Hidden Messages of American Christianity: Kneeling at the Altar of Excellence


The Happy PrinceThis is the second in a series of posts covering the hidden messages that sneak into American churches’ proclamation of the Gospel. For more background, please refer to this post.

Fourteen years ago I sat among the throngs at Willow Creek Community Church and heard Bill Hybels talk about Christian excellence. Taking time to note that all their musicians were professionals, Hybels went on about the fact that unchurched Harry and Mary couldn’t tolerate a church service that wasn’t excellent and just as slick as anything you’d find on TV.

To a student of Christian Education looking to make church programming better, those words were true and right. Too often we church people had put up with off-key singers, monotone Scripture readers, and SAG-card-lacking actors in our church dramatic productions. It was all kind of tacky. Of course non-Christians would flee our little exercises in indulging the talentless.

But then a thought got the better of me.

As a pimply-faced teenager, I’d more than once walked out on stage in my old Lutheran Church and offered up my less than accomplished skills to the people of that church and to the Lord. I wasn’t Buddy Rich back then (or now), but I was encouraged to use my meager drumming ability for the youth productions we put on during Easter and Christmas. I’m almost positive I played way too loud. When I picked up a guitar later, the organist/youth minister encouraged me to play that instrument, too, and to even solo, playing songs I’d written.

Here at Willow Creek, though, they probably had armed guards with M-16s barring the stage from the likes of me. I’d certainly play or sing to the best of my ability, but it would never be good enough for “Christian excellence.”

I can’t really point to a time when Christianity turned professional. Researching older books has not turned up the first occurrence of this idea of excellence. Yet I have to believe that we lose something when we insist that only the remarkably gifted be allowed to share their talents with the family of God.

I also suspect that on any given Sunday, the truly remarkable people are in short supply in most churches. Sure, Willow Creek has a mid-size city’s worth of people from which to draw upon reserves of excellence (or they pay outsiders to come in and do what they do so excellently), but your average church does not. Still, that message that everything has to be perfect continues to trickle down from the brightest and best churches to those that are jealous to mimic churches of excellence.

How many churches today are more stringent in just who gets to do what on a Sunday? Growing up, I had the luxury of people who understood that encouraging youth to perform with the burgeoning talents they possessed was essential to a healthy church. I fear that today more and more churches are loathe to ratchet down their insistence on excellence to allow that.

The doppelganger of excellence is success. Success means reducing failure, and nothing spells excellence more than eliminating mistakes. The inroads that business practices made into our churches through the Church Growth Movement have enshrined success as the be all and end all. The only problem is that now there is no room for true grace for the fallen. Just as a company can’t go to shareholders and confess they had a bad quarter without paying the penalty, so our churches are becoming places where failure isn’t tolerated for very long. (We’ve all heard the aphorism that the Church in America is the only place where we bury our wounded, right?) If recent bestselling “Christian” book Your Best Life Now by Joel Osteen is any indication, success is the new goal of the Christian faith. So much for all those martyrs. Horrible failures all.

One of the most moving stories I have ever read is Oscar Wilde’s “The Happy Prince.” Despite his being jailed for debauchery by order of Queen Victoria, Wilde at least understood that the Gospel isn’t pretty. It’s not about success or excellence, but about the bloodied remains of the Messiah nailed to rough lumber. If you are not familiar with Wilde’s lovely story, I would heartily encourage everyone to read “The Happy Prince” at this link (pops) before going on.

The story tells of a gilded statue dubbed “The Happy Prince” erected in honor of a long-dead prince who was known for his lightheartedness. As winter approaches, the bejeweled statue befriends a stray swallow on his way to the warmth of Africa. The swallow is concerned at the statue’s sadness over the plight of the downtrodden in the city, so at the statue’s request, the bird begins stripping all the gems and gold leaf off the Happy Prince and giving them away to the needy. In time, there is nothing precious left of the statue, and the dedicated swallow who once told exotic tales of Egypt to the statue, is chilled and exhausted.

Wilde concludes the story:

The poor little Swallow grew colder and colder, but he would not leave the Prince, he loved him too well. He picked up crumbs outside the baker’s door when the baker was not looking and tried to keep himself warm by flapping his wings.

But at last he knew that he was going to die. He had just strength to fly up to the Prince’s shoulder once more. “Good-bye, dear Prince!” he murmured, “will you let me kiss your hand?”

“I am glad that you are going to Egypt at last, little Swallow,” said the Prince, “you have stayed too long here; but you must kiss me on the lips, for I love you.”

“It is not to Egypt that I am going,” said the Swallow. “I am going to the House of Death. Death is the brother of Sleep, is he not?”

And he kissed the Happy Prince on the lips, and fell down dead at his feet.

At that moment a curious crack sounded inside the statue, as if something had broken. The fact is that the leaden heart had snapped right in two. It certainly was a dreadfully hard frost.

Early the next morning the Mayor was walking in the square below in company with the Town Councillors. As they passed the column he looked up at the statue: “Dear me! how shabby the Happy Prince looks!” he said.

“How shabby indeed!” cried the Town Councillors, who always agreed with the Mayor; and they went up to look at it.

“The ruby has fallen out of his sword, his eyes are gone, and he is golden no longer,” said the Mayor in fact, “he is little better than a beggar!”

“Little better than a beggar,” said the Town Councillors.

“And here is actually a dead bird at his feet!” continued the Mayor. “We must really issue a proclamation that birds are not to be allowed to die here.” And the Town Clerk made a note of the suggestion.

So they pulled down the statue of the Happy Prince. “As he is no longer beautiful he is no longer useful,” said the Art Professor at the University.

Then they melted the statue in a furnace, and the Mayor held a meeting of the Corporation to decide what was to be done with the metal. “We must have another statue, of course,” he said, “and it shall be a statue of myself.”

“Of myself,” said each of the Town Councillors, and they quarrelled. When I last heard of them they were quarrelling still.

“What a strange thing!” said the overseer of the workmen at the foundry. “This broken lead heart will not melt in the furnace. We must throw it away.” So they threw it on a dust-heap where the dead Swallow was also lying.

“Bring me the two most precious things in the city,” said God to one of His Angels; and the Angel brought Him the leaden heart and the dead bird.

“You have rightly chosen,” said God, “for in my garden of Paradise this little bird shall sing for evermore, and in my city of gold the Happy Prince shall praise me.”

When we are in the grips of the message of excellence and success we become like the Mayor and Town Councillors in the story. Our ability to see true beauty in the less than perfect is stymied and along with it the beauty of the Gospel.

20 thoughts on “Hidden Messages of American Christianity: Kneeling at the Altar of Excellence

  1. Gaddabout

    What a fascinating commentary, Dan, and you really have dug out another aBiblical thread running through the modern church.

    When I was in Sacramento, we started going to this moderately large church with a fantastic worship band. After about three months I offered my drumming services to get into the rotation. I had played with my previous church for over a decade, had recorded two CDs with them, and had played with some of the songwriters who had written the songs this new church was singing. I never got a call. I guess I should have listed “toured with Sting” or “recorded with Paul Simon” on my resume. I later learned all the other musicians in the band were working professionals in the area.

    I then offered my services as a percussionist, since thousands of dollars of percussion equipment sat silent on stage most Sundays. I got a call in for a tryout. I played some basic conga patterns I had learned from an ASU professor. I tried to be sensitive to the music by not obsessing with the battery percusison. I picked up shakers and other less offensive devices. The drummer seemed to be having a lot of fun, but I never got a call back. I gave up on trying the join the worship team.

    Right before we left Sacramento I had a sit down with the senior pastor. He was an impressive man who carved out an hour in his schedule on short notice for me. I told him who I was, where I came from, and what I did professionally. He was interested in starting some kind of ministry around my professional ability, but he didn’t have any kind of vision or direction for me. It was all just etheral thinking.

    I loved that church because it really did have a big heart, but I still lament the fact they never could find a role for me to serve. They didn’t even say, “All these other roles are filled, but you can always help us clean up or stack chairs or something.” I would have gladly joined, but again, those ministries were “filled.” Of course, they paid their janitors well.

    How’s that for Christian Excellence? They’re so good at what they do, they don’t even need people to serve in the smallest of ways.

  2. Kent Runge

    We expect our pastors to be professionals…is that where to ‘Christianity turned pro’ or are professional musicians (and other sundry servants) simply the natural extension of a professional pastorate?

  3. Matt,

    I hear you.

    I was a part of the Vineyard in Cincinnati for years. Early on, I went back to college to get my degree in Christian Education partly because I didn’t want to be disqualified from ministering because of a lack of college degree. (That’s a long, painful story in itself.)

    Anyway, when I graduated, I went to the church leadership and they said they weren’t wanting trained professionals to do the ministry at the church, they wanted the totally inexperienced to step up. In other words, they didn’t want me. Yes, I went on to lead a Bible study, but I’d done so before—it just wasn’t a stretch for me to do.

    We moved out to CA, then desired to move back. Hoping to find a job at my old church so that we could transition, I was told that they were now only looking for trained professional. By that time they were drinking from the Willow Creek Association bowl, so now excellence was the mantra. They had a job open for a small group pastor, something that would have been a perfect match with my professional ministry background. After being rejected, I was stunned. The reason? They wanted to hire a non-American for the job!

    Later, after applying for a job supervising adult curriculum development (something I’d been clamoring about to leadership for almost twelve years), I had an interview with the pastor I’d be reporting to. He was ex-Procter & Gamble and grilled me about business practices and how they could be applied to curriculum development. At that point I realized that my 13+ years there had been frittered away.

    How very sad.

  4. Kent,

    Professional pastors because they are paid OR professional pastors because that is what they do?

    I’m not always sure about the issue of a professional pastorate. Training varies widely, as does pay. Sometimes I think that pastors are as professional “pastorally” as some of the musicians are.

    Thanks for the comments. Maybe I’ll talk about a professional pastorate in the future.

  5. Anonymous,

    You cited Franky Schaeffer’s Addicted to Mediocrity as starting point to Christian excellence. There’s a valid point there, but I think a very subtle distinction has to be made.

    When competing in the global marketplace, Christians need some level of excellence. That carries its own millstone, though. Our churches, on the other hand, should be places where the millstones are discarded—at least for a few hours. When we drag worldly performance standards into the church, we err. When we take Christian excellence out into the marketplace, well that’s where it belongs.

    I write books. If I expect to compete in the marketplace, those books had better be excellent. But the Body of Christ exists, in part, to allow me to not always be 100% excellent 100% of the time—a luxury I’m not afforded in the marketplace.

    Does that distinction make sense?

  6. Anonymous

    The church should never be about physical perfection (in whatever form). God looks on the heart – and while we cannot, ourselves, look on the heart (unless we have the gift of discernment, perhaps), we should still remember that God does not look on the outward appearance. He does not much care if our music is perfect – but he does care that our hearts are striving towards spiritual perfection.

  7. Kent Runge


    It seems that we’ve superimposed a business value (if you pay for it, it better be done right) onto a spiritual position. I will always question the existance of a professional pastorate, it’s not a ‘job’ like other ‘jobs’; pastoral care can’t be sold, at least not in the same way it is in the job market.

    I’m aware of the scriptural adomonitions that workers are to be paid, but somehow it seems to me that pastors should be given to out of love, admiration and devotion – not paid for ‘services in kind’.

  8. Sal

    I’d been in a church with the “professional” worship team. Believe me, it was almost a show. I was in projection for a while, and one mistake garnished a dirty look from the pastor.

    This spring I played hooky and went to another church with “regular” folks on their worship team. What a difference. It was so much better. The music wasn’t necessarily better, but the atmosphere.

  9. Ronni

    Dan, I just left Dayton Vineyard.

    Enough said. You again… hit the nail on the head… so do I finish my degree or not? *sigh*

    I somedays feel that only God and I will ever hear the songs I’ve written. I just have to keep reminding myself… He IS my audience… and that just because I can’t be used, won’t be used, might as well stay at home and watch tv because I’ll never be used (at least thats how I feel right now)… well that’s because of this Vineyard… and that I don’t have man’s credentials (at least in the studies THEY want)… but I have GOD’S credentials….

  10. Hybels: “Unchurched Harry and Mary couldn’t tolerate a church service that wasn’t excellent and just as slick as anything you’d find on TV.”

    Ah, yes. Television, the universal standard of excellence, the measuring rod of quality, the acumen of supremacy.

    Even if he doesn’t know it, what Hybels said implies that Harry and Mary need to get a life and shut off the Boob Tube.

  11. Alexander M Jordan

    Hi Dan:

    Thanks for this interesting post, in what is shaping up to be a fine series. I agree that again, the church is taking its cue from the world. Your post inspired me to write my own article (at Jordan’s View) on the subject of Christian excellence.



    P.S. I tried unsuccessfully to send a trackback ping to this post.

  12. CJR

    Dan –

    Great post – very insightful. And Wilde isn’t quoted in his more thoughtful and reflective moments nearly enough! He was more than just quippy one-liners!

    There is a counter challenge that I am concerned about, though. That is the idea that in many churches, through the “general participation” approach you describe (and I experienced growing up) we have often sent the message to our young men (because we are gender-biased against allowing most women to participate) that Christian leadership and maturity has a lot to do with your performance in church services. Everything from being an altar boy to playing instruments or leading singing, most young men coming from the previous generations of the church were subtly (or not) taught that those things define a Christian leader – participation and leadership in church assemblies – leading singing, playing instruments, leading prayer, reading Scripture, etc. And those boys who’s talents in those “public” skills were deficient were sent the message that their gifts were second class.

    In that regard, perhaps it’s not unwise that we send the message that these roles are merely avenues of service where people with vocational talents, skills and training in these areas find a use for their abilities. And that for those with skills as carpenters, plumbers, bakers, and bookbinders, your gifts are no less spiritual or important to the church – and you should strive to do them with excellence and with humility in service to others – because that is Christian leadership.

  13. CJR,

    You bring up a good point that a few other people have noted. I think my next installment in this series will look at the need for “non-performers” in the Church. The loudmouths (of which I am one), actors, and extroverts get a lot of notice, but it’s the less obvious people who often drive the Church forward by serving outside the spotlight.

  14. Ryan McGann

    I appreciate your exposure of the ugly underbelly of the Church and its desire to attract with pomp and circumstance, but I am not sure that the desire for “excellence” is to blame. Perhaps I have been unaware of the implications of the “excellence movement.” I have not understood excellence to imply that nothing short of perfection should be allowed in front of the people. However, excellence as I know it is striving to make what IS in front of the people, the best that it can be. That seems to be a matter of good stewardship and wisdom.

    I lead a praise team in a small church youth group, and am not blessed with Rock stars. Excellence for us is making sure that we have practiced, tuned, and prepared to lead people to sing the praises of God without being a distraction. I don’t find the ugly hidden message in that.

    Is the problem a desire for excellence or a misunderstanding that we as the church cannot play the role of the Holy Spirit in wooing people to God with our giftedness and talents. No matter how great (by great I mean a worldly understanding of entertaining) a churches music, preaching, and drama might be, they’ll find better on TV, or the Radio. Perhaps we have bowed down at the altar of entertainment?

    Did I misunderstand the brunt of your article?

  15. Anonymous

    Why did the Holy Spirit inspire David to insert the adverb “skillfully” in Psalm 33:3? Sing to him a new song; play skillfully, and shout for joy.

  16. Dan McGowan

    I’m arriving late to the game on this post – but it is SO important that I can’t just be silent about it…

    First, re: Mr. Annonymous’ question… I challenge you (and others) to actually go to the original text and do a word study on that often mis-used word, “skill.” What you will find may surprise you – but here’s a hint – it’s not actually referring to ABILITY, as we tend to think – – that one small fact alone has opened my eyes to what TRUE excellence is all about.

    In answer to the question of “WHEN” the church/our worship became “a show.” I don’t think Willow is to blame (and I know you didn’t say that, but it was implied a little bit…) I am a few years older than you and was on the tail end of the apex of The Jesus Movement. And, honestly, “in the beginning…” of that movement, things were not even close to what we see today – there was a purity, an honesty, a beckoning, if you will, to ONLY encounter God – nothing more, nothing less. This was the masses coming together, primarily from the teen/young adult demographics, to encounter the powerful and life-changing presence of Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit – – BECAUSE THEY WERE NOT GETTING THIS IN THEIR “TYPICAL” CHURCHES. In those days, most churches were quite “high church” and the music that was presented was far more polished and performed – ie: choral cantatas, well-performed choral anthems, etc. And this actually turned youth OFF. They wanted more – because they KNEW deep down that worship was INTENDED to BE MORE…

    And, thus, Love Song and others like them hit the altars of churches and an entire generation of young believers encounter Jesus – many for the first time.

    I would say that things began to go sour when this pure desire for encountering Christ began churning out “Chrisitian Pop Stars.” I am not against Christian pop stars – I think we need them – I really do! I think it is important to have men and women who are gifted “artists” to use their talents to help encourage others in their walk with Jesus.


    Those concerts are not always “worship” – and that is the problem. The line that separates “true worship” from “worship performance” has blurred since the mid-70’s to now… so much so that many of today’s “worship bands” in churches view themselves as the next “Casting Crowns” or “Third Day” when, in reality, this may not be their calling!

    The CCM industry has not helped matters either…

    I know this is long – sorry. I wrote about this over at my blog site: http://www.commonsaints.blogspot.com. The series is called “Missing The Boat.”

    Thanks for these thoughts…

    Dan McGowan

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