While serving at a church many years ago, our youth pastor had gone out for the day to attend a meeting with other youth ministries in the city.
Guest speakers had come in to teach and equip the leaders for more effective youth ministry.
He came back from the meeting angry.
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“It was basically just a seminar on branding,” he said.
“In order to being greater glory to God, to see people find Jesus, to see Him save and heal and set free, their great big ideas were things like ‘have a catchy name,’ ‘create a cool atmosphere on youth nights,’ ‘make sure you have a professional-sounding worship band,’ and things like that.
‘There wasn’t a single mention of prayer. There wasn’t a single mention of the Bible. There wasn’t a single mention of caring for people. It was all about the brand, the show, to do everything with a ‘spirit of excellence’ that we need to bring to everything in order to reach people.”
There it was – that phrase. “The spirit of excellence.”
It was wide-spread in many North American churches in the early 2000’s. It meant that our building needing to look amazing, our website had to be cutting-edge, our ministries needed to put in tons of time, so that everything that we did would be top-quality and professional.
The belief was that people won’t engage if things were anything but slick, so we needed to do this for the sake of the lost and the sake of the Church.
But in part, it came from a better place than that – an attitude of worship. “God deserves our best, not our scraps,” was the idea, so He deserved the best of our time, the best of our money, the best of our efforts, in order to glorify Him.
And, of course, there is nothing wrong in themselves with a great worship team that sounds amazing, or a stunningly beautiful building, or professional-looking ministries.
All of these things can be great tools, and of course, we should always be bringing our best efforts to God and others as our worship.
The question is, what are we putting our hope in?
The danger of “the spirit of excellence” is that it becomes very easy to think that if we just work hard enough, make things look good enough, then ministry will thrive, because of all of our hard work.
It also becomes dangerous when we begin to think that anything less than “excellent” by worldly standards can’t be used by God.
And also – this would seem to be the exact opposite of what Scripture teaches.
In reflecting on the Cross, Paul wrote:
27 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. 28 God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no one may boast before him. 30 It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. 31 Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.” (1Cor 1.27-31)
The Cross looked foolish, it looked weak.
What sort of God lowers Himself in such a way?
But the Cross was the unlikely means that God used to actually display His greatness.
So our “excellence” is actually not required even a little bit. God specifically notes that He will use the less-than-excellent things of this world in order to display His power, so that no human can brag about what is happening by their own efforts.
Paul would see this at work in himself as well:
1“When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. 2 For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 3 I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. 4 My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, 5 so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.” (1Cor 2.1-5)
The most important thing was not the polish of Paul’s sermon, how well he had constructed the teaching, how much training he had or how many applause moments he got.
You actually get the sense from him that his preaching kind of sucked, at least in human terms!
Paul throws his own abilities under the bus, noting that the only reason anything good came of his preaching was because the Holy Spirit had moved in power.
He then specifically says that this happened so that no human could get the credit, but only God.
Even what Scripture says about Jesus the Messiah is telling:
2 “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to Him,
nothing in His appearance that we should desire Him.
3 He was despised and rejected by mankind,
a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
He was despised, and we held Him in low esteem.” (Isa 53.2-3)
Jesus came in the opposite of a “spirit of excellence,” not looking to use human means in order to elevate Himself.
He came not in glory or majesty or with displays of pomp, but rather came in weakness and humility, choosing the lowly path and knowing that it was the power of the Holy Spirit that was going to reach people.
There is nothing wrong with working hard in ministry. There is nothing wrong with thinking about what might help people engage.
And again, of course we should always be bringing God our very best efforts. Excellence can be a good thing.
But how much of our efforts go towards planning, prepping, studying, the human effort side of ministry, versus how much of our efforts goes towards seeking the filling of the Spirit, His power, and His presence?
When the Holy Spirit falls on the early believers at Pentecost in Acts 2, Peter gets up and preaches the first message of the new Church.
The moment is spontaneous; he has had no prep time, no time to dig into commentaries or time to craft clever meme-worthy pithy sayings. He hasn’t taken hours to get his head around things.
No, he stands up in the moment, filled with the Holy Spirit, preaches what is in his heart, and three thousand people get saved (Ac 2.41).
The danger of the “spirit of excellence” isn’t in the desire to work hard and do things well; that is well and good.
The danger is in depending on our human efforts instead of the power of the Holy Spirit, and in assuming that God will only use the excellent things of this world to accomplish His will.
We must put to death anything that causes us to rely on ourselves, our work, our gifts, our abilities, and ensure that we are seeking the Lord, first and foremost, understanding that His power is the only thing that reveals Jesus and changes lives.
And we must put to death the assumption that God can only use the things that look good, as this would be counter to the teachings of Scripture.
When we are properly humbled, and properly seeking Him, then we are well-positioned to use our gifts in order to bring Him the most glory.
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