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Thinking Out Loud

The Cost of Mediocrity

by Michael Jinkins | Nov 04, 2014
Cost of MediocrityRecently I wrote a blog on an idea introduced by Thomas Friedman who has said "average is over." His thesis is simply this: when excellence is only a keystroke away on our mobile devices, "average is over." The sources of excellent content are within reach of many people around the world now. This competition means that educators and many others cannot settle for average any more. We must capitalize on those things we can do better than anyone else, and we cannot afford to settle for “pretty good.”

Some readers of this blog seemed to read in my comments that I was encouraging a form of elitism - that I was arguing that only the greatest pulpiteers in the tallest steeples and only the best known educators in the grandest ivory towers could now compete for the hearts and minds of people. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

If anything, the digital revolution has actually leveled the playing field. On one hand, it makes it possible for virtually anyone with great ideas to find an audience. It means that even the most remote communities can, in effect, find the best spots on the digital highway.

On the other hand, and perhaps more important, the digital offerings of excellent content also and unintentionally raise the value of face-to-face relationships, especially if we are mindful of the opportunity their competition represents. The online competitors can actually spur us on to ensure that the education we provide and the ministries we perform are the very best possible. There are lots of things only real flesh-and-blood face-to-face communities can provide than virtual experiences can only approximate. In many ways, the more intimate and direct the human relationships, the better and the more competitive.

But there was another concern raised by a perceptive reader, a concern that the claim "average is over" biases against and somehow diminishes (even if only unintentionally) the work done by pastors and church leaders in smaller congregations. This concern deserves further reflection for one simple reason: "excellence" should never be thought of as code for "elitism." Excellence certainly should not be thought of as biased toward large ministry (or educational) settings. As noted above, there is a pragmatic argument to be made, but there is also a theological argument for the value of excellence in any and every place.

There's a scene in Robert Bolt's play about the life of Sir Thomas More, A Man for all Seasons, in which More tries unsuccessfully to mentor an extremely ambitious and character-deficient young man to abandon his dreams of political prominence and to become a school master. The young man, charmed by the life that More himself leads that includes regular audiences with the King and being called out at all hours to speak with the Lord Chancellor, refuses to teach in the small school that More recommends. The young man, thirsting for fame and fortune and wide public acclaim, asks More who will ever know about him if he invests his life in teaching in a small school. More answers: "God will know. You will know. Your pupils will know. Not a bad public."

We can confuse the quest for excellence with the quest for fame (and in our culture, the quest for fortune and the quest for a large public) to the point that we forget a fundamental fact of Christian thought. Because we belong to God and everything we do is done unto God, then every act is an act rendered to God's glory, and every act is imbued with eternal significance. There is not a single thing we do that should not be invested with excellence, whether our immediate audience as a preacher is four or four thousand, whether we are serving a large institution or a small one, whether our object of pastoral care and concern is a person of considerable wealth, a lonely elderly person or a small child numbered among "the least of these" in the estimation of the culture.

Perhaps, instead of using Friedman's phrase, "average is over," though I think his message has merit, we might be well served, and more precisely accurate, to speak of the call to reject mediocrity.

A few weeks back, Debbie and I were visiting in Columbus, Indiana. In addition to visiting with the wonderful Presbyterian congregation in Columbus, we also took a tour of the architectural wonders of that small city. And they are remarkable.

This small Midwestern city has some of the greatest treasures of modern and contemporary architecture in the world. Even structures dedicated to the most humble purposes have been given great and careful attention because of the dedication to excellence that has become a tradition in the city. Public parks, elementary schools, churches, homes large and small, hospitals, even the city jail, reflect the quest of excellence and the rejection of mediocrity.

Many people can claim some credit for the dedication to excellence in this small city, but arguably the greatest credit goes to the late J. Irwin Miller (philanthropist and business leader) who famously said, "Mediocrity is expensive." Miller's point was that cheap efforts cost more than excellence in the long run. Cutting corners and shabby workmanship, in whatever field of endeavor, ultimately cost more than doing the job well to begin with. And it costs far more than dollars!

Miller's commitment to excellence sounds purely pragmatic, but it was much much more. Miller was translating his own deep Christian faith into the vernacular.

Whatever we do should be done excellently, not only because excellence is cost-effective in the long run, but because our lives belong to God, and whatever we do is done to God's glory.

If this conviction guides our efforts, then average really is over.

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