That Deadly Inferiority Complex

by Joe McKeever

As a second-grader, newly relocated with our family from the rural South to the coal fields of West Virginia, I felt vulnerable and misplaced. When the children laughed at my backwoods accent, I shut up. On the playground, when the students chose sides for games, being the smallest boy in the class meant I was picked last. When the prettiest girl in the class could never remember my name, I was hopelessly sunk.

I am well acquainted with feelings of inferiority. I know intimately the sense that everyone else is better, stronger, bigger, and smarter. Inferiority complexes are killers—destroyers of hope and joy and vision, striking victims with a paralysis that prevents them from taking any kind of action.

That's why I was surprised to learn that churches have them.

As a new seminary student in New Orleans, here to learn to preach and lead a church, I was called as pastor of a small congregation a half hour west of the city. For years, Paradis Baptist Church had run 40 in attendance. The day I arrived, I overheard two men talking. One said, "This church is doing about all it's ever going to do." The other agreed. I was bent on proving them wrong, but did not have a clue where to begin.

Two things occurred to give new life to that church. First, I began knocking on doors of church members. It was such a simple strategy that it never occurred to me this was the single most effective thing I could have done. No preacher had been in the homes of most of those members for years, if ever. Within one month, attendance reached 65.

Inspired now, I began ransacking the seminary library for books on how to lead a small rural church. I took home a dozen and began reading. The single discovery I made—one that made all the difference—was that what imprisons most small churches is their inferiority complex. Because they are not as large as the church down the road or in town, the members convince themselves they cannot do anything. As a result, they do nothing.

I knew immediately I was on to something. Already I had heard people say, "We can't do that. We're too small. The First Church of Bigtown down the road, now, they could do it. Not us." Someone said, "Pastor, you came from a big church in Alabama. We're small." The inferiority complex was alive and well at Paradis.

Not knowing what else to do, I began preaching sermons on the power of God in the lives of His people. Jesus said, "Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in their midst." He did not require hundreds;  two or three would suffice, and we had a lot more than that.

"I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me" and "If God be for us, who can be against us" were themes I hammered on repeatedly. Gradually, the lesson began to take.

Gradually, people began to do things. We gathered paint buckets and hammers one day and changed the appearance of our drab educational building. We bought a church bus, which I learned to drive, and we took the young people into the city for ministry and rallies. We held witnessing training and knocked on doors. Within two years we were averaging over a hundred in attendance and producing mission offerings that compared with the larger churches in town. We put chairs in the aisles of our little sanctuary and started talking about relocating to the population center of our area. Paradis Baptist Church had shed its feelings of inferiority and donned robes of confidence and faith.

One afternoon I was sitting in the office of the First Church of Bigtown chatting with Pastor Ralph who had become a good friend. Their church ran over two hundred in attendance, their buildings were sparkling red brick, and they seemed to have everything going for them. A church member stuck his head in the office and said, "Pastor, what would you think about us taking a group of adults on a mission trip next summer, maybe to Dallas or Atlanta, and do some inner-city ministry?" I was surprised to hear Ralph answer, "That's a great idea, friend. But where will we get the money? I remind you, we are not the First Baptist Church of New Orleans."

Suddenly it occurred to me: this church had its own battles with feelings of inferiority. Over time I learned that a sense of inadequacy and inferiority is not the exclusive domain of the tiny churches. Everything is relative, and every church of every size has to fight this killer. Small churches look at larger ones, and envy their facilities, their resources, their talent. Those churches in turn often feel paralyzed because they do not have the influence, wealth, and success of still larger churches. I have not figured out yet whom the mega churches are envying, but with human nature being what it is, there's probably an answer.

The basis of inferiority feelings is a misplaced focus. The individual turns his eyes inward upon himself. All he sees are his inabilities, his poverty, his scant resources, all inadequate for the massive challenge looming before him.

Bible students know of the twelve spies who checked out the Promised Land for forty days prior to the planned invasion in the days of Moses. These scouts returned to the million-member throng of Israelites at a spot south of Canaan called Kadesh-Barnea to give their report.

"It's a grand place," they reported, and brought out grapes and figs of enormous size to dramatize it. "The land is everything Moses said, flowing with milk and honey." The people were ecstatic.

"But there is a problem," the spies reported. "The cities are walled. They maintain standing armies. It is a massive land that dwarfs its visitors. But that's not the worst thing. They have giants there. Everywhere we looked, we saw men towering over us. People, we are in a lot of trouble."

Then one of the spies added a line that summed it up. "We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes. And to be honest, we looked like grasshoppers to them also." That did it. The people panicked, started weeping, and eventually rebelled against any intention of invading the land. They wandered in the wilderness for the next forty years as a result of their fear.

The grasshopper complex. Poor us; big them.

God's people always get into trouble when they let the world tell us who we are. When we make our decisions based on our own abilities instead of the promises and resources of heaven, we doom ourselves to failure. When we listen to the enemy and ignore the Word of God and the presence of His Spirit, we will storm no gates, challenge no falsehoods, and see no miracles.

Think how remarkable it was for the Lord Jesus standing on a hilltop to say to a small band of uneducated, unsophisticated followers, "Go ye into all the world and make disciples of all men." How could such a group achieve such a task? "And lo, I am with you all the way, even to the end of the world."

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