To be honest, I believe that healthy competition pushes us to continually evaluate, adjust, and improve what we do. Among pastors and churches, though, competition can quickly become a tool of the devil. Here are some reasons why:
- It reduces the kingdom of God to my kingdom. We don’t compete because we want God’s kingdom to be bigger, but because we want our kingdom to be bigger. Wannabe kings compete; servants don’t.
- It divides the church. That’s because competitors seldom seek to help each other. I’ve seen churches and institutions choose not to be openly honest about their strategies, lest they lose the upper hand in the competition.
- It magnifies our arrogance and judgmentalism. Churches and leaders who compete seldom talk only about their own strengths and positives; instead, they also tend to build themselves up by tearing others down at the same time.
- It creates distrust among pastors. I wish I could tell my students that fellow pastors will be their best friends, and they’ll never find themselves struggling to trust one another. I can’t give them that assurance, though, as long as competition fosters distrust.
- It reflects our comfortableness. Where believers are few and Christianity is dangerous, I seldom see the competition I see in the American church. You don’t compete when you’re just grateful to know there’s another Christ follower in the area.
- It fosters transfer growth more than conversion growth. “Winning” a competition is equated with having higher attendance and giving numbers – regardless of the source of that growth. In fact, competitive growth may well occur at the expense of the church down the street.
- It promotes a works-based theology. No church leader I know intentionally moves in that direction, but even subtle competition reinforces, “What I do matters, and I need to do it better than others to show my value and gain any recognition.”
- It encourages unhealthy consumerism. In a competitive environment, a primary aim is to increase customers by meeting their perceived and real needs better than others do. Sacrifice and commitment—two primary callings of Christ followers—are not often central to the conversation.
- It hinders accountability and life-on-life Christianity. The same person who thinks competitively as a church leader is often unwilling to be honest with anyone about his own life. Accountability usually means admitting weaknesses, and competitors don’t typically think that way.
- It pushes leaders to keep an eye out for the “greener grass.” Competitiveness says, “If I can’t grow the biggest church, maybe I’ll just keep watching for the larger church that might call me there.” Somehow, that’s not what running the race by looking to Jesus means.
What other reasons would you add to this list?
Chuck Lawless is Dean and Vice-President of Graduate Studies and Ministry Centers at Southeastern Seminary in Wake Forest, NC, where he also serves as Professor of Evangelism and Missions. In addition, he is Global Theological Education Consultant for the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention.
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