June 5, 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
Excellence is never easy. A dictum Tony picked up 40 years ago, when he was just beginning his experience as a leader, was that “the greatest hindrance to the best is the good.” Think about that for a moment. We’re tempted to believe that we are choosing most often between good and bad options, but those choices are actually relatively easy—at least easy to discern, even if requiring some courage to implement. This is why people are much more likely to change if they’re feeling miserable or, as the leadership literature sometimes puts it, if there is a “burning platform.” These are moments when we vigorously define our current situation as “bad” and long for positive change, and for leadership that can help us get there. We are far more likely to hearken to the Spirit’s call in such moments.
But choices between good and best are much, much harder. We can easily settle for the merely good—something passable, something that will get by. This is at the root of mission drift—it’s easy to become a good community that does good things, albeit nothing that is distinct from other good people are also doing all around us. We will rarely be criticized for choosing the good, and often be affirmed for it. But the problem is that no organization, no community, and no person can choose to all the good things available to them; we don’t have the resources of time, money, and energy to do all the good that’s possible. Sooner or later, we have to choose between what’s merely “good” and what’s truly “best.”
And this is often the hardest decision we have to make. It requires a fair amount of desire and courage, for the pay-off of “best” is not quickly or easily recognized. People wonder why we “have to make everything so hard,” why we continue to push for a deeper experience, a higher quality, a more transformative outcome. How do we possibly make such a choice? By learning and leaning into our identity, our calling, our mission—the one thing above all else that we have been invited by God to become, and then live out in the world. This is what excellence looks like. One never “settles” for excellence. One aspires to it, and then strives for it, and rejoices in it when fully experienced.
What does this mean for us who are walking on the Kairos journey? Here’s one implication: one of the most attractive deceptions of a scholar is to believe we can think ourselves into a new way of living, that we can settle for content (a good thing) as a hoped-for means of transformation (the best thing). Rather, as spiritual teacher Richard Rohr reminds us, we must actually live ourselves into a new way of thinking. We suspect that’s really what Paul was getting at when he wrote to the Romans about “being transformed by the renewing of your minds” (Romans 12:2). The word “metanoia” (renewing) there is not addressing cognition, as if we could be transformed by getting our ideas right; it’s about a new perspective, a new way of seeing things, including ourselves and God.
And perhaps this was what Jesus was alluding to when he told his skeptics, “What I teach comes from the One who sent me. Anyone who wants to do his will can test this teaching and know whether it’s from God or whether I’m making it up” (John 7:17, MSG). In other words, he’s saying, don’t just argue about ideas. Try it. Do it. And the experience itself will show you whether it’s from God or not, whether it’s best or merely good, whether it’s led by the Spirit or motivated by something else.
Isn’t this exactly what Jesus invited his first disciples into? He didn’t sit down with Peter and Andrew over a beer and try to talk them into his perspective on the kingdom of God. Instead, he walked by and said, “Follow me!” And they left their nets behind to experience the kingdom of God for themselves. Along the way, of course, Jesus taught them; he explained to them what they were seeing and hearing. And he never once held back from the truest, fullest, best implications of the Gospel, no matter what it cost him. God aspired for more for this people than they had ever imagined.
And this is the same kind of advice we who mentor students in Kairos offer on a near-daily basis: “Don’t try to think yourself into a new way of living. Try doing it. Practice. Experiment. And then you’ll discover whether it’s good or not, whether it’s best or not. Then come back and let’s discern together, not just what you have learned, but how you have changed as a result. And then we’ll do it again!” It is this iterative process, continually initiated and motivated by the Spirit, that we’ve been exploring in this series of posts that ends today. It is this process that creates the excellence we seek.
The best is yet to come, and the best is worth it, always worth it, because it reflects the quality of the excellent God who gave us his own best, so that we can live life abundantly–so that we and everyone on this being-redeemed earth can flourish in his goodness, in his “best-ness.” That’s his end game, that’s his hope and vision and promise for us. Let’s never settle for anything less.