I pastor in a town of 500 people. We have seven churches. Yep. SEVEN. Seems a bit excessive, doesn’t it? Seven churches competing over the same people and same resources, and none of the churches exactly thriving. It seems crazy until you look around and realize most rural communities aren’t all that different.
Pastoring in this context has brought to the surface questions I had never really thought about before: Are churches teammates or competitors? Are pastors teammates or rivals? These seem to be some of those questions we never quite figure out, even if we know what the correct answer is supposed to be. We split up into denominations and try to convince people to come to the churches we pastor or attend. It certainly looks to outsiders like we are competitors, even if we are all technically playing on the same team.
I watched Olympic gymnastics last Sunday afternoon. I kept hearing about how incredible the US women’s team is, so I had to see for myself. That afternoon they were competing in the qualifying round for the team competition, and as you probably know by now, they DESTROYED every other team. They were so far ahead of everyone else that the team competition took a back seat to another competition going on within the US team.
Each team could only put its top two gymnasts in the individual all-around event, and Simone Biles was already a lock. That left the two veterans, Aly Raisman and Gabby Douglas, to compete for the final spot. Whoever scored the most points for Team USA on Sunday would get the spot.
As the afternoon wore on, Aly Raisman started to pull away from Gabby Douglas. I noticed that this put Gabby in an increasingly awkward position. She needed Aly to do well to help their team score, but she also really needed Aly to mess up if she was going to sneak into the individual finals.
After each event, Gabby would congratulate Ally on yet another great performance. And yet, with each high score, the team’s outlook got better and Gabby’s outlook got worse, until she was finally a member of the winning team and individually eliminated.
She kept smiling. She kept congratulating her teammate. Yet as happy as she was for her team and for her teammate who had just beat her, you could tell she was also sad. Maybe I read too much into it, but the smiles and congratulations seemed forced (and understandably so). The team had won, but she had lost.
Competition among churches is a lot like this. We are simultaneously cheering each other on and trying to beat each other. And it makes for a weird subculture that oozes comparison and mistrust, jealousy and pride.
The fundamental truth is that we are on the same team, working for the same goal. We want to see the Kingdom of God growing on earth. We want to see people saved and people discipled. And when one church succeeds at this, we all succeed.
And yet it’s not as simple as that because of how American Christianity has structured itself. It’s not that simple because no matter how much we talk about working together for a common goal, most churches and pastors can’t help but see each other as competitors.
Even when we do intentionally try to see other churches and pastors as teammates rather than competitors, it doesn’t erase the fact that their success impedes my own. If people go to their church, they aren’t coming to mine. If they are giving to the other church, they aren’t giving to mine.
This only deepens the fears and insecurities that keep us apart. We find it hard to work side by side with another church on a community outreach because we are too busy worrying about what happens if the other church ‘wins’ by getting more visitors as a result of the outreach. Safer to go it alone and make sure my church is the only winner.
So why don’t we change? If we know deep down that we are on the same team, what stops us from starting to think more about what’s good for the Kingdom and less about what’s good for our individual churches? Lots of things… Doctrine (and being convinced we are right)… Disagreements over style and direction… Old grudges… Fear of being used and taken advantage of for another church’s benefit…
One of our biggest obstacles might be the fact that pastors aren’t paid for growing the Kingdom; pastors are paid for growing their churches. We are paid to get people in pews, and we know our paycheck depends on it. Large church pastors are under pressure to keep their church large. Small church pastors (like myself) need to find more people to sit in the pews or we won’t even have a church to pastor.
Kingdom-work is great when we can fit it in, but we are forced to think about ourselves first and prioritize our churches over other churches. We can’t afford to spend time helping another church grow when our own growth is what we value over all else.
Maybe this is a cynical view of how we do church today, but I think it is accurate. For a pastor to truly put the good of the Kingdom over the good of their church is very difficult (and perhaps dangerous for their job).
None of this will change as long as churches and pastors remain trapped in insecurity. Insecurity prevents us from cheering the successes of others, even when success isn’t coming our way. Insecurity keeps us fighting to grow our own little kingdoms instead of Christ’s Kingdom.
Tonight I watched Michael Phelps beat Ryan Lochte (and everyone else) in the 200m Medley. Just two nights ago Phelps and Lochte had been teammates in a relay, but tonight they were competitors. It worked out great for Phelps, but not so much for Lochte.
Phelps and Lochte reminded me of my own situation as a pastor. I lead a community youth group on Wednesdays with a pastor from another church in town. I have an amazing working relationship with the other pastor. I believe that we both are trying our best to seek the greater good of the Kingdom over the smaller good of our churches. We both celebrate each other’s successes. And yet, it’s impossible to completely escape the competition. On Wednesdays we are teammates, but on Sundays we are competitors, whether we want to be or not.
What makes this difficult is that my insecurities constantly get in the way of what we are building together. My insecurities make me fear going all-in in this Kingdom-work with another church and another pastor when I know it may end up benefiting the other church more than my own. My insecurities make me fear becoming a Ryan Lochte to some other pastor’s Michael Phelps.
So what’s the solution to all of this? I don’t think I know that. All I know is that this is how church works right now in America, and it is challenging and frustrating and sometimes beautiful. I also think I know that if we want to see the Kingdom of God growing more in our communities, it’s going to require us to overcome our insecurities and intentionally pursue what is best for all, not best for me.
Growing my/your church and growing the Kingdom of God are definitely not mutually exclusive. However, we cannot deny that sometimes a focus on MY church and MY people and MY territory has gotten in the way of CHRIST’s church and CHRIST’S people and CHRIST’S territory.
And then there is the harder truth to swallow: sometimes, deliberately seeking first God’s Kingdom may not be what is immediately best for my congregation, at least not in terms of getting people in the pews. Of course, I believe that it ultimately will be… but sometimes putting the Kingdom first and working alongside other pastors and congregations means working for the success of others. It means cheering for the teammates who are beating you today, because it means we all win at the end of the day.
So which event are you aiming to win—the team or the individual?