Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Standards of Excellence

The missus is a veritable font of information that I would otherwise be unlikely to encounter. She's a bit of a fashionista, which means not just an increasingly intimidating selection of footwear, but stacks of thick image-heavy magazines that exude all manner of floral fragrances. The data therein would otherwise be alien to me, thus depriving me of some primo sermon illustrations.

Through her work, she's also plugged into communities of social entrepreneurs, and reads stuff that appeals to the ethic of capitalist innovation. When she gets her copy of Fast Company, for instance, I make a point of reading it. Some of the bleeding-edge companies it describes are just going to flame out, of course. But some will thrive, and knowing about 'em on the front end seems somehow useful.

This last issue, what struck me for some reason was the term "excellence." It permeated the text in the articles. It was subtly interwoven throughout the ads. Being excellent is, clearly, the goal of these young, hip inventors and startup companies. In this celebration of the joys of corporate creativity, it was the metric of a successful firm. That got me on two related musings about the nature of excellence.

First, not a single company I've seen highlighted in that magazine...meaning the folks who invent, manufacture, and produce things...defines excellence in terms of Montgomery Burns profit maximization. Not a single one. The mantra of late 20th century capitalism is that the goal of business is to maximize profit for shareholder return. Economist Milton Friedman said it, I believe it, that settles it.

But when you look at the people who create revolutions in business, the successful people, the visionaries, the world-changers, not a single one of them has profit as a primary goal. They are almost without exception focused on the new product or service itself. Excellence in business is about being good at what you do. It's about creating quality, and/or delight, and/or satisfaction. Profit and shareholder value are just collateral benefits...and when you focus on them instead of the product or service, the whole thing turns to poo.

Second, I found myself musing about the standard of excellence for Jesus-folk. As a pastor, I get plenty of material about how I could be doing church better. To be excellent, I need an excellent sound system. Or an excellent sign. Or an excellent series of highly produced videos that will draw in that tasty young-families-with-children demographic. Excellence is, I am told, evidenced by the signs of my material success as a pastor. How many thousands come to my church? Five thousand? That might be excellent, but it's 50% less excellent than if there were ten thousand. At some point, AmeriChrist, Inc. decided that excellence was defined by size and sparkle and shine. It is the thing to which we are told to aspire.

The truth is that the standard of excellence in the Christian faith looks nothing like that. It can, mind you. It can be big and exuberant and joyous. Or it can be a quiet little community of grace. Or it can be one or two gathered together. It takes many forms, some of which fly in the face of the world's standards of success. But wherever we find ourselves, the measure of our success as followers of Christ has been clearly established.

We know the Most Excellent Way.
We just have to make sure we don't get distracted.