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Too often, the contemporary church trivializes God, making God a rhetorical phrase or a justification for political agendas. Authentic religious faith becomes marginalized into a set of privatized feelings held by individuals, or political agendas, or simply a utilitarian means of becoming successful or wealthy, says Carder.

Resurrecting Excellence

“What is lacking is the kind of passion that would be commensurate with ministry being about ultimate realities, about life and death matters,” he says.

In many ways, that is exactly what this nascent movement around excellence is about, say Jones and Carder. It’s about taking Christian claims and practices seriously.

Make no mistake, excellent ministry happens all across the country, Jones and Armstrong contend in Resurrecting Excellence, and they cite numerous examples. When you see excellent ministry, the two authors say, you know it. It has its own aesthetic.

“When you see the Christian life being lived well in a community with effective leaders, it is beautiful,” says Jones. “People are drawn to it. Lives are touched. People are held and carried through tragedy, and joys are celebrated. New life is found and sin is unlearned. When we find people living in communities shaped by Christian practices, it is tremendously life giving and cultivates a sense of joy.”

  Kevin R. Armstrong  L. Gregory Jones
Kevin R. Armstrong (l) and L. Gregory Jones are the authors of Resurrecting Excellence, one of two capstone books from a four-year study on pastoral leadership by Pulpit & Pew, a Lilly Endowment-funded research effort at Duke Divinity School.

That kind of “resurrecting excellence”—an excellence that makes new life possible—can happen in any kind of church, Jones says, big or small, liberal or conservative, rural or urban. Excellent congregations tend not to be defined by those labels but are instead lively places of discernment and disagreement among people bound together by their commitment to a rich vision of Christian life. Arguments over worship style, church size and political bent are misguided, according to Jones. The future of the church, he insists, will not turn on issues such as mega-churches or small churches, red states or blue states, traditional hymns or praise music. Instead, the future lies in excellent ministry wherever it is practiced.

While the word “excellence” carries a lot of cultural baggage, Carder believes it is about as good a word as can be found. He acknowledges that it can smack of elitism, suggesting a perfectionism that undermines the very excellence that this new and growing movement is trying to accomplish. The concept of “resurrecting excellence” isn’t defined by consumerism, upward mobility or institutional success, but by God’s presence in the world, says Carder.

“Whatever our definition of excellence, it has to be measured against the life, the teaching, the death and the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, who wrote no books and built no big churches, but who continues to transform the world through the foolishness of a cross,” says Carder. “Sometimes excellence in ministry might look a whole lot like failure to the world.”

But a Christ-centered excellence, an excellence that is not based on the world’s standards, does not mean that careless or unimaginative pastoral leadership is acceptable, cautions Carroll.

“All clergy need to do ministry well, communicate well, and have a clear vision of what ministry is about,” he says. “The church is not in the business of condoning mediocrity.”

It’s one thing, of course, to talk about excellence in ministry. It’s quite another to translate such talk into changes in the real world. And to quantify and reward it.

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