Recently, a new “high energy” church just planted a franchise in Bendigo. It’s called ‘Enjoy Church’. It is similar in culture, aim and method as 2 other large churches in Bendigo. I immediately thought: “Are they in competition?”, and then thought –  “well, yes”. People who currently go to the other churches might decide to go to the new one, and the 2 established churches will need to work harder to distinguish themselves from the newcomer. Closer to home in my work (training Christian youth workers), there are about 15 different Christian groups in Victoria offering training to their youth workers. My organisation is trying to persuade young adults to do our course – simultaneously the 15 other groups are doing exactly the same thing. How can there NOT be competition?

After having these thoughts, and I tend to have them frequently (not sure what that says about my state of mind!), I tell myself: “Dave, stop thinking that. We’re not in competition. We’re all in the same game.” Christian leaders often say the same thing: “We are not in competition”. When a new church starts up down  the road, or a ministry begins that needs the same sorts of leaders as you do…”We are not in competition”.

Let’s take a look at this aversion to competition, or the aversion to publicly admitting it. For this blog, I’m not examining the role of competition in business, sport etc, but between Christians groups.

Ostensibly, we don’t want to compete because we believe we are part of the “one body” of Jesus Christ. That’s true in an abstract sense. All people following Jesus are working towards revealing the Reign of God in all dimensions of life. However, this is not true in a practical sense – we are not working in one big church or mission organisation. There isn’t one “Jesus Church” to which all of us are members. There isn’t one big mission agency. Instead, there are thousands of groups, denominations, agencies etc, all trying to do the same thing in different ways. I think this is basically a good thing, because it allows variety of expression.

However, often these different bodies are quite similar: they have similar objectives, try to connect with a similar demographic, and need similar types of leaders. This is not a problem for anyone until these groups find themselves in the same ‘territory’, whether that be a university, neighbourhood, city  or ‘media space’. When this happens, competition can’t help but occur. It doesn’t usually occur on the level of the people they are trying to reach; there’s more than enough people to go around. But it happens more on the level of money and people. Money to resource their activities, and people to be contributors to making a Christian ministry or mission happen.

Up to now, I’ve been describing the situation, but the question is – Is Christian competition bad? Regular readers of this blog will know that I am going to give some thoughts on both sides of the question.

Christian competition is bad
On the ‘Yes’ side, Henri Nouwen certainly thought competition was in (umm) competition with the values of the Kingdom. He reveals:

I am constantly surprised at how I keep taking the gifts God has given me– my health, my intellectual and emotional gifts– and keep using them to impress people, receive affirmation and praise, and compete for rewards. (The Return of the Prodigal Son)

Christians in competition communicate that even when groups are on about the same thing, they can’t work together, a disappointing advertisement for the command to ‘love one another’. It’s a drain on the resources of time, energy and money of Christian groups. They all need to spend themselves in self-promotion in order to show their distinctiveness amongst the others, and self-promotion is poison to the good news. Smaller groups, who need to continue their valuable ministry, end up folding while the strong, populated and wealthy groups cannibalise the rest. Competition simply reflects the values of the success-oriented culture we find ourselves in.

Christian competition is good
On the ‘No’ side, arguing for competition as a necessary dimension of our existence:

[T]he Bible describes human beings making choices to stand against natural limitations of any kind when these are the result of the Fall, of sin, or of a broken world. Competition is necessary in order to struggle for that balance required to live …We compete in order to fulfill our purpose as human beings and live. (Udo Middelmann)

The benefits of competition are well-argued by economists, and I think some of them apply to Christian groups as well. There are often Christian groups and churches in which there is little spark left. Christ is with them as ‘two or three gathered together’, but as an organised group it is time for them to disband. A little competition from other groups can be persuasive. Competition also helps us clarify what our special ‘charism’ or gift is. Rubbing up against other groups refines what we are trying to do, and motivates us to improve what we do.

A Way Forward
In Perspectives on Competition – Christian & Otherwise, Dr. Sharon G. Johnson and Dr. Galen Smith give 4 approaches to Christian competition, in which they frame the question in terms of Christ’s relationship to competition:

1. CHRIST RESISTS COMPETITION: In this approach, competition is seen as antithetical to Christianity. It deserves no place in the individual or communal endeavours of Christians. It is a symptom and sign of evil in our world.

2. CHRIST AND COMPETITION IN PARTNERSHIP: In this approach, competition is an aid to the work of Christ in the world, and Christians should be involved in it. God is a competitive God!

3. CHRIST REFORMS COMPETITION: competition is seen as a qualified good, that Christians should be involved in, but need to challenge at some points. It is given by God, but in a fallen world is in need of redemption.

4. CHRIST AND COMPETITION IN PARADOX: this approach holds an uneasy tension with competition, recognising that the Bible warns against competitiveness, but also recognising that Christians are often in situations of competition that may contribute to the Reign of God.

My preference, when thinking about competition between Christian groups for resources (time, energy, money), is for the 4th approach. Competition exists, it can be good and it can be bad, it’s consequences can be good and bad, at times it seems to reveal God’s character, at times it seems to obscure it.

Your preference?