In the song, “Englishman in New York,” Sting encourages us to “be yourself no matter what they say.” I believe these are wise and important words.
Yet, too often, we are tempted to shy away from being ourselves.
When God spoke to Joshua, the Lord said, “I hereby command you: Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:9). In other words, “Be yourself no matter what they say.”
Recently, I’ve been thinking about the importances of churches (as a whole and as the individual clergy and laity making up unique congregations) being themselves.
Churches, much like individuals, get into the comparison game. And, too often, when we compare ourselves to others, the comparisons are apples to oranges, rather than apples to apples.
On a recent Rainer on Leadership podcast, the Rainer’s shared that 92% of churches have 250 people or less. So, most churches are small to mid-sized.
Yet, most churches compare themselves to the megachurch down the street. Are there things to learn from the megachurch down the street? Absolutely. Should the megachurch down the street be the ruler by which we judge our ministry? Absolutely not.
It’s a natural thing to do in the church world. We’ve created the platform for this type of comparison. When pastors and laity go to conferences, the featured speakers are from the “largest” and “fastest growing” churches around the globe. I can’t remember the last time I went to a conference where the featured speaker was from a church experiencing rapid decline, stagnation or mediocrity. The featured speakers have book deals, hundreds of thousands of followers on social media platforms (and probably pay a social media assistant to manage their accounts), personal assistants, stylists, and celebrity status within the Christian bubble. When this is what is being featured, that’s what we’ll be tempted to compare ourselves to.
We tend to compare ourselves to the wrong things.
Of course, I’m convinced that a church of 250 doesn’t need to compare itself to a church of 250. A church of 80 doesn’t need to compare itself to a church of 80. A church of 2-3 doesn’t need to compare itself to a church of 2-3. A church of 3,500 doesn’t need to compare itself to a church of 3,500. Comparison is a game that we were never called to play. We should measure our own fruit. We should measure our effectiveness of fulfilling our mission.
Sure, we can learn some “best practices” from others, but comparison is not a game I’m interested in playing.
I’m fully convinced that comparison is a killer. Comparison has a tendency to produce feelings of inadequacy. When we compare ourselves to the church down the street, we are generally only comparing ourselves to that congregations successes. When we don’t see the rapid growth, the number of people in the pews, the kind of giving or the missional impact within the community, we can be tempted to throw in the towel.
At the same time, comparison can produce pride. When we aren’t comparing ourselves to the success of the congregation down the street, we’re comparing ourselves to their failures. Or we look for the churches that aren’t quite at the same level we are.
Listen, pastors are bad at this…When we gather together, you can hear people ask “how many did you have in the congregation on Sunday?” Again, we are conditioned for this…at least in my denomination…where each week we are asked to fill out a form that doesn’t exactly ask for stories of transformation and missional impact. The form asks for the numbers – how many in worship…how many online…how many in small groups…how many in children’s church…how much money did you bring in. These are important things to be tracking because they can tell you about the missional impact of the congregation. But, it’s also tempting to then compare yourself to those around you. After filling out the form, we can click a button that says “see the reports” and you can see the numbers from churches throughout the district, conference and denomination…well, you can see the numbers from churches that have filled out the form. This can produce competition, pride and feelings of inadequacy.
The majority of small, midsize, large and shrinking congregations are being served by faithful and hardworking clergy and laity (not all- lazy pastors kill congregations faster than scandals; disagreeable and stubborn congregations can stunt growth, stall momentum and kill congregations- in many cases, selfishness that is the problem). When we waste time in the comparison, those faithful and hardworking clergy and laity can feel inadequate, hurt, lonely, and begin to question their call.
Rather than comparing ourselves to the church down the street, we should celebrate the church down the street! Celebrate, don’t compare. God didn’t call you to be like the pastor down the street. God didn’t call your church to be like the church down the street.
Instead of comparing ourselves to others, what if the church simply strives to “be yourself no matter what they say?” What if the church simply works to become a place of true respite and renewal, a place of healing and hope, a place that leaves us feeling better about ourselves, our community, our world…
What if churches were guilt free zones, judgment free zones, comparison free zones…
Pastors of small, mid-sized and large churches, be confident in who you are. Be strong and courageous. Do your best where you’re at, with who you’re with…whether it’s a full stadium or an audience of one. Our call isn’t to be like anyone else…well, we’re striving to become more and more like Jesus…but no one else. Our call is faithful obedience to the way of Jesus.
Laity of small, mid-sized and large churches, be confident in who you are. Be strong and courageous. Do your best where you’re at, with who you’re with…whether you are surrounded by a few or hundreds or thousands. Your call isn’t to be like anyone else…well, do strive to be like Jesus. Your call is faithful obedience to the way of Jesus.
Maybe if we stop comparing ourselves to the church down the street…or the church on the other side of the country or the other side of the world…we will start bearing the fruit God planted us to grow. Maybe it’s when we stop trying to keep up with the latest trends and gimmicks and are confident in who we are that we will see our churches becoming transformed into communities of hope that are loving God and loving people by serving together.
Church, listen to Sting. “Be yourself no matter what we say.”
Church, don’t be like Sting. Drink coffee instead of tea (if you are familiar with the song, you’ll understand that!).