The Competitive Nature: Could It Be Used for Good in the Church?

There’s a competitive spirit in most of the leaders I know…even church leaders. I saw mine kick in while running recently…

It was 6 AM and already 76 degrees with near 90% humidity. I was casually running, listening to our former worship pastor and my friend Daniel Doss’s song Masterpiece, when out of the corner of my eye I sensed someone trying to pass me. I looked around and it was a girl! She’s the wife and sister of two good friends from college, and a dedicated athlete, so I may have normally been okay with her passing me, but something snapped in me. I exchanged a few cordial remarks and then I gradually picked up speed. I killed myself…and I suffered for it the next day…but I won! YEA!!!Not that it was a race, and I’m sure she could have taken me had she wanted to, but there was the thrill of victory when I pulled ahead on the road.

I have written about this concept before (read a previous posts HERE and HERE) and I know it creates controversy to talk about, but what if we used that competitive spirit in a way that helped grow the Kingdom? Is there a way to satisfy a natural tendency of many leaders and still glorify God? (Seriously, I’d love your input!)

As I reflect on Scripture, Jesus picked disciples who seemed to have a competitive spirit about them. (Consider Matthew 18:1-3 and Mark 10:35-45) Jesus didn’t condemn the disciples for entering a competition. He even acknowledged, “Whoever wants to be great”. Then He simply pointed them back to the correct way for a disciple of Jesus to compete: in service to others. Consider also Paul’s encouragement in 1 Corinthians 9:24.

Personally, I think we should not be as afraid or freaked out when the natural competitive nature rises. Instead of asking people to check that competitive spirit at the door (along with enthusiasm and excitement), I think we should learn to channel it towards energy, which honors God, serves others, and advances the mission He has given the church. The strange thing to me is that many will leave our churches on Sunday and experience the “thrill of victory” by watching a competitive sport, yet we tell them this is a wrong attitude to have in the church.

What if, in our desire to win, we strived to be great in service to others, excellent in the way we love the unloveable, or awesome in how we forgive the people who hurt us most? What if we competed with our natural tendencies towards sin…with a competitive desire to win? I know some will suggest I’m advocating pride, or even false humility, but every good thing has the potential to be corrupted if misused. What I’m really suggesting is that maybe our goal is not to do away with a natural tendency towards competition, but to figure out how to balance that with a command to be holy as He is holy.

(Plus, sometimes I just like to stir discussion!)

What do you think?

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Ron Edmondson

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Join the discussion 21 Comments

  • Josephine says:

    there is a book looking at this topic by Esther Emmanuel, check it out
    http://www.amazon.com/Should-Christian-Competitiv

  • […] that the spirit of competition is not always a bad thing, even in the church. (Read those posts HERE and […]

  • herbhalstead says:

    Thinking through this: When I worked in a retail establishment, we used internal competition. The team-leaders made sure that we "competed" WITH one another, not AGAINST one another – in other words, our efforts were for the sake of the team, without denigrating our teammates. We could not steal sales from teammates in any way whatsoever. We could not cast aspersions on a teammate to get a sale. But, if we helped another teammate, we actually both got full credit for the sale. This is my first attempt at thinking this through, and I'm not sure how this would translate in practice, but the idea of competition for a mutual shared goal could spawn an acceptable methodology.

  • Ron,

    Good post. Not sure I ever thought of it this way. I guess when I think of competition in ministry, I think of it in a negative way, in which I’ve seen leaders compare themselves to other churches. In that respect I think its damaging and antithetical to the image of a body of Christ working together to build Christ’s Kingdom. For instance, I’m really cool with Dunkin Donuts saying they are better than Starbucks–that’s business. But for Church A to market themselves off of Church B, strikes me as more personal kingdom-building than what we see Christ emphasize in his training of the twelve.

    However, competing against the enemy per say seems healthy. Paul talked of running and winning races. And as a Pastor, when we have a killer Sunday, I feel the “thrill of victory.”

    • ronedmondson says:

      Thanks Daniel. I agree. It is the "thrill of victory" after a great Sunday where we know Christ was honored and lives were changed.
      Twitter: Ronedmondson

      • Joe Sewell says:

        I believe that's part of the key, Ron. The "thrill of victory" is something that must be shared by all or it is no victory. There should be no "agony of defeat" in this competition.

        Oh, for the day when "Church A" can thrill to the victory that "Church B" may have just achieved, rather than resent it.
        Twitter: joe_sewell

  • Jordan Ward says:

    In Romans chapter 12 Paul says we should “outdo each other in showing honor.” This always makes me think of the super polite chipmunks that use to come on Saturday morning cartoons. But the Bible (especially the NT) talks a lot about competition and athletes. Being a football coach and a youth pastor, I too have wondered how we can steer our competitiveness towards glorifying God. I’m interested to see the comments generated.

  • Patty says:

    I can't help but think of two people playing a great round of tennis and just admiring what had occured congratulating each other on each ones skils and techniques. Not that one was better than the other sort of like the 13 hour match that we saw a couple of weeks ago. Both contenders were very good. Just because the one guy lost didn't mean that he wasn't good. So I can see two great leaders such as Dave Stone and Kyle Idleman gearing up for the week at Southeast Christian church. They both are great speakers. One does not out do the other. But the glory isn't to them anyways their messages Glorify God and because of who they are it is a great experience to see them blend. (perhaps not competeing) I'm just saying…

    • ronedmondson says:

      Thanks Patty. I think you may be close to what I'm asking… There are two primary teachers on our team. When my partner has a great week, it inspires me to do better the next week. The guard for my heart…which would be there anyway…is to do it for God's glory and not my own, but the energy of wanting to do better, helps me be a better speaker.
      Twitter: Ronedmondson

  • jack42 says:

    I pretty much agree with Joe's comments about these potential downfalls; they were the same ones I thought about while reading your post. Perhaps better defined goals and STRONG emphasis on who is being glorified (and who actually receives praise) would go a long way to stemming some of this.

    Competition is good in that it spurs the competitors on to doing better than they might do by themselves (e.g., Google vs Apple). Within the church realm, as Jesus often emphasized, we might need to radically change our concept of success and failure, and our entire mechanism for evaluating this new paradigm of "spiritual competition".

    Continued emphasis on unity (not uniformity) is strongly encouraged and probably smiled upon by the One Who Judges Righteously.

  • Joe Sewell says:

    There are dual aspects to the competitive spirit. The one you describe could, I suppose, actually be turned to a positive angle … at least for those who are competitive.

    The problem comes with the other side of competition: the agony of defeat. Too many competitors live not for the "thrill of victory," but for basking in the defeat of others. That much boils down to pride; if we cannot lift ourselves up any higher, we'll push others down to compensate. That side of the competitive spirit, in my opinion, has zero part in the body of Christ.

    (continued)
    Twitter: joe_sewell

    • Joe Sewell says:

      (continued)

      Then there are those who consistently get trounced in competition. The perpetual "losers." Most of us have had the competitive spirit seared out of us as we hear the sneers and jeers of the "winners" looking down on us. Sadder are those who are taught, perhaps by "competitive" fathers that fit in the above category, that "doing our best" isn't good enough if we don't win … or, worse, if we don't win by a certain margin or some other "goal" set by them. Many of us find ourselves feeling that even getting started is a waste of our time, given all that. Is that part of a healthy church?
      Twitter: joe_sewell

      • ronedmondson says:

        I totally agree Joe. I guess I'm thinking we shouldn't throw out the good because of the potential for bad. Fulfilling the competitive nature in the church would look nothing like the world does it, just as the world might mess up the concept of forgiveness. In God's "upside down" kingdom as I've heard it called, the "last shall be first". I'm struggling with the thought process that it's okay to have a competitive spirit on Sunday after lunch over the football game (that's encouraged almost), but during church that is somehow sinful. Thanks for adding to the discussion. This is not a "solved" issue for me at all.
        Twitter: Ronedmondson

        • Joe Sewell says:

          I like the other responses posted since mine. I think the answer may lie in the balance between the two extremes. Those who still have a competitive spirit should definitely be able to use it, and I think you have some good ideas about how to use it. The tricky part, though, is to avoid alienating people like me who don't have any competitive spirit, but a cooperative spirit. People like me who despise football, baseball, and the like because of always coming out in last place … we need a way of being included in spite of the competition.

          Indeed, you're correct that, by the world's standards, God's kingdom is "upside down" (though we both know it's really this crazy world that's upside-down). It's also balanced. On rare occasion that means going to the opposite extreme of the world, but usually it means avoiding the extremes and finding the right balance (which is not necessarily "middle of the road" and definitely not "compromise").
          Twitter: joe_sewell

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