Who’s your competition?

Published 9:56 am Monday, August 13, 2018

by Charles Qualls

“How many members do you have?”

That’s usually the first question that friends or family ask when I’m catching up with them. That’s been the perennial question of ministers for ages. 

The cynic might suggest that in asking this they’re really trying to size up how important you are, or how disappointed for you they should be. I think it’s more likely a reference point they can get their mind around when they don’t really know what else to ask. 

Next questions might range from “What do you all do there?” to “What denomination are you affiliated with?” Some will ask “Who tend to be your typical members?” which is a more sociological query. 

Some of the astute will eventually ask, “Who’s your competition?” In a bygone era, we Baptists might have answered something about the next Baptist church over. Now, in a largely post-denominational time, we might have other kinds of responses.

A friend of mine in another city sells men’s wear. Mostly high-end suits. I’ve never been able to buy one from him, but he’s a good and generous man. He said of his own business one time, “I value other clothing stores. I don’t mind the competition. My bigger competitors aren’t them, though. I’m up against the BMW dealership and the art gallery. For some reason, customers think nothing of plopping down tens of thousands of dollars for a luxury car or a rare piece of art. But, they think a few thousand dollars for a hand-sewn suit is unaffordable.”

Philosophically, in the most Christian of senses, we’re not supposed to have “competitors” in church like businesses do. One wise sage has said, “There’s no competition among lighthouses.” Thankfully, I celebrate my relationships with my ecumenical friends at the various churches around town. I value and love collaborating with them. 

Realistically, though, life isn’t always lived at the philosophical level. We know who and what we’re up against. The way I see it, much of the competition for our church isn’t coming from other congregations though. 

So, here’s what I’m up against each week. If I’m being honest. 

1. A comfortable bed. “It’s the one day I can sleep in.” I hear that occasionally. Yes, but it’s still the Lord’s Day. The gathering of the faithful for worship and community is a vital discipline of our faith.  Better, it’s one of the great relational pleasures one can get if the church is healthy. We can’t substitute sharing space, sight and sound with others by surfing the internet or TV later. I wish more got that.

2. The golf course, lake or yard.  “I can worship God outdoors.” Yes, you could. But let’s be honest — do you very often? Those with integrity will admit they probably don’t much, if at all. It’s what people tell themselves, though.

3. Philosophical and theoretical doubts about whether the whole “God thing” is real. People have genuine doubts and questions. Some can’t bring themselves to accept or even explore a faith absent all their questions already being satisfied. I wish they’d try. It’s what all of us had to do at one point or another.

4. Christians these days in culture, and Baptists in particular, suffer from stereotyping and assumptions.  We’ve done some of that to ourselves, of course. Sadly, we live in an era where some will subtract a few I.Q. points if you tell them you’re a Christian. Even more if you say you’re a Baptist. Somehow, we’ve arrived in a time when to be a person of faith, others think you must be less than smart.

5. Perceived irrelevance. Depending on someone’s experience with particular churches in the past, they may have written all churches off.  They just don’t feel like the church offers much to speak into their lives. From where I sit, though, I don’t know how people survive life without the community of a church beside them.

6. The memory of a disappointing church experience somewhere and at some time past. I know bad things happen at church. You may have been terribly hurt. I’d sure like another chance to see if we couldn’t find Christian community together. To ask the edgy questions of scripture sometimes, to serve the community together and to enter sacred space in gathered worship. That’s what we do at our church, at least. 

That’s some stiff competition. I haven’t got answers for all of those. But, at least we know what we’re up against. If you relate to even one of these, I’d love to talk. 

DR. CHARLES QUALLS is senior pastor at Franklin Baptist Church. Contact him at 562-5135.