It was a normal Friday evening youth service. We were playing games while eating cheap pizza in a room so loud you couldn’t hear yourself think.
As the regular students arrived, there was a rare sight for a Friday night. There was a new student. At a smaller church, this is one of the greatest sights in the world. As the new student entered he was immediately rushed by other students welcoming him, along with a few who recognized him from school.
I quickly made my way over to him. While engaged in small talk I discovered that he attended a church down the street. It wasn’t “a” church down the street, it was “the” church down the street. He attended the “big” church that I often watched from a distance.
Instead of getting to know this student, I became self-obsessed with finding out information about his church. Every statement he made was quickly followed by an arrogant hyper-spiritual answer:
Student: Our youth services are normally an hour and a half.
Me: WHAT! We have our three-hour services.
Student: Yeah, we have PS4’s and a coffee café in our lobby, which is fun!
Me: That’s crazy gimmicks. Those teenagers just need an encounter with Jesus.
Student: On Sunday, we have two services. Each service is a little over an hour.
Me: Psst. They obviously don’t let the Holy Spirit move.
What this student didn’t realize was this short conversation was some festered up ill-feelings I had toward his church down the street. In my three years at my church, I never stepped foot in his church or even talked with a leader. Instead, I developed a negative perspective of how they operated.
The 90-10 Observation
A few months ago, and years after that conversation with the student, I received an interesting text message. The message was about what a local church leader said about my church (a new one different from above story). The statements were similar to the statements I previously made.
I wasn’t offended or even upset. How could I be? I said the same thing years before. Instead, I became enamored with the irony. It got me thinking about the 90-10 observation. It’s widely known from the Barna Group that 90 percent of churches are under 200 in weekly attendance. Coincidently, 10 percent of churches are over 200 in attendees.
Throughout my years in ministry and relationships with pastors, I’ve noticed a troubling trend where leaders within the 90 percent are very quick to criticize or form negative associations with the 10 percent of churches.
That’s what I did. We were serving in a slowly decreasing church congregation that was starved for any sort of growth. Naturally, I became envious of the one church in our area that was growing.
But, there’s always a starting point. What happened in my life where I became so critical and abrasive toward other churches?
While I believe that at some point every church leader goes through some variation of this behavior we don’t have to live there. I lived it for a couple of years, and as I reflect I can pinpoint to three negative attitudes that led me to this path.
My genuine hope is that you can become self-aware through my struggles and allow Jesus to restore a healthy perspective in you.
1. I compared everything.
Every church is unique, yet despite this powerful revelation (sarcasm) I compared everything to the church down the street. My church of 75 and youth group of 15 was never going to compare to a church of 600 with 150 students. But, that didn’t stop me from doing it.
At first, the intent to compare was positive. I genuinely wanted to learn and get better. I looked at their website and social media pages to gain some ideas. I eventually built up enough courage to send their youth pastor an email. I wanted to get lunch with him to pick his brain. He never responded – even after a follow-up email and call.
So, naturally I got my sour face on and my envy turned into a distaste.
Side Note: "Bigger" churches ... if someone from a "smaller" church wants to connect with you, please email them back. It may save someone from two years of bitterness. I’m just throwing that out there!
My motive shifted, and instead of comparing to improve I instead compared because I wanted to be better. It drove me down a path of self-righteous anger and criticism.
2. I blindly judged.
The comparison behavior quickly turned to judging.
As I learned more about their church, I sought out things they did I didn't agree with. From multiple services, to 30-minute messages, to coffee in the sanctuary, and even their dress while preaching – I thought it was an abomination to anything holy.
My perspective quickly manifested to this line of thinking – ‘the growing church down the street doesn’t have a spiritual bone to their body – no wonder why people love it!’ This was the tipping point – I continued to judge the church and its leaders for years as I sat in my office three miles down the street.
If only I looked in the mirror. I would have identified my own spiritual life. I was dying spiritually and not leading like I should have. It’s easy to judge without being self-aware.
It’s imperative to ask the Holy Spirit to make us self-aware. The moment the thought enters to judge and criticize (yes that still happens) I evaluate my heart. More times than not my judgmental side comes out when I haven’t talked to God in a while.
3. I spoke negative publicly.
I couldn’t help myself anymore, and I didn’t care who knew it. I’m not proud about it, but I remember countless conversations with new families interested in our church. During these conversations, we always seemed to talk about other churches they visited.
They openly would begin with their negative impressions, which I welcomed and joined in. As painful as it is to admit, I’ve said this countless times: “I’ve heard he only preaches 30 minutes. I heard they only sing three songs. I’ve heard he doesn’t visit people in the hospital.”
I didn’t realize it, but I was causing division amongst The Church. I was negatively influencing people’s perspectives all because I couldn’t get over myself.
You know what combats negative publicly – celebrating publicly. Hindsight is always 20-20, but now I find myself openly celebrating this and other churches. In fact, whenever people relocate to this city and ask about a church to attend, I always suggest this church.
I spent years bitter over a leader who doesn’t even know I exist. I allowed my thoughts to escalade to unhealthy action – about a church I knew nothing about. It was all assumptions I made to make myself feel better.
I was a …. oh no …. a Pharisee.
I made sure I looked great on the outside. I was taking a stand for what I thought was right – I thought I had to expose and corrupt the church down the street because deep-down I was jealous. On the inside I was slowly dying spiritually, but that death was prolonged under the mask of religion.
It turns out that church is a great church. It’s a church living out Jesus’ mission and seeing people’s lives changed. They are seeing people get connected to their purpose. They are seeing people restored. Go figure!
In your city, there will always be a church that’s bigger. They will likely have more resources, a nicer facility, and more staff. There will always be times where we’ll rack our heads wondering why their growing and we’re not.
But, it’s important to understand a perspective I ignored for years – just because the church down the street does things a little differently, it doesn’t mean they’re wrong. I learned that the hard way – but you don’t have to.