Friday, December 02, 2005

Another Way of Excellence

Dan Edelen at Cerulean Sanctum has begun an interesting series of messages analyzing Hidden Messages of American Christianity. His first post in the series: Kneeling at the Altar of Excellence, resonates quite strongly with me.

Mr. Edelen exposes the wrongheadedness that characterizes the American Church when it shows partiality to the rich, successful (in worldly terms) and those exceptionally gifted, and recruits such to be members and leaders in the church. It is not that the rich and successful and gifted don't belong in the church, but we are not to measure the value of people, or of the church itself, in these terms. The phenomenon Edelen describes illustrates yet another example (the CCM industry is another) of problems that occur when Christians follow after worldly models: it then begins to use the world's values and mindset to judge success.

The scriptural qualifications for being an elder or an overseer (Titus 1: 6-9, for example), have to do with being spiritually mature; proving yourself to be a person of character and trustworthiness through a demonstrated record of service. Unfortunately, many churches in America, perhaps unwittingly influenced by the "business model" mode of organization, measure success by the size of church membership, and recruit leadership on the basis of degrees earned, or one's business resume, rather upon a record of faithful service within the church.

The early church chose people of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom (Acts 6:3), but we choose those who have earned theological degrees, or those who have proven themselves, but only in the world's marketplace. Yes, Christians ought to be excellent in their chosen fields, and this is an important part of one's reputation. But when choosing suitable leaders for the church, ought not the priority to be to search out godly men and women, not just the most talented or most accomplished? These two sets of criteria are by no means mutually exclusive, but neither are they one and the same. The marks of the mature, godly man or woman are discerned, not only in how they do their jobs, but also within their homes, in their relationships with spouse and children; in their relationships within the community; and in the depth and intimacy of their relationship with God, from which comes true spiritual wisdom and power.

Of course, the church wants to be successful in reaching the world, and so it may seem that if you've got large numbers of previously unchurched people filling the pews of your church-- that is a sign of success. And if "excellent" programs are what seem to attract them, then why not cultivate this type of excellence?

But the mandate of the church is to make disciples (Matthew 28:19), not just to increase the numbers of people coming into the church. If you have lured people into church by creating for them a "user-friendly" message that says Christianity is mostly about you and your family's success, without also presenting to them the challenge of submitting to the Lordship of Christ in all things, as the gospel of Christ does, then you have brought them in under false pretenses. The gospel indeed promises great fulfillment, but only to the one who will "deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow Me (Luke 9:23).

"The inroads that business practices made into our churches through the Church Growth Movement have enshrined success as the be all and end all. The only problem is that now there is no room for true grace for the fallen", says Mr. Edelen.

How true. The gospel calls out to the poor, the uneducated, the ordinary, the marginalized, the disenfranchised, and offers a message of hope, deliverance and renewal to such. God is no respecter of persons. He loves the one who is poor in this world's eyes, giving him dignity by speaking to him with the respect due to one made in God's own image. And He loves the rich too, and appeals to the affluent, powerful and successful man to consider from whence his opportunities and blessings have come, that he may also give the Creator the praise and honor that is His due.

As a singer and songwriter I too have been infected with this way of thinking at times. Sometimes I have been afraid to put my music out into the marketplace for fear of failure of not being "good" enough (to sell lots of records). I have feared that music too explicitly Christian will have limited commercial appeal, and so I have waited and waited. On the other hand I have thought of myself as too "good" to play at church, if sometimes other musicians or singers did not seem to be on my level, forgetting that playing in church (or anywhere else for that matter), the most important thing is to have your heart in the right place towards God.

I do believe that Christians ought to be excellent! But I will try to not to let the world squeeze me into its mode, with a definition of excellence based upon numbers, popularity, or other accolades it may offer. Rather I would define excellence as putting one's God-given abilities to use for the will of God, laboring with all of your energy and putting forth your very best efforts in full cooperation with the Holy Spirit, so that one's whole life may "adorn the doctrine of God our Savior (Titus 2:10). When the church values excellence in this sense, it will take into account that people have diverse callings, with various measures of faith, and many differing talents, but that all are to be encouraged to develop their strengths and to use them, because each of us has an important role to play in the life of the church.

I happen to be a Christian who has been given an artistic calling, so my way of being excellent will differ from those with other callings. But being a Christian should help me to line up my priorities in regard to my particular, artistic calling. In his Christian Reflections, C.S. Lewis said about the Christian artist:

"the Christian knows from the outset that the salvation of a single soul is more important than the production or preservation of all the epics and tragedies in the world. The Christian artist, unlike the Pagan artist, will tend to look at the receivers of his artwork as his superiors, rather than his inferiors. Furthermore, the Christian artist has no objection to comedies that merely amuse and tales that merely refresh, for he will realize, like Thomas Aquinas, that we can play, as we can eat, to the glory of God".

May our pursuit of excellence always have the Lord's mission and heart to save the whole individual as its driving force.

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