What Son House taught me about “Excellence” at church

Yesterday, I read on a church’s website, “We do everything with excellence to the best of our ability.” I love this…

…and hate it.

I believe excellence at church is important, crucial even. I think that when we come before God, we need to do it without holding back. We need to pour ourselves out without selfishness, arrogance, laziness, apathy, ignorance, etc. We are supposed to love the Lord with all our strength, all our heart, all our soul and all our mind. We are supposed to bring our whole selves. We are supposed to be PASSIONATE. If we are passionate, then excellence to the best of our ability is the only possible outcome. I want to be a church that says, “We do everything with PASSION.”

We still have the problem, “What is excellence?”

I love autotune because it allows musicians to save time and money by digitally correcting small errors without having to re-record. I hate autotune because it has created a culture of perfection in music where no notes are out of place and all the vocals are smooth, solid and perfectly on pitch. It has created a generation of music of neutered emotion. The “excellence” of today’s recordings cannot be denied. Technology has allowed a degree of manipulation and simulation that was unheard of and unimaginable even 25 years ago. However, there are times when imperfection conveys emotion…and that doesn’t exist in 99% of the modern musical landscape.

So, does excellence mean “perfect” in the sense of all the t’s crossed and all the i’s dotted? Does it mean every pluck of the string is exactly in time and in tune? Well, yeah, sometimes it does. BUT, I’ve been listening to Son House, a Delta Blues musician, who I believe is excellent…and dang he misses notes on his guitar and mispronounces words in some of his songs. This morning, I was listening to him clap and sing John the Revelator and play slide guitar on Sundown and the parts that are best and most heart wrenching are the grit…the notes he slides to that are just a little off, the words that come out thick and spit-soaked. It would be easy to listen to him sing and play and say he isn’t excellent.

And yet, it IS excellent.

Could he have gone back and re-recorded the songs to get all the notes right? Yep. He didn’t though because the way it is is the real Son House. He didn’t because those flaws exposed his heart, his desperation. He was intentional.

And there is the word I think we should use instead: INTENTIONAL.

If we are sloppy with some chords, it is because it conveys an emotion, like Son House. We do it on purpose and we weep, laugh, groan or shout with authentic passion. If we use fancy light scenes (or don’t) or use slick graphics (or don’t), it is because we are intentionally drawing attention and focus to something. If we preach precise sermon instead of off-the-cuff messages (or vice versa), we do it to intentionally convey a particular message and push people to take next steps in their faith.

If we are intentional, we define what “excellent” is and if we are passionate, we will naturally do everything with excellence to the best of our ability.

Leaders, are you leaving excellence undefined but telling your people to pursue it? I know from experience that this is probably creating tension amongst those you lead. Try being specific about the outcomes you want and provide some guardrails for the road toward those outcomes. Then inspire passion.

You’ll achieve excellence to the best of your peoples’ abilities that way every time.

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