A Quiet, Deadly Disease
It’s difficult to resist.
It grows in our heart–pastor and people, pulpit and pew.
It taints the way we talk about ourselves, yet sometimes motivates our best efforts.
It makes us ashamed, but lives on pride.
It destroys contentment, but promises happiness.
It rejoices at the losses of others while mourning our own.
It turns everything into itself, and ruins everything by doing so.
It presents itself as defense, but it’s usually on the offense.
It prompts both noble sacrifices and wretched cheating.
It may make us Niccolo Machiavelli or Frederick the Great.
We feel it toward others but resent it being expressed toward us.
It could either make us fearful or stir great courage.
We wish it weren’t there, and yet we hope for its fruit.
The disease: Competition.
It’s been interesting to follow the discussions of church polity (multi-site vs. single site) and well-known pastors (notoriety or celebrity). On one hand, the two discussions can be had independently of one another. But on the other hand, in many of the comments in the different discussions one can’t help but detect a unifying theme: a certain competitive pride.
Pride wears many faces. It has many arms. It’s a hydra. So, we ought not be surprised that it shows up as competition and that competition itself shows up in many forms.
So, we hear ourselves say things like:
“There are no good churches in my area, so I’m glad people leave their churches to come to mine.” –Joe Pew
“If the preaching at our church is better than other preaching around, why shouldn’t we do multi-site?” –Phil Pulpit
“The mult-site down the road is destroying our small congregations and putting the average guy out of business.” –Aunty Walmart
“Small church guys are just jealous of the growth and success of larger churches.” –Ima Player
“Our new church has a more polished service and more outreach programs.” –Sally Consumer
“We’re missional. We really care about reaching the lost in the community.” –B. Dozer
“Our church is large.” –Bob from Texas
“Our church is small.” –Marge E. Nall from NH
This post isn’t about any of the presenting issues–polity or the notoriety of pastors or the strength of preaching. It’s about a more fundamental issue–our hearts.
All the sample comments above have two qualities about them. First, they represent legitimate concerns and perspectives on some of the issues. But, second, they sometimes reveal competitive pride, jealousy, and even indifference. Such comments unveil a certain parochial concern. They show us that important discussions with good desires continue to be laced with depraved cravings, smallness of heart, selfish desire.
At the bottom, we too often mostly care that our church does well. We don’t exclusively care that our church does well. We have more love than that. But we simply want to be first. We want the blue ribbon. We’re tribal, competing for our local congregations in a game of congregational Survivor. At the very least we want to finish in the top tier. We have, as Dr. King put it, “The Drum Major Instinct,” an insatiable craving to be first.
Others can do well, but we don’t want to be… dare I say it… “average” (insert cringe, shiver, and mortified “ooooh”). If our church fails or continues as “average” and every other church “succeeds” (however we measure that) then we’re going to have difficulty rejoicing in the success of others. And if we’re the church that’s “succeeding” on some measure, we don’t want to have an “off” year or slide in our mental ranking of “successful” churches. Someone has said, “The defect with equality is that we only require it with our superiors.”
The often-forgotten reality is that my local church and your local church are not in competition with one another. We’re not. We belong to the One Lord who has one Church serving one mission. We’re family, though we forget it. We hang our signs, print our cards, develop our programs, and fill our niche–often with our conscience stabbed by competitive pride–but we’re one Church.
I’m not in competition with the two churches on the same block as my own. And I don’t have to argue about who was there first. I’m not in competition with the Independent Fundamentalist church down the street. They can run the race alone if they like. I’m not in competition with churches that have better preachers or better choirs or better children’s ministries. I’m not in competition with the older churches in our area or the new church plant or the church that split off from us. I’m not trying to “win” some prize for the church with the shortest service or the longest service, or come in first place as the church with the most up-to-date technology or the most conservative style of gathered praise. We don’t need an award for our website or need to craft a totally unique look for our church.
As we say down South, “I ain’t got no dog in any of dem races.” We’re not trying to “win” something over other Christian churches. Nor are we trying to be “excellent” if by “excellent” you really mean “better” than the nearby congregations. If we were, we’d be destroying the mission not advancing it.
And, yet, there it lurks. There’s one of its many heads. Now it whispers and quietly tempts. The flesh is a competitive animal. That worm will not die. It demands ranking, applause, and, yes, notoriety–not to mention celebrity.
But we must ask ourselves–that is, our flesh–”What’s wrong with an ‘okay’ or ‘average’ local church?” ”Why aren’t we happy if we’re average, and why must we be ‘better’ than the rest?”