27 Sep Hunt for Excellence
As people, we wish for excellence in all aspects of our lives and among those with whom we do business with. We wish to be treated by the best doctors when we are sick. We desire to learn from the best teachers. We hope for the opportunity to hear the best musicians or watch the best sportsmen. So also we wish for what Paul calls “a still more excellent way” in our Christian life and witness. For the Apostle Paul, this way of excellence is a way of love patterned in Christ. It is a call to a voyage, a way of life with God and others moulded by a love that “is patient, kind, not envious or arrogant, does not insist on its own way,” and one that “never ends.”
This kind of life is very different from the world’s way, in which excellence is assessed by rivalry and success. Excellence for Paul however does not emphasize on what “I” can do over against others, thereby producing “winners” and “losers.” Rather, Paul calls us – to a way of shining by exemplifying God’s love visible in Jesus Christ.
Unfortunately, we often miss our way by uncritically accepting worldly perceptions. Excellence has become the focal point of our culture. It is the goal of the athlete, the target of business and industry, the crux of personal coaching. This culturally perceived excellence promotes individual strength and puts a premium on outstanding proficiency and ability.
In today’s competitive world of make-or-break rankings, mission statements, and business plans, “excellence” is too often understood as the ability to forge ahead, to demonstrate strength in place of weakness – indeed, to leave any evidence of weakness behind. Such thinking has crept into the Church without any filtering through Christian and biblical lenses. If excellence from a Christian perspective is only or even largely about our hopes and our triumphs, there is something dangerous about praising excellence. But we are also not called to lower the bar in order to fight society’s criteria of excellence. The substitute to a blanket adoption of cultural standards of excellence is not to reject excellence altogether, nor is to settle for “mediocrity masquerading as faithfulness” (J. Swimmer). Rather, it is a suitably Christian understanding of excellence.
Excellence for a Christian is visible and real. Yet it requires a faculty for gauging life by the intricacy of discernment and grace as well as the more typical measures that everyone else uses to measure success. The sum of people reached in evangelistic work and regular turnout in church services are surely significant measures of life, but so also is the community’s precious life in Christ. First-rate ministry may be shown in the number of mission expeditions and outreach ventures and funds used in ministry projects, but it is also shown by the dominance and presence of God demonstrated in symbols of forgiveness and acts of reconciliation.
How do we estimate the effect of reconciling forgiveness, the value of deepened prayer life, the impact of passing on faith to a child, the quiet presence of sitting with a dying parishioner or hammering nails to help provide housing for a homeless family? Such activities are crucial to the way of discipleship, yet they often seem less significant when measured against the ways of the world.
To be sure, the criteria by which we ought to measure Christian life will be qualitative as well as quantitative, and thus, difficult to summarize. By not just looking at numerical growth, new programs and outreach, new and renovated buildings etc. but also the hard and difficult work of reconciliation among groups in a community, to a congregation’s willingness to care enduringly for those who are dying, to a community’s persistence in resisting injustice and fostering practices of justice and mercy ?
Certainly, even with such a focus there will unavoidably be deliberations and disagreements about the best descriptions of excellence, the apt criteria for excellence, and whether particular people merit identification as excellent. Yet while these are to be expected, a focus on resurrecting excellence will enable both the understanding and the practice of Christian life to grow in grace and purpose and in beauty in relation to God.
About the Author
Shantanu Dutta is the Director of National Advocacy at the International Justice Mission and based in New Delhi.