On Church Critique: How I Respond to Criticism of the Church Depends Largely on Who’s Talking

As you can imagine, I hear my fair share of criticism about the church.

I get emails, Facebook messages, phone calls, even the rare face-to-face conversation (as we Canadians tend to avoid that sort of thing), outlining concerns about the state and practice of “the church.”

CritiqueI don’t have a problem with critique. I want to hear what people say, to listen to their concerns, which are often based on past hurts and prevent people from fully engaging in God’s family. I also want to respond to justified judgement and insightful ideas, learning from others in humility and grace. By being open, we can all grow. 

But, as you know, not all criticism is worth taking to heart. Not all critique is actionable. Some is based on a faulty perspective, a partial understanding or a hidden agenda. Other concerns are smoke-screens for deeper issues. Some times things are said just to see how we will respond. And, sadly, there are those who just like to complain.

So how do I respond to criticism, particularly with respect to the church? How I respond is based largely on who the person is and where they are coming from. Here’s how I process criticism.

First, is this person a follower of Jesus or not? Right off the bat, if this person is not a follower of Jesus, and they’ve got something to say about the church, I want to hear it. I want to be the kind of Christian (and pastor) who is genuinely interested in what those “outside” the church think and say about “us.” That’s a perspective we don’t often hear. I’m all ears. They can rant and rake, and I’ll pretty much take it. Why? Because I want to hear them, as people, and I hope by hearing them I might help us (as in, all of us) move closer to Jesus himself. Does that mean everything said will be valid or actionable? No, but I will listen and I will respond with grace and respect.

Okay, so that’s if they are not claiming to follow Jesus. But what if they do? If this person is a follower of Jesus, then I want to know if they love the church. This is a big deal for me. How seriously I take critique from a Christian depends on how much this person wants to see the church of Jesus grow, expand, reach out, deepen and flourish. No, don’t get me wrong: I know there are many who love the church who have been very hurt by the church, and as such have either become hesitant to get involved, estranged from local fellowship or jaded regarding certain ways of being the church. But if, underneath it all, they still love the church, then I really want to lean in and hear their heart, responding to their concerns as best I can. Knowing how difficult it can be to even bring this stuff up, I want to honor their bravery. Similar to those who don’t follow Jesus, it’s important that they feel heard. But (and yes, there is a “but”) if I sense that this follower of Jesus is just dissing on the church, giving it up as something wrong and corrupt and beyond hope, I become less open to their critique. I tend to push back and ask questions about their understanding of the family of God. I try to provoke a little self-reflection. If they don’t love the church, and yet claim to follow Jesus, then there’s a problem in their whole understanding of God and what he’s doing in the world. And critique flowing from that well is going to be less helpful. Doesn’t mean I won’t listen–I will. But I’m going to be less open to their critique.

BuildSo, what if they follow Jesus and claim to love the church? Then I want to know one more thing: are they willing to get in and serve for the sake of the church? In other words, critique is fine, but is there muscle, prayer and will behind the critique? Is this person committed to building the church, or are they just ranting? Have they adopted a “you should change this” attitude, or are they keen on getting their own hands dirty? I’ve been on the receiving end of the negative barrage of saints who claim to love the church, but never get in, never stick it out, never show up, holding themselves back from helping the church address its problems, grow in maturity and fill in the gaps that are always there.  If a person just wants to criticize but not construct, then the validity of their words wanes with the telling.

We need to be open to hearing what others have to say, from all perspectives. We need to be filled with grace, open to receiving challenges we don’t want to hear. And yet, we have to evaluate what we hear and respond with wisdom, so that we can truly become the people God has called us to become.

  • How do you respond to criticism about your local church? 
  • Have you ever offered critique without love or service?
  • How can we hear those “outside” the church more effectively?