|Seven Habits of Highly Effective Churches, #5
Commitment to Excellence
August 10, 1997
Do you recognize the brand name Smucker’s? No matter the region of the United States in which you live, I suspect you do. Smucker’s is the company that makes those wonderful jams and jellies. They played off their name for years with an ad campaign that said: "With a name like Smucker’s, it has to be good."
The reason many people buy Smucker’s products is the company’s reputation for value-added products. Smucker’s uses only the best ingredients. It has efficient quality control all through its processing of apples, strawberries, and concord grapes into the wonderful breakfast-table jelly many of us like so much. Then, by company policy, each of its containers is filled with just a bit more product than the advertised weight. Smucker’s has built its reputation on doing more for its customers than it has to do. It makes and markets value-added products. Or, to put it in biblical language, it goes the extra mile.
The famous and oft-echoed text about extra-miling actually comes from a rather hateful context — hateful, at least, to the people who first heard Jesus make the statement. Jewish peasants resented the Roman law that allowed legionnaires to take advantage of them by requiring them to carry their luggage. The soldiers were in the homeland of Abraham’s descendants as an occupation force, and they had the right to force civilians to carry their heavy packs or equipment the distance of a Roman mile. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told his hearers: "If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles" (Matt. 5:41). If one were to be subjected to that humiliating servitude, Jesus encouraged him to do more than was necessary to fulfill the obligation. Go one mile for Caesar and another — Western texts of this passage say two extra miles — for the Lord.
If Jesus taught his disciples to live beyond minimal expectations even when under duress, how do you think that principle should play out in more routine settings? How should husbands and wives treat each other? What sort of employee should a Christian teenager be in his summer or holiday job? What obligation does a Christian have to her employees or his customers? I hope you live all your life relationships in terms of being a value-added person — someone who does more than anyone has a right to expect in order to give honor to the Lord.
Then shouldn’t we create value-added churches?
What, pray tell, is a value-added church? For one thing, it is a church that not only considers the needs of its committed members but looks beyond itself to the needs of seekers, unchurched people, and disinterested-but-hurting people. For another, it is a church whose activities demonstrate a commitment to quality in everything it does.
When polls are taken of people who don’t participate in American church life, the same four basic reasons keep cropping up: too much emphasis on money, too little emphasis on child care, a holier-than-thou attitude, and irrelevant and/or boring services. For myself as an insider to church, I think I know how those perceptions got out there among the people who have tuned us out. And I believe it is our responsibility to try to eliminate them as legitimate reasons for anyone staying away from our assemblies or looking everywhere but to the church for help with the important issues of their lives.
Money. Christians should be generous with our money, making the needs of the local church a priority over parachurch ministries, schools, or the dozens of other solicitations we get from good causes. The biblical principle of tithing is meant to keep God’s covenant community fiscally competent to meets its challenges. By the time all the Old Testament tithes were totaled up, some writers estimate that something around twenty-five percent of a faithful Israelite’s gross income could have been given to Yahweh.
Yes, I know that the New Testament church is not mandated to observe the Old Testament laws about ten-percent giving. But many Christians appear to have used the "We’re-not-under-the-tithe-system" truth to justify selfishness — so they’re way, way "under" the tithe and giving somewhere in the range of only four to six percent of their annual income. So some churches suffer for funds, think the way to raise funds is to preach on giving frequently, and make outsiders think we’re always trying to bleed people for funds.
The members of a church need to understand the gospel of God’s grace as the basis for their giving. It then becomes a matter of gratitude rather than obligation to bring tithes, gifts, and offerings to the Lord. They tithe to their church before they will consider other good projects, and ten percent is the minimum rather than maximum for their generosity. "Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give," wrote Paul to believers at Corinth, "not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver" (2 Cor. 9:7).
Non-members of that church should never be asked to give. In fact, it should be made plain that they are not expected to participate in the regular contributions that churches take. I take a lot of good-humored grief at my church for characteristically reminding our guests — whether non-Christians in our midst or believers who are visiting from out of town or from another congregation — that they are not expected to participate in our offering. "Please don’t feel embarrassed to pass the collection plate down your row to others who may be members at Woodmont Hills," I might say. "But you are our guest, and no more than my wife and I set the dinner table at our house and charge the guests who honor us with their visit would we think of ‘charging’ you for being with us today." The intention behind such announcement is to present us as a value-added church that provides more than visitors expect. I want them "off the hook" for funding things they have no commitment to fund.
Child Care. One of the things by which non-Christians will judge a church is the attention it gives to their children. Lots of Baby Boomers dropped out of the church back in the 1960s. They were pretty anti-Establishment back in those days — including "church" in the Establishment they rejected. Something has happened, though, to those same people in the ’80s and ’90s. They have become the Establishment, and they have seen some needs in their personal and family lives that they didn’t see twenty to thirty years ago.
The Boomers have had children, and their children are helping bring them back to church. That is, they have decided that they want their children to know the Bible and get training in spiritual values. So they have brought them to the nurseries and Sunday School classes of our churches. Whether or not we can make a meaningful contact with those returning drop-outs from the Church of Yesterday will depend in large measure on what they see the Church of Today doing for their children. They will expect the Church of Today to show itself to be a value-added church.
Baby Boomers — people born from 1946 through 1964 — want quality clothes, schools, parks, and churches for their children. They will not exempt us from their expectations of high quality. They won’t tolerate a nursery that is dingy, smells bad, or lacks competent and friendly people taking care of their infants. They aren’t going to be impressed favorably with classes using the chalk and flannel boards of their youth in a computer-literate generation. They want the lively colors, eager faces, and genuinely interested teachers of a church that cares about their children to communicate that care in both overt and subtle ways.
Holier-Than-Thou Attitudes. In addition to their children, another thing that is likely to bring a Baby Boomer back to church is a mid-life personal or career crisis that reminds him or her of the need for personal moorings in this journey called life. His marriage breaks up or their teenager gets in trouble with drugs, he loses his job or she finds a lump that turns out to be cancer — these and any number of other crisis situations make people rethink their basic beliefs and values. That often sends them back to church.
Something that sends those people right back out the doors is anything that smacks of hypocrisy, denial, or self-righteousness in the church they visit. Believe it or not, preachers used to be taught to avoid confessional statements in their sermons. It was thought that allowing people in the congregation to know the faults or weaknesses of the church’s primary spiritual teacher would make him less effective. Get real! Everybody listening to him knew he was just as human as they were and chafed at the fact that he never acknowledged it. And the people whose kids played with his kids knew just how human he was! Maybe that’s why so many preachers moved every two or three years.
Several things have happened in the past quarter century — while the Baby Boomers have been out of church — that have changed the culture around the church. Successful twelve-step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous have helped people discover that honesty rather than denial is the best way to cope with life. Preaching has become more confessional in tone, and the life of a healthy church has come to be one where honesty is both encouraged and welcomed. Many of the most memorable days at Woodmont Hills have been ones where members of our church family have stood before the body to share their personal faith struggles, faith failures, and faith triumphs. This is far more inviting to unchurched people who are made to feel that they can be honest and open about their life issues.
At the beginning of the 1990s, Robert Bellah posited that "it is unrealistic to assume that Christians today will stay where they were brought up. . . . Both the Protestant principle of voluntarism and the modern respect for autonomous decision make it natural for adults to choose their own religious affiliation."1 People coming back to church from the estimated one-fourth of all Baby Boomers who left it aren’t necessarily going back to the denomination of their birth. They are going to go where their needs and expectations are met. They will go to places where they perceive authenticity in the church. They will seek out churches that demonstrate they take their roles in the world seriously. They will look for God in an environment that reflects his glory, holiness, and life-giving qualities.
Irrelevant and Boring Services. It certainly doesn’t reflect God’s glory, holiness, and life-giving qualities for people to show up for the worship assembly of a church that acts more like mourners come to a funeral than saved persons come to celebrate. There is simply no excuse for our churches being "irrelevant" and our assemblies "boring."
"Yep, that’s where I thought all this stuff about reaching out to Baby Boomers was going!" somebody says. "We’re supposed to entertain those fickle people in the name of trying to win them to the Lord." Wrong! Boomers want to know that the gospel addresses the questions their lives are facing, and they aren’t going to be convinced that is the case by being bored to tears with dull preaching and idiosyncratic worship rooted in the rural South.
Worship must always be God-focused rather than creature-focused. It praises Father, Son, and Spirit. It creates the opportunity for human encounter with God so that we can be touch and transformed by him. Whatever occurs in worship must both teach God’s will correctly and reflect his nature faithfully. Not only the doctrines taught in public teaching and exhortation but the very nature of the worship experience must conform to what Scripture reveals of God.
And worship must speak to all ethnic, economic, educational, and age groups, insofar as that is possible. It is altogether possible, for example, that two ethnic groups will find it impossible to worship together because of language barriers. Separate assemblies for the groups does not necessarily mean they are divided. On the other hand, separate assemblies for rich and poor, black and white, or male and female should be unthinkable to us because of what it affirms about bringing the world’s divisions into the body of Christ (cf. Gal. 3:26). Worship in multi-cultural settings will be impossible apart from the Christian ethical principle of mutual respect.
Everything we do in a given worship assembly at Woodmont Hills has been prayed over for weeks in advance as people who are a cross-section of the church work together to plan our worship times. Fault us for doing things on occasion that don’t work as intended or criticize us for not doing things as well as our God deserves to have them done for his glory, but please spare yourself making the false charge that we have put no theological reflection to the nature of worship or that we are simply trying to adopt whatever "trendy fad" comes along. The facts are just the opposite. We are trying to worship in ways that honor our God and connect with our culture.
God’s Call to Excellence
From the writings of an Old Testament prophet eight centuries before Christ, here is Yahweh’s indictment of his covenant people:
"A son honors his father, and a servant his master. If I am a father, where is the honor due me? If I am a master, where is the respect due me?" says the Lord Almighty. "It is you, O priests, who show contempt for my name.
"But you ask, ‘How have we shown contempt for your name?’
"You place defiled food on my altar.
"But you ask, ‘How have we defiled you?’
"By saying that the Lord’s table is contemptible. When you bring blind animals for sacrifice, is that not wrong? When you sacrifice crippled or diseased animals, is that not wrong? Try offering them to your governor! Would he be pleased with you? Would he accept you?" says the Lord Almighty (Mal. 1:6-8).
If such a charge could be brought against his Old Testament covenant community, it is altogether possible that heaven is due to raise up a similar prophetic word against his New Testament people.
"A One-Minute Manager wants to advance his career, and an employee wants to get a raise. If I am the company’s CEO, where is the excellence from the people I have entrusted with my enterprises? If I am your immediate boss, where is the attention to time management, assigned duties, and productivity?" says the Lord Almighty. "It is you, people I have made into a kingdom of priests, who show contempt for my name.
"But you ask, ‘How have we shown contempt for your name?’
"You put sloppy and inefficient service on my altar.
"But you ask, ‘How have we been sloppy and careless about your affairs?’
By saying that you can serve me as an afterthought by giving your leftover passion, your mediocre efforts, your outdated and inefficient methods. When you put less creativity into teaching the Bible to your children than you would permit a seventh-grade history or music teacher to put into teaching those subjects to them, is that not wrong? When you don’t plan, prepare, and offer your best music, when you let visitors come and go without being welcomed and appreciated, when you don’t keep your nursery area spotlessly clean and staffed by people who love the little babies being dropped off there, when you aren’t paying attention to the special needs of senior saints, challenged young families, singles, or teens — do you honestly think that honors the Christ you say you adore? Try getting to work late three days this week, knocking off early twice, taking an extra half hour for lunch every day, telling your boss you’re sleepy because you stayed up through Letterman and Late Night, explaining that too much is being expected of you by the company setting your sales quotas, griping that you don’t like it when women or minorities get promoted, complaining that you don’t like having to use computers when you had a perfectly good No. 2 lead pencil, daydreaming about the good old days when you had the only widget franchise in town — just try those things at your job next week! See if anybody in the ‘secular world’ will put up with the half-hearted way you do church! Would your company survive or go broke in a year? Could you keep your job, or would you be replaced with somebody who’d really put her or his heart into it?" says the Lord Almighty.
Think about it. Would you enroll your children in a school that was equally up to date in facilities, equipment, and teacher training as the one where you put them in Bible School? Would you keep someone on a job you considered important who showed the same amount of enthusiasm for it that you show for the kingdom of God? Would you tolerate an accountant who messed up your books every month, a yard crew that cut down your prize-winning flowers with the grass, or an auto mechanic that couldn’t get your car fixed after three weeks because he didn’t have any spark plugs or motor oil in stock?
"But that’s different!" you insist. You’re right. It is different. In almost any setting other than the functioning of a local church, we couldn’t tolerate the equivalent of sorry sermons, tired music, and inept leadership. In practically any setting other than a local church, we wouldn’t tolerate people whose idea of leadership meant delivering products and services with pre-World War II methodology.
Pine trees are essentially the same as they were 250 years ago, but every lumber company in America has developed reforestation, logging, and milling techniques that no 1750s logger would recognize. The human body is the same as it was 1,000 years ago, but nobody I know wants to have her pneumonia, his cancer, or her pregnancy treated by someone trained in the medications and tools of a tenth-century physician. The gospel of Jesus Christ is still the same as it was 2,000 years ago, but a church using the methodologies of a time now gone has no hope of drawing its own neighborhood’s attention — much less the whole world’s — to the saving message of the cross.
Twenty-first century churches must disabuse ourselves of the conscience-salving rhetoric that says we can be sloppy and inefficient because we know "the Jesus secret" our lost neighbors out in the world don’t know.
A while back, I read an interesting newspaper article about dying brand-loyalty in America. "Fewer than three in 10 auto buyers go back to the same brand."2 The same article traced something of the history of a phenomenon.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the U.S. auto industry didn’t have to worry much about buyer loyalty. There was little foreign competition, save for low-cost Volkswagen Beetles or low-volume luxury cars. Consumers often formed long-term relationships with local dealers. Although few studies were done then to track buyer loyalty, experts estimate that more than 60% of buyers returned to the same brand.
That tradition began to change in the mid-’70s with the arrival of high-quality imports. Japanese brands seized about a fourth of the U.S. market before Detroit’s Big Three stemmed the losses with improved quality and service . . .3
Strange. You could change the wording only slightly, and you could be talking about churches instead of cars. People go where there is quality and attention to individuals. We should learn something from that — before it is too late.
1Robert Bellah, "Finding the Church: Post-Traditional Discipleship," Christian Century (Nov. 14, 1990), p. 1061.
2Mildred Clements, "Automakers fight to win repeat sales," USA Today, 10 March 1995, p. 1B.
3Ibid., p. 2B.
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