ever participate in the church service, what do the rest of us do? Basically we become the audience and if we’re all relegated to being the audience, should we really be surprised when people pick up and leave for the “better show?”

I can almost hear your protests from here. They all start with some variation of someone’s “Aunt Erma” who is convinced she can sing and so takes all the solos in the choir, sounding like someone stepped on a bagpipe, while strangling a cat, who is simultaneously dragging his claws across a blackboard (do they even have those anymore?). Yes I have heard that and it is painful, and yes, I get that it may turn off visitors, but is that really the best you’ve got? The fact of the matter is every single human being has been gifted by God in one way or another. In the church, we need to do the hard work of helping people to find their gifting and gently guiding them out of places where they’re not gifted.

How do we find someone’s gift, not to mention hone it and refine it, if we are only willing to involve a few virtuosos? I suggest we need something different:

1. We need a safe place to fail: Your culture of excellence all but eliminates the possibility of taking risks and taking risks is the soul of creativity. The church needs to be a place where people can try new things, give it their all, and try again if it doesn’t go well.

2. What is excellence anyway? Who is excellent? Pavarotti or Dylan? Pollock or Picasso or Rembrandt? Who’s to say what’s excellent and what’s not? Then compound that with the fact that all this is being placed in the hands of a God who can quite literally work in anything and anyone.

3. What’s more important? Talent or character?: We’ve all seen the disaster that happens when someone’s gifting is way ahead of his character. “Man, looks at the outward appearance, God looks at the heart…” and I for one happen to think a character fail will be far more detrimental to the Spiritual vitality of the church, than a sincere but lackluster “performance.”

4. What if? What if we discipled people and helped them to grow both their talents AND their character? What if we cared as much about how well the people who stand before us are following Christ, as we care about their talent? What if we gave people “appropriate exhibition” Where people could try new things in a safer environment than before the entire congregation? What if we founded discipleship groups for people who want to take their gifts further? What if we began to consider excellence by the only measure that really matters, i.e. is the person in question bringing his or her best to the table? Are they preparing, practicing and working to develop what God has given them? What if we helped people find their true gifts and show them how to serve the Lord and others with them? That’s what was done for me.

“A culture of excellence is a crock because it builds walls when the church is about opening doors. It’s a crock because it keeps so many things in the hands of a select few and elevates those few above the masses. Its a crock because it ignores or attempts to negate, God’s power to work in and through us all. Maybe being excellent really does just mean bringing your best to the table every time.

The best you can do is the best you can do. What if that is excellent enough?

The problem with artists is unrealistic expectations. We tend to sit on our work, hiding it until it is the best in the world. The problem is a very small part of the population (namely one person out of seven billion) can be the best in the world at any one thing. The odds are not in our favor. This is why many of us go nowhere and where the “starving artist” thing comes from.

If we don’t sit on our work, we tweak it into destruction (or oblivion) in the name of the sliding scale of excellence (pretty sure God gave me that one). Basically it works like this, we never hit excellence, because we never see our work as excellent. No matter how good we get, we can only see the flaws and deem ourselves not good enough, something less than excellent.

Well friend, excellence is a sliding scale, but not the way you think. My definition of excellence is the best you can do today with what you have. If you have given your best effort and you finished what you started, you have achieved excellence. Continue on in this way, and you will get better and better and better, the scale will slide up, but all along the way you have been excellent.

When I look at the work from early in my career, I cringe a little. It’s nowhere near what I can do today, but I want you to notice something, even back then, in many cases, someone bought it. Someone thought it was good enough to trade some of their hard earned money on it. It was the best I could do at the time and by exercising faithfulness, I got better.

When it comes to art, I am all about “name it and claim it.” No, I’m not talking about some prosperity Gospel thing, I am saying, an artist should create the very best work he or she can create today. Then he or she should give it a title (name it) and put it out there for the world to see, proudly yet humbly, saying “This is my art (claim it)! I am thoroughly convinced this is the only thing that separates the great artists, from the people who wallow in anonymity. It’s not so much great ability as it is the willingness to do our best, show it to the world and stand behind your creation.

The choice is yours, but I choose to show the world. Not everyone will like it, but I’m not creating for the ones who don’t like it. I’m creating to the glory of my God and for the people He will bless through it. God is faithful and He is my example.

What’s your problem? Do your best, name it, put it our for the world to see, claim it and repeat!

moolahEvery church would like to be full of tithing CEOs, especially at budget time. Does that statement offend you? Because it SHOULD! Churches should be reaching out to everyone without regard to what they can give and then helping each person to become what God has created them to be. We need to trust God for the resources and be about the work of making disciples. If we reach out based on what a person can give, we are probably worshipping the wrong god.

So why do I share this? Am I trying to be deliberately provocative? No… well okay, maybe just a little, but what we would frown on when it comes to finances, is often a regular practice when it comes to our creative arts ministries. Only the excellent need apply. Is this really what we should be doing?

Now to be fair, we have all been subjected to “special music” brought to us by people who only think they can sing and that’s not always the best either. How do we get around the elitism that so often exists in the arts, while at the same time offering the best we can offer? A couple of things come to mind.

1. Redefine excellence. What is excellent art? No one knows because art is subjective. Some people like classical music. Some people like disco (the latter are wrong). Some like Rembrandt, some prefer Haring and Pollack. What is excellent? We need a better definition. I believe excellence is the best a person can do with what he or she has. We need to meet people where they are creatively just as we do spiritually. We all had to grow in our gifts.

2. Appropriate Exhibition and Multiple Points of Entry. While it should be clear that I favor and “everybody gets to play” model, I also believe in what I call appropriate exhibition. This means we don’t put people up before the congregation before they are ready. Just as we would not put a new believer into the pulpit for the Sunday sermon, we don’t set someone up for failure by having them “perform” or exhibit. Instead we give them appropriate opportunities based on their skill and growth. We give opportunities for people to try their gifts and build their gifts, in a “safe place to fail” environment. This could be done in a small group/critique group setting.

In my church we have a discipleship group for creatives. There is a time to share what we’ve been working on along with the other elements such as study, prayer and creating time. This is a great way to help people grow in their gifts and sometimes to steer them into an area of greater gifting. Maybe you have a “JV” band for people who are just growing or a recital type performance that can showcase growth rather than “excellence” and give the artist an opportunity to try something before an “audience.” For visual artists, perhaps a group show, prefaced with a title such as emerging artists, etc. For writers, short readings, publishing a small newsletter or blog where they can test their chops.

How about a talent show? Mentoring from more gifted artists? The list goes on and on, but the purpose is clear. Meet people where they are and help them to become all that they can be.

How good is good enough? The best you can do with what you have today!

When I get around creative ministry folks and hear the word excellence thrown around, I always cringe a little. For one, art is subjective. Who’s to say what excellence is? I see works all the time that people fall all over, that, quite frankly, look like they could have been done by a monkey and not even a trained monkey. I also see artists who clearly have wonderful technique, belittled and berated in the arts community. Excellence is in the eye of the beholder.

Moreover, excellence in art requires growth. It requires failure. It requires making work and putting it out there for the world to see. When we start to talk about excellence in creative ministry, I wonder how we will allow for those who are clearly gifted, but inexperienced, needing to learn and grow and display/perform but being deprived the opportunity in the name of “excellence,” whatever that means. The last thing the church needs is elitist creatives keeping people from walking into their God-given gifting.

Then in the midst of reading, Manuel Luz’ book Imagine That, I saw a definition of excellence I can get behind.

“Excellence is doing the best you can with what you have.”

That’s called faithfulness, it allows for growth, learning, failure, etc. If you’ve given your best today, that’s enough, because we all know this to be true. If you give your best every day, to every project, day in and day out, your best gets better, and better.

So work with excellence today, whatever that means today, knowing full well that you’ll be more excellent tomorrow.

The Other Side of Excellence

The Other Side of Excellence

Well I was (very gently) taken to task by a dear sister on my post “The Pursuit of Excellence.” This sister is a pastor and brought up something those of us in the church have all experienced. Basically it’s when dear Aunt Erma feels the need to sing a solo in the service. She has no real singing ability but because she is a pillar of the church, no one has ever told her. This sister asked if she should make a visitor sit through that and that’s a great question.

Now if she had said should she make the congregation sit through that, my knee-jerk reaction would be “yes” because the church does not exist to make believers comfortable. But when she made it about a visitor who may or may not be a believer, my tune changed because I believe the church exists largely for the sake of those beyond it’s walls. Maybe we need to slightly revisit excellence.

I’ll use myself as an example. I LOVE to sing. I pity the person who drives my car after me if I forgot to turn the volume down because they would be in for a shock. It can get pretty loud in there. There are even times where I think I sound pretty good in my car. But that’s where it stays because I’ve been told often my singing voice is not very good.

On the other hand, I have received compliments on my speaking voice. I’m not saying that to boast because quite honestly, I don’t see it. I know it is the voice God gave me and I know He uses it, but when I hear it played back, I think it sounds really nasal and a little whiny.

It’s confusing and makes me wonder if we sound different to others than we do in our own heads. Kind of like the weird questions I ask myself, for example: We all basically agree that grass is green but what if the green I see looks like my purple to you. We’d never know the difference because we all agree that grass is green. (I told you it was weird)

What if Aunt Erma thinks she sounds great and no one has told her any different. I mean if you’ve seen the first five weeks or so of American Idol, you know there’s a lot of that going around. How do we deal with this? I think it comes back to God and trusting that He has gifted you for something specific. If the vast majority of people see my speaking voice as a gift and my singing voice as… well… not a gift, then God will probably receive more glory from my speaking than my singing and I am here to glorify God then I should probably focus on speaking unless God says different.

Don’t get me wrong, I still sing praise and I sing loud and “proud” but I do it in the midst of the congregation lifting my praise in community, to be drowned out by the better singers. I leave the solos to others.

Maybe in the church we just need to be sure to be honest. We praise people in the areas where they are gifted and encourage them to pursue that. We don’t crush their spirits, but we call out their best. We speak the truth in love and we help them to be excellent.

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Matthew 19,20; Psalm 69
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