Once upon a time I coached high school basketball. As a small private school we had our ups and downs because a limited sized student body is going to yield a limited amount of talent. However, for four years I had this one kid who was as gifted an athlete as you could ever want. He hustled on every play, was the fastest kid on the team and could jump through the roof. But there was one problem. He was erratic. In his zeal to out-hustle and out-work everyone he would overdo it and make mistakes. He would turn the ball over, overshoot the basket, dive on the floor when bending over would do. And getting into foul trouble was a given. He had yet to learn John Wooden’s maxim of “Be quick, but don’t hurry.”
By his senior year I had taught him to go out there and do his best, but to be efficient. If 110% was going to turn the ball over and commit fouls, I would rather have 95% and have him score 20 points a game. He had to learn that for the type of athlete he was, 95% was more efficient than 110%, and he had to be okay with that.
Churches are the same way. For years we have heard the mantra of “do everything with excellence.” While there is nothing wrong with that, and I believe God wants and deserves our best, sometimes I think we forsake efficiency in the name of excellence. For example: my first ministry was a mess. I came into a foreign land (Ohio!) with no support system other than my wife who was exhausted taking care of a newborn infant. I had all of the vigor, zeal and optimism of youth, but no discipline. I saw a small, rural church and wanted to transform it into a Saddleback or Southeast. I expended a lot of energy on developing logos, mission statements, vision statements, and branding. I tried to force a style of worship that nobody was familiar with, much less wanted, onto the congregation. I recruited, trained and developed leaders for small group ministry, only to have it fall apart at the last minute. As soon as one venture would fail, I was on to the next without pausing to learn from my mistakes. When you couple that with an extremely hands-on leadership, you get burn-out, frustration, and disappointment. I was pouring 110% of my energy into excellence without ever giving a second thought to my effectiveness. Needless to say, my days there were limited, but I learned something at the end of it all: God wants us to be effective, not just excellent.
Some of the most memorable moments in church for me have been the unplanned ones. A young man comes forward to be baptized because the Holy Spirit hit him at some point during the service. A power outage forces us to have a candlelight communion service in an intimate fellowship hall. The amplifier blows during worship and we have to sing a capella. These are things unplanned, yet God moved people to tears, to repentance, and to joy. I know in my younger days, a blown amplifier would have rattled me. My thoughts would have been consumed by, “Oh no, what if there are visitors here? What will they think?” But now, it’s no big deal. My goal is not merely excellence, it is efficiency, and God is most efficient at our times of weakness and failing.
Does this mean I give up on excellence? Absolutely not. I still put twenty hours of work into every sermon I write. I still spell check the PowerPoint slides before putting them up for all to see. I still want services to be well thought out. But I want them to be relatable too. So we allow room for mistakes. We let people lead worship who may not be the most gifted at it, but they have a passion for it and feel God leading them in that direction. Today, some of the best worship leaders in my congregation were the ones that on their first Sunday could hardly put two sentences together because of their nerves. And God blessed their effort and has refined them over the years in front of an entire congregation. The result of such an approach is a congregation that genuinely loves each other, bears with and bears up one another, and attracts the lost to Jesus because we live and do ministry like a family.
God still wants and deserves my best, but my best is most efficient when I dial the knob back from 11 and put it at 9. That’s the type of preacher I am, and I’m okay with that. That’s the type of church I serve, and they’re okay with it too.