From Criticism to Encouragement
The Christian community often engages in honest assessment about its failures. Unfortunately, the surveys and skull sessions focus on what the church is not, based on criteria mentioned only in the worlds of business and marketing. In developed countries, measuring the effectiveness of the body of Christ in living its mission has become a venture not unlike what takes place at corporate board meetings. Where there are losses of members and revenue, retention and accountability are two words often identified as areas of improvement. As business consultant Jim Collins would put it, churches have to face the brutal facts, which are often accompanied by criticism.
Accountability is an interesting word. Some have come to believe that greater accountability in the church is a solution to its issues and failures. To improve, some try to get church staff and members to do what they should or what is expected by pointing out flaws and weaknesses (criticism).
A friend I’ll call Jared is experiencing this. He recently became a pastor for the student ministry at a church where the culture of the ministry resembles the military. The student ministry pastor was the commander, the adult leaders his lieutenants, and the students the soldiers. Terms of accountability for a student’s spiritual life and choices, including dating, were determined by the pastor and implemented by all the adult leaders.
The method of accountability was very clear: We have high expectations and we’re going to be hard on you. There is black and there is white. There is no gray. Guilt served as the primary motivation for students. They accepted it and didn’t know anything different. While the Bible does encourage correction when necessary, it should be done with gentleness. Correction woven with criticism created a toxic and wounding environment in this ministry. While many accepted this way of life, others did not and left.
Research has shown that a steady diet of criticism leads to depression in both adults and teenagers. Justifying it by calling it constructive doesn’t make it go down any easier. Regardless of the spin we put on it, criticism cripples. Paul, the writer of much of the New Testament, knew this and told the church in Rome not to do it (Romans 14).
Jared has seen the devastating consequences of this kind of spiritual abuse. He is committed to changing the culture by instilling the value of encouragement as the primary method of guiding young people in their faith. There will be times when correction is necessary, but it will be done only with gentleness and encouragement.
Why is this so important?
First, according to 1 Thessalonians, encouragement helps us stay spiritually awake. We are to do this for each other. Two practices define encouragement in this passage: comforting and building up one another. Criticism is done from a distance. Comforting and restoring one another can only happen when we are involved in each other’s lives.
Second, according to J.I. Packer, we can understand the Greek language in Hebrews 2:7–3:19 to mean that encouragement keeps the heart warm. In the midst of the daily difficulties, pressures, and stress of life, it is easy to lose hope. Encouragement keeps hope burning in the heart.
Finally, in order for encouragement to be most effective, Hebrews 10:19-25 is clear that we have to be involved in a faith community where people gather together. We gather so that we can draw near to, affirm our confidence in, and pay attention to each other. The result is love that explodes and spills out of our lives and into others so that the broken can receive it. This won’t happen by keeping each other at a distance and being critical.
If you’ve been wounded by criticism and by demands placed on the performance of your faith, may you find a congregation where your faith is encouraged. If you’ve been a critic of the church, let this be a call to draw closer to it, participate in it, and allow yourself to be caught up in the hurricane of God’s grace.
Jack Radcliffe is a husband and father of four, a coach (www.redwoodcoach.com), a ministry trainer and speaker, dean of the Youth Ministry Institute of the Tennessee Conference UMC, adjunct professor at Martin Methodist College, and student pastor at the Nashville Korean UMC. He has an MDiv from Ashland Theological Seminary in Ohio and a DMin in Practical Theology, Adolescent Development and Culture from Fuller Theological Seminary.