Written by Josh Via | Songwriter, Worship Leader and Published Author
“I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth,” (1 Corinthians 3:6). And yet, this spiritual infection known as competition is pandemic among our churches and ministries. I see it constantly in my own city and around the east coast as I travel. I ask you, “Is it acceptable to boast our ministry successes to the world?”
I was having breakfast with a pastor friend a few weeks ago and he was describing to me some of the things going on in churches around him. In fact, he said a pastor in his area made this exact statement to him: “Nothing in our area will be able to compete with what we do on Sunday mornings!” If I hadn’t known the context of our conversation, I might have thought he was describing the aggressive nature of competing businesses. But he wasn’t talking about the business world. He was talking about churches. So why does it seem that we are more content with building our little castles of sand than we are with building the kingdom of God? And why do we continue to foster these feelings of competition when we’ve seen how disastrous they can be? When we look at church history, over and over we see the detriment this causes.
Few people know this, but it was actually George Whitefield, not John Wesley, who was the most instrumental in founding the Methodist denomination. Through Whitefield’s powerful and anointed preaching, thousands across the Americas came to faith in Christ during what came to be known as the Great Awakening. Whitefield’s friend, John Wesley, was simply better at organizing the people under one system of doctrine. While Whitefield just wanted to preach the Gospel and see people come to faith, Wesley capitalized on the opportunity, for good or bad. Later, this conflict would create a schism in the long-time friendship between Wesley and Whitefield, but Whitefield never retaliated—never demanded recognition for being the rightful founder of the Methodists—never wanted to be noticed. Whitefield was about the Kingdom, not his kingdom.
In 2 Corinthians 10, Paul defends his apostleship before the church at Corinth, explaining that it was the Lord alone who made something beautiful out of a life ravaged by the sin of legalistic religiosity. And in the latter part of the chapter he spells out a model for boasting in ministry successes, a passage we would do well to soak in. He says,
13 “But we will not boast beyond our measure, but within the measure of the sphere which God apportioned to us as a measure, to reach even as far as you. 14 For we are not overextending ourselves, as if we did not reach to you, for we were the first to come even as far as you in the gospel of Christ; 15 not boasting beyond our measure, that is, in other men’s labors, but with the hope that as your faith grows, we will be, within our sphere, enlarged even more by you, 16 so as to preach the gospel even to the regions beyond you, and not to boast in what has been accomplished in the sphere of another.”
Paul was quick to recognize the work of God going on all around him that had nothing to do with him. He called them “spheres,” (kanone— little areas of influence probably both geographical and figurative) that God had generously given to certain individuals and churches. And Paul is explaining to the Corinthian believers that he would not take credit for the work of another, because in the work of God there is no place for competition. Perhaps this is why he began the chapter by explaining the battle they fight is not against the flesh, but rather it’s a spiritual battle for the minds and hearts of individuals (vv. 3-4).
Paul understood that God gives to each of us spheres of influence. And he determined not to take credit for another’s accomplishments for the kingdom, whether directly or indirectly. In fact, his hope and prayer for the church at Corinth was for their influence to grow. He said, “but with the hope that as your faith grows, we will be, within our sphere, enlarged even more by you.” (v.15)
Pastors, are you praying for the success of the churches in your area? Do you boast in what the Lord is doing at the church down the street? Do you ask God to put a burning fire inside of the pastors in your area so as to preach with authority and conviction the timeless truths of the Word of God? Worship leaders, do you pray for your fellow worship leaders as they stand up each Sunday to sing the song of victory, that Jesus saves? Or do you secretly hope that they will blow it? Church planters, do you secretly wish for the failure of other church plants in your city? Are we so self-consumed and self-absorbed that we naively think that our church or ministry is the best thing that ever happened to our city, state, or sphere of influence?
If you consider your church or ministry successful, did you ever stop to think that the success you are seeing just might not be attributed to you? Could it be that the success you are seeing is because there were some godly men and women in generations past who spent hours upon hours on calloused knees, praying for the revival of their town, city, state, or country? Could it be that your achievements are the result of tired feet shod with the shoes of preparation for the gospel of peace, which tilled the soil and prepared the way for the richness and depth of God’s love and gospel to penetrate deep into the ground and heart of your community? Whoops!
What would it look like if we boasted more in the church down the street than in our own? What would it look like if instead of planting an identical competing church in the backyard of another, we did a revolutionary thing … we went somewhere else where no one yet has a sphere of influence! An audacious and novel idea, I know. For goodness’ sake, we are not Walgreens and CVS! We are not Lowe’s and Home Depot! Let’s loose the chains of territorial greed and competition. It only weakens us and threatens to quench the influence of Christ’s bride (aka the Church) altogether. Instead, let’s begin to think like Paul: Be kingdom-minded and kingdom-driven. To love Christ’s bride. And above all, “to boast in the Lord,” (2 Corinthians 10:17).