Stop Comparing Your Church: Why Contextualization, Missiology, and Authenticity Matters
The loneliest time of the week for me as a pastor is Sunday night and Monday morning. I’m coming down from the adrenaline rush involved with preaching four weekend services, my mind is processing all the conversations and interactions I had or didn’t have with church members, and I’m physically, emotionally, and mentally tapped out.
Regardless of how many encouraging and kind words were shared with me about how God is moving in our church family, I’m always tempted to focus on all that didn’t happen that should’ve happened, or all that shouldn’t have happened that did happen.
My mental script reads something like this:
“Where was the _____ family this weekend? Did they leave our church without telling me? Why didn’t ______ shake my hand in the lobby after service? Did I say something in my message that was offensive or blatantly heretical?
Is our children’s ministry clicking on all cylinders? Am I doing enough to support our staff and volunteers?
Yeah, it was great that so many showed up for weekend services, but how many of those folks are getting into discipling relationships through small groups? Are we doing a good enough job pushing people towards groups?
What about community service? Are people even interested in serving and growing to look more like Jesus? Or were they just here this weekend for the “big show”?
What am I doing wrong?? What am I missing??”
Somewhere between the fog of mental exhaustion, the disorientation of isolation, and the weight of discouragement, an insidious lie emerges. Sometimes it’s more nuanced, other times it’s blatant, and other times it’s just suggested, but it’s always the same lie. And it says,
“If only your church were more like ________ church, then you’d be a success.”
Sometimes I’m able to recognize the lie for what it is and snap out my mental funk before it takes me further into a pit of discouragement. But sometimes I entertain the lie. I go visit that other church’s website. Or go snoop around that other pastor’s Instagram or Twitter. Everything always looks so perfect online.
The ministries seem perfectly aligned, the events flawlessly executed and promoted, the programming cleverly named and immaculate.
At this point you’re probably thinking to yourself, “This guy needs therapy!,” and maybe you’re right (for the record, I see a counselor each month, and you probably should too). But be honest with yourself, pastor. How many times have you found yourself (either consciously or unconsciously) comparing your church, ministry, or calling to someone else’s? And how often has that led you to discouragement, envy, insecurity, and a spiritual detachment from the context to which God has called you to minister?
I’m not telling you anything that you don’t already know when I say that comparison in ministry is a hazardous pitfall. Comparison can rob you of contentment, joy, and peace. It can cause you to question your calling, your context, and the God that has appointed you to serve in the setting where you’re ministering. Worse than that, it can even lead you to dramatic and unfruitful changes in your ministry models that you implement because you’re fully convinced that they’ll work in your context simply because they seem to be working somewhere else. We all know it’s bad to compare our churches and ministries to others, but why shouldn’t we?
Highlight Reels Don’t Tell the Full Story
Over the past year, we’ve discovered that a church or ministry’s online presence is invaluable. Well-designed websites, efficient social media promotion, and even things like live-streaming or smartphone apps are beneficial tools to help spread the gospel and keep people in our church families connected and informed. But while they’re exceptionally helpful in displaying highlights from life in our churches, content itself doesn’t (and can never) tell the full story.
A church may appear online like they have everything figured out when it comes to something like small groups, or men’s ministry, or outreach. The church website has its own section devoted to each ministry where descriptions of vision and mission statements appear alongside of photos that clearly display that this ministry is a booming success. But that’s just a highlight reel; it doesn’t tell the full story.
I have yet to meet an honest pastor or ministry leader who feels that 100% of the ministry programming offered at their church fires on all cylinders 100% of the time.
Regardless of how many people were at that kick-off event that got highlighted in the Instagram story, throughout the doldrums of the calendar year sometimes there’s a critical lack of congregational engagement. Sometimes ministry models that look great on paper and seem like they should work in our context just don’t. It doesn’t matter how many vision or mission statements or cool photos we use to prop them up online; sometimes they just don’t work.
Why? Because ministry is messy and people are complicated.
But that doesn’t mean we don’t strive for excellence or do everything we can to promote a culture of continuous improvement in our ministry. We should do those things because we’ve got an important job to do and excellence gives God glory. So to that end, we roll our sleeves, step into the messes of ministry, and stay faithful to the reality of our calling, no matter how messy it gets.
The problem is that the “messiness” of ministry rarely (if ever) gets communicated online. So using another church’s online ministry highlight reel as a means of comparison to the full story of your church’s ministry messes is not only unhelpful, it’s not even rational or grounded in reality. So stop. Seriously.
Your Context Matters
I pastor a church campus in a rural community of just under 3,000 people, some of whom live right at or under the state poverty level. No matter how hard I try to make it so, my congregation is probably never going to look like a congregation in a growing suburban, middle-class neighborhood or a congregation in the heart of a trendy, downtown area. It doesn’t mean my church can’t do ministry excellently, efficiently or intentionally; it just means that excellence, efficiency, and intentionally will look different in my context.
When we first planted in 2017 from our sending campus in the next town over (a town of around 135,000), several of our folks wanted to continue an outreach ministry to the homeless/low-income that was a huge success from our sending campus. The only problem was that in a small, rural community like ours, we didn’t have overpasses, parks, or downtown areas for the homeless to congregate.
Excellence, efficiency, and intentionally will look different in my context.
We had to be realistic about our context and intentional about learning what the needs of our community truly were and what they looked like. We couldn’t just copy and paste a ministry from another context different from ours and expect it to work. Homelessness and poverty most certainly exist in our small, rural community. But homeless folks out here might live in their car or sleep in a barn or outbuilding rather than under an overpass.
The problem with comparing our churches or ministries to someone else’s is that very rarely do we take our different ministry contexts into consideration. Ministry models, needs, and even successes will look different depending on where God has appointed us to serve. Feeling discouraged and despairing over the fact that my church in a small rural town doesn’t look like the church in a big city next door is pointless.
Why? Because God has not called you to the church in the big city next door. He’s called you to your context. So be present, be intentional to learn what the needs of your church and community truly are, and be authentic in how you minister to the needs in the context God has placed you.
God has not called you to the church in the big city next door. He’s called you to your context.
Your God is Sovereign and Your Calling Unique
Acts 17:26 tells us that God has, “…determined our preappointed times and the boundaries our dwellings” (NKJV). That means that God is sovereign and it’s not an accident that we’re ministering in our own particular church, community, and unique context. Even if it’s only for a season, God has a purpose, a plan, and a reason for us being where we are. Our role in God’s story of redemption is different from any other role any other pastor has been called to play. We’ve all been given unique gifts, personalities, and abilities from almighty God so that we can glorify His name and spread His message to the ends of the earth.
Comparing our calling, giftings, and ministry assignments to that of other pastors or ministry leaders is not only unprofitable, unhelpful, and downright dangerous; it could actually at times be sinful. It can be sinful because comparison can quickly lead to envy, jealousy, and discontentment. And those things are an affront to an almighty, sovereign, holy God that in His mercy has given us as pastors the greatest privilege one could ever ask for: the honor of preaching His Word and shepherding His people.
Don’t compare your calling or story to that of another pastor’s. God has called you where He’s called you for a specific reason, a particular purpose, and a distinct plan that plays a role in His glorious story of redemption.
God in His mercy has given us as pastors the greatest privilege one could ever ask for: the honor of preaching His Word and shepherding His people.