We all know the church is normally on some pendulum swing or other. It is very rare for churches to find a perfect, or even near, balance on lots of things. We have a habit of doing one thing and, when we notice some issues with it, wildly swinging the pendulum in reaction to the opposite position with all its issues. I have always liked Luther’s drunk man on horseback analogy speaking to this sort of thing.
One live issue that never goes away is how well does the church need to do things. For many years, churches often operated on the cheap-as-chips model. That is, whatever you do, do it with whatever volunteers you can muster, as cheaply as possible, and justify it through good stewardship. This often led to substandard stuff being done that wasn’t particularly glorifying to the Lord Jesus and, frankly, most people took one look at and thought it looked rubbish.
The over-correction that came shortly after was the push to ultra-professionalism. Unless stuff is at least as good as whatever a professional, secular alternative would be, we shouldn’t do anything at all. It operated on the if-you-can’t-make-it-excellent-don’t-do-it principle. This was arguably fine for certain kinds of churches, but effectively meant an awful lot of other churches were left thinking there was nothing very much they could do for the kingdom at all. The smaller and pokier you are, the less “excellent” anything felt. It also failed to contend with the fact that even the bigger, richer churches that felt they were doing things professionally still had to contend with the ‘Christian factor’ that necessarily made it seem less appealing in the eyes of the world.
What, then, is the balance? We obviously don’t want to do stuff that is objectively low-grade and rubbish. But nor do we want to so over-professionalise everything that if we can’t make it absolutely, 100% A-grade, we won’t do anything at all. Does this mean we want, or must, aim for mediocrity? Well, kind of but kind of not.
I think what it means is we should aim to do things as well as we can. So, if we are in a position to do something professionally and attractively, then we should. We should make things as attractive, as excellent, as good as we possibly can make them (such as we think whatever it is happens to be a good idea at all). It also means we should avoid doing stuff that is actively poor and not very good. Stuff that we know, if we were to be offered it anywhere else, we would turn our noses up at it ourselves. We don’t want to be doing that. But it also means we shouldn’t be scared of stuff that is, ultimately, a bit mediocre.
I had a friend who used to say, ‘if we aim at nothing, we’ll definitely hit it’. I think that much is true. We should aim high in whatever it is we plan to do. We should seek to do the best we can for the Lord. At the same time, we should accept that if the best we can do something means, not that it’ll be rubbish, but it might be a bit mediocre and not as good as somewhere else, that’s alright. I mean, not every restaurants serves food that is as objectively good as the top Michelin starred places. It doesn’t stop me going into those restaurants and enjoying their food nonetheless. It is possible to enjoy highly rated, professional food and also a kebab and chips from the local takeaway. In the same way, it is possible to gain from professional services and yet still find the slightly less good offering at a local church beneficial and valuable.
Of course (to press the food analogy further), there are foods and restaurants I just don’t like. Places with low hygiene ratings or disgusting ingredients just aren’t going to be that attractive to me. I actively avoid such places. But that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy a cheap burger and chips from McDonalds and happily eat an expensive 3-course meal somewhere else and enjoy both. So, just because the church can’t necessarily do something as well or as professionally as somewhere else (which, for the most part, is likely to be true) doesn’t mean its more mediocre offering is somehow redundant and dishonouring to Christ because of its mediocrity.
So, should we aim as high as we can in the things we are doing in order to honour the Lord? Yes, I think so. But does our highest attempt at aiming high being a bit mediocre mean we shouldn’t do the thing? No, I don’t think so. If it’s professional-level services or nothing, a lot of churches will be doing a lot of nothing. If we’re happy with stuff that is clearly rubbish by any objective measure, we probably want to think about not doing such things because they are liable to be detrimental. But if we are doing our best to honour the Lord and serve his gospel, and we’re seeking to do thing as well as we possibly can, I think we should embrace being mediocre much of the time.
To put it another way, it’s absolutely fine to be McDonalds and not just Le Cigare Volant. After all, quite a lot of people are pretty happy going to McDonalds and a lot fewer people go to that other fancy place. Ultimately, we may be aiming to do two different things. We aren’t necessarily aiming to provide the most professional service (if you want that, you may well need to go elsewhere). Rather, we are aiming to do enough to be worthwhile and accessible so that the most people might come and hear the gospel. So, being clear what we’re aiming for matters too. But in the end, it’s fine to embrace being a bit mediocre. We aim to do our best, but when we’ve aimed as high as we can for the Lord’s sake, we embrace doing what we can for his glory – even if it is only mediocre in the end.