Excellence vs. Community?

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How good is good enough when it comes to doing what we do in church on Sundays?

It’s a tough question to answer. I’m sure it’s one that churches everywhere struggle with. We all want things done well but well is a relative term. Well depends on the people who make up your community (their gifts, their numbers, their availability). Well is measured by whatever metric matters most (inclusion, excellence, grace, beauty?). Well varies from Sunday to Sunday even for the ‘most gifted’ preachers, musicians, and tech operators (everyone has good weeks and bad).

And is ‘doing well’ what we’re going for in church? If our faith is about grace (and not works), shouldn’t doing well be based on God’s take on us – a perfect Heavenly Father who chooses to love the heart of every completely out of tune 4 year old singing in the children’s choir? Let’s face it, compared to God’s perfection we’re all just yelping.

But in the bible, excellence and beauty seem to matter a lot to God. He made a perfect creation. He gave amazing (and often celebrated) artistic, musical and leadership gifts to people. But on the other hand God also used stutterers, runts and self-righteous prigs. His power is made perfect in weakness right?

So, again, its all so confusing to me. Do you just do the best you can with the people you have, trusting that God is good with that? Let the best speakers speak and strongest singers sing and wisest leaders lead and find a way to speak the truth in love when it comes to discerning which is which?

Do you try to improve going forward as a faith community; knowing that you’re made in the image of a God who does all things well? I think you do. But the moment that that thought translates into action, and I have to tell someone that their voice isn’t good enough, or that they don’t have the technical aptitude, or that they’re not called to preach or teach children, my confidence ebbs. Who am I to make those kinds of calls?

I suppose it’s not up to me to make those choices. Decisions that strike the right balance between excellence and grace need to be communally made. But I’m not sure how that happens. Do musicians make music decisions or does the rest of the singing community? Or should church leaders make those calls? I suppose it needs to be a mix of all of the above. Which only adds to the complexity.

Maybe the answer is less about where you draw the line and more about when you do.

Jesus called a motley crew of untrained fishers to be the foundation of his church. He started with very average people and transformed them into very powerful leaders. This took years. I suppose taking the time is the most gracious (and costly in terms of energy expended) way of having the conversation. Give people every chance to succeed and find their way. Do this in love and with compassion for both the person and the congregation. Don’t be too quick to judge. Have faith that God can create a kind of community where excellence and inclusion aren’t seen as mutually exclusive. Imagine a community so defined by love, so marked by humility, that everyone is able to come to the same conclusion about ‘who’s called to do what’ all at the same time.

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Thank you, John for posting this.  I really appreciate your thoughtfulness in this article. 

Community Builder

One of the things that usually ends up frustrating me (and I'm not sure if I'm right to let it frustrate me) is when I know the music for a service could be done better with maybe half an hour more practice, but individuals say that they don't want practice to go more than an hour. I view that as stopping short of the effort required, but that could be a result of my personality. Also, I recognize that if you were to take that to the extreme you could end up practicing for hours at a time and you need to draw the line somewhere. I guess I'm frustrated when I don't think people's hearts are in it, but then again, how can I know for sure where they are? I'm not expecting perfection, I am expecting people to have left something of themselves on the altar, but am I allowed to expect that or am I out of place?

Admin

I love this article! Thanks for the thoughtful and nuanced questions. There is so much we want to control, or make better, but God has always worked through imperfect people to accomplish incredible things! 

"C" grade music is OK, tolerable. A solid "F" soloist? 

Community Builder

I think part of the answer is expecting from all who would participate in the service a (speaking, singing, playing whatever) recognition that their participation isn't only about giving them a chance to do their thing in front of the congregation.  If everyone that the point of serving is serving, the problem really disappears.

Not all will have that maturity of course.  Which means another one of your jobs is to teach that, both as a preliminary to anyone who wants to participate (serve) and in an ongoing way.  Another job may be to find opportunities for all to serve, even if they ultimately can't serve in the way they first wanted.  

Participant

There was a book at one time published by Faith Alive, "Authentic Worship in a Changing Culture".  The short story is that excellence in worship is achieved based on ability and skills.  Don't' ask a 3 year old to sing an aria from Handel's Messiah.  at the same time, don't insult an advanced musicians to play just the melody line of a song.  Don't ask the 3rd grade Sunday School class to create a banner in the style of Van Gogh, at the same time, don't stifle an inspiring visual artist to a felt board.  I realize these may be extremes, but hoping you get the picture.  If you ask the beginning piano student to play a simple melody during the worship service that the person is able to achieve then you have done both excellence and community.  If you ask your more advanced musicians to play a more advanced or original piece, then you have created excellence based on ability, and you have created appreciation for that person, thus fostering community.

Having said this, I do feel that commitment among members is also a factor, sometimes they aren't as dedicated to the life of the church and don't always feel the commitment to prepare for worship for various reasons.  As a worship director, I also find this difficult to see people who I know have the talent and are consistently not playing to their abilities.  So a lower expectation of excellence is required on your part to make them still feel "community" and to achieve "excellence" that you are looking for.

 

Community Builder

 I tried singing in the choir in my church a few times, and it never worked out.  But it wasn't my voice that was the problem.  I was throwing everybody else off key.  So I had to give that up as a way to serve God and find out where my real gifts lay.  It took awhile but now I'm in my right niche. Sometimes you're not doing people or the church a favour by letting them continue in a line they're not gifted for, while other areas are being neglected.  These days I translate sermon power points into French and bake desserts for Community Supper, a ministry of our congregation.  And I have been appointed as Regional Advocate for Classis Eastern Canada.  These would not have happened if I'd insisted on singing in the choir, and no one had told me it wasn't my place.

Guide

John, thanks for these thoughts. I've asked these same questions myself. Bill Vanden Bosch, a retired CRC pastor who did well at engaging people of various cultures and people with disabilities in the life of the congregation, once told me, "The best worship comes from the heart, reaches the heart of God, and the hearts of all the worshipers touch each other." I love the communal focus of that statement. Excellence in worship is not about achieving certain technical standards, it's about people connecting with God and with each other through the power of the Holy Spirit. Given that as a standard, a stammering reader or a clumsy dancer may lead the congregation in worship better than well-trained actors or dancers. 

Community Builder

 I agree with that statement.  When I'm unable to attend the service at "my" church I watch a service of The People's Church in Toronto, and while I enjoy the preaching, the singing irritates me no end.  The people who sing do so many descants on familiar songs that you'd think they were singing in a concert hall.  It really is a performance, and you wonder who's the audience.  Very often I either cut the sound or turn the TV off altogether.

Good thoughts all! This is a frequent issue in worship, partly because we think of the individual too much as doing something for the community, and the community as a receptor which wants or deserves better. If we think more of worship as all of us in community ("one body") doing something together for God, every member having gifts to add to the whole, never telling someone they are not gifted for this or that, but helping them find where their gift fits best, thus moving the whole body toward greater degrees of excellence; the dilemma of community vs excellence disappears. Excellence means getting all the instruments in the right place and performing together in the best possible way for the ultimate concert of praise.