Church Leaders Need to Stop Playing H.O.R.S.E. with Each Other

basketball shadowsI love learning the best ideas, methods and principles that I can find from as many people as possible.

But, no matter how good their idea is, no matter how well it’s working at their church, I’ve learned the hard way that my church isn’t their church. Because of that, I’d like to pass this simple principle on to you today, so you don’t have to learn it the hard way like I did.

We need to stop playing H.O.R.S.E. with other churches and church leaders.

For those who don’t know what that means, H.O.R.S.E. is a game basketball players like to challenge each other with. The first player tries a trick shot, then the other players have to duplicate it. If they do, they stay in the game. If they don’t, they add a letter until they’ve spelled H.O.R.S.E. and they’re out.

This happens in the church all the time.

We go to a pastoral leadership conference, where we hear about a church that’s discovered a new way to do a certain kind of ministry, so we go home and try to duplicate their trick shot, only to fail miserably. Then we wonder “what’s wrong with me and my church that we couldn’t pull it off?”

After trying and failing enough times, many ministers find themselves leaving ministry entirely because they couldn’t duplicate the success of others. But we’re not called to duplicate the success of others.

Learning principles from other churches is great. But trying to copy their methods, programs or style is just the church version of H.O.R.S.E.


It’s Not Just a Matter of Scale

This is especially true when we try to take ideas from big churches (which is where most of the books and seminars get their ideas) and transpose them to a Small Church setting.

A church of 50 can’t take what worked in a church of 5,000, remove two zeroes and expect it to work for them. Size is not the only difference between them. Small Churches and big churches have many things in common, but they also use a lot of very different methods, leadership styles and systems.

So should we stop going to conferences led by megachurch pastors? No. But we need to stop playing H.O.R.S.E. with them. We will lose every time we do that. No, we won’t lose to them. We’re not in competition with them, after all. But we’ll lose out on doing what we could do really well. 

Not only is H.O.R.S.E. not a good way to do church, it’s not even the way real basketball is played. H.O.R.S.E. is about tricks, smack-talk and bragging rights. Which is fine when you’re having a friendly afternoon with a ball, a hoop and some friends. But it’s a lousy way to live real life or do real ministry.

Many basketball coaches don’t like their teams to play H.O.R.S.E., even for fun. It teaches wrong principles. It divides instead of uniting and it encourages younger players to try and emulate the wrong things.

H.O.R.S.E. is about trying to play someone else’s game instead of your own.


What’s the Alternative?

The next time you read a church leadership book, go to a conference, or read a blog post (including this one) about the latest trend in church ministry, take a breath and pray. Then follow these six simple steps:

  1. Learn from everyone you can
  2. Don’t try to duplicate what they’re doing
  3. Find the underlying principle
  4. Determine if that principle makes sense for you and your situation
  5. If so, apply an adapted version of that principle to your unique situation
  6. If not, leave it to other churches to do and find your own way

When we do that, we can learn from others and adapt the real lessons (underlying principles) to our church without losing our own gifting, identity and unique voice in the process.


So what do you think? Have you ever found yourself playing H.O.R.S.E with other churches?

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(Basketball Shadows photo from Jeff Turner • Flickr • Creative Commons license)

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6 thoughts on “Church Leaders Need to Stop Playing H.O.R.S.E. with Each Other”

  1. This is an excellent article. I’ve tried to play HORSE too many times and it doesn’t work. Hopefully I’m learning how to sift out the good stuff and not try to just copy because it usually doesn’t work.

  2. Many in my congregation have a background in larger churches where playing horse is all they want to do–at least when they began with us. The hard work is teaching them that horse is unproductive for us. We have so far to go–but I do see signs of life in breaking free. Thanks, Karl for your great insight!

  3. Great words of wisdom. But I would add… take a deep breath and pray. The common denominator is the Lord we worship, not the #’s of people “in church”. Dave Clark has a good book, “Worship Where you are Planted” Easy read. I try to attend worship conferences, but not many of those leaders have only 20 in the congregation. But those 20 are as hungry for the Word as the 200 or 2000 in mega churches. I love serving the Lord in church and hope to be obedient to his calling. We are the examples, role models…. when we stand in front of our congregations, whether small or big, our passion and love of Christ will show thru. Lead with our hearts, Bible and the Lord.

    1. That’s a great point about “take a breath and pray”, Peggy. I’ve edited the post to reflect that. I’m really grateful for people like you who use your talents to bless smaller churches like you do. Thank you so much.

  4. I have a church of 40 active members–working to get to 50. In a Leadership Journal article you mentioned your church went form 75 to 400 and dropped–what caused the growth; what caused the decline?
    Lamar Black, Pastor
    South Burleson Baptist Church
    Burleson Tx

    1. Hi Lamar. That’s a good question that needs a very long answer. Longer than I can do in this comment box. I wrote the entire story out in my book, The Grasshopper Myth. But I’ve also written pieces of the story in a couple of articles, including two that are excerpts from my book.

      Here are the links to those articles. I hope they help answer your question.

      And here’s the link to buy my book, if you want the full story. (Not trying to to be pushy, but it’s a long story that needs a book to tell right)

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