Strive for Excellence – Really?

I cringe every time  hear someone use the phrase, “strive for excellence”, when discussing the theatrical components of church services. I don’t know what folks mean when they say it. I don’t even know what I personally understand when I hear it.  Excellence can mean so many different things.

One use of ‘excellence’ highlights mechanical sophistication.  This use judges a  poorly read Shakespearean sonnet to third graders more excellent than a perfectly read rendition of an old “Sally, Dick, and Jane” primer.  I doubt the third graders would agree. But, it has some validity. A piece of art can stand on its own without any consideration of a particular audience’s capacity to understand it. Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring triggered a riot at its first performance. However, it was, and still is, a great piece of art. Bach’s wife sold some of his manuscripts as scrape paper because she, nor his contemporaries, valued his genius. Their ignorance did not flaw a single fugue. Great art isn’t made great art by popular acclamation.

However, we see a tension between sophistication and target audience in the Bible. For example, the new testament was written in Koine Greek which was the written style of the common masses instead of one of the more academic styles, such as Ionic, used by Homer and Herodotus.  Paul even plainly stated that he, “came not with excellency of speech or of wisdom, declaring unto you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified.”

So, although structural sophistication is a form of excellence, we cannot use it as a goal for church theatrics. I am not saying that all theatrics in church should be simple to the point of stupidity. There is a place in the harvest field for men like C. S. Lewis, Victor Hugo, G. K. Chesterton, J. S. Back, Soren Kierkegard, George Herbert, and Frederic Hart.  Some need the intellectual stimulation of thoughtful seed but the masses only miss the pearl of great price if it is wrapped in a pretentious package. Go ye unto ALL the world. That is why it is fine that most sermons are on an eighth grade level and wall music is below most pop music standards. Most services should target the lowest common denominator.

So what do we mean by excellence? Many confuse accuracy and excellence. They mean they are striving to sing on pitch, quote scripture correctly, and use proper grammar. That is a good goal and we could build a biblical argument for it. “And if there be any blemish therein, as if it be lame, or blind, or have any ill blemish, thou shalt not sacrifice it unto the LORD thy God.” (Deuteronomy 15:21). However, many good commentaries discuss the relative quality of the greek grammar of books in the new testament. The amanuenses, the scribes taking dictation from the apostles, had varying grammatical skill. Some of the books even contain obvious grammatical errors.  Thus, accuracy, while a good goal, is not the mark we need to hit.

Can we say a perfect reading of “Sally, Dick, and Jane” is more excellent than a sonnet reading that has a stumble? Which would you rather hear after elementary school graduation? Substance matters. Being engaged by the material matters.

Have you ever heard a music box? It sounds mechanical because it is 100% accurate. It has no soul.  In fact, the only pop music I like is slightly flawed. I like Willy Nelson because he is out-of-step and I like Bob Dylan because he is slightly off-key. I hate the bland perfection of American idol contestants because it is mere mindless perfection. I love Van Gogh because his paintings are not a Polaroid.   It is said that, “Art imitates life”  but it shouldn’t be a brainless carbon copy.

I like the ancient Greek concept of Arete. Excellence is intimately bound to purpose and function.  Using that standard to judge excellence in the house of God, we look at the true goal of the activity. A sermon is excellent if the target audience is engaged and understand. Who cares if the Illuminati thought it was brilliant? Music is excellent if the entire congregation is engaged and participating in worship. Who cares if they are entertained with a ‘professional’ performance? The entire assembly should sing to themselves in spiritual songs. That is not an audience. The apostle Paul spoke of building the church with wood, hay, stubble, and gold. Entertainment is stubble. Facilitating a heart of worship in the house of God is eternal gold.

— Donnie Bryson

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