Years ago there were two churches in a certain community, a Methodist church and a Baptist Church.
The Baptists were temporarily without a pastor when a church deacon died. The family asked the Methodist pastor if he would conduct the funeral service.
This was the Methodist's pastor's first year in the ministry, and he felt he needed approval from the bishop of the area. So he sent a telegram asking, "May I have approval to bury a Baptist deacon?"
The bishop quickly replied with a telegram that read, "Bury all the Baptists you can!"*
Even though this story is humorous, I think it is often sadly true. One of the things that distresses me in my ministry is when I encounter clergy and laity who think their congregation is competing for members with other churches in the community. I must say that most of the time throughout my twenty-five years in ministry, I have encountered fellow clergy in the community to be very open to shared ministry between churches. But every now and then I have dealt with a pastor who refuses to be a part of anything beyond the local congregation he serves (Yes, for no particular reason it has always been a male) because he is afraid some of his "sheep" will be attracted to another congregation. I did, however, know of one pastor who liked shared ministry because he wanted to bring members of other churches to his congregation.
If anything I find the laity in general to be more resistant to shared ministry. Trying to get a shared youth ministry started is like pulling teeth. Adults are worried about losing some of their youth to other churches, even though they would gladly take young people from other congregations. And I have actually known laity who secretly rejoice when another church doesn't like its current pastor, hoping that some of those folks "over there" will end up coming "over here."
Brothers and sisters, these things ought not to be. There is only one church of Jesus Christ made up of individual churches, to be sure, but it is still one Body of Christ with one mission. If the church has competition, it is not the congregation down the street, but the principalities and powers who continue to make mischief in this world, and who work their will in believers by convincing them that it's OK for them to take their children out of church for an entire summer in order to play baseball, or that God understands when we don't tithe because we have run up too much debt buying more stuff we don't need and spending too much money on our expensive hobbies. Our competition is found in those forces that have distracted believers into being distant from the church and distracted from its ministries.
No, a church's competition is not to be found in other churches. We are competing in a struggle for the place of our children's allegiance, not to another congregation, but with everything that distracts people away from their discipleship and subsequently their relationship with Jesus Christ. All Christians have a common Lord and thus a common mission-- Methodists, Baptists, Catholics, and all followers of Jesus have the same task. Let us not fight over each other's sheep, but in following the Good Shepherd, let us work to bring those not of Christ into his fold. And, as individual congregations, let us work with each other in shared ministry in a common cause.
There is one Lord Jesus Christ and one Body of Christ in this world.
*Michael E. Hodgin, 1002 Humorous Illustrations for Public Speaking (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 96.