Friday, August 13, 2010

Deliver Us From Mediocrity

Many years ago I remember sitting in a conference hosted by John Maxwell as he spoke on the subject of excellence. The lesson has never left me. He began by talking about the plague of mediocrity.

That word makes an interesting study. Its a compound word (medi and ocris) which literally means "halfway up a stony mountain." Now doesn't that create a great picture? It accurately describes our situations when we fail to give our best. We end up halfway there, unsuccessful and precariously placed on the side of a mountain.

The story's told of climbing companions attempting to scale the heights of a majestic mountain. The journey begins with relatively easy hikes over the foothills to the higher peaks. As the days go by, the trek becomes more and more challenging, and some begin to question the wisdom of the adventure altogether. Just before they reach the base of the main peak they plan to climb they reach a lodge. This was built to help travelers rest up for the most difficult part of the climb.

The weary climbers are able to sit by a roaring fire, eat hot meals and drink coffee in the shelter the lodge provides. But an interesting thing happens. When it's time to leave, some of those who were once excited about reaching the summit decide that they will wait here at the halfway point for their friends to return. They're satisfied to stop half way.

They take a comfortable seat on the front porch with their coffee and watch as the committed few begin the hardest part of the journey. At first the conversation is loud and the laughter is easy. They talk about how much pain the climbers will endure as they reach for the summit. But, as the day wears on, something interesting happens. From their vantage point, they can still see their friends as they climb higher and higher, closer to their goal. But the loud talk and the laughter cease, and each is left with their own quiet thoughts as they watch those with whom they started climbing, ascend to the peak without them.

There are relatively few people who are willing to do what it takes to pursue excellence, because excellence is not easy - it costs. What does it cost to pursue excellence?

1. It costs time to pursue excellence.
It matters not the field in which you find yourself, whether that be sports, academics, a trade or public service. Excellence is not simply a choice; it is a series of choices. It is a daily decision to do your best: to take the time to study, practice, write or rehearse, whatever it takes.

Charles Swindoll, one of the most enduring of Christian writers, decided early on in his ministry to make such a commitment. Already dealing with a heavy workload as a pastor, he chose to arise one hour earlier each day and to spend that hour writing. Years later, he has now written over 50 books and has become one of the most respected spokesmen for Christianity.

Michael Jordan is on everyone's short list of the greatest basketball players of all time. He is a six-time NBA champion, a five-time MVP, a 10-time scoring champion and a 14-time All-star. When it came time for a game to be decided, there was never a question who would be holding the ball - it would be Michael. How did he reach such heights of excellence?

Alongside the other accolades, Michael Jordan has been called the best practice player ever. He took seriously every opportunity he had to improve his game It was said that he performed every drill as if it was a game situation. He did this so that, when faced with an opportunity when it mattered, he would always be prepared. It takes time to achieve excellence.

It costs resources to achieve excellence.
Excellence is the result of investing in your personal growth over a long period of time. Not everyone who has achieved excellence has a university education (many don't), however, those who are consistently excellent are those who have made a commitment to be life-long learners.

The question is often asked, "but what about those who are just born with natural talent." That is certainly an advantage, but the world is full of talented bums, people who have wasted their potential because they relied on their talent alone. With talent comes responsibility. As a high school basketball coach I have seen naturally gifted players that I would gladly trade for less talented ones with a higher commitment level. A true gift is a player with talent and a teachable spirit; that is the place from which greatness comes.

So how do we grow? You can grow from school, books, mentors, seminars, etc... but it starts with a commitment to invest. Look for someone who knows what you want to learn and ask for help. Find the right books, listen to the right CD's, go to the right places, attend the right events... and learn.

3. It costs emotionally to achieve excellence.
This statement speaks of relationship. The sad truth is that not everyone wants to reach excellence; not everyone is willing to pay the price to reach the summit. If you surround yourself with people who are unwilling to pay the price, you will never reach your potential. Conversely, if you surround yourself with people who make the same commitments as you do, your investments are multiplied as "iron sharpens iron."

Please hear me accurately. I'm not saying that we should have nothing to do with people who do not share our dreams and commitments. I am saying that our key friendships and relationships will have a great deal to say in whether we achieve our dreams. Constantly dealing with insecure people can be like the proverbial kittens in the basket. None can get out because they take turns pulling each other down. This is opposed to the Biblical advice from Hebrews 10:24 - "And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds."

The person who is committed to excellence not only makes a difference in their own life; they have a positive impact on those around them. When the Chicago Bulls saw their most talented player working harder in practice than anyone else, it drove each one to work harder and raised the bar for the whole team.

I've been encouraged over the course of my ministry to see that many churches are beginning to understand the importance of excellence in the church. After all, we profess to be working for the Creator of all things, the One who could say at the end of creation that "it was very good." We are created in His image; therefore, we should work to do the best we can as well.

This applies to all areas of church life: music, preaching, children's ministries, youth ministry, the arts, technology, teaching, all of it. I want to do better. I want to do better at communicating the truth of God's Word in a way that people can understand. I want do better in providing the very best worship to God of which we are capable. I want to do better in producing life-impacting events that are second to none. I want to do better in utilizing the latest technologies to help to demonstrate eternal truths. I want to do better because God deserves the very best of which I am capable.
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