A significant missional choice is whether the congregation’s leaders are committed to offering ministry with excellence.
One of the smallest congregations I’ve ever visited meets in a white frame sanctuary that might hold 75 very friendly people. The wood floors and pews creak with any movement made by the 17 worshipers who gather most Sunday mornings. Miss Sarah plays the piano for the singing. She plays very slowly and, frankly, very poorly. Everyone thanks her, though, and they are glad that she plays because no one else can. She is one of them, part of their family and they love her even if her playing isn’t as good as it once was.
Contrast this to another congregation that decided to start a second service in a contemporary style. The worship planners put together a praise team and asked them to start practicing. The musicians rehearsed for over six months before the leaders felt they were ready to begin a quiet beginning to the new worship gathering. Then, after another couple of months of ironing out the logistical kinks, the worship planners felt they were ready for an enthusiastic public invitation for people to come to the new contemporary worship service.
Size and resources, of course, distinguish these two congregations, but let’s focus on their commitment to excellence. The first congregation is focused mainly on their fellowship. And they assume that it is going to be “just us” gathered for worship. Familiarity of relationships, rather than excellence, is their primary concern. In the second congregation, there was a significant commitment that whatever is done be done with excellence. It would be wrong to assume that they did not care about relationships. It was not a choice between relationships and excellence; it was a choice for both!
The missional effect of this choice between good enough and excellence, however, is the choice in our culture between a likely future of decline and a likely future of growth. Here are three reasons why congregational leaders might choose excellence & relationships over relationships & good enough.
Reason One: Theological
When I was ordained, the Bishop asked us the traditional question, “Are you going on to perfection?” We all said, “Yes,” of course. But I had struggled with this question until a seminary professor asked our polity class one day, “Well, what are you going to commit to instead: going on to mediocrity with God’s help?” He continued saying that as persons of faith, we want to do whatever we do as an offering honoring God. Would we offer God anything but our best? Is God honored by anything short of the best that we can offer? And shouldn’t our best next year be better than our best last year – especially when we are committed to cooperating with the Holy Spirit working in and through us?
Reason Two: Cultural
We live in a culture that places a high value on excellence. Those in the baby boomer generation and younger have been raised in a consumer culture that expects quality. When we go to a business and the office is messy or the people we talk with seem disorganized or confused, we naturally assume the service will be sub-par -- and we generally don’t come back. When we eat at a restaurant and the waiter is inattentive or the food is mediocre -- we generally don’t go there again. It is part of the cultural air we breathe. In today’s world, there are so many options for investing our time and our money that unless we experience quality in return -- we go elsewhere.
Reason Three: Evangelical
Visitors and those associate marginally with a congregation initially judge our ministries based on their experience of quality. Ultimately it is through relationships that the Gospel is communicated and people are discipled, but before people can develop relationships, they are making judgments about what goes on at the congregation based on their perception of excellence. If they leave and decide not to return because the music is poorly performed or because the nursery is dingy and dirty or because the church facilities appear ill kept or because the sermon feels irrelevant or boring, then they never have the opportunity to develop those relationships through which Christ’s love can change their lives. Not doing all that we do with a commitment to excellence can become a roadblock to others becoming disciples of Jesus Christ.
Perhaps it is a good discussion to have among your leaders: Are we committed to doing whatever ministry we do with the highest level of excellence we can given the resources we have? And where could we improve a bit this week the quality of ministry that we offer to the people God leads our way?
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Dr. Jeff Stiggins
The Center for Congregational Excellence