When excellence is a guiding principle, is your worship Christian?

At a conference at a Christian University several years ago, I heard Stanley Hauerwas comment on part of the University’s mission statement that used the word “excellence.” As only Hauerwas can say it, “When excellence is in your mission statement, you’ve lost the capacity to be a Christian University.”

I remembered this comment a few weeks ago as I was reading survey responses given by those who plan and lead worship. The word “excellence” was used several times, alongside words like “seamless” and “flow,” words which require a certain competent efficiency.

I remembered Hauerwas’ words again today when I read an article published by The Christian Post that reported on a church in Oregon that bans fat people from serving on the praise team, for, among other reasons, their tendency to interrupt the “flow of anointing” between members of the team. I kid you not. These guidelines, which included many things, were posted on their website until it began attracting negative attention.

Our outrage over this (I hope you’re outraged, but I’m worried that some of you might be thinking, “it’s wrong, but they have a point”) gets at Hauerwas’ point. Their concern over appearance was in part related to the public statement they wanted to make with guests. “You only get one chance to make a good first impression,” the statement read. Fat people need not apply. I wonder about old people, or people with disabilities, or physical deformities. Could a person in a wheel chair even make it onto the worship “stage?”

Richard Beck tells of being invited to share from his book, Unclean, with the ministry staff of a very well-known megachurch. He visited their worship before he met with them, and they asked him about his impressions of their worship. He responded that there was no death visible. They were certainly not expecting this response, and asked him to explain. Everyone who led in their very polished worship experience, he explained, was young and pleasant in appearance. Death denial. They were shocked that this was the case, perhaps an indication that all of this works on us at a very subconscious level.

These kinds of worship experiences certainly do leave a first impression. We’re about the appearance of wholeness and vitality. We’re hoping you find us attractive and enjoy your time with us. We’d never do anything intentionally to offend you or put you off. And for an hour on Sunday, you too can live in this world of appearances. Excellence. And here’s the thing. Excellence is exclusionary.

So, what would a Christian first impression be? Wouldn’t it have to be a little scandalous? Wouldn’t it have to give an impression of gracious inclusion, that all are welcome here just as they are? Wouldn’t it have to publicly exhibit the fact that our world is not perfect and you don’t have to be either? Wouldn’t we have to exhibit in some way our brokenness? Wouldn’t it have to demonstrate that the people our society would hide or overlook have a vital and visible place here?

I attended a church in Durham, NC, recently that gave just this kind of impression. The worship band was diverse, as were all who led publicly. Young and old, black and white and hispanic, male and female. The entire service was done in both English and Spanish, even though there didn’t appear to be many “Spanish as first language” people present. At one point in the service, they opened it up for anyone to speak around a prompt that had emerged from the sermon. Talk about a “flow” killer. The first speaker was a young man with down syndrome dressed in a suit and tie. Earlier in the service, he had walked in front of the praise band to get to his seat while doing some version of the funky chicken. At this point in the service, he enthusiastically took the mic and said some things that sounded sufficiently churchy, even if they weren’t fully coherent. The church applauded when he finished. I bet there aren’t that many public places he can go and hold the microphone and speak and be so warmly affirmed. And I bet there aren’t many places where the members of this church work that would appreciate or encourage this kind of thing. That’s Christian worship.

I could give several other examples of how that congregation gave a first impression of inclusion. I wondered if I were that church’s pastor, if I would’ve been cool with all that, particularly of giving the mic to anybody. I recently visited one of my former congregations and was stunned when a particularly challenging member of the congregation led a prayer. To my shame, I knew that would never have happened when I was there. What value was I protecting by resisting that level on inclusion? Probably something to do with excellence or efficiency.

My friend, Erik, who is on our grad program and lives his life in a wheelchair, is very kind to gently point out ways that I haven’t fully thought about the experience of people like him. At our conference a little over a week ago, Jaime Clark-Soles talked of her experience in imagining church from the perspective of people with disabilities. She says she’ll never see church the same way again. I know that parents of “special-needs” children often give up on going to church because its moving too fast for them to participate. They often feel disruptive and left out. Shouldn’t their inclusion be a test of the gospel in worship?

I can hear some of you hissing. You’ll never reach people that way. Agreed. Some you won’t. Some won’t think that this kind of public display represents much good news. It will be too embarrassing, too many smells and sights and sounds. But some will. The poor, the lame, the blind, the crippled. Let the reader understand.

 

About Mark Love

I am the Dean for the School of Theology and Ministry and Director of the Resource Center for Missional Leadership at Rochester College. Part of my job includes directing a master's degree in missional leadership, a situated learning degree. I am married to Donna and have a son, Josh Love, who is a practicing new monastic in Abilene, TX. With Donna, I have also inherited three great daughters and two amazing granddaughters.
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5 Responses to When excellence is a guiding principle, is your worship Christian?

  1. Bob Cornwall says:

    There’s a difference between pursuing excellence as a goal and trying to connect elements of worship so they provide a what Jamie called a narrative arc. In my mind that’s what flow is about, but a service takes on a life of its own — or as the Spirit leads.

    I found the piece about the praise team mind-boggling, though I know there was a time at CWCC where music was central, and the paid soloists were the center piece. The rest of the choir was there for back up (or so I’m told). The choir might not be as professional today, but I think the Spirit is better able to work!

    • Mark Love says:

      Sure,there are different ways to think about flow. But most of the respondents to the survey didn’t appear to be thinking about a narrative structure, but the way the pieces fit together to create an experience.

      And there are ways to be excellent that wouldn’t necessarily lead to exclusion. The church in Durham did things well, but they weren’t governed by excellence as much as they were inclusion.

  2. Thank you Mark.

    The implications go beyond worship, right? I live in the tension here in Tanzania (I work with Eric) with our water well and health work. Put another way (though overstated), “do we want to be effective, or do we want to work with churches?”

    May God bless you as you bring important insights into our gospel. Peace

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

  3. Jeff Christian says:

    I was with a church earlier in my ministry life that had “Excellence in all we do” as a core value. When I brought up that such a core value had more to do with Aristotle than the Gospel… well… let’s just say it did not go over that well. It seems to me that the whole “Love God, Love your neighbor” approach does not mesh well with excellence as a driving force. In practice, it would be possible to focus on excellence without ever really needing God.

  4. Colby says:

    Thank you for the insights. I wonder if the pursuit of excellence has something to do with so many things we just take for granted. 1 hour worship services: because anything longer gets tedious and boring. Short and infrequent prayers (opening and closing are good enough): because any more and you would lose the audience. Bible Class curriculum: we only want the best, engaging material available. A building project we like to show off. An efficient and dependable office atmosphere throughout the week. The newest fad/theme that is an attention getter. There is obviously more. I wouldn’t want to abandon a desire to do what I do to the best of my ability – I don’t want to preach a boring and lifeless sermon on purpose, God knows I do enough of them anyway, but churches have bought into consumerism hook, line and sinker, and if we try to play that game, we lose because there are too many other things that can outshine our “presentation” any day of the week. I think it is one of the core reasons why churches in America are declining – we are trying to beat the world at its own game, playing by its rules and losing miserably. We might have a good drive every now and then and get excited, but a look at the scoreboard shows that we really don’t even belong on the field. We should be playing our own game on our terms on our own field, or better put, God’s terms on his field – relying on him and his spirit to shape us and transform us, almost always through unforseen opportunities, not perfectly crafted programs and experiences. I’m often at a loss for how to help us get there, so I really appreciate your concrete examples of what it could look like. Thank you.

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