If somebody reads my last blog, “Brothers, the Ministry Is Supernatural” (not professional), and says, “So, then, you think it doesn’t matter if we sing off key, preach incompetently, and don’t provide parking?” my answer is, “That’s just stupid.”
It matters whether you think the only alternative to tacky is “professional.” If the only way you have for urging excellence in your church is to urge “professionalism,” I suggest you need a bigger vocabulary.
The baggage attached to the word “professionalism” is not helpful, if you are trying to be a supernatural people of God. And that is what we want to be: Body of Christ, chosen race, royal priesthood, holy nation, people of God’s own possession, temple of the Holy Spirit, household of God, saints, called, Way, bride of Christ, and more. It is not helpful to aim at being a professional bride.
Where the Quest Begins
So when I renounce the pursuit of professionalism, does that mean I don’t aspire to excellence? No. But I do start my quest for excellence with the quest for excellent forgiveness. Excellent mercy. Excellent patience. Excellent kindness. Excellent humility. Excellent self-control. Excellent gospel-walking (Galatians 2:14).
That’s what Paul had in mind when he told us to imitate the infinitely excellent God. “Be imitators of God . . . And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us” (Ephesians 5:1–2). I don’t know if Jesus could sing on key, or if his tunic was wrinkle-free, but I do know his capacities for returning good for evil were beautiful beyond words. The radical quest for that excellence is where we begin.
The Quest Broadens
Then Paul broadens the quest: “Whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8). So, after our hearts undergo a gospel renovation, the next room for refurbishing is our mind: Think on these excellent things. Fill your mind with excellence. Beauty. Justice. Purity. Honor.
Then the next thing out of Paul’s mouth is this: “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me — practice these things” (Philippians 4:9). So the gospel-renovated heart and the excellence-refurbished mind “practice these things.” It matters how things are done. At home. At church. Everywhere. We “practice” excellence.
Seasoned with Mission
So do we build magnificent buildings? Maybe. But not many. The priority put on opulence in the Old Testament palace and temple was owing to an era of “come-see-religion.” Like the Queen of Sheba who came to Israel and was breathless at Solomon’s wealth (1 Kings 10:5). But the New Testament has none of that emphasis on opulence, because it is a “go-tell-religion.” The mission impulse dominates the domestic impulse. We are sojourners. We are sent. “Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money; and do not have two tunics” (Luke 9:3). This saying is not normative for all mission, but it does flavor everything.
So the quest for excellence is always seasoned by a mission-oriented mentality with a bent toward simplicity. It’s a bent, not an absolute. There may be a place for a cathedral here and there. But the people of God won’t lean toward living in palaces. And the vast work of the kingdom will happen mainly in the rugged outposts.
But what about the way we do things? What about music, for example? We recall the psalmist saying, “Splendor and majesty are before him; strength and beauty are in his sanctuary” (Psalm 96:6). “Sing to him a new song; play skillfully on the strings” (Psalm 33:3). Beautifully. Skillfully. Does that mean professionally? In all my pastoral ministry, I have never prayed that worship be done professionally.
The category we have found most helpful is “undistracting excellence.” The adjective “undistracting” means that the quality of an act must help, rather than hinder, the spiritual aims of the ministry. Lead worshipers aim by the power of God’s Spirit (1 Peter 4:11) to awaken the mind’s attention and the heart’s affections to the truth and beauty of God and the gospel. The kind of singing and playing that helps this happen is not well described as “professional.”
Seeking a Miracle
But “undistracting excellence” helps us get at the issue. It reminds us that people are distracted not only by shoddy music, but also by the flare of musical finesse. Corporate worship is not a recital. The sanctuary is no orchestra hall. The shouted “Bravissimo!” for a virtuoso performance (which may be totally appropriate at the concert hall) has the opposite focus from what we are seeking on Sunday morning. We are seeking the miracle of communion with God.
The same applies to preaching. On the one hand, elders are to be “apt to teach” (1 Timothy 3:2). Gifted. Able. Skilled. Effective. On the other hand, there is a kind of smooth, effortless oratory, and a kind of cool, clever, hip, and even studied casualness that can be just as distracting from the presence of God as the self-conscious awkwardness of the nervous beginner.
Spiritual Does Not Mean Shoddy
Undistracting excellence means that content, language, tone, gesture, and demeanor will all serve the spiritual aims of the message: the quickening of the dead and the building up of faith in the saints by the power of God. There is no professional raising of the dead. And no professional building of the temple of the soul.
Therefore, brothers, we are (still) not professionals. Our aims are supernatural. Therefore, our means are stirred and shaped by the Spirit of God. The excellence we seek serves a spiritual communion with God. It is undistracting. But spiritual does not mean shoddy. And supernatural does not mean stupid.
"Brothers, We Are Still Not Professionals: Reclaiming the Centrality of the Supernatural in Ministry" is the theme of the Desiring God 2013 Conference for Pastors (February 4–6 in Minneapolis).
The forthcoming revised and expanded edition of John Piper's book Brothers, We Are Not Professionals is now available for pre-order.
Other posts in this series:
- Brothers, Praise Somebody Other Than God, Sam Crabtree
- Brothers, Live a Visible, Exemplary, Everyday Life, Jeff Vanderstelt
- Brothers, the Ministry Is Supernatural, John Piper
- Brothers, We Are Not Sisters, Doug Wilson
- Brothers, Build a Gospel Culture, Ray Ortlund
- Brothers, Train Up the Next Generation, Mike Bullmore
- Brothers, We Should Stink, Thabiti Anyabwile
- Brothers, We Are Not Superstars, Danny Akin
- Brothers, We Are Not Professors, R. C. Sproul, Jr.