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by Hilary Tompkins
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Dear youth pastor: It’s not a competition
How different would the spiritual landscape of your city look if Bible-believing ministries across the denominational spectrum were encouraging, praying for, and on mission with one another, instead of competing with each other?
Dear Youth Pastor,
I know you’ve been told that a little competition is healthy. I know you deeply want your student ministry to grow, bear fruit, and bring Jesus glory. I also want you to know that the first sentence does not lead to the second; it hinders it.
As a kid, I was possibly one of the most competitive people on earth. I’m serious. Ask anyone who had the misfortune to grow up with me in the realm of school and sports, or even competing with me for the front seat of the car. While you were busy calling shotgun, I was already standing at the car door, in defiance of your dumb game and ready to defend my territory. Come at me, I’d say.
Ultimately, competition completely distorts our focus.
When I entered ministry, I subconsciously brought this same mentality with me. I wanted to be a world changer, a history maker, and every other adjective that those of us who were victims of student ministry in the ’90s inherited. Being a young and ambitious youth pastor, I naturally looked up to and began to measure myself against the best in the business, and the seeds of comparison gave birth to the fruit of ministry competition. My arrogance initially led me to climb the ladder of ministry success—“for Jesus,” of course—which inevitably led to frustration because I could never climb high enough. I couldn’t see it at the time, but Jesus was lovingly refusing to give me my idol.
It took a failed church-plant followed by six months on the bench for the Holy Spirit to show me two very important truths:
One, Jesus was the superstar, not me (John 15:5; 16:14). Two, those other youth pastors who loved Jesus, preached the Bible, and were on his mission weren’t the competition or a measuring stick—they were my teammates.
A different kind of race
Youth pastor, understanding that other Bible-believing churches are on the same team as us changes the way we see them, talk about them, and pray for them. In the ESV, Hebrews 10:24–25 says:
I love how the NIV translates this verse: “And let us consider how we may spur one another on . . .”
The imagery is one of friends running side by side: encouraging one another, pacing one another, because they are running on the same team as one another. The goal of this race isn’t to finish first, but to finish well (2 Tim. 4:7). Would Jesus rebuke us as he did his disciples because we still foolishly think that greatness in the kingdom of God is measured by superiority, instead of serving?
You see, far more powerful than the joy-corroding acid of competition is the strength-sustaining fuel of encouragement. Like injections of adrenaline to a tired runner, so too is encouragement for the race of endurance (Rom. 15:5).
Ultimately, competition distorts our focus. The moment we see another ministry as the competition, we have taken our eyes off the harvest.
Do you see other pastors as competitors to be defeated, or co-laborers to be encouraged?
Don’t get me wrong. I am not talking about a watered-down, gospel-compromising uniformity. The writers of Scripture clearly command us to defend the gospel, correct false teaching, and divide from those who seek to distort the truth about Jesus (Jude 1:3–4; 2 Tim. 2:24–26; Gal. 1:6–9). Conviction-less ecumenism that just bangs the “Everybody love everybody!” drum at the expense of sound doctrine is just as useless and Christ-less (1 Tim. 4:16; John 1:14) as competitive divisiveness is.
But imagine what it would be like to trade in comparison for celebration, as you share in the joy of what Jesus is doing through other youth ministries, rather than just your own.
Imagine seeing young people from different churches trade in competition for collaboration, as they work together on mission in their schools.
Imagine what it would be like to build deep friendships with others who know exactly what battles you’re fighting and challenges you’re facing.
Imagine what it would be like to run more swiftly and gladly, because instead of tearing each other down, we were “spurring one another on.”
I’m talking about a unity between Christian leaders who preach Jesus, open up the Bible, and love lost people with the gospel—regardless of their denominational affiliation or philosophy of ministry. By the grace of God, I have been blessed to experience the joy of this type of unity as well as its fruit.