The Problem with Excellence (Apr 2013)

By Matt Dabbs

By Gary Holloway

I am worried about excellence. For many years now we have been bombarded with the word “excellence.” It began in business circles then trickled down to Christian schools, colleges, and other ministries. Now it is a watchword in many churches.

“Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all” – Mark 9:39

I am worried about excellence. For many years now we have been bombarded with the word “excellence.” It began in business circles then trickled down to Christian schools, colleges, and other ministries. Now it is a watchword in many churches.

Who could be alarmed at excellence? What could be wrong with excellence?

Nothing, if one the word simply means giving one’s best for God. “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving (Colossians 3:23-24).” We are called to love God and neighbor with all that we are (Mark 12:29-31). We must always give our best to God and others. If that is what our churches, schools, and others mean by “excellence,” then it is surely a biblical idea.

Excellence as Excelling Others
However, in my experience, excellence is more often associated with success. To be excellent means to be bigger. To win. To be recognized as premier.

But that goes directly against the teaching of Jesus. “They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the road?” But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest. Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all” (Mark 9:33-39).

Excellence always means excelling, that is, doing better than someone else. It necessarily leads to questions of “Who is the greatest?” The way of Jesus is not the way of being superior to others. It is the way of the servant. It is the counter-cultural way of the cross. In the words of Henri Nouwen:

“The way of the Christian leader is not the way of upward mobility in which our world has invested so much, but the way of downward mobility ending on the cross… Here we touch the most important quality of Christian leadership in the future.  It is not a leadership of power and control, but a leadership of powerlessness and humility in which the suffering servant of God, Jesus Christ, is made manifest “(In the Name of Jesus, 62-63).

So our schools, ministries, and churches should not pursue excellence, but servanthood. We should measure ourselves by the standard of Christ, who gave himself on the cross, not by the standards of the world. We do not want to be superior to others. We want to be like Jesus.

Of course, you say, that is why we want to have excellence in our church, for the sake of saving souls. But even then we subtlety desire spiritual success. We want our college or ministry or church to be bigger and better. When the seventy-two disciples are sent out by Jesus, they have an excellent ministry. Yet Jesus tells them not to measure themselves by results. “The seventy-two returned with joy and said, “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.”

He replied, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you. However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10: 17-20).

As Oswald Chambers reminds us:

“Worldliness is not the trap that most endangers us as Christian workers; nor is it sin. The trap we fall into is extravagantly desiring spiritual success; that is, success measured by, and patterned after, the form set by the religious age in which we now live. Jesus told the disciples not to rejoice in successful service, and yet this seems to be the one thing in which most of us do rejoice. We have the commercial view – so many souls saved and sanctified, thank God, now it is all right. Our work begins where God’s grace has laid the foundation; we are not to save souls, but to disciple them. Salvation and sanctification are the work of God’s sovereign grace; our work as His disciples is to disciple lives until they are wholly yielded to God. One life wholly devoted to God is of more value to God than one hundred lives simply awakened by His Spirit” (My Utmost for His Highest, April 24).

Excellence as Elitism
More recently, in many university and church circles, I have heard less talk of excellence and more talk of being an “elite” institution. “Elite” appeals to the snob in all of us. Who wants to be ordinary when one can be above the crowd? Why associate with the average or the lowly, when one can walk with kings?

The only problem with that is this: Jesus walked with the lowly. That’s what got him in trouble with the elite. “While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (Matthew 9:10-11). Take a look at the “elite” ministry of Jesus. He welcomed traitors, prostitutes, the sick, and the sinful. They enjoyed being around Jesus and I believe he enjoyed being with them.

True, Jesus also ate with the Pharisees, but those meals always ended with his puncturing their pretense of elitism. True, Jesus encountered governors and kings, but if you remember Herod and Pilate, those elite encounters did not go so well.

And it wasn’t just Jesus. The early Christians were not elite. “Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong” (1 Corinthians 1:26-27).

From Excellence to Faithfulness
So I suggest we take our cues from Jesus and the early church. Let’s love the excellence and elite language and strive to be faithful servants. Let us not measure ourselves by accomplishments or by others, but simply trust the Spirit to produce his fruit in us. What if our goal was fruitfulness, not excellence? What if we worked hard to be servants, not to be elite?

“There is a great difference between successfulness and fruitfulness. Success comes from strength, control, and respectability. A successful person has the energy to create something, to keep control over its development, and to make it available in large quantities. Success brings many rewards and often fame. Fruits, however, come from weakness and vulnerability. And fruits are unique. A child is the fruit conceived in vulnerability, community is the fruit born through shared brokenness, and intimacy is the fruit that grows through touching one another’s wounds. Let’s remind one another that what brings us true joy is not successfulness but fruitfulness.” -Henri Nouwen, Bread for the Journey, January 4

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