An Excellent Idolatry
- Written by Jody Vickery Jody Vickery
- Published: 21 April 2017 21 April 2017
I haven’t figured out how to say this without sounding uppity, so you’re just going to have to take my word for it – this isn’t bragging. This is confession. I am addicted to excellence. In fact, I have idolized it. I like for things to be done well. Especially things that have to do with Sunday church.
If we get to the final amen and there have been no technical glitches, if there were no unscripted moments of silence, no departures from the order of worship because somebody “felt led,” if the prayer leaders prayed thoughtful prayers and the communion officiant officiated eloquently, then it was a great service.
But if the slides advance too slowly or the sound system feeds back, if the prayer or communion leaders are not at the mic as soon as the song ends and we have to spend thirty seconds watching someone walk from the back of the auditorium to the stage, if the worship leader has to start a song over because he threw a wild pitch or, heaven forbid, I do not have a ready recollection of the things I have prepared to say, then it was a horrible service.
Sitting next to me in worship, bless her patient soul, my wife can literally feel the righteous tension rise up within me when something less than perfect transpires in church. She pats my knee and whispers, “Take a deep breath. It’s okay. Just breathe.”
Why do I get bent out of shape when bad things happen to a good worship service? Like a lot of flaws, this one started from some pure motives. I want our worship to reflect well on our awesome God. If seekers are present, I don’t want anything to distract them from the good news about Jesus. And offering your best to God in worship has a strong biblical pedigree.
Solid reasons for wanting a well-executed worship service? You bet. But the line between what makes God look good and what makes me (us) look good is notoriously thin. As for my concern about seekers, the gospel is all about what God has done for us, not what we do. So where do I get off thinking that the salvation of another’s soul hinges on my performance? My performance can’t even save me, much less someone else. And offering my best to God? That sounds a lot like the logic I used to get from disgruntled members who didn’t like it when I stopped wearing a tie to preach in.
But is there any real harm in championing excellence? Not as long as excellence remains a means and not an end. You’ll know you’ve crossed that line when you judge a time of worship by how well the leaders performed rather than how much the church participated. If you don’t use some people because they don’t have the right look – or others, because they do – excellence has become an end. And if you spend more time seething at the miscues than you spend celebrating the Messiah, excellence hasn’t just become an end, it has become an idol.
When that happens, our message – Jesus paid it all – is contradicted by our dependence on human performance. Our welcome – there is a place here for you – is undermined by our attention to appearances. Our invitation – bring Christ your broken life – is disputed by our preference for perfection.
I’m pretty certain I’m not the only one who needs to step into the confession booth for this particular missing of the mark. (I’m lookin’ at you, preachers, podcasters and bloggers.) A lot of us are enamored with excellence. And intelligence. And eloquence. We like to read stuff written by smart people and quote the stuff said by the articulate. The truth is, we want to be the smart, articulate people other people read and quote.
Then there’s Paul, arguably one of the smartest, most quotable people ever. In his day, Greek culture valued rhetorical skill, eloquence and wisdom. I have no doubt that he could have played ball in that arena. He was well educated, well-traveled and spiritually gifted to communicate. And yet . . .
“When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness and fear, with much trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.” (1 Cor. 2:1 – 5)
How did Paul escape the idolatry of excellence? By focusing on the foolishness of the cross. On the cross, God destroyed “the wisdom of the wise.” He frustrated “the intelligence of the intelligent.” God used what the world called weakness to “shame the strong.” In fact, Paul’s weakness (2 Cor. 12:7 – 10) turned out to be the very thing that perfectly displayed God’s power.
Which is a very convicting thought. If we are not seeing God’s power in our worship and preaching, perhaps it is because we are serving the wrong god and sending the wrong message.