by Matt Mattson
[Matt was asked to deliver the sermon at his local church this week – here’s the video of the sermon. As an exercise in preparation, he wrote this blog. The Social Excellence Project (and Matt) appreciates, learns from, and uplifts all spiritual traditions — we’d love to talk about the intersection of faith and human connection in your life.]
Is Social Excellence taught in The Bible?
That’s a big question that requires the guidance of actual biblical scholars to adequately tackle. But, I’ll look at the surface level of what I understand of the bible and see what I can find.
First, a reminder of how we define Social Excellence:
Social Excellence [n]: A state of perpetual generosity, curiosity, positivity, and openness to limitless possibility. A desire to intentionally connect with others. The ability to engage in deep, meaningful conversation. Acting in a responsible and respectable manner with high expectations of others. Being authentic and living everyday with integrity as the best version of oneself. Being confident and vulnerable. Being fun and compassionate. Being open, kind, and bold. The highest level of societal participation and contribution.
We often simplify this lesson by teaching people to challenge themselves each day to be CURIOUS, GENEROUS, AUTHENTIC, and VULNERABLE — we call these the Four Pillars of Social Excellence.
It is our assertion that when someone chooses Social Excellence as their lifestyle, they’ll experience success and fulfillment in whatever their endeavor. We believe that if you get good at connecting with people, you have a better chance at making an impact on the world. Social Excellence isn’t just about making friends, it’s about changing the world — see we think that handshakes lead to conversations, and if you get good at those, conversations lead to relationships. Relationships often result in collaboration (when we decide to fix something in the world alongside someone else). But collaboration is often overcome by a desire to make a larger impact by including more people to support your cause. So, the collaborators shake more hands, have more conversations, build more relationships, and organize people together to advance their cause (sounds like the story of the early Christian church, doesn’t it?). Handshakes lead to conversations, conversations lead to relationships, relationships lead to collaboration, collaboration leads to organizations, and organizations are the most powerful ways to change the world.
I remember one of the first times I taught this to a large crowd. It was a group of college students, and immediately following my talk a young lady walked up to me and asked, “Are you a believer?” I was struck by this, and inquired about why she wondered. She said, “I’ve been taught to live a Christian life for a long time, and after listening to you I can’t help but think that you’re simply teaching people to live as Jesus lived.”
Wow. Now, I’ll be honest. That thought had never entered my mind until she planted it there. But I’ve been curious about the connection ever since. I’ve been searching for that connection a lot lately. Here’s what I’m finding.
Let’s start with Jesus.
When thinking about whether or not Jesus was Socially Excellent, I’m immediately struck by the stories in the Gospels that report on all the strangers with whom He interacted. Don’t look at any one passage, but consider the journeys he took to many towns and his interactions with many people.
Think of all the people He (and his small group of thoughtful committed friends – the apostles) would have had to engaged in conversation, and inspired through real personal connection. Think of all the “handshakes” He must have shared (in quotes, because I don’t know if they shook hands commonly in the ancient world — there were a lot of nasty diseases). He talked to priests, prostitutes, lepers, servants, tax collectors, rich people, hungry people, lots of people who, culturally, he shouldn’t have talked with at all, and the list goes on. To be able to strike up a conversation with all these strangers in all these towns — not to mention turning many into disciples and followers — is proof to me that Jesus’s example is one of human connection.
Human connection is at the core of all we teach through the Social Excellence message, and human connection is the only way Christianity is born or spreads. Think of that. From the very first days — 28 a.d. or so — the only way people were brought into this idea of a “kingdom of God,” is through direct human connection. First Jesus to his apostles and to the people with whom He interacted, then through all those people, then through the people they shared the good news with. Paul says in his first letter to the Corinthians, (12:27) “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.” He calls the church — not the building, but the people who make up the church — the body of Christ. I infer from that reference that it is only through human connection that the ideas of Jesus, the promises of Jesus, and the salvation He offers can be spread.
Then, in chapter 9 of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus sends out his 12 apostles to proclaim the kingdom of God. In verse 3 he says to them, “Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money; and do not have two tunics.” I read this as Jesus telling his apostles that they have the one tool they need to get the job done — conversation. He sends them into the houses of strangers to let them know the good news that the promised savior has returned. They can’t take anything with them except the ability to connect with other humans and let them know this hopeful message.
These stories are just a few places that the heart of Social Excellence seems to be reflected in Biblical teachings. But wait, there’s more!
There are several obvious instructions throughout the Bible that jive with the lessons we teach about Social Excellence. Here are a handful:
Luke 6:31 (ESV)
31 And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.
This one is a classic, of course. And it is one of several references to the “Golden Rule.” When we teach Social Excellence, we teach about how because humans are social animals, and because we are constantly and instinctively seeking human connection, the only thing most of us really want in this world is to be seen, to be known, and to be cared for. We all want to be loved, and we all want to know we matter. We are deeply afraid of feeling “left out” (or “Left Behind”). You know, Do unto others…
Hebrews 13:2 (ESV)
2 Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.
The references in the Bible to “strangers” are easily related to our idea of Social Excellence. We often teach that there are “far too many strangers in the world.” This passage from Hebrews directs us to intentionally connect with others because you never know if they are a messenger from God! What a powerful concept. Everyone you meet may have something profound to teach you. Everyone you meet is filled with divine potential. If only you could be patient enough, curious enough, humble enough, and generous enough to want to learn what each stranger has to teach.
1 John 3:18 (ESV)
18 Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.
When I teach Social Excellence, I often use the zen proverb, “To know and not do is to not know.” I love how simply it reinforces the lesson that knowing how to interact with people – even knowing that you SHOULD interact with people is one thing. It’s a totally different thing to actually do it (and do it well). To actually intentionally connect. To actually have deep meaningful conversations, not the surface-level nonsense most of us spend our time with. To intentionally love the people around us, not in word or talk, but in deed — that is the essence of Social Excellence.
Romans 12:15 (ESV)
15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.
I love this passage. I’m a sucker for simple Bible quotes to be sure, and this is amongst the simplest. As humans, we connect best not through logic or rules or strategies or plans, but through emotions. Vulnerability is at the center of all human connection — whether that is a great conversation or a truly meaningful relationship. We are called in this passage to welcome and display our emotions. Both joy and sorrow. For those emotions are perhaps the purest expressions of our humanity, and the most efficient pathways for us to connect with one another.
Hebrews 10:24-25 (ESV)
24 And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.
Perhaps this is why I feel so fulfilled when I get to teach Social Excellence. I want to stir up others to love and good works. I want people to gather together and encourage each other in that pursuit. We love one another through handshakes, conversations, and relationships — through Social Excellence. When we love one another (in both large and small ways), we are the embodiment of God and all His teachings. As John reminds us in the passage below.
1 John 4:7-10 (ESV)
7 Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.
I’m inspired by Christian teachings, and teachings of many other faith traditions, because I think they are undergirded by a challenge to live in a state of perpetual generosity, curiosity, positivity, and the promise of limitless possibility — “With God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26). I think these teachings call us to wake up each morning with a desire to intentionally connect with each other, to engage in deep meaningful conversations (because it is only through these conversations that our faith and values manifest themselves). And I’m certain that these teachings challenge us to live with integrity and to participate and contribute fully to society.
So yeah. I think Social Excellence can be found in the Bible. I’ll admit to my cherry picking, and I’ll confess my surface level understanding, and perhaps most importantly, I’ll concede my own biases and ego (I really love the idea of Social Excellence). But I’m confident in the connection, and I’m inspired to keep searching for guidance from the wisdom of the ages about how to best engage with my real, modern, human surroundings for the betterment of the world.
I’ll close with one of the passages from the Bible that most emotionally resonates with me as I think about how to be excellent socially. It’s the description of Moses after he comes down from Mount Sinai.
Exodus 34:29-31 (NIV)
29 When Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the covenant law in his hands, he was not aware that his face was radiant because he had spoken with the Lord. 30 When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, his face was radiant, and they were afraid to come near him. 31 But Moses called to them; so Aaron and all the leaders of the community came back to him, and he spoke to them.
That word, “radiant” is so wonderfully charged. Artists have been inspired by this passage over the years and have painted pictures of Moses showing his face aglow with the light of God flowing through him. I’m personally inspired by the idea of radiance. Shouldn’t we engage with one another with the radiance that our creator placed inside us? Shouldn’t we glow with the energy of the universe in our interactions? If we send that radiance that is inside us all out into the world through personal interactions that lift up others, that inspire others, and that make others aspire to the greatest version of themselves… perhaps that’s what the Holy Spirit looks like. Perhaps that’s what it means to “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). Perhaps that’s what it means to be Socially Excellent.