Spirit-Led Excellence, Pt. 2: The Context of Quality

May 1, 2023

by Anthony Blair, President of Evangelical Seminary and Professor of Leadership and Historical Studies; David Williams, Kairos Executive Partner; President of Taylor Seminary, and Greg Henson, CEO, Kairos University; President, Sioux Falls Seminary


Those old enough to remember re-runs of the 1960s TV sitcom “Get Smart” will recognize the familiar line of its main character, the bumbling spy Maxwell Smart. After screwing something up yet again, he would almost touch his thumb with his forefinger, with only a small gap remaining, and announce, “Missed it by that much!” The context—a comedy show full of irony—was our clue to understand that he had actually missed it by a wide margin. We might be tempted to say that he’d “missed it by a mile!” That was a common phrase in David’s childhood in Texas. That phrase was used when shooting basketballs, swinging at baseballs, or target shooting at the rifle range. And, just like Smart’s miss was not a mere quarter inch, neither were the misses of David and his friends over 5000 feet astray..

In both cases, the context helps us understand the meaning. We’re big on context at Kairos. We define proficiency of learning outcomes in terms of a student’s cultural and vocational context.

We allow pathways to those outcomes to be informed by our partners in their own contexts. We define standards of excellence contextually as well.

If our immediate reaction is to feel a bit of skepticism about that, we may want to notice that Jesus did this too! The Pharisees had constructed a complex series of rules in order to protect the people from inadvertently breaking the Old Testament law, much like a farmer might build a fence around a ditch in his field to keep the cows from falling in. A number of those rules involved what could or could not be done on the Sabbath. One could do nothing that looked or felt like work, for instance, in order to appropriate “honor the Sabbath and keep it holy.” That was their standard of excellence.

But if a cow were to fall into one of those ditches in the field on the Sabbath, what should a farmer do? Allow the cow to remain there all day, in pain, perhaps dying as a result? Or rescue it? Jesus’ answer was simple and powerful: Save the cow! Poor people need their cows. The Sabbath was made to be a gift to them, not to further harm them. In fact, for Jesus, it was a wonderful day to heal them! And so he did.

He was not dishonoring the Sabbath by doing so, as the Pharisees charged. He was not disagreeing with the commandment or his Father in heaven. He was simply illustrating that the “standard of quality” for honoring the Sabbath was different when your cow is stuck than when it’s safely in the stable, when your mother is sick than when she’s dancing around the room. Context mattered to him. It still does.

And it matters to us too. For a baseball pitcher to miss something by a mile reveals pretty poor quality; for a spacecraft landing on Mars, it’s remarkable precision. A kindergartner writing a story in complete sentences would be a celebrated achievement; a professional novelist, though, would be expected to do that as the bare minimum of his or her craft. The first sermon Tony preached was, by his current standards, a horrific jumble of incoherent thoughts and poor theology; by the standards of his country church and his age (15), the listeners deemed it a decent start toward a career in ministry.

Every judgment we make is a contextual judgment. Every standard we use presupposes some context for it to be meaningful. Missiologists have been trying to bring this truth to our attention for decades. Anthropologists have been challenging for centuries now many of our lifestyle assumptions by their observations of people in other cultural contexts who, often with great creativity and persistence, find other, even better ways to do things that we take for granted. We are not the standard.

Thus, Kairos is much like one of those strange foreign communities to the metaphorical anthropologists who observe us doing things differently than the way learning has often been done in the West. As noted earlier, one of our distinctives is our bold, delighted use of context in how we define and evaluate learning. While we use a master assessment rubric across programs, degrees, and continents, the standards by which we assess the proficiency of our students must be informed by the context of the student. Excellent leadership for a pastor in Pakistan who fears for the lives of his congregation members is drastically different from a megachurch pastor in California or a house church leader in urban Houston. And so it should!

That’s why Kairos is more than just an institution of higher learning. We’re sometimes closer in spirit to a global missions movement. The journey of discipleship looks distinctively different across this “community of communities” even though we agree together to consistently, passionately trust in one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God, one Father, who is above all, through all, and in us all. The Spirit defines the excellence we seek in all our contexts. All of them.

Spirit-led excellence is not only contextualized from place to place but also from one time to another. Next week, we’ll look at how standards change over time, and why they need to.

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