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(Mis)Understanding Excellence: How Godly Excellence Shapes Your Life and Your Ministry

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What one word unites the billionaires of corporate America and the church of Jesus Christ? Excellence. Check the mission statements. The ambitions of America’s business elite are strikingly similar to those of gospel-centered, Bible-believing worship leaders. Excellence is the new jargon describing our purpose. But there’s a problem with this conversation, and that problem lies in how we define excellence.

In all this talk of excellence, many Christians fail to realize the chasm between the world’s definition of excellence and God’s definition of excellence. The two are not synonymous. In fact, worship leaders in particular often succumb to a worldly definition of excellence. In doing this, we actually misunderstand godly excellence.

Distinguishing the two

Worldly excellence is greatness measured by extraordinary accomplishments. In the world’s eyes, excellence is a battle of stats. The musicians who sell the most records or the athletes that win championships are excellent, while the rest of us are average—or maybe even failures—because excellence is only available to the elite.

By contrast, godly excellence is greatness measured by extraordinary stewardship. In the aptly-titled Excellence, Andreas Köstenberger calls us to define excellence by the God who calls us “to his own glory and excellence” (2 Peter 1:3) [1]. Godly excellence is grounded in our knowledge of the only One who is truly excellent in all he does. As his image-bearers, we strive to imitate him and steward well the talents, abilities, and resources he gives us. Thus, pursuing excellence becomes our prayerful, grace-driven, Spirit-enabled work to faithfully reflect a holy God in every circumstance.

Better than I once was

Harold Best affirms, “Excellence is the process of becoming better than I once was. I am not to become better than someone else is or even like someone else.” [2]

Jesus illustrated godly excellence in the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14–30). In this story, the master of the house recognizes that his people are different. He holds them individually accountable for the gifts that they received from him. The master applauds those who use their gifts courageously and audaciously rather than playing it safe, in order to become “better than I once was,” as Best says. Our Master doesn’t compare our accomplishments with someone else’s. God rewards all who strive to steward their God-given gifts with excellence (with the ultimate reward of enjoying the Master’s presence, nonetheless!).

Five ways to pursue godly excellence

What’s next? Maybe you get this concept of excellence, but you’ve been conditioned by a worldly culture and you don’t feel excellent. Maybe you’re in a church where worldly excellence has crept in. As a boost towards faithfulness to God in your life and your ministry, take these five practical steps to apply godly excellence in worship:

1. Choose stewardship over perfection. In a fallen world, the “perfect performance” is an illusion. Let’s stop chasing perfection and shift our attention to stewarding the resources God has provided.

2. Emphasize identity over than productivity. Our understanding of excellence says something about our identity. The gospel tells us that God cares far more about who we are than what we do. As worship leaders, let this truth shape how you lead people. Let’s talk more about who God is making us to be by the power of his Spirit and less about our musical performance on Sunday mornings.

3. Compare vertically, not horizontally. Comparison is not necessarily a problem. The problem lies in what (or who) you’re comparing yourself to. When we try to measure excellence, the world wants us to compare horizontally—to other people. This breeds unhealthy competition and idolatry. In contrast, godly excellence focuses on the vertical relationship first. When we focus on God’s character in the gospel, God produces in us a heart of humility and a heart for stewardship that changes our perspective.

4. Remember, it’s “Thy Kingdom come,” not “my kingdom come.” A discussion of excellence forces us to ask tough questions. Whose kingdom am I serving? God’s? Or my own? Is our primary ambition to be famous or faithful? Does everyone walk away talking about your personal performances or the greatness and glory of God?

5. Godly excellence is inclusive, not exclusive. In other words, God calls everyone to excellence for his glory, not just the elite. Martin Luther King, Jr., captured this point in a 1967 speech:

And when you discover what you will be in your life, set out to do it as if God Almighty called you at this particular moment in history to do it. Don't just set out to do a good job. Set out to do such a good job that the living, the dead or the unborn couldn't do it any better. . . . For it isn't by size that you win or fail. Be the best of whatever you are. [3]

Worshipers and worship leaders, may we all heed the call and pursue excellence in worship for the glory of our Lord.

Jonathan Welch (@welchjonathan) serves as pastor of worship development at The Summit Church in Durham, NC.

[1] Andreas J. Köstenberger, Excellence: the Character of God and the Pursuit of Scholarly Virtue (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011), 37.

[2] Harold Best, Music Through the Eyes of Faith (San Francisco, Calif.: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993), 108.

[3] The Seattle Times, “What Is Your Life’s Blueprint?,” n.p. [cited 30 March 2015]. Online: http://old.seattletimes.com/special/mlk/king/words/blueprint.html.

1 Comment

Thanks for putting into words so cleverly someth that I have know for a while. Godly excellence is different to worldly excellence! Amen

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