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.

How Pastors Can be Built to Last

Pastors are not quitters. Or at least, they don’t plan to be. Yet about 250 pastors leave their pulpits a month.

Most pastors don’t plan on quitting, but they also don’t plan not to. Unless pastors are built to last, they might find themselves burned out and beleaguered long before they planned on stepping down.

An aging and soon-to-be executed Apostle Paul once wrote to Timothy, his young protégé, to paint a picture of a pastor that’s built to last:

Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him. An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules. It is the hard-working farmer who ought to have the first share of the crops. — 2 Tim. 2:3-6

Paul challenges the young pastor to endure for the sake of the gospel. Paul knew that Timothy was going to face great resistance to much of what he had been commissioned to do. He knew Timothy would suffer for proclaiming his faith and telling people that Jesus was the only way to heaven.

So Paul gives Timothy three illustrations to help flesh out the kind of endurance he’s talking about. Paul paints pastors using the analogies of the dedicated soldier, the disciplined athlete, and the hardworking farmer. Each of these illustrations tells us something about what it takes to be the kind of pastor that’s built to last.

Read the rest of my article at Gospel-Centered Discipleship

3 Principles for Passing on the Gospel

Their stricken faces said it all. The men and women of the U.S. Olympic 400-meter relay teams were disqualified and in disbelief.

The U.S. had owned the 400 relay in years past. Now, in 2008, the teams hadn’t even qualified.

In just a thirty-minute span, both teams’ hopes were dashed at the fumbling of the third and final baton handoff. When you’re running a relay, the handoff is critical. Runners take extra care to ensure a smooth handoff because when they drop the baton, they don’t finish the race.

Christians have an even more important handoff to make: passing the gospel on to the next generation. Paul, arguably the most skilled believer aside from Christ to ever hand off the gospel, once instructed his young protégé Timothy in how to pass it on well, saying, “What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2).

Paul is challenging Timothy to pass on what he has heard to faithful men and women who also are able to pass it on. What has Timothy heard from Paul? The gospel. The truth of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.

By this time in their relationship, Timothy would have seen Paul testify to this gospel hundreds of times. He also would have seen Paul pass it on hundreds of times. Paul understood the gospel does the next generation no good if it never receives it. The gospel is like a relay race; we’re either fumbling the handoff or ensuring it’s passed on with care.

In 2 Timothy 2:2, Paul summarizes his most critical advice for passing on the gospel in three principles.

Read the rest of my article at Gospel-Centered Discipleship

The Essence of a Gospel-Soaked, Faithful Teacher

How did we get to a place where Christians turn against Christians in the name of political power?

How did we get to a place where we demonize one another by oversimplifying our beliefs and convictions?

How did we get here? By quarreling over words and secondary matters to the neglect of what matters most; by not faithfully teaching and demonstrating those things which matter most. Without faithful teachers, God’s people have few, if any, guardrails against worldly pursuits and thinking.

But what does it look like to be a faithful teacher of God’s Word? In 2 Timothy 2, Paul paints three compelling pictures of a faithful teacher for his young protégé, Timothy: the unashamed worker, the clean vessel, and the Lord’s servant. Taken together, these three pictures convey the essence of a gospel-soaked, faithful teacher.

Read the rest of my article at Gospel-Centered Discipleship

Racism and Our Need for Repentance

At the T4G Conference this month, David Platt preached a sermon based on Amos 5:18-27 titled, “Let Justice Roll Down Like Waters: Racism and our Need for Repentance.” Be sure to read the verses in Amos before moving on.

Though he would prefer to talk about ethnicity instead of race, Platt spoke specifically about the white and black divide in America. According to one conference attendee, reactions were mixed. Mine was not. Platt simply called himself, his church, and evangelicals to live lives worthy of the gospel we have received (Philippians 1:27).

He asked long-overdue questions like, “Why is my church so white? Why is the missions organization I lead so white? … Why is this conference so white?”

Platt’s exposition (or interpretation of the text), indictments against and exhortations for the church are worth examining.

3 Indictments Against God’s People in the Face of Injustice

Amos, a shepherd-turned-prophet, indicted Israel, God’s people, on three primary offenses, according to Platt:

  1. They were eagerly anticipating future salvation while conveniently denying present sin.
    • It is possible to anticipate salvation tomorrow while turning a blind eye to sin in your life today.
  2. They were indulging in worship while they were ignoring injustice.
    • People who truly worship God above them will sacrificially work for justice around them.
  3. They were carrying on their religion while they were refusing to repent.
    • God is not honored by mouths that are quick to sing and hands that are quick to rise in worship when those same hands and those same mouths are slow to work against injustice.

These indictments led Platt to ask if we have been slow to work for racial injustice around us. His answer is “yes.” (Note: Platt was speaking directly to pastors.)

The Church Has Been Slow to Work for Racial Injustice

On a whole, Platt said, pastors and churches in America have widened and are currently widening, instead of bridging, the racial divide in our country. Here’s why he says that:

  1. It matters whether you’re black or white in America today.
    • “Why is it that I would say that Arthur Price is an African American pastor in Birmingham, instead of just saying that he is a pastor in Birmingham? I have never introduced John MacArthur as a caucasian pastor.”
    • Black Americans are much more likely to be unemployed than white Americans; income inequality today is 50% wider (worse) than it was 40 years ago; African American babies die at over twice the rate of white babies; African American mothers are 4 times more likely to die giving birth than are white mothers; young African American males are 6 times more likely to be murdered than young white American males.
  2. Over 95% of white Americans attend predominantly white churches; over 90% of African Americans attend predominantly African American churches.
    • Could it be that as much as we like to think about the church as a force for countering racism, right now the church is actually a force for continuing it?
    • “We cannot be comfortable as the people of God with a clear white/black divide in our country, and we can’t be content with deepening that divide in the church. It is not just, and it is not right. And we will not be found to be worshiping God if we ignore injustice, or far worse, increase it.”

6 Exhortations for Repenting of Racism in the Church

Based on his understanding of Amos 5 and the cultural analysis above, Platt offered six exhortations for the church.

  1. Let’s look at the reality of racism.
    • (The section above is what Platt covered here.)
  2. Let’s live in true multi-ethnic community.
    • I look at my life and ministry and in so many ways my world has been so white. … Why have the churches I’ve been a part of and led in been so white? Why is the missions organization I lead so predominantly white? How can I, with supposed zeal for the nations, be so blind to such injustice among peoples in my own nation? These are questions that I have, for far too long, ignored.” (Really appreciated his transparency here.)
    • “We all hate slavery. We all hate Jim Crow laws. Certainly, we cannot be content, then, with churches, seminaries, missions organizations, and conferences that look like time capsules preserving the divisive effects of the past.”
  3. Let’s listen to and learn from one another (in the context of true multi-ethnic community).
    • Most white and black people in the church disagree on what they think the causes of racism are, and Christians are farther apart in their understanding than non-Christians.
  4. Let’s love and lay aside our preferences for one another.
    • We want the kind of churches that cause people to say, “How are those people together?”
    • We can’t prioritize church growth over ethnic diversity.
    • Most multi-ethnic churches in the U.S. are still dominated by white cultural norms.
    • “We will not be found faithful before our God if fear of man and fear of losing the crowd keeps us from proclaiming the totality of God’s Word.”
  5. Let’s leverage our influence for justice in the present.
    • On a whole, white churches have been complacent during every stage of racism (slavery, the Civil Rights Movement, etc.).
  6. Let’s long for the day when justice will be perfect.

Reflections on Racism and the Church

Here are, in no particular order, some of my thoughts on Platt’s sermon and the concerns it raises. (Note: I’m a white male, so I’ll be speaking from that perspective, and for that reason, will only touch on what white Christians can do to repent of racism in the church.)

I think Platt was spot-on in his indictment of evangelical churches. For too long, our churches have furthered the divide between white and black brothers and sisters. White ignorance of the black experience has fueled the chasm between cultures.

Building a church culture that prizes diversity requires radical grace without losing the truth. I have been blessed to be at a church that’s far more diverse than many of the others in my area. The diversity stems from a culture saturated in the knowledge and practice of grace that accepts everyone who walks through the doors. Crafting a culture like that takes a relentless focus on grace, but in a way that doesn’t lose the truth in the process. An overemphasis on grace at the expense of the truth (or the commandments of Scripture) leads to what Bonhoeffer called cheap grace: “the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline. Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.”

White evangelicals must be shepherded through engaging their black brothers and sisters by servant leaders who will show them how. To Platt’s credit, he said that the final verdict on what white Christians in America do with the knowledge that we live in a culture of systemic injustice against people of color is not how loudly we clap or how many “amens” we shout, but how we sacrificially work for injustice around us.

But here’s the thing: most people have no idea what that means or what it looks like to work against injustice. They think that’s something for a professional or legal organization to do. What is needed are servant leaders who will display what it looks like to work against injustice by living it out in everyday life. We need white pastors who are willing to plant churches in non-white areas or to partner with black pastors and leaders to plan and fund their church plants. We need white families to open their homes and live out radically ordinary hospitality that gathers people of all sorts of backgrounds and colors around the table and the Word of God. We need young white men to seek out older, wiser African American mentors, and older white men to seek out young, African American men to mentor.

I have been working to address my white-washed experience for the last two years. The Lord has blessed my family the last couple of years as we’ve sought to diversify our life and relationships. For over a year, I walked through the truths of Scripture and a bible study curriculum with an African American brother who I count among my dearest friends. I learned how he fears for his son to be pulled over or questioned by police, a fear I have never felt. My wife and I attended an anniversary party with his wife, family, and friends where I was maybe for the first time in my life the unquestionable minority. It was an unequivocally good experience that left me with a deeper understanding of my brother and his background. I’ve been to his home, prayed for his kids, and texted him with running questions.

Around the same time, I sensed the need for a spiritual mentor in my life, and the Lord was good to send me to an older, wiser African American man who turned out to be my middle school guidance counselor. We’ve been connecting every other month or so for about a year. He walked with me through a career change, which was one of the most stressful periods of my life.

In our neighborhood, we’ve befriended an Indian family and shared meals in each other’s homes, and have learned how similar we are despite our differences. We’ve had a mother from Puerto Rico and her three children live in our home for a few weeks, which opened our eyes to the discouraging, bewildering worlds of public and social services.

I’m not holding myself or my family up as an example. I only share this to encourage others to pursue diversity in their own lives, because it’s a pursuit God will bless. Pray specifically for opportunities to diversify your life and for God to open your eyes to the opportunities that already exist.

Like Platt, I long for the day when justice is no longer a trickle but a torrent rushing through our lives and nation. Even more than that, I long for the day when people from every nation, tongue, and tribe gather around the throne of the Lamb as one race—the human race—worshiping our Creator in perfect peace.

Justice Will Roll Down

Sandra McCracken wrote a beautiful song from the same verses in Amos 5 called “Justice Will Roll Down.” I’ll leave you with the lyrics:

Oh my love, you have grown so cold
To the world outside, to the house next door
She who has been loved much, has so much to give
Mercy is the fragrance, of the broken

Justice will roll down, oh justice will roll down
From high upon those mountains with a mighty river sound
It will roll down
It will roll down

Oh my child, I will be your light
In your secret pain, in the dark of night
No enemy, no conqueror, will steal your life from me
I am your salvation, and your victory

Justice will roll down, oh justice will roll down
From high upon those mountains with a mighty river sound
It will roll down
It will roll down

Soon oh soon, when the trumpet sounds
Every knee shall bend, every heart will pound
I have made a new world, where the servant is the King
Oppression will be over, and the slave set free

Justice will roll down, oh justice will roll down
From high upon those mountains with a mighty river sound
It will roll down
It will roll down