I hesitate to speak up about this. After all, who wants to be a spokesperson for mediocrity? It is a much better career move to write something about the Search for Excellence as Peters and Waterman did in the late 1980s. Or, in today’s world, it is better to speak of going from Good to Great like Jim Collins has. This week I want to insert a contrarian’s word into the quest for excellence, greatness and perfection –a good word for mediocrity.
By mediocrity I mean the stuff that clusters nearer the middle, the mean, the median—in the center of the “bell curve.” Mediocrity is ordinary. Mediocrity is the average, the median, the ordinary churches, music, talent and intelligence. In short I want to say a word of praise for you, and me and most ordinary people like us.
Americans hate to be average. We all want to be great, to stand out, to live in the penthouse that looks out (and down) on the ordinary grunts of life. But most of us aren’t destined for the penthouse. We are fairly good, or “pretty good considering” or even excellent at one or two things, but we’re not great. Many of us aren’t even average—we’re below the mean in almost anything we do from sports to preaching to writing.
But our culture teaches us to imagine ourselves at the top edge of the bell curve—on the tiny tail of greatness. We were raised that way by affirming parents. For instance most of the students I teach consider themselves so far above average. Most consider anything below an A or A- as abject failure. They’ve been taught to assume their outstandingness deserves nothing less than outstanding grades. This is what had led to “grade inflation” in America’s colleges. It is what educators call “A entitlement” which means if they simply do the assignments they should earn an A grade.
A few years ago I tested this concept out in a class of about 35 students. Near the end of the semester I handed out slips of paper asking them to rate their work so far in the class compared to the rest of the students. There were no names and they folded the slip and handed them in. When we compiled the results we discovered they that 80% of the students considered themselves to be in the top 10% of class and only a single student rated themselves average and not one single student believed their work was below average. Whoops! Of course the math doesn’t work, does it?
In that little experiment I was asking for a straight line distribution, but we actually know that greatness, brilliance, intelligence (and many other things) are usually distributed more like the “normal distribution” of the bell curve to the left of this and not in a straight line. Only a few percentage points are on the outstanding tail. Most of the rest of us are in the big fat middle of ordinary people—AKA “mediocre.” But our culture has defined ordinary, average or mediocre as failure. “Faithfulness is for failures,” as one popular church growth speaker used to say.
So I want to praise mediocrity this week—ordinary pastors and teachers who live in the big fat center of the distribution chart and don’t have a TV show, giant church or live in million dollar mansions supported by a New York Times bestseller. We just show up and do a decent job every day. Let me mention a few examples where I see this applying:
I think ordinary churches deserve more praise. I’m talking about churches in the big fat center who don’t have thousands of attendees and sprawling TV ministries. They aren’t famous and nobody ever asks their pastor to teach “How I Did It” seminars. But the pastor and people show up every week and worship and study and serve each other and love their community. Good for you! I wish more of my students wanted to go to ordinary churches.
Let me tell you about another experiment I did in one of my classes. I had about 40 students write on a slip of paper the size church they expected to work at immediately upon graduation. Once they all had that number I unrolled across the front floor a printout of every single church in my denomination in order of size from largest to smallest. (It was about 35 feet long and my denomination is only a few percentage points off the normal distribution of U.S. churches). I then had all 40 of them go stand on the size church they’d already written on the paper. 38 of the 40 students proceeded to try to stand in the space at the top 24” of the printout. The jostling for “room at the top” made the point. These students have been “raised for greatness” and expected to start out at the top. Once in a while I persuade a student to try an ordinary church, but mostly they just smile and humor me for my curious ideas about the value of anything that is not “extra-ordinary.”
I see a similar phenomenon with marriage, especially among female students. My students have such high standards for marriage that I fear most of them are being set up for disappointment. They have loaded into marriage all kinds of expectations that a spouse was never intended to fulfill. They have lengthy lists of characteristics in the front of their Bibles (which they wrote at youth camp) stating exactly what they expect of their husband, and they expect their personal Cupid-God to do their shopping for them. I’ve seen these lists! Jesus Christ Himself couldn’t live up to the expectations! They are idealistic, unrealistic and even legalistic. They want a man “who will make me feel great about myself” or a woman who “will pray diligently for me and support me in my ministry.” I’m not saying these things are not good things, they just aren’t average and most of us end up with less. No wonder so many later say, “Maybe I got the wrong one.”
Years ago I heard Sharon put it this way in a marriage seminar. She said, “I am not trying to have a great marriage—I’m going for good, long and strong.” It made sense. And we’ve had a pretty good marriage so far (going on 40 years long this summer). But we have not loaded down the marriage with obligations that can be met elsewhere. I don’t shop for dresses with my wife more than a few hours a year—her girlfriends are better at that than I am. And she doesn’t go backpacking with me more than once a year either—I’ve found other friends who can do that. We have not “failed” each other in this, we just didn’t expect a spouse to fill all our needs and preferences. I’ll take “good, long and strong” any day over “great, short and weak.”
As if the above is not controversial enough, now I am really going to make people mad. But I think too many folk (especially my students) expect too much from their spiritual walk. Sure, there are some great saints and holy men and women who climb the Mount Everest of spiritual heights. Some folk have been able to live on these mountaintops for years at a time. They have God’s blessing, sense His anointing. God works miracles through them and thousands come to Christ as a result of their ministry. They seem to live their entire lives on the Mount of Transfiguration and never pass through a Garden of Gethsemane. But they are few. Most ordinary Christians have times of victory and defeat, success and failure, great passion followed by periods of numbness and spiritual dryness.
Many of the idealistic students I know expect their current spiritual passion to be the norm. When they leave school and enter the College of Hard Knocks they are often disappointed when they encounter valleys on the pilgrim path. I have taught college students either as an adjunct or full time since the early 1970s. Many of the hottest hearts that were brimming with the greatest passion are now selling used cars. They were like falling stars—they burned brightly for a moment but fell to the ground, cold and metallic. Yet in those 30 years, I recall many more ordinary students who were not stars at all but just kept plodding, faithfully following a simple “block-tackle-run-pass strategy.” These ordinary students have done a hundred times more good for the kingdom in their 30 years then the falling stars did in three.
I don’t know how to tell this sort of thing to bright passionate young students who want to increase their already-extreme spiritual passion. I don’t want to say, “Take it easy fella’—you’ve got fifty more years of ministry left ahead of you.” So I say nothing—or very little. I don’t want to quench their fire even though I know they are headed into a cold shower. But somehow I want these young people to stay in the ministry for the long haul, and I doubt their current spiritual sparklers will last much beyond July 4th.
Of course I admire people who have achieved greatness, and I don’t want to discount or discourage anyone trying to build a giant church, to found a famous band, to become rich and famous, to have a great marriage or even to “win the entire world to Christ by 2010.” I admire this inclination to greatness. But I just want to put in a word of praise for mediocrity, too—for those of us in the big fat middle who pastor ordinary churches, work on the staff of famous people, teach at ordinary colleges and show up and do what is necessary every day—and keep doing it for 50 years in a row.
In the early 1980s in the midst of the church’s quest for excellence and greatness, Keith Green left Sparrow records and launched his own label. He named it “Pretty Good Records.” My hope in this new year is that more of my students would become willing to work at pretty good churches, build a pretty good marriage and be willing to possess pretty good passion—and keep on doing so for the rest of their lives.
©2007, Keith Drury
Keith Drury served The Wesleyan Church headquarters in Christian Education and Youth leadership for 24 years before becoming a professor of religion at Indiana Wesleyan University. He is the author of more than a dozen books of practical spirituality, including Holiness for Ordinary People, Common Ground and Ageless Faith. Keith Drury wrote the Tuesday Column for 17 years (1995-2012), and many articles can be found on his blog “Drury Writing.”
Keith Drury retired from full time teaching in 2012. Keith is married to Sharon and has two adult sons and several grandchildren. He is retired in Florida with Sharon and enjoys cycling.