Pursuing Biblical Excellence in the Church

Churches rightly talk a lot about carrying out ministry with excellence. God is excellent, after all, so to pursue excellence in ministry is one way to live out his character. 

But what do we mean when say “excellence”? If we’re not careful, we can make excellence all about human effort and mean little more than “technical perfection.”

When excellence is defined only in terms of human input, though, we miss the mark of biblical excellence, along with its blessings. What do I mean by “biblical excellence”?

Excellence in the Bible

The Greek word translated as “excellent” is hyperbole, which is obviously where we get the English word “hyperbole.” Throughout the Bible, the word is used in ways that mean a throwing beyond, or as a metaphor to explain that something is superior, pre-eminent, or beyond measure.

But there is another Greek word, arete, a noun that is translated as “excellence.” Whereas hyperbole is used to describe something, arete denotes something worth striving for. Arete conveys a virtuous course of thought, feeling, and action, such as in Philippians 4:8, where Paul writes,

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence (arete), if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

Arete — excellence — starts with virtuous thinking but doesn’t stop there. Excellence moves from virtuous thinking to virtuous feeling, and results in virtuous action. Which is why Paul follows with verse 9:

What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me — practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

Biblical Excellence Defined

Biblically speaking, excellence is the awe-inspiring, Christ-exalting jubilation that rushes into the heart and mind of the believer overcome by the gospel and results in faith-fueled action for God’s glory and neighbor’s good.

Excellence is not technical perfection, though it is perfectly technical. It is the renewing course of thought, feeling, and action made possible by the Holy Spirit that exalts the Son and brings glory to the Father.

And the benefits of pursuing biblical excellence?

“The God of peace will be with you” (Philippians 4:9).

Ministry is biblically excellent when its result is peace in the presence of God. This is man’s greatest longing, is it not? To be present with God? Since Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden, we have been longing to be in God’s midst, in his presence. 

What does that look like? Well, this is one of those things you know when you see it. You also know the absence of it when you don’t see it. 

But what about doing ministry to the best of our ability? What about technical perfection? Biblical excellence and technical perfection are not mutually exclusive. A church can pursue biblical excellence while still doing its best with the resources it has. (More on this below.)

How then do we pursue biblical excellence in our churches?

Pursuing Biblical Excellence in the Church

The first step in pursuing biblical excellence is to develop a definition of “excellence,” as seen above. Defining excellence is something best done by a church’s pastors and elders, with appropriate input from other church members along the way.

Once a church agrees on a definition, it can begin to flesh out that meaning across its ministries. Wisdom and discernment are needed here. If excellence is the awe-inspiring, Christ-exalting jubilation that rushes into the heart and mind of the believer overcome by the gospel and results in faith-fueled action for God’s glory and neighbor’s good, then each ministry of the church should be focused on cultivating environments and relationships where this is possible. 

This means ministry leaders should be primarily concerned with clearly presenting and displaying the gospel. Practice and work hard, by all means. But don’t do so with little regard for what’s being communicated. The gospel — not our level of perfection — is the power of salvation.

Practical Questions for Ministry Leaders

Practical questions for ministry leaders to ask themselves are:

  • What is my ministry goal?
  • How does the gospel speak into or shape this ministry need?
  • Are we experiencing Christ-exalting jubilation when we see this truth? Why or why not?
  • What can we do to clearly communicate or demonstrate this facet of the gospel?
  • Do the peripheral aspects of how we are carrying out this act of ministry help or hinder that message?
  • Have we shown people what an application of this gospel truth into their lives might look like?

The third question above is important because it’s almost impossible for people to experience biblical excellence if their ministry leaders are not experiencing it themselves. It’s difficult and dishonest to ask people to be inspired to action by something you’re not excited about. If what you’re communicating doesn’t inspire you, it’s not going to inspire your audience.

Our churches will never experience biblical excellence and its blessings if they’re pursuing the wrong kind of excellence. Excellence in ministry is about ushering people into the presence of God so that he can commission them into action for his glory and our neighbor’s good.

The Biggest Threat to Discipleship Today

The biggest threat to discipleship in the church today is in your hand right now. If not in your hand, it may be in your pocket or somewhere near you. At the very least, you know where it is.

It craves your attention and promises satisfaction. Its sleek lines and subtle curves lure your heart. You gaze into its glowing portal hundreds of times a day — swiping, tapping, thumbing your way down an infinite spiral of information and entertainment.

Yes, your phone is the biggest threat to discipleship today.

What Your Phone Knows About You

Think I’m overplaying the threat, making too much of too little a thing as an iPhone? Consider that your phone is in many ways your most intimate companion. It knows what you think, when you sleep, where you go, and what you long for.

Your search history reveals your innermost thoughts. Your Amazon orders reveal your idols. Your social media posts reveal your heart.

Like most adults, you’re probably waking your phone an average of 150 times a day. Smartphones have become seemingly essential to modern life, which is why many of us spend two or more hours per day on them.

The Technological Discipleship Gap

While people in churches have joined the broader culture in rapidly adopting new technology, churches themselves have been slow to address our new digital reality.

“There is a technology discipleship gap between the importance of technology in our daily lives and how effective Christian leaders are at discipling their people in proper technology usage,” says Ed Stetzer. Teasing out this theme, Stetzer writes in his new book,

Christians often have the same bad habits as everyone else, practices that damage not only their well-being and relationships, but also their spiritual vitality and witness. Despite these dangers, when was the last time your church taught on social media or proper media consumption? Substantive, disciple-making teaching on how Christians can develop godly technology habits? Aside from youth pastors warning of cyberbullying, when have messages touched on the way technology is shaping our lives or how our online behavior relates to our faith? I have heard plenty of sermons that address the problem of pornography, but I can count on one hand the number of times a pastor or Sunday school teacher discussed a more comprehensive online discipleship.

Technology seems to move at such a rapid pace that we barely have time to keep up with it all, let alone determine how best to use it. But instead of trying to develop wisdom around the topic, many Christians and churches have been too distracted to notice or, unwilling to make “blanket statements” about technology use, have decided to say nothing (I’m grateful that my church asked me and others to teach on the topic during one of our classes).

But our technological culture isn’t silent, which is why so many believers are being discipled by Apple and Google instead of pastors and elders.

The Need for Technological Discipleship

Unsurprisingly, our churches are filled with people whose tech habits largely mirror those of their unbelieving neighbors. Stetzer writes,

We found that technology and online habits of evangelicals largely mirror those of the general public, if not slightly exceeding them.

Your Facebook newsfeed probably attests to the fact that evangelicals like their social media, maybe a little much. Social media and technology are not all bad, however. “Our new digital technologies and social media platforms have untold potential to advance the gospel of Jesus Christ,” Stetzer reminds us. But

At the same time, they can utterly lay waste to people, churches, and communities.

This is where discipleship is needed. With the rapid and almost unflinching adoption of smartphones and other technologies, Christians are in desperate need of shepherding, whether they know it or not. How can we not address the one thing that consumes slightly less of Christians’ waking hours than their jobs?

Effective Technological Discipleship

Technology is a discipleship issue. So what does effective technological discipleship look like? Stetzer:

Effective discipleship helps Christians to bend these tools in service to Christ rather than to become slaves to their destructive power. … At the same time, I encourage Christians to view local ministry within your community and through your church as the primary mission field of the believer. At a time where technology is making communication more isolating and distant, engaging our neighbors with the gospel has become counter-cultural.

What Stetzer outlines above is a thin outline of what effective technological discipleship might look like (he says he gives fuller suggestions in his book). But much more is needed.

I’ll be outlining a fuller approach in the days ahead here, along with explaining more about technology and its effects. Because, as Stetzer writes,

It’s a new world, one fraught with division and anger with the unforeseen capacity to bring them into our living rooms and church pews. Christians need to think carefully on how they can live and engage in this new world to the glory of Christ and the furtherance of his Kingdom.

You Are Wanted

Pearl had always wondered where she came from. She’d had a mother as long as she could remember but never heard about a father.

This unknowing had become her reality, but her friends wouldn’t settle for ignorance. “Who was he?” “What was he like?” “Why did he leave you and your mom?” Their questions pelted Pearl, who dented a little more each time a question thudded onto her soul.

Once she got home, Pearl began to confront her mother. “Mom,” she started — but she stopped just as quickly. “Instead she asked the question that ran below all the other questions like a deep underground river. ‘Was I wanted?’”

I was shocked when I read that question — “Was I wanted?” — in Celeste Ng’s incredible Little Fires Everywhere, because I realized I’ve been asking the same question my whole life as a non-adopted child who was raised in a loving and stable household. But I shouldn’t have been surprised.

The Question We’re All Asking

“Am I wanted?” is the question we all ask from the moment we become aware of the world and people around us. Long before we have the capacity to form the words or understand our thoughts, we sense that being wanted is the deepest source of meaning and love.

In Blade Runner 2049, “K” — the non-personal name given to Ryan Gosling’s character, who’s a human replica — is overwhelmed when he discovers he might be more than a cyborg. He might just be the first being to be born of a human and replica, something previously thought impossible.

When K returns home to his digital companion, Joi, and explains, she says, “I always knew you were special. Maybe this is how. A child. Of woman born. Pushed into the world. Wanted. Loved.” The artificially intelligent woman knows what K is perceiving, that to be wanted is to be loved; to be wanted is to be special.

Even when God became flesh and dwelt among us, he could not escape the want — no, the need — to be wanted. And that’s good news for you and me.

From the Father’s House to the Jordan River

The Christian faith tells us that Jesus Christ was the fully divine yet fully human Son of God, who came to earth to conquer sin and death and usher in the Kingdom of God. It was clear from his youth that he rightly understood his father to be the Father. After a family visit to Jerusalem, the center of his Jewish world, his parents were horrified to realize the 12-year-old Jesus wasn’t in their caravan.

After turning back to look for him, they found the boy in the temple, at the feet of the Jewish teachers. “His mother said to him, ‘Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been searching for you in great distress. And he said to them, ‘Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’” (Luke 2:48-49).

More than 15 years later, Jesus was ready to change the world forever by explaining just what it meant to be in his Father’s house. He was about 30 years old and ready to begin his rabbinic ministry. But before he did, his Father knew there was one more thing his Son must know if he was going to endure in his ministry and accomplish his mission.

Jesus, being completely obedient to the teaching and will of his Father, requested baptism at the hands of his eccentric cousin, John. At first, John was understandably perplexed, believing himself to need cleansing at the hands of his divine cousin. But then he consented, plunging Jesus into the Jordan River.

‘With You I am Well Pleased’

After Jesus’ face broke the water’s surface, his Father answered the question his Son had never asked but needed the answer to nonetheless. “The Holy Spirit descended on [Jesus] in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased’” (Luke 3:22).

Jesus knew he was born to die for the sins of others. And he knew he was about to start a three-year journey toward the excruciating torture of a Roman cross. Sensing his Son’s inner need for affirmation and acceptance, his Father — at just the right time — told him, “You are my son. You are wanted. Loved. Special!”

Not long before he bore that cross, Jesus grabbed a few of his closest disciples and headed up a mountain to be nourished in his Father. Once up the mountain, his disciples witnessed something so astonishing that they would not speak of it until after their Rabbi’s death and resurrection. In a moment of resplendent beauty and holiness, the full glory of Jesus as the Son of God shone through. It was a vision of the risen and reigning King Jesus.

But first, he must face the cross. Again, at just the right time, Jesus’ Father sensed the load on his Son and affirmed his place in the family of God: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him” (Matthew 17:5). Not only did the Father affirm his Son and remind Jesus that he was overjoyed to have him for a Son, but he acknowledged Jesus publicly, telling the others to listen to him. Jesus was wanted. Loved. Special.

Jesus would need to hear those words from his Father once more before he breathed his last.

The Father’s Silence

Condemned to death, Jesus now hung from a bloody, splintered wooden cross, held there by stakes driven through his hands and feet. Struggling to hold himself up so he could continue to breathe, Jesus moans, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). This is the perfect time for the Father to encourage his Son. The perfect time to remind Jesus that he’s suffering now but will be glorified soon.

But for the first time, the Father had no words for his Son.

“Am I wanted?” Silence. “Am I loved?” Silence. “Am I special?” Silence.

Don’t mistake the Father’s silence for his disavowal of his Son. This was quite the opposite. “Now from [noon] there was darkness over all the land until [3 p.m.]” (Matthew 26:45). The earth displayed the heavenly mood that day. The Father knew this was the only way to win back his lost treasure, but it was almost too much to bear. He turned out the lights and turned his face.

Darkness shrouded the hearts of those who had believed in this Jesus for three days, but the Father’s light soon shone forth.

With YOU I am Well Pleased

“Toward the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And behold, there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. … The angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has risen’” (Matthew 28: 1-3, 5).

The Son rose from death by his Father’s power, proving that he was wanted, loved — special!

What does all this have to do with you, though? Jesus’ death and resurrection were about more than him. The reason Jesus suffered the agony and humiliation of the cross was for us — you and me — to experience the same loving affirmation he received from his Father. Jesus died the death we should have died, he suffered the silence we deserved to hear so that we could become sons and daughters of the Living God.

Now, “in Christ Jesus you are all sons [and daughters] of God, through faith” (Galatians 3:26). If you have faith that Jesus was the Christ and that he died on the cross and was resurrected from death, you are a son or daughter of God. This means we have been joined with Christ into the family of God (Romans 8:14-17) and we inherit all the blessings the Son receives from the Father (Ephesians 1:3) — including the affirmation of our Father.

You Are Wanted

Most nights when I tuck my son and daughters into bed, I cup their little cheeks in my hands and say, “Look at me. You are my son (or daughter). I am pleased with you. I love you because you’re mine. You’re part of our family, and we love you.”

I do this because I realized that my children, like most of us, probably won’t verbalize their need to feel wanted. So I’m trying, even now, as their earthly father to lay a foundation for their identity that will one day, Lord willing, find its fulfillment in hearing their heavenly Father say, “You are my beloved son. You are my beloved daughter. With you I am well pleased.”

Sister, if you are in Christ, hear these words from the lips of your Father, intended for you, his precious daughter: “You are my beloved daughter; with you I am well pleased.”

Brother, if you are in Christ, hear these words from the lips of your Father, intended for you, his precious son: “You are my beloved son; with you I am well pleased.”

In Christ, you are wanted. Loved. Special.

How to Study Culture

You can’t engage what you don’t understand.

That might seem obvious, but if we’re honest, many Christians don’t really understand the world around them. It’s easy to disappear into a Christian subculture with our own music, radio stations, books, and websites, to the point that we’re not really existing in the larger culture.

But we can’t leverage our culture’s stories to explain the gospel without knowing both the gospel and the stories. We’ll circle back to knowing the gospel shortly, but for now, let’s talk about knowing culture’s stories.

Get to Know Culture’s Stories

How do you get to know culture’s stories? You learn what’s out there and seek to understand it.

Does that mean you should watch all the movies and shows everyone’s talking about at work, or spend your money on all the same things? No.

You don’t have to watch Game of Thrones to know about it. You don’t have to listen to music that’s degrading to women to hear what they’re saying. Instead, you can learn about these things through cultural commentators whose job it is to know what’s going on in the world.

Become a student of the culture around you, especially those aspects of culture that may be of least interest you but of most interest to those around you.

Studying culture will look different for everyone. To give you an idea of what this is like in my life, here are some of the ways I learn about culture:

Online articles

I read and subscribe to lots of free online publications, both secular and Christian, like The Atlantic (a progressive, secular outlet), The Gospel Coalition (a conservative, Christian outlet), The New York Times (a liberal, secular outlet), Christianity Today (a moderate, Christian outlet), and ERLC (the Ethics & Religious Liberties Commission of the SBC; a conservative, Christian outlet). If I want to know what conservatives are thinking and talking about, I’ll check FOX News. If I want to know what liberals are thinking, I’ll check CNN.

Each of these provides a unique cultural view and help me understand how people who belong to those cultures see the world. But regardless of which outlets you choose to read, try and balance your intake to hear from multiple sides of culture.

Podcasts

This is probably my favorite form of media right now. Podcasts are basically radio-like programs that you download to your phone. There are all kinds of shows, but one of my favorites is The World and Everything In It from World Radio. It’s like NPR from a Christian worldview. It’s definitely conservative, but it helps you approach the day’s new with eyes of faith. Al Mohler’s The Briefing is another great daily overview of the headlines from a Christian perspective. If you want to know what the more liberal, culture makes of the news, there are daily news digests from The New York Times (The Daily), NPR (Up First), and others. Film and TV podcasts like the Slashfilmcast are great for listening to reviews and overviews of some of the most culture-shaping artforms.

Social media

Most major news outlets and reporters are active on social media. Your mileage may vary when it comes to the ease of use or enjoyment of these platforms, like Twitter and Facebook, but if leveraged the right way, they can be helpful sources of cultural study. For instance, I’ve used Twitter for several years as both a way to share information and to keep an eye on what’s going on in the broader American culture. Doing this well requires careful curation of who you follow. 

Books

Obviously, books can be very helpful sources of cultural study. But what may be less known is that book lists and book review outlets can help you get a quick understanding of what books are shaping the cultural conversation. This can be as easy as looking up the New York Times bestseller list or Amazon’s best sellers and reading the descriptions of several of the top sellers, or more involved, like reading the New York Times book reviews or New York Review of Books, the Gospel Coalition’s book reviews, or Kirkus Reviews

I know what you’re thinking: that sounds like a lot of work. And in some ways, it is.

But think about it like this. If you were to go overseas as a missionary in a country you had never visited that spoke a language you didn’t know, you would do lots of homework to learn how to communicate the gospel effectively to the people there.

So why don’t we do the same thing here? We are missionaries sent to a particular place in a particular country with plenty of people who don’t know the gospel. As Christ’s ambassadors, one of our jobs is to understand the culture we live in so we can effectively share the gospel with the people around us.

To that end, the most important way to engage culture and learn how to speak into it is to talk to people in it.

People

We can read all the books and watch all the movies we want, but nothing prepares us to speak into it like speaking into it.

Talk to your neighbors. Talk to your coworkers. Talk to your friends and family. Spend time understanding them so you can reach them for Christ.

Be hospitable. Invite your neighbors over for dinner. Take coworkers out to lunch. Meet people for coffee. Do something to reach out to and love on your neighbors. Hospitality lets people know you care about them, and it creates opportunities for conversations about faith, which ties into asking good questions.

When you’re talking to people, ask good questions that get them to go below the surface.

I don’t know about you, but when I’m around people I don’t know well, or even people I do, it’s easy to stay on the surface. It’s safer there. I don’t have to tell you what I believe or what I think. I don’t have to be vulnerable.

Do the heavy lifting

The thing about us is that we want to go deep, we just don’t want to make the first move.

We don’t want to do the heavy lifting in the conversation, but we want someone to ask us about something that really matters.

Do the heavy lifting. Ask good questions. When someone tells you they had a good weekend, ask them what they did. When they tell you what they did, ask them why they find those things fun.

When someone tells you they had a crazy day at work, ask them what they mean. When they tell you what they mean, ask them how the difficult moments made them feel.

Say things like “Tell me more about that,” or “What do you mean by that?” or “How did that make you feel?”

Proverbs 20:5 says, “Counsel in a person’s heart is deep water; but a person of understanding draws it out.” Draw out the counsel in a person’s heart, bit by bit. Most people have plenty to say if you take the time to listen and ask good questions.

Do Your Cultural Homework

God has you in your family, your neighborhood, your workplace, and your community because he wants you to speak the gospel to the people in those particular cultures.

But you can’t do that well if you don’t know the stories those people are living and breathing. 

So do some cultural homework. Read some stuff, listen to some things, but most importantly, talk to some people — for God’s glory and neighbor’s good.

How to Determine Which Parts of Culture are OK to Engage

I mentioned in my last post that I would cover what to do when you’re trying to determine if a Christian can participate in a particular aspect of culture.

If a particular form of cultural engagement causes you to disobey one of God’s commands, you shouldn’t participate in it. Simple. Sometimes it’s obvious what we shouldn’t participate in.

Pornography is an easy example. It’s an industry built on sin, and it’s impossible to participate in it without sinning. So there’s simply no way our Christian conscience should let us participate in it.

But it’s not always so black and white, is it? What about watching popular shows like Game of Thrones or viewing classic works of art that depict nude figures? Can a Christian participate in these kinds of culture?

Let’s build a biblical framework for thinking through how to determine if a particular aspect of culture is something you can engage in.

No Worthless Things

The first text that comes to mind here is Psalm 101:3, which says, “I will not let anything worthless guide me,” or more literally, “I will not put a worthless thing in front of my eyes.”

When it comes to evaluating a particular aspect of culture, such as a movie, show, book, or product, we should ask ourselves, Is this worthless? Does it contribute anything of value? Is it redeeming in any way?

If the object in question falls under that “worthless” category, then we shouldn’t engage it. No further analysis needed.

But Paul takes this one step further. He says that even if something is acceptable to engage in, that doesn’t mean it’s best.

Just Because You Can, it Doesn’t Mean You Should

In 1 Corinthians 6:12, Paul writes, “‘Everything is permissible for me,’ but not everything is beneficial. ‘Everything is permissible for me,’ but I will not be mastered by anything.”

If you look at this verse, you’ll notice that there within Paul’s quotation are two phrases set in quotation marks, which means that Paul is quoting someone or something else. It’s the phrase, “Everything is permissible for me.” Commentators believe Paul is referring to a popular Corinthian slogan.

Regarding this verse, the notes in my ESV Study Bible say,

The Corinthians have adopted from the culture around them the idea that the body is permitted to have everything that it craves.

Notice two things. First, Paul gives us a “yes, but” scenario. He says, yes, everything may be permissible for me because I am free in Christ, but that doesn’t mean everything is beneficial, or helpful, for me. Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should.

The second thing to note about this verse is why Paul says we shouldn’t do some things. I like how my ESV Study Bible puts this:

Paul knows that human desires are tainted with sin, which uses these desires to master the person for its own evil purposes.

We all desire to participate in the worldly parts of culture. But our desires are not pure. They are tainted with sin. And sin will pounce on our ungodly desires and master us if we’re not careful.

So yes, we can participate in many aspects of our culture. But just because we can, it doesn’t mean we should. 

More on Cultural Engagement

If you want to read more about cultural engagement, I’ve written about why Christians should engage culture, and postures we can take for cultural engagement.

As I said in one of those posts, when Jesus engaged the culture, he rubbed off on them, not the other way around. He ate with sinners but he didn’t sin with sinners. That’s what effective cultural engagement looks like. To be in the world but not of it; working in the world without being stained by it.

And the only way to pull that off is to first engage with Christ. The Spirit of Christ has to have taken up residence in our heart, soul, mind, and strength before we can engage the culture for him. Then and only then will we be prepared to engage the culture.