Avoiding the Church Comparison Trap

Comparing your church to another church can be one of the worst things you do as a church leader.

To be clear, I am not referring to learning from other churches. We can always learn from our peers and our sister congregations.

But comparison for the sake of comparison is bad. Let me share a few thoughts about this issue to expand upon the concern.

  • We should focus on what God is blessing in our churches. Do you remember the words of the Apostle Paul in Philippians 4:8? “Finally brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable – if there is any moral excellence and if there is anything praiseworthy – dwell on these things.” We are not dwelling on the things of God when we compare our church to others. We are dwelling on what we don’t have. The Word of God mandates to focus on the blessings God gives us, including the blessings of our congregation.
  • Comparisons only make matters worse. There is little good that can come from comparing our church to others. When we do so, we are taking one of two postures. The first is one of jealousy; we wish we had what someone else has. The second posture is one of ingratitude, which leads to my next point.
  • Our continuous disposition should be one of joy. Just a few verses preceding the text in Philippians 4:8 I noted above is a double command to rejoice. Indeed, it is a command to be in a constant mode of joy: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4). We should take great joy in the calling God has given us right now. He has you in the exact place He wants you to serve. Rejoice instead of comparing.
  • Comparisons give us a short-term perspective. When we compare, we long for something we do not have. Our focus shifts to a place and a calling that is not for us. As a consequence we often desire to be somewhere else. We develop a short-term perspective for our current calling. Our congregations need leaders who are willing to serve for the long haul. The green grass of the other church is often brown once we get there.
  • We are not showing love for the bride when we compare. Marriages begin to deteriorate when a husband or wife compares his or her spouse to someone else. “If only my spouse was like that person,” we may think. Such thoughts show dishonor to our spouse. The church is the bride of Christ. We are not showing love or honor to His bride when we compare her to others.

Learn from other churches. It is always healthy to be in a learning disposition.

But don’t compare your church with others in a negative sense. Nothing good can from it.

Rejoice in your present calling. Such an attitude will transform your leadership and, as a consequence, transform the church to which God has called you.

Posted on April 16, 2018

With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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  • Rev, Monday Obidike says on

    Thanks very much sir, you are doing a great work remain bless.

  • Da vi d Tr oub le fie ld, D Mi n says on

    OK. Those 8 quality characteristics :-} (but see http://www.ncd-international.org for details):

    1. Spirituality that is passionate individually (really: do you know ANY congregation about whom this can be said today concerning the MAJORITY of its members/attendees?)

    2. Worship that is inspiring corporately (life removed by the world during the previous 6 days: breathed back in during times of worship here; not music–instead: worship, which might include music and preaching)

    3. Relationships that are loving practically (love: to pursue always, unconditionally, and despite all costs to myself the complete wellbeing of you, simply for the prize/treasure that you are as a creation of God; cf. John 3:16)

    4. Ministry that is gift-based consciously (the congregation is organizationally healthy/functional and able to go most quickly on mission with God for world redemption now because its members know their spiritual gifts and use them to produce a healthy/functional/mission-active local church–and that is all they are organized to do internally, not “everybody does everything” instead)

    5. Evangelism that is need-oriented intentionally (people everywhere will permit you to minister to them at the point of their greatest needs–if they are not doing that today, then you have not found that point; run TO those needs, not FROM those needs–get dirty doing so if necessary [love gets dirty])

    6. Leadership that is empowering primarily (elected leaders–both volunteer and professional–might do a lot of things, but MOSTLY they do “business 101”: division of labor and delegation of task; a size 10 foot cannot fit into a size 7 shoe–get a bigger organizational structure to match the growing potential outside your church’s walls by division of labor, delegation of tasks, and teaching folks as necessary how to accomplish those delegated tasks–then do those tasks alongside them daily)

    7. Structures that are functional continually (processes remain effective over time–because they are monitored/adjusted/changed as necessary; the mission is most important, but the process/program/etc.–budgets, buildings, busses, whatever–is the tool used to accomplish; and “program” is not a scary word–use one)

    8. Small groups that are holistic relevantly (all small groups are front doors of the local church–but none exist for itself alone/primarily–each exists within the body as a means to grow the body into a healthy/functional organization; i.e., do not permit your small group to become a self-absorbed cancer within the body)

    The initial research did not find a cause-effect relationship between the characteristics listed AND church growth, but high probability apparently was present. And: none of the 8 characteristics seemed to be “the one”–each appears important for local churches experiencing increased attendance/participation by new folk (i.e., congregation becomes a magnet; read the list again . . .). NCD’s assessment tool can help congregations to discover their weakest area/s among the 8, and other info available provides instruction about how to improve in each. Good stuff all (“If you do not have a plan, then I like this plan better”-kind of thing). Thom and staff can share info about LifeWay’s similar later research.

    • The suggestion to “get a bigger organizational structure” tends to upset things because people will have to be brought in who may not have a three-generation pedigree. Also, it means certain people won’t have as much control as they once did. Growth may take a back seat to the status quo, and, therefore, may not happen.

      • D a vi d Tr o ubl efi eld, DM in says on

        Status quo: the price a person or group is willing to pay to remain unhealthy/dysfunctional. That price often is ridiculously high. Otherwise, this is just the basics of organizational administration. If a congregation will not do even the basics right, it deserves to cease operations!

  • Southern Baptists evidently thrive on the comparison thing. The most recent copy of the (NC) Biblical Recorder had a listing of every church’s financial donations for mission efforts. The top 25 churches in certain attendance ranges were highlighted on the front page. I don’t know of any reason to publish this list, and I wonder who even gave them permission to do so. I also wonder what the percentage of the giving is compared to the church’s overall budget. Some of us smaller churches might have made that list! Yes, church comparison is a “trap”, but there’s a lot of people setting out the cheese for it!

  • Da vi d Trou b le fie ld, D Mi n says on

    A better comparison: the local congregation and its potential in its setting (e.g., zip code/community setting). Benchmarking other churches located in zip codes with similar demographic makeups is a good thing–that then must be contextualized at home.

    See the 8 quality characteristics identified by Natural Church Development research (or LifeWay’s equivalent later research) for info about the saltier/shinier kind of local churches to which neighborhoods always are willing to respond in great numbers (who wouldn’t?! :-} ).

  • One of the hardest parts is to not be discouraged by the attitudes and comparisons made by others. When speaking to both laypeople and other pastors alike, when they find out I am a pastor, 90% of the time the immediate follow up question is “so how big is your church?” I can tell by their expression that usually they are comparing my answer in their mind to their own. I have resolved to personally not ask this question of others because it so easily leads to shallow comparisons. Also I have started just giving a sarcastic answer of “about 6,000” to deflect from the issue and lead the conversation elsewhere (we are just an average small church in a community of 4,000, so they get the joke). It is easy to ask that question when your church is growing and doing well, but those who ask it do not consider how discouraging the topic can be for so many in small churches who have lost a big percentage of their congregation to the churches down the road and are declined in numbers.

    • Matt, I’m one of those who drives 45 minutes, past a lot of good churches, to attend a church in a larger town. I can honestly say I have regrets. I’m quite active in my church; it is close to where I work. But I’ve missed out on local friendships, the blessing of growing where I’m planted, so to speak. Doctrinally I haven’t agreed with the local churches, but in the big picture we are all in this together. I have no doubt we will be spending eternity together.
      That said like minded people can spend more time accomplishing good and less time arguing about our differences. That’s a major blessing of denominations in my book. It’s not that one denomination is better than another, but it allows like-minded people to work together. In my case, in the study of God’s Word the doctrine I was taught as a youth no longer made sense to me. Much time was spent looking at the Word of God from both points of view.
      Would it be better to stay where I grew up in the church and be at odds with the people around me, or attend a different denomination/fellowship where we agree and can easily work together?
      Just some thoughts from my life experiences.

      • I can understand you driving 45 minutes to a church because you have significant doctrinal differences with the ones closer to home. I have no quarrel with that. My quarrel is with the ones who drive 45 minutes or longer to a big church because they simply think they’re too good to attend a small church.

      • In a big church, you do have more opportunities to participate and more people who might be your age. I grew up being told I would be going to a little church which wasn’t where my friends went. When you are one of two kids in a church of old people, it isn’t fun.

      • So instead of trying to reach out to more kids, the family leaves the church. They choose to become part of the problem instead of part of the solution.

      • This was a small town where everyone went to one church or another, the Methodists had all the kids. You weren’t going to poach them.

      • Matt, I have been researching articles about “why I don’t want to go to church” and came across this wonderful article. Your words have truly resonated with how I’m feeling. I don’t want to be judgmental nor do I think it’s an issue of not loving these people but you said it best, “like minded people can spend more time accomplishing good and less time arguing about our differences.” It breaks my heart to say I think I’ve had more disagreements with my pastor than we have agreed. Not on God’s Word, but on personal encouragement and ministry provisions. I know we both love the Lord and we make the “statements” of loving each other “with the love of the Lord”, but we disagree on so many points. I just don’t feel “home” and I have prayed about a church move decision for years. I do believe that I need to seek more “like minded” people, especially my leaders and have this divisiveness end. It certainly can’t be God honoring! Thanks for allowing me to share. I covet your prayers for God’s will in my decision.

  • I agree with everything you said in the article, but I hope you understand that the struggle is real. Unfortunately, evangelicals in general and Southern Baptists in particular have created their own version of the “prosperity gospel” – i.e, the idea that bigger is better. As a result, we’ve created two or three generations of people who think they’re good for small churches. I know people who are driving more than an hour to big churches on Sunday mornings when there are plenty of smaller churches in their own community who could use their help.

    I must also point out that many church growth specialists (not Dr. Rainer) have a real knack for making small-church pastors feel like failures.

  • This is so very true. As a minister who is in between churches at the moment, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard of this. Any time I get a call from a pastor or search committee member who says they strive to be like such-and-such church (98% of the time it’s the biggest in the region), I’m immediately turned off by them. Don’t try to be something you can’t. It won’t work because different people attend different churches. Use the gifts God has blessed your church with and stop communicating that what God has given you isn’t good enough.

  • Very insightful and relevant.
    Comparison is different from learning from others.

  • Roy Wahlgren says on

    I recently was told of a book to read recently while I was struggling as a pastor of a small church. (10-15 most weeks) The book is called “The Grasshopper Myth.” by Karl Vaters. It refers to the Scripture in Numbers 13:32-33 where the Hebrew people were looking into the promised land and they seemed like grasshopper compared to the people in the land.

    The definition that Vaters gives is that we have the “false impression that our Small Church ministry is less than what God says it is because we compare ourselves with others.”

    I have been called to pastor small churches. I this book has made me be ok with that. It has given me new energy for the future to remain in the pastorate and remain where He has placed me.

  • It’s fine to tell leaders not to compare but this becomes very difficult when you have members who are leaving a church for the “greener grass” of the church across town. And they’re leaving without really giving any feedback on why. What do you then? How do you avoid the “what are they doing that we aren’t?” comparison (and the accompanying hurt)?

  • This is a good article! However, I have a question about comparing multiple church services in one church. One of the church services is a traditional service with a much older generation and the others are a modern style worship with many younger people. The trad service rarely ever see’s salvations/baptisms where the others see enormous amounts of salvations/baptisms and is growing in an evangelistic spirit to seek the lost. They are more likely to share their past stories of sinful actions whereas the traditional attenders do not share. All services gets the same message each week. The only difference is music styles in that the younger attended services have a more vertical song presentation (singing songs to God whereas the older generation presents a more horizontal worship (singing songs about God) presentation. The Sunday messages are very evangelical challenging to the congregation. I can go on and on about the church ministries that are offered as every bit of them can have an impact. The direction of the church is very evangelistic and has been fun and challenging to be a part of. However, it is difficult to understand why there is a big difference when the focus and direction is offered in the same way.

    • I don’t know of many present day worship songs that are vertical, can you give me some titles? An Easter song we sang last year had the chorus, “…I ran out of my grave”, well one of the people on the worship team thought it was an Easter Song. I told him I didn’t want to be singing about me, I wanted to be singing about Jesus. That I suppose reinforces your comment that my songs are horizontal. Still I find a lot of newer songs have the words: I. me. mine, and we, a lot more than God, Jesus, Savior, or the multitude of other characters/attributes of God.

      • what I mean by vertical is that words are singing to God through using descriptions such as “you” where as horizontal is singing words that are about God. Both are needed as in one sense you are proclaiming the goodness of what he has done for you “horizontal” where is the other sense “vertical” you are singing words to Him directly. The modern worship audience is more acceptive of both but with a defined upbeat style where as the traditional doesn’t widely accept songs that sing to Him in this church. Such as many hymnals imply. The only other difference is the extreme age difference in the worship services. I am really not debating the styles of worship. I am just simply trying to understand the comparisons of the services in how people can spread the gospel much more efficiently and ending with greater results than the other with the same message and ministries. It is a head scratcher for us. Just curious as to responses to the why”s?