Spirit-Led Excellence, Pt. 3: Standards Change

May 8, 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


“They’re grrrrreat!” That enthusiastic endorsement by an animated tiger is what Kellogg’s Foods, perhaps counter-intuitively, concluded would sell kids and parents on a particular breakfast cereal. It must have worked! The “Frosted Flakes” brand has sold briskly in the US for over 70 years now. (The Latin American name for the cereal, “Zucaritas,” means “little sugary things,” which is particularly delightful, and doubtless quite sellable.)

Absent a striped tiger, how do we know what’s grrrrreat? That’s what we’re exploring in this series of blog posts. We noted in our last post that standards of quality are defined differently from one context to another.

Getting the words “right” for a pastor means something different when conducting a funeral or other emotionally-charged, highly-memorable event than when extemporizing in a small group Bible study, for instance. Learning the difference between contexts, and what excellence invites in each, is part of the intangible wisdom we want learners in our own Kairos community to see in us and learn with us—which, of course, means that we must also be able to recontextualize excellence ourselves.

And standards of quality are also defined differently over time. Hearing it said so bluntly may trouble us at first. Perhaps we fear that quality standards in some things we care about have decreased over time. Or, conversely, perhaps we have the feeling that more is asked of us than of those who came before. In either scenario, we might easily be tempted to argue that quality standards need to be immutable over time, that our understanding of excellence must be a constant.

Yet that’s not really workable, is it? Changes in culture, technology, and economics force us to adapt continually. To repair a car engine these days requires the ability to operate a computer, and the diagnostic software on it, instead of merely grabbing a toolbox and looking under the engine, as a skilled mechanic was once able to do (successfully!). To treat a patient requires up-to-date knowledge of medical research and advances, instead of simply prescribing what was once conventional wisdom (such as David’s story from the first post in this series of his boyhood doctor suggesting cigarettes as an aid for asthma!). And to be a competent student now requires one to know how to find relevant, trustworthy information in an era awash in unsupported assertions and half-truths, rather than being content with mastering the five hard-copy books available on a given topic at the local library, as was once the case.

This is why leadership theorist Peter Senge coined the phrase “learning organization.” He wasn’t speaking of educational institutions per se—although, ironically, those organizations that help others learn have historically been among the most impervious to learning new ways themselves. He was comparing the qualities that had been previously admired in 20th-century organizations—stability, size, and structure—with those characteristics that he (quite accurately) predicted would be necessary for 21st-century organizations—agility, nimbleness, and flatness. Those of the previous century were no less committed to excellence than their successors now but how such quality is defined had shifted.

Jim Collins became well known early in this century with his study of some selected organizations that he believed made a courageous leap from merely good to being truly awesome. Some churches aspired to do the same, following his advice. His resultant book, Good to Great, was published just four weeks after 9/11, when the smoke from the rubble of the Twin Towers was still hovering over the Manhattan skyline. He discovered, to his dismay, that most of his “great” companies were not able to well navigate the massive economic and cultural changes that resulted from that cataclysmic event. Others that he had not regarded so highly, did. “Great,” as it turned out, was a highly variable measure.

This changeability of how we discern greatness is core to the model of learning into which the Spirit of God has led us in Kairos. At one point in time, excellence in education was defined by inputs—the papered credentials of the faculty, the pain inflicted by a rigorous curriculum, the facilities of a campus, the utilities of a classroom, and the abilities of a student. There was some value in those things, of course. But there was another time in history when quality was measured by the reputation of an itinerant, perhaps even illiterate, rabbi. Inquisitive minds and restless spirits would follow such people, sit at their feet to listen and learn and be changed by that experience. Jesus was one of those itinerants. What would have happened if Jesus had confined his ministry to tuition-paying, degree-seeking students in classrooms with four walls?

Thus, in this generation, Kairos University is being led by the Spirit to break out of those walls, to break through those old assumptions, and to break down barriers that have kept countless people from experiencing the depth and breadth of a Christ-focused discipleship journey. It’s not “less than” what was before; we might even suggest that it’s “more than.” And that “more than” quality is not primarily attributable to the quality of being and doing that each of us brings to this community of communities (although that matters too), but to the God whose Spirit has led us here and who persistently nudges us forward—the God who is not just good, but also grrrrreat!

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