The Planter Comparison Game

By Mike Godfrey

“The guys at the 9marks table are uncomfortable right now”

At a gathering for aspiring and active church planters we regularly heard from planters describing their experiences, mostly their “wins” in church planting thus far. That day our  designated speaker was stressing the importance of the “aesthetics” of the gathering for new church plants. He described the importance of serving excellent coffee, having well designed t-shirts and the right “feel” as essential to their church’s large takeoff even going so far as recruiting people to pick up used pallets discarded by businesses to tear apart and reconstruct new tables, check-in stations and yes, a coffee cart out of these reclaimed pallets.

I was sitting at the 9marks table. Now I didn’t fancy myself a “9marxist”, but I had completed a church planting residency at church some might call a “9 Marks” church in Northern Virginia where the reach and impact of the ministry of 9 Marks was, and is, wide and deep. In fact, the church I served was a church revitalized by a pastor from Capitol Hill Baptist Church the epicenter of the 9 Marks world.

The comment made me angry. I was uncomfortable, but I didn’t like being called on it. Especially because in my heart as this brother shared the good testimony of God’s work in his church I was filled with envy and condescension. I thought, “his sermons are probably weak, he has paper-thin theology, none of those people coming are real Christians, I bet their music sounds great and is devoid of any noticeable connection to Jesus, etc…”

The game that every church planter plays, but no one wants to admit they play is the comparison game. “Wait!” you say, “thats for pastors of old churches who introduce themselves along with their most recently inflated attendance numbers!”

No, my friend, the comparison game is alive and well in church planting as well. Because ministry is ripe for comparison based on metrics of success, and church planting is ministry…the comparison game can thrive even on the frontlines of mission and ministry.

And we have so many ways to compare our church plant to others, even before we hold our first service!

  • Our music will be better.
  • I can preach circles around that guy.
  • My leadership skills are amazing.
  • My ability to shape a welcoming environment is more keen.
  • That guy is so full of himself; I’m full of Jesus.

Now, no church planter I’ve met says those statements outright or out loud, yet I am not sure I have ever met a church planter who didn’t secretly have those types of thoughts rumbling about in their hearts and minds.

But it gets worse.

Some churches launch big and fast and loud…others don’t. And church planter your heart can begin to become the main arena for the church planting comparison game. And this game looks more like the gladiator pits of the Roman Colosseum than Scattergories at a friends house.

The comparison game runs two ways:

  1. From lesser to greater. Those whose church plants are slow, small and less than flashy look at church plants unlike them with great marketing, social media presence and day one impact as “sell-outs.” You begin to analyze and compare. You listen to a fellow church planter (or secretly stalk their website and socials) looking for ways to attribute their success to gimmicks and empty platitudes. You sharpen your blade with passages of Scripture where the Jesus calls people to repent (Mark 1:14-15), or how Paul condemns the foolish Galatians for abandoning the gospel (Galatians 1:6-10) and assume that these church planters are simply theological cowards and man-pleasers which is why their church plant grew and yours didn’t.
  2. From greater to lesser. Those whose church plants are vibrant, large and dynamic from day one see these other small church plants and think, that guy did it wrong. They’re so deep in thier theology that they cannot see the lost world perishing, and worse no one wants to listen to an hour long sermon on justification. It serves them right, their smallness is obviously a sign of God’s rejection. You don’t look at their website or socials because their terrible, you don’t talk with them because what could you stand to learn from someone with a church plant so small. And just wait till their members come sniffing around your new awesome church you’ll show them what a living vibrant new church plant is like. You sharpen your blade with their lack of effectiveness, impact and overall smallness.

Blades sharpened, die cast, you enter the arena to cut down your opponent, who is actually your brother.

The comparison game is deadly, but mainly to yourself. You only end up slicing away your satisfaction with Jesus, cutting at your confidence in the Lord, hacking away at your happiness in Jesus, mutilating your maturity in Christ.

And what is the root cause of this deadly game?

It’s you. It’s your pride. It’s your fear of man. Comparison is fueled by hubris and self-pity at the same time. We think great things of ourselves and lament when others don’t share our glorious self-assessments. Why is ours not theirs?!? Who does he think he is, look at his church!?!

Ultimately, like Adam in the garden we raise our fists to the Lord and say, the church plant you gave me is why I assassinated someone else in my heart, or online, or to their face.

Dear church planter, stop comparing and start learning and trusting.

Talk to planters outside your tribe to learn how you might grow from them. Put down your weapons and take up humility. Take meetings with people with whom you share little in common outside of love for Jesus and zeal for his church and see how you might help one another refine your vision for church planting. Develop partnerships not competitors.

Trust that the Lord has you where you are because He is building His kingdom according to His plans and not yours. Trust that He is good and does good. That He will never leave you nor forsake you and His plans for you are better than yours any day.

I was offended by the comment about being at the 9 marks table, but mainly because it was accurate. Now I still don’t think reclaiming pallet wood to create a stylish coffee cart with really expensive coffee is the best use of a volunteers time in preparing to plant a church, and yet I was helped to stop and think, what might we change to make our environment more inviting to a visitor?

Learning from someone unlike you doesn’t mean adopting their methodology or theological commitments, but rather assuming a heart posture of learning will help you quit playing the comparison game – and maybe preserve your strength for the hard days of planting ahead.

Published January 19, 2022

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Mike Godfrey

Mike Godfrey is a Florida native who was saved in the summer following his seventh-grade year. He attended the Baptist College of Florida and received a B.A. in Christian Education and later The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, receiving M.Div and D.Min. degrees. Mike served on church staff in Waynesboro, Georgia, as a youth pastor for eight years prior to joining Sterling Park Baptist Church in Sterling, Virginia, in 2015 as a church planting resident. Along with a team of faithful brothers and sisters in Christ, Mike planted Redeemer Baptist Church in Warrenton, Virginia, in 2016. Mike is blessed to be married to his best friend, Carrie, and the Lord has graced them with two amazing children, Abbie and Caleb.