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


Light in a dark churchOver at Challies.com, 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.

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

  1. On behalf of church leaders, though (no, I’m not one) … they’re called to help people change. It’s much easier to change the way something is done in church and hope the effect will somehow trickle down. (Sorry to use a political term; couldn’t think of a better one.)

    Church leaders are called to help people keep changing and not be comfortable where they are; to be transformed into the image of Christ in an ongoing way.

    Never mind that they are hopelessly outnumbered and the task is daunting and messy and requires getting into other people’s lives and letting them into yours.

    So I guess I think there has to be balance between comfort and change, and changes have to come from within the heart. We may learn by doing, and change external to us may help stimulate changes within, but there has to be a lot of discernment in choosing and encouraging changes.

    And we folks who aren’t called to be leaders need to learn to be discerning about our own motives before we criticize.

    Sorry to be critical. I’m probably a number five!

    • Keith,

      Because you are a longtime reader, I’ll give you a pass. But only this time. 😉

      Seriously, I think we may be talking about two different types of change. That’s a failure on my part to differentiate in my post. I absolutely agree with you that a change-free, pedantic expression of church does not make solid disciples. If anything, leaders should be shaking up people’s “cast in stone” preconceptions of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. That kind of change is almost always good (unless it is relentless, which is horribly bad and burns out people).

      However, my experience has been that this is not the type of change that generates the most criticism or causes the most stress. It’s more of the “we burned the organ and tossed the hymns because the growing church down the street did” mimicry stuff that doesn’t have much in the way of a godly revelation supporting its adoption. That’s what unhinges people. Implementing church programming that upends tradition just to shake things up or to follow the latest hip programming is not a good thing. There is no irony in the reality that the person who wrote the article is the head of a company that makes money by creating “church envy” through the many books and programming materials it sells. Leaders buy and buy into that stuff, and the next thing you know the cross your grandfather made by hand for the church altar has been dumped in the trash and replaced by some neon disaster someone bought on sale through a company Lifeway markets.

      I heard the worship leader from a really hot church go on and on about all the things you have to change about your church’s worship and its worship leaders. Not once did he mention the Holy Spirit. He piled up words about trends and demographics and all sorts of other “here today and gone tomorrow” junk, but He left out the number one change agent! Again, my experience is this kind of change is sold to people who don’t really want it under the guise of the Lord doing a new thing. All that does is rattle people’s foundations, but heaven forbid you push back and get labeled as a source of dissent, which is the death knell for any aspirations you may have had for being a change agent of the better kind (see the kind you mean above). Might as well wear a scarlet A on your chest.

      • Dan,

        Because I am a longtime reader, I’ll give you a pass. But only this time. 😉

        But seriously…

        I attend a church that is ethnically German. That is for those over the age of about 60, German is their first language. Change has occurred, at what I would call a manageable level for the older ones. Most vestiges of the German are now gone. In the process, many of a younger generation was lost as the change did not occur quickly enough for them.

        Contrast that with a sister church which wasn’t willing to change. Almost all of their church is over the age of 60 now, with most in their 80s. Surprisingly, they have been growing, from seniors impacted by change in their original congregations and no longer feeling at home there.

        Contrast that with a third church I know which changed to quickly, lost all of their seniors, ran out of money, and had to close their doors.

        A church is a living entity. Sometimes you have to “burn the organ” if you want to continue to survive into the next generation. Sometimes burning the organ is what will cause your demise.

        As a Pastor you are going to be pulled both ways. It is essential to be sensitive to the needs of the church and to the prompting of the Holy Spirit.

        As for me personally, my perspective is that most churches don’t embrace as much change as they need to, which is why generally we have seen youth flee the church.

        • Michael,

          I’ve written elsewhere that authenticity and a church’s similarity to the Church in Acts are what young people are looking for. They are leaving the Church in America because they are not finding those in most churches today.

          My own Christian experience has been one of watching churches trying to ride the wave of trends that wash through American Christianity every few years. The outcome for those churches is mind-numbingly bad. In fact, a couple of those churches had to essentially burn themselves down and start over, so extensively did “change” alter them to a point of no return.

          I’ll be frank. When leaders start talking change, I believe most of them are simply sticking a wet finger in the air or they are watching what everyone else is doing. The people in the seats are wise to this, and the kind of pre-emptive strike Rainer talks about in his post is the result.

          Here’s a for instance: There was a mad rush to remove all Christian symbology from churches a few years back because some hot churches had had success with a more industrial and “clean” look. For the most part, that has backfired. Humans need touchpoints to anchor their faith. Turning your church into a black-walled nightclub—minus all the nightclub accouterments that make a club interesting—actually drives away people who are looking for something more relationally inviting and fulfilling, more human and less sterile.

          A lot of these changes happen behind closed doors, too, and the people in the seats get blindsided when changes are announced. This also ups the criticism factor, as no one wants to see everything they hold as a touchpoint in the church on Sunday tossed into a dumpster by Friday.

  2. Thanks for linking to that article. I agree that it certainly is, ironically, self-serving in that it allows pastors to lump people into categories. If I mostly agree with you and you primarily agree with me, you are a constructive critic. If I make a change and insist on my own way and you don’t like it you are a “self-serving critic” that is having “thinly-disguised temper tantrum”. That article provides great cover for pastors to steamroll the local church while dismissing those who ask questions.

    Funny side note, two of the comments (one in reply to you) come from the pastor of the last traditional church we were a part of and his “leadership”, i.e. my way or the highway, was the catalyst for us leaving the institutional church and starting to ask the hard questions. Based on his comments, his style of “leadership” hasn’t changed much.

    • Arthur,

      “Dissenter” is the hot word in some circles. Might as well be labeled “Sodomite” for all the damage that label does. You become the reason the church is not advancing.

      I dumped The Purpose-Driven Life only a few pages in because Rick Warren said that a church desirous of change should show the door to anyone who isn’t on-board with changes leaders push through. Really? Is that what being fellow sojourners in the Faith is all about?

      • Dire Dan: “show the door”

        This modus operandi is now very wide spread. For example, I went to a Membership 101 class at certain mega church in the county where I live. And that point was more than abundantly made very painfully clear.

  3. I assume Ranier is strictly talking about “critics” within the local congregation.

    There is sixth type of “critic”, but this occurs not within the local congregation but on the Internet: these are the “online discernment bloggers”.

    And I think they are probably doing far more damage than the five the Ranier mentions about.

  4. akaGaGa

    Hi Dan,
    I think you touched on the foundation of the problem when you mentioned “the chasm that separates paid, professional ministers from ‘the laity.’” It is a vast chasm in many churches, and one that creates divisions Christ never intended.

    I see it as one more area of fall-out from operating under a non-Biblical structure. If we do away with the hierarchical, top-down decision-making process, and church-wide decisions are made instead on a consensus basis, with everyone’s input and everyone’s agreement, all these critics disappear. Yes, it takes time to come to a consensus, but that’s usually a good thing. And I’ve seen a quick consensus when the Lord wanted it that way.

    I’m becoming more and more convinced that it’s the system that is driving people from the institutional church – and that, too, may be a good thing.

  5. As someone who has just recently come across Thom Rainer, and is frankly concerned about the influence he has in circles I come in contact with, I appreciated this blog post. It affirms the trends that I have seen in his writing, and frankly makes me feel like less of a crazy person, thanks.

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