I would venture to say one of the most discussed yet misunderstood subjects in church production today is “excellence.” Week after week I see blog posts about excellence. Discussions with church technical artists often touch on the subject. Social media from peers address it. Could it be that I am just the excellence conversation magnet? I don’t think so.
In an article entitled, “The Balance Between Excellence and Excess” the author warns of productions gone amuck in the church. But if that situation indeed occurs, if sometimes churches use production capabilities in a self-aggrandizing or baroque manner “for production’s sake alone,” I would argue that the issue is not that the pendulum has swung from “excellence to excess,” but rather that excellence was in fact ignored. For excellence and excess are not on opposites sides of the same scale or pendulum. They are on separate scales.
I fear some in the Church have redefined “excellence” to mean the antonym of “excess,” or worse now to mean a particular style or level of production complexity. It is not! Excellence in production occurs equally in simplicity as it does complexity. Excellence (and excess) are not defined by how many moving lights, cameras or audio input channels a production uses, but rather how and why those tools are used.
It is my experience that conversations regarding excellence versus excess never occur in the secular marketplace non-church projects I work on. Recently I’ve worked on a concert at Carnegie Hall, a Mayoral State of the City address, parades on and NBC. Not once have any of these networks, producers, artists or crew members warned that we must be careful to keep excellence in check lest it result in something bad.
Some may say, “well those are mostly secular events, those producers do not care about excess as we do at my church, those producers probably want excess!” To which I would respond that each of these clients want quality, none want excess. Excess is expensive. Quality, no matter what the size the production is always a good investment.
Outside of some church subcultures “excellence” is simply defined as a state of eminence, having a high rank or reputation. Excellence is being remarkably good, estimable, fine, admirable. Whereas excellence’s antonyms are inferiority and mediocrity.
Again, the opposite of excellence is not excess. The opposite of excellence is failure.
The incoherence regarding excellence is not limited to my church tech-artist friends, but rather stems downward from (some) church leaders to their staff and laity. At a WFX conference a keynote speech was given by the pastor of one of the largest church’s in America with (pre-pandemic) 13,000 in weekly attendance. In the pastor’s speech he referred to excellence as being just a technique used by churches to appeal to de-churched people. It seems the pastor believes excellence is nothing but a “style” no different than choosing to wear a V-neck versus a crew-neck shirt to appeal to a particular church demographic. I quote from his speech,
“Now in a conference like this where many of you have some involvement in worship and technology and leading, there is one example that I really want to hit on. It is the example of excellence. And I want you to think with me for just a moment because for many of us excellence has moved its way to becoming a core value. But if we were to step back and think about it the drive for excellence came in a time, place and a period where a lot of churches were trying to reach what we call ‘de-churched people.’ People who had gone to church at a young age and bailed out as soon as they could get out because it was kind of boring and it was ‘schlocky.’ And somebody came along and said ‘this can be done with excellence’ and people’s eyes opened and people flocked back to church. Excellence was a tool to reach people for Jesus Christ. Excellence also came onto the scene in our circles during a cultural time frame where excellence was a really high value. One of the top selling business books was, ‘In search of,’ do you know, ‘excellence.’ I challenge you to go onto Amazon right now and find any books that have excellence in the title. But it was also a day and age of conspicuous consumption. The way that you showed you had made it was to have an expensive watch that you were wearing or designer clothes with a particular label or whatever it would be. And now right before us the entire culture is shifted. Whereas before excellence was the key to get attention, excellence was the key to what everybody wanted, there are now two completely different keys to our culture: the first one is authenticity. People want to know that you are real and in fact if you are too excellent and too sharp they see you as phony, they see you as manufactured, ‘are you real?’ …. The second one is what I like to call the Bono factor. ‘What are you doing for someone else?’ Because any church, any organization that comes off as selfish is going to be rejected by 17-70 year olds.”
If we take the pastor at his words, excellence (as he defines it) is akin to being flashy and phony. Excellence (according to him) is the opposite of authenticity.
Although I would certainly agree with the pastor that authenticity is (however I would add ‘always has been’) valued in our culture, there is no dichotomy between authenticity and excellence. It is not that we can achieve either one or the other. We should strive and achieve both.
It is misguided to suggest that authenticity is believable whereas excellence is not. Excellence, by its very definition underpins trust and reinforces the credibility of our ministries. If not, of what benefit is a high rank and reputation?
The antonym of authenticity is not nor has ever been excellence. Excellence and authenticity (as with excess) rest on separate scales.
So then, how should the church view excellence?
Certainly, excellence is not something to fear, that if we go too far with excellence we will wind up with excess, being unauthentic, or worse, sin. When God commanded Moses to make a bronze serpent shaped staff (Numbers 21) God did not warn Moses, “be careful that your craftsmen do not make it too excellent!” By the logic of some in the church today God would warn that an excellent serpent-staff might cause some to worship it. The serpent-staff might turn into a distraction. Or an excellent serpent-staff would be inauthentic. No, in fact Moses’ serpent-staff was a type of Christ’s work for us in salvation. It was designed and made with excellence. The staff was an icon pointing toward God’s provision. Why do we believe only poorly crafted icons glorify our Creator?
It should be noted years later some did worship the staff rather than God, turning it from an icon into an idol. Hezekiah destroyed the staff as a result (2 Kings 18). However the people did not worship the staff because it was excellent, nor did Hezekiah destroy it because it was excellent. They worshiped the staff because they took their attention and affection off that which the staff pointed to – God.
All objects, all styles of music and worship, all tech-arts tools and production techniques can be icons or idols.
Idols are things we worship instead of God. Idols direct our affections toward themselves. Sometimes people take something God-given meant for good and turn into something bad by worshiping the creation instead of the Creator. Worshiping idols is sin, and that has nothing to do with how technically notable the idol is.
But like the symbols on our smartphones, icons point us to something else. Objects, style, tech-arts tools and production techniques within the church should be icons pointing all who experience them toward Jesus. Beautiful, artistic, excellent icons. The best icons are symbols which compel and entice us to launch what the icon is there for, what the icon represents. Do tech-arts without excellence compel or entice?
I fear that if J.S. Bach or Handel were alive today some in the Church would accuse them of excess or lacking authenticity because their compositions were too polished, despite the fact that they created their works with excellence to honor God alone from the fruit of their labor.
The Bible does not warn us about the perils of excellence but rather exhorts us to strive for it. In Proverbs 22:29, the Bible says that a man who performs his work with excellence will serve kings! Excellence, like creativity are attributes of God. We honor God when we exhibit His attributes and when we do the world cannot but notice the exceptional state of eminence, the high rank and reputation of those who strive for excellence, to God’s glory.
Title photo attribution – Theiry Draus