Excellence is not a swear word
Every youth leader should strive for excellence in their youth ministry. There. I said it. For some readers, that is a non-statement. To them, the pursuit of excellence is a pre-requisite for every servant of Christ.
There are others, however, who have not made it to this sentence in the article, because they are already emailing the good people of YCW magazine, demanding this column be terminated with immediate effect!
For these readers, excellence is exclusive, resulting in a professionalised church where only the elite are allowed to participate, while the more ordinary amongst us sit at the sidelines and watch on, as though we were attending a concert rather than participating in an authentic community.
I dare to suggest, however, that excellence and opportunity are not mutually exclusive, and for that reason, excellence is not a swear word…
Why excellence matters
1. Excellence honours God
I am fortunate enough to live in the beautiful town of Malvern. A brisk 20-minute walk from my office door takes me to the top of the Beacon, the tallest of the Malvern Hills. From there, in daylight hours, I can see for miles around. At night, far away from the city lights, I can see stars without number blanketing the sky.
On both occasions it is clear to me, our God is a God of excellence! In creativity? Excellent. In beauty? Excellent. In diversity? Excellent. In grandeur? EXCELLENT! When God created a home for us he did it with the utmost excellence. Should that which we offer in service and worship of him be any less? Indeed not…
When the Lord gave instructions to Moses about how God’s people should worship him, he decreed that only an offering ‘without defect’ would be accepted (Lev. 22:20). Later on, the Lord rebuked his people for failing to offer the very best of their flock (Mal. 1:6-14).
And most importantly, as Perry Noble reminds us, “When it came to redeeming mankind, Jesus did not search the back corners of heaven to find some under-challenged angel who had nothing to do … he came, he did it, he paid for the sin of the world! He gave his best, and his followers should do the same.”
I love how Shelley Giglio implores us to pursue excellence, for this reason, saying, “God is an excellent God. He does things as well as possible. So should we. We want to do things the best we can do it because God deserves our very best. God living in us informs the way we do things and the kind of excellence that God demands.”
2. Excellence inspires people
One concern often raised when the language of ‘excellence’ is used in church circles, is the danger of creating an exclusive environment, where only the most talented are allowed to participate. I would argue the exact opposite is true…
Imagine a youth ministry where the environment is cold, the decor dated, the music irrelevant, the band insensitive, and the communication boring. In this kind of setting, the long-standing Christian young person may continue to engage week after week because of two pre-existing relationships:
First, their relationship with God, through which they find meaning in the experience.
Second, their relationship with the people involved in the gathering. Their pre-existing relationships cause them to return in spite of the quality of the experience.
Now imagine a new young person shows up to that environment. They have no pre-existing relationships to return for, and this is their first encounter with a church of any kind. The environment is dated, the songs unrecognisable, the music bad and they are bored by the communication.
Are they coming back next week? No chance! And so you see, because of the lack of excellence, insiders are included, whilst outsiders are excluded.
Tim Keller makes this case brilliantly…
“The quality of the music, your speech, and even the visual aesthetics in worship will have a marked impact on evangelistic power … In many churches, the quality of the music is mediocre or poor, but it does not disturb the faithful.
Why? Their faith makes the words of the song meaningful, despite its lack of artistic expression; what’s more, they usually have a personal relationship with the music presenter. But any outsider who comes in as someone unconvinced of the truth and having no relationship to the presenter will likely be bored or irritated the expression.
In other words, excellent aesthetics includes outsiders, while mediocre aesthetics excludes. The low level of artistic quality in many churches guarantees that only insiders will continue to come.”
‘Excellence’ is not a swear word, it is non-negotiable. Excellence does not have to equate to exclusive, just as ‘Spirit-filled’ does not have to equate to poorly planned, thrown together and badly executed.
How dare we say, “I’m doing this for Jesus,” and follow it up with a mediocre, half-hearted, underwhelming effort. God gave us his very best, so we will give him ours.
So, leader, make excellence a non-negotiable. Set standards that scare you and work to achieve them. And, to paraphrase the great Walt Disney, do what you do so well that your young people will want to come back next week and bring their friends.
Excellence is not a swear word.
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