Faithful in Dissent: How the Insights of Critics Can Bless a Church


I posted a recent reply to the head of Lifeway, Thomas Rainer, and his post “Five Types of Critics in the Church.” And over at The Assembling of the Church, Alan Knox posted more on this issue in his “Dissension, Criticism, and the Church.”

It’s funny how memes spread through the Godblogosphere, because I wanted to write more about dissent in the Church. I hope to write about disunity in the near future, but for now my focus is more on understanding how vital dissent can be in bettering the way we practice the Faith in our assemblies.

One of my criticisms of the Rainer post was his call to label critics by types. My experience as a Christian of 35+ years is that labels are most often used to crush ideas and the people who form them. This is to our shame as the Body of Christ. Iron sharpens ironWhile labels are not inherently bad, how we use them is less than stellar. In this post, I use some labels to categorize people. My intention is not to crush those people or demean their input but to make leaders aware of which dissenters can be most valuable to a church. While I think that all labels have weaknesses, my hope is that those who read this will be more aware of the types of people found in a church and what each of those types brings to the overall expression of Christ in our midst.

My hope in writing this is to identify not only types of dissenters but how they can bless a church with their insights. Good leaders recognize dissent as a gift, especially if it corrects actions that proceed from blind spots. We are differently gifted by the Lord for a reason. It is why we are not to create hierarchies of authority within churches. Failure to see fellow Christians as equal brethren before the Lord, with each person’s gifts and insights needed for the proper functioning of the Church, is one of the greatest lacks in Evangelicalism today. For this reason, dissenters must be considered a blessing rather than a burden.

From my own experiences, here are the types of dissenters and why they are vital for a healthy church:

1. The Denominational Outsiders

People who grew up in a different society or culture are often our most insightful critics. Within a church, those with a different denominational background see ways in which their new denomination entrenches itself in habits that may impede progress. While these outsiders have their own cultural blind spots, what they see in us is often what goes most ignored because we have taken that trait for granted or have missed how we underestimate its effects on our behavior.

People who come into a denomination from another denomination often get downgraded because they are not a “lifer.” This is especially true in relation to the level of leader downgrading them. The upper echelons of some denominations resemble fraternity houses more than anything, with the Baptists as Sigma Nu, the Assemblies of God as Alpha Tau Omega, and the Catholics as Animal House (as the Protestants see them).

Wise leaders see beyond divided loyalties, though. Because each denomination has its strengths and weaknesses, denominational outsider—the Lutheran in the Nazarene church, the Reformed in the charismatic church, etc.—has a unique previous experience that may go far in exposing denominational weaknesses and helping to turn them into strengths.

Sadly, what often happens in churches is that those people who come into a church as denominational outsiders are sometimes treated as tainted by their theological differentness. They supposedly have not had a “pure” experience, so their voices are given second-class citizen status within a church beholden to its denominational roots. To the denominational outsider, this “party crasher” label hurts, especially when it is used to prevent them from having a say in the progress of the church, both locally and at the denominational level.

We still read de Toqueville today because the Frenchman visited a young America, correctly took its pulse, and offered the world astute insights into the growing nation that we natives may have overlooked. Let that be our same standard with those who come into our denominational churches from a different background and show us for who we truly are, both good and bad.

2. The Visionaries

Every church has a subset of people who are “out there.” No group of people bothers entrenched church leaders more than these folks. Why? Because visionaries have a tendency to reveal the smallness of the vision of those leaders. When visionaries are not on leadership, this makes for considerable dissension in a church because the visionaries often are way ahead of the leaders. Visionaries are natural idea sharers, too, and in that sharing may cause others to see nonvisionary leaders as lacking. Obviously, this comes off as threatening. More often than not, deficient leaders combat this by labeling visionaries with every demeaning label possible so as to hurt their reputation among the people with whom those visionaries share their ideas.

In contrast, wise leaders recognize the need to keep visionaries close rather than pushing them away. The old aphorism is that the Church is just one generation away from extinction, and this makes the visionary a valuable asset. Seeing what lies ahead is a useful gift. Leaders who keep visionaries close and respect their vision can lead a church around future pitfalls, compensate for trends in culture, and anticipate needs that will keep the church always proactive rather than reactive.

But this requires great humility in leaders who are not themselves gifted in this way. A leader with an administrative gift must be satisfied with his gift and not fall into jealousy because someone else is more gifted in leading into the future, especially if that visionary is just an average Joe in the pew. In America, we tend to love our visionaries just a wee bit too much and overemphasize their usefulness, which demeans other types of giftings. Visionaries and nonvisionary leaders must recognize this and temper the tendency everyone has to make more of vision than should be allowed. That said, stifling visionaries remains one of our greatest lacks in the American Church.

3. The New Folks

One of the pathetic truths of American Christianity is that we shuffle around our people rather than making new disciples. Churches tend to grow by feeding off the remains of dead or dying churches, and while some leaders trumpet their methods in bestselling church growth books, vultures were considered unclean in the Old Testament for a reason.

Despite this problem, church leaders can use the experiences of people new to their church as an object lesson in how to keep their own church out of the dead pile.

Because the new folks are often basking in the glory of their newfound church home while breathing a collective sigh of relief over the the toxic church mess they left behind, they are not often ones to immediately create dissent in their new home. Wise leaders understand that these folks left because of dissent and that these folks’ reason for leaving can serve as a cautionary tale on what NOT to do. Wise leaders tap this knowledge early and store it away for future reference.

The other reality about new folks is that whatever caused them to leave their old church likely still simmers inside them. This makes them highly alert to similar problems in their new church, especially after they have been there for some time. If gossipy people caused them to leave their old church, seeing in time that the their new one suffers from the same problem can be useful to a wise leader. In this way, new folks can serve as a canary in the coal mine because they are already sensitive to the problem that caused them to leave their previous church. Time can heal some wounds, but it also makes some more obvious, especially once the honeymoon is over for new folks. Wise leaders can use this previous dissent as a way to stem future dissent and the possibility that the new folks instead will become ex-folks because the old wound opened once more.

Like the Denominational Outsider, new folks may bring fresh eyes to a church and see what longtimers miss. What works against the new folks is their newness. Should they dissent early on, some leaders may view them as perpetual grumblers. Wise leaders should always give the benefit of the doubt here. However, more than one set of new folks has come to a church, gotten acclimated, and then heard it announced by leaders that the church is going to pursue the same “new idea” that the new folks saw kill their old church. For this reason, it pays to listen to the new folks. A wise leader may even proactively seek them out for feedback on proposed changes, especially if the leaders connected well with the new folks and recall that proposed changes are similar to what caused the new folks to leave their old church.

4. The Grizzled Veterans

Its funny how familiarity can breed contempt. In some churches, should a longtimer dissent, that complaint may be brushed off. Yet longtimers have the benefit of history. They know the people in the church. Because many churches hire their church leaders from outside the congregation (a mistake, as I see it), those outside leaders often don’t understand the entrenched dynamics within a church. Grizzled veterans do.

Oddly, these veterans can be a lot like New Folks. Both are often the first to sense that something  has gone wrong. The new program is stumbling, and the longtimer sees the failure ahead, even if the leaders don’t. Again, this is canary in a coal mine wisdom.

Grizzled veterans, especially if they are among the 20 percent who do 80 percent of the church’s work, are often the first to understand a potential pitfall. When a grizzled veteran dissents, wise leaders don’t immediately chalk up that dissent to being stuck in one’s ways. More than one church has been destroyed when leaders ignored the complaint of longtimers and keep going down a destructive path.

Grizzled veterans don’t have to be elderly either. The 30-something who grew up in the church may be as experienced as the 70-year-old who first arrived when he was 40. Age alone does not a grizzled veteran make. That said, the elderly may be more discerning, especially if they are also Denominational Outsiders.

Because they have cachet by virtue of their faithfulness to a church, grizzled veterans MUST be treated tactfully and graciously by church leaders. Mishandling a longtimer’s dissent can create an avalanche, especially if that longtimer feels slighted and leaves the church. The death knell for some churches begins when a handful of longtimers go off in search of greener pastures.

5. The Young Adults

You can’t be a church leader today and not know about the exodus of the 18-35 age group. One of the reasons for the exodus is that many church leaders looked at their own youth, considered their own callowness at that age, and wrote off young adults as naive.

But what was then is not the same as what is now. The young people of today are far less naive than we were. They deal with issues we didn’t. They have experience we didn’t get until we were out of that 18-35 demographic. For that reason, they cannot be written off so easily when they dissent.

That is what has happened in many cases, though, and the young adults most sensitive to the inauthentic B.S. some older church leaders consider “The Next New Thing” have fled the Church because no one gave credence to their dissent.

Church leaders can’t be blamed entirely, however. Many young adults dropped out of church because they got sick of participating in their parents’ hypocritical, consumeristic lifestyles. Wise leaders understand this and direct their church into pathways that confront that hypocrisy and adverse societal conformity. If done correctly and with tact, leaders can see the upraised middle finger of youth as a warning and address it, keeping that 18-35 group within the fold.

6. The Iconoclastic Contrarians

Someone HAS to be different. Someone MUST follow the oddball idea and harebrained scheme.

In the history of the Christian Church, if one pays close attention, one will find that it has been the iconoclastic contrarians who went down in history as the saints of old. In their era, they were the weirdos. Now they hold a place of honor in the pantheon of great Christians.

Wise leaders know they may never understand the iconoclastic contrarians—and that’s OK. No one may, but that does not mean that their dissent has no value. In fact, it may have the most value of all. And this is a critical challenge to wise leaders because they won’t get it—at least not in the moment.

One of the major lacks in church leaders today is an open willingness to consider right away if a dissenter has a valid point. We don’t like dissent, and yet the history of God’s people is filled with one dissenter after another. The majority of scouts gave the leaders of the Hebrews a fear-filled report of how the promised land appeared to them. Joshua and Caleb dissented in the great, great minority. Theirs was the iconclastic contrarian report. They even agreed with the description of the promised land, but they saw what it meant through the eyes of the Lord and not through that of men. We know which report God honored.

Dealing with iconoclastic contrarians is a rough job for a church leader. Even wise ones will fail when dealing with such folks. Humility above all is called for, as is a good memory. The best a wise leader might do in this case is remember what the contrarian said and continue to take it before the Lord.

7. The Gross Sinners

Every church has a few “gross sinners,” those people with a “history.” As much as we talk about grace and redemption, we have long memories. While we may say we value the gross sinner’s dissent, what they did so long ago was so awful, our trust remains iffy.

Some churches do a better job than others with the amount of grace they offer the gross sinner. Some forget the gross sinners’ past sins more readily. But when gross sinners dissent, all the grace and forgetfulness wind up themselves forgotten. How good is the gross sinners’ dissent anyway? We all know what they did so long ago, right? What if this dissent is nothing more than the wicked fruit of that error from so long ago?

We don’t ask these question, do we? Of course we do. Wise leaders recognize their own human failings when it comes to fully forgiving those whom the Lord has forgiven entirely.

If anything, the gross sinners’ dissent often reflects their own recognition of their past. People who made grave mistakes remember how they made them. For this reason, a wise leader should heed the cautions of those of us who are most deeply scarred by failure. Though it may be true that gross sinners overcompensate in dissent because of sensitivity to their past, their concern should never be written off in full. Experience matters, even if painful, and perhaps especially so. God does not waste anyone’s pain, and knowledge of past mistakes can serve as a powerful lesson of what NOT to do.

Sadly, our churches today have too many leaders who privately question their leadership skills and subsequently operate out of a defensive position whenever dissent arises. More than at any time in the history of the Church, great humility is needed from all of us, leaders or not. Dissent can be valuable and can even save a church from death if the voices of dissenters are allowed to teach us. We are too often blind to our own failings, and this is why God makes each of us of invaluable worth to the Body of Christ. No matter the kind of dissenter one might be, leaders who are humble and who rest in God for their self-esteem can make valuable use of the wisdom of those who disagree with them or who provide through dissent wisdom they themselves lack.

In short, if we Christians were more willing to listen to dissent without taking it as a personal assault on us or our churches, perhaps we could better fulfill the mission of the Church before it is too late.

A Response to “Five Types of Critics in the Church”


Light in a dark churchOver at, Tim posted a link in his A La Carte section of Oct. 1 to a post by the head of Lifeway, Thom Rainer, “Five Types of Critics in the Church.” As they say on the Interwebs, read the whole thing (hey, it’s short too!).

Rainer posits his five types of people who criticize church leaders:

  • The constructive critic
  • The negligent critic
  • The hurt critic
  • The sinful critic
  • The self-serving critic

He then adds:

“…make every attempt to discern the type of critic with whom you are dealing. In many cases, the criticisms will benefit your life and ministry. In other cases, you may have the opportunity to deal with the critic in a pastoral and redemptive way.”

The more I pondered the article, especially the list of five critics and what Rainer says about them, the more critical of the article I became. Ironic, eh? It seemed to me the article brought into focus a big issue in the contemporary American Church.

Reflecting on what Rainer wrote about the five critics (you did read the article, right?), what came through more than anything is the chasm that separates paid, professional ministers from “the laity.” The descriptions of the critics seemed to have a built-in class distinction, as if the people in the seats or those “in support” don’t have much right to criticize what happens in a church or parachurch ministry. By listing five types of critics and then telling leaders it’s essential to discern which they are dealing with, Rainer betrays a general lack of connection with what is really going on in the lives of “the laity” and enforces a classification system that further insulates leadership from criticism. Nothing puts uppity, troublesome people in their place like a label.  And though Rainer tries to temper this by saying that criticism can be good for one’s ministry, it seems tacked on and “Christianized.”

Here is my experience…

I have noted many times on this blog that what many people interpret as sin, stupidity, and opposition is nothing more than people just trying to get by in life. My experience is that the vast majority of people are desperate for some kind of stability, a foundation that will keep them going through the motions one more day. Most of what we don’t like in other people’s lives is their coping mechanism in operation.

We live in turbulent times. People feel powerless and angry. Many are losing control of their lives and fear acceleration of that loss. Mental illness is an epidemic, with the number of people on psychoactive drugs at the pandemic stage.

In the middle of this stands the Church. That Church says, “Jesus is the Rock,” and claims to be a port in the storm of life. People believe that too.

Criticism doesn’t erupt in a vacuum. Most people become critical when change happens (or when it should happen but doesn’t).

When I see criticism building in a church, it is often because leaders tinkered with aspects of church life that were a comfort to distressed people. Those people saw their respite toyed with and it created further stress in their lives.

More than anything, church leaders today do not take into adequate account how change affects the flock. Those leaders get into their heads that they want to adopt the latest hotness even when people are perfectly fine with the way things are. Leaders think of “Behold, I am doing a new thing” as a verse that gives imprimatur to every whim of change.

Fact is, this is highly disruptive to folks who see the Church as their last refuge of peace and tradition in a world changing far too quickly, and often for the worse. Church leaders who force change—and often do so rapidly so as to keep up with whatever is new and trendy in church programming and growth theories—are often breeding their own critics.

What bothers me about the Rainer article is that leaders create this disruption and then don’t want to be bothered by the fallout. Worse, when people feel threatened by changes, they end up having to face a leader who has been told that threatened people must be labeled by the leader with one of five types of critic tags. I find this advice startling in its superiority, perpetuating the “touch not the Lord’s anointed” mentality Christians often face in their leaders.

Of the five types of critics Rainer sketches, I honestly believe that most people are constructive critics with some level of self-serving. When church leaders disrupt the safety people feel in the normalcy of their church life, those people lose a valuable sense of personal stability, so of course there is a self-serving aspect to their frustrations. How could it be otherwise? Most people won’t come forward unless they feel some personal attachment to the criticism they risk sharing.

And it is a risk. What gets “laity” disenfranchised faster than saying, “Um, Pastor, should we really be doing this?”

Five types of critics make it sound as if the majority of criticism is wrong, what with “constructive” seeming as if it comprises only 20 percent of all criticism. I disagree. Most people are constructive because they love their church and really don’t want to see it run onto the rocks that have destroyed so many other cherished institutions in life, the wreckage of which is all around people and ever obvious, fostering much of the ill-ease they feel about life in the 2010s. That many churches ARE hurtling toward the rocks because of leaders who DON’T listen to the criticisms of “laity” is one of the epidemics of our age.

As a counter to Rainer, I offer that leaders need to lose the labels. We don’t need to see a label on a type of criticism; we need leaders who recognize that we may be feeling disrupted by something that has happened in or to the church.

Also, leaders, discern the times. People are looking for safety. Messing with what people find safe is a recipe for generating frustration, which leads to criticism. Realize, too, that critics are not stupid, nor are they attempting to halt everything that can be good about change. Most are asking is for greater temperance in moving forward and a recognition that change for change sake has wrecked more than one solid church. Many are frustrated with having yet more lack of input in yet one more aspect of life.

To the leaders I ask that you be more wary of the new than you are of your critics. Today’s new and hot is tomorrow’s old and busted, and not every “vision” proves to be of the Lord. And sometimes, the “laity” understands this better than you do.

The Mystery of Why American Politics and American Churches Resist Change


Nothing baffles me more than the intersection of politics and conservative American Christianity.

The election of 2012 promises to pit more of the same old, same old against itself, as Republicrats and Democans battle to see who will preserve the status quo for the ruling powers that be. Into this fray comes the handwringing, conservative, evangelical Christians who will go on and on about “the soul of our nation” and “if my people will humble themselves and pray….”

I’m about as truly conservative as it gets, both in politics and theology, but anymore, I can’t identify with any of my supposed Christian brethren when it comes to governing the nation or running a church.

I don’t understand how supporting a pro-life GOP candidate makes one iota of difference in overturning the demonic Roe v. Wade. Pro-life politicians have had decades to work, even having insurmountable majorities at times, yet nothing has budged Roe even the slightest.

In addition, we keep electing politicians who campaign on platforms of reducing government, only to show their true big government colors once in office. They get in power, put out the nepotism shingle, and the next thing you know, a pack of Ivy League School frat brothers are running the country (club) again. Democrat or Republican? Who cares? It’s just a different set of frat rowdies subjecting the country to the same hazing.

Worse, we Christians are running our churches the same way. The same failed programs get repackaged year after year and voted on by church councils as the “new direction for our ministry”—only to wind up abandoned on the dustheap a year later, their ashes choking us, even as we ignore the coughing.

Something in the conservative Christian mindset has congealed around a set of unchanging parameters that has us locked into being neither all that conservative nor Christian. We’ve become unable to challenge the status quo and ask hard questions about why we keep failing to meet the goals we set for our nation or for our churches.

Honestly, I can’t think of a battle we are winning on a macro level, either for America or for Jesus. And if we want to be truly depressed, try finding a winning battle that is both for America and Jesus at the same time.

The problem as I see it is an inability to take every assumption we make as Americans and as Christians and put holy fire to it. When even our brightest minds are unable to ever ask the question “Why are we doing things this way?” then how is it that we can ever expect a different outcome? Unless we start challenging every practice we have forged within American politics and the American Church, we will be lost. The amount of bovine methane production from the sheer number of our sacred cows will keep reducing the amount of oxygen to our brains, and then what hope will we have?

Anyone familiar with computer software understands the concept of “skins.” The menu bar in your Web browser may look different from your neighbor’s, but it’s still Google Chrome or Mozilla Firefox underneath. You just chose different art to “skin” your personal copy.

I look at Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney, and Barack Obama and I see the same underlying person, albeit with a different skin over the top. The same goes for our churches.

The problem is what lies underneath the skin. And we are failing to address those problems, instead swapping in different skins with the hope that our experience will be different.

But as the old Southerner opined, “Ain’t no sense putting lipstick on a pig.”

I can’t sit idly by and not question what’s underneath the skin. I won’t put lipstick on a pig and tell myself she’s a beauty.

We Christians have got to stop supporting systems that are based on a foundation of repeated failure. We must question not only the silliness in modern politics but also the identical silliness in our church praxis.

This is not about assaulting the core truths of the Gospel or of our Constitution, but it’s a hope that we will get back to what is truly important, while questioning everything else.

Why do we do what we do in our church meetings on Sunday? Why are we supporting Church systems that perpetually fail to produce disciples? Why do we run our churches like businesses, with hierarchies that are not only not biblical but actually rob average people of their God-given birthright to serve the brethren and not be just a passive lump deigned to absorb another Sunday message that won’t stick beyond Sunday lunch?

Why do we continue to elect cold, calculating political animals who are only in it for themselves and their Ivy League frat brothers? Why do we prattle on about change while electing the same old type of yahoo?


Snake baring fangsIs ANYONE asking that question?

Folks, it’s time for the sheep to wake up and heed these words of Jesus:

“Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”
—Matthew 10:16

We’ve been solely innocent doves for too long, and it has not served well either our nation or our churches.