Church planters are targets for constant criticism. We’re pastoring in an era of echo chambers, consumerism, and confirmation bias. Our decisions for our churches are regularly met with criticism on every front. You’re too political. You’re not political enough. You’re too liberal. You’re too conservative. It’s too risky to regather. Why aren’t we meeting yet? I’m not wearing a mask. On and on it goes.
As we lead our churches through the unique challenges of 2020, everyone seems to have clashing opinions and they’re eager to tell us how we’re getting it wrong. It’s exhausting.
I recently met with 12 other Acts 29 church planters in Michigan for the first time since the pandemic began. Our past meetings were typically spent sharing ministry updates and celebrating kingdom victories with one another. But this gathering was more reminiscent of war-battered soldiers mending and bandaging themselves around a campfire while recounting their battles.
The responsibility of caring for God’s people rarely delivers popularity. Our leadership will be met with disapproval. Criticism comes for us all, and knowing how to handle it so the beauty of the gospel is displayed is key. Here’s three tips for church planters on taking criticism.
TAKE CRITICISM WITH HUMILITY
Earlier in my ministry, my default instincts regarding criticism were to either plow through it, or to be smug and defensive about it. In retrospect, I see how mishandling warranted (and even baseless) critiques often hindered my personal and pastoral development. Simply put, I handled criticism poorly, because I lacked humility. When criticized, our flesh tempts us to grow in combativeness to defend our injured pride. But pride brings God’s opposition, while humility brings his grace (James 4:6).
I believe developing humility is like my grandmother’s garden. Seasons of seed-planting, fertilizing, and weed-plucking produce an awe-inspiring array of flowers and delicious vegetation. Likewise, humility must be intentionally cultivated. A gentle, Christ-like disposition doesn’t just happen.
Brothers, let’s put to death all traces of pride that lurk in our hearts (Rom. 8:13). Let’s behold the glory of the Lord so we might become more like him (2 Cor. 3:18). And when criticism comes, let’s choose to listen well, respond humbly, and repent when necessary.
TAKE CRITICISM AS AN OPPORTUNITY
Many believers have become so consumeristic, they view your church and pastoral ministry through the lens of Yelp. They’ll negatively rate your performance and leave if their expectations aren’t met. It’s not easy, but we should view the criticism we face as an opportunity for reflection, repentance, and reforming.
To respond well to criticism, filter it through trusted, objective people. It’s helpful to have a pastoral sounding board, people who love Christ and his church enough to graciously show you possible pitfalls, reveal opportunities for growth, or tell you to stay the course.
We all know some criticism is ill-willed and foolish. But what if we viewed it as an opportunity in disguise? We often receive criticism on areas of our ministry we think are going well. We may not need to completely overhaul a program or discipleship philosophy, but maybe we can use unwanted criticism to confirm we’re headed in the right direction or to make minor adjustments.
TAKE CRITICISM TO THE CROSS
Several months ago, our church hosted an outreach event. It was a chaotic time due to an unforeseen facility move, but we made adjustments on the fly and pulled off the event. We blessed several families and shared Christ, so I dubbed it a win. However, the next day, a friend and church member angrily complained about how poorly organized things were in their view. Outwardly, I smiled, nodded, and conceded; but inwardly, I was boiling over with anger, hurt, and disappointment.
Yet again, I felt like my best wasn’t sufficient and my efforts weren’t valued. I felt poorly rated like a bad Yelp review. Church planters, have you been there? Has the sting of criticism robbed your joy, stolen your sleep, or captured your peace? In these moments, we must cling to the very gospel we’re called to proclaim.
When criticism leads you to feel hopeless and like a failure, remember you are crucified in Christ and your life is hidden in him (Gal. 2:20–21; Col. 3:1–4). When you’re tempted to view your identity based on someone’s performance evaluation of your ministry, remind yourself that your position as the Father’s beloved son was solidified by God the Son (1 John 3:1). Don’t take criticism to heart; take it to the cross.
In this age of outrage, there’s no shortage of naysayers. As surely as we devote ourselves to theological training and pastoral development, church planters must be prepared to handle criticism. We can receive it with humility, recognize it as an opportunity, and let it increase our dependency on and affections for Christ. He’s no stranger to opposition, and he’s eager to minister to us when we face resistance. Press on, weary brothers, and let the glory of the gospel have the last word.