Be A Toothpicker Not A Nitpicker

Criticism Makes Us Better People

Being Only Positive, Only Negative
or Only Neutral
Is Not Constructive

This is the second sermon in our “Stick” series in which sticks are used to illustrate things we should do or be as a church. The first sermon used “Chopsticks” to illustrate the functionality of the church. It emphasized the importance of each member’s committed effort in the work a church does.

Chopsticks work well only with coordination and practice and the same is true with church members.

This sermon, however, uses toothpicks to illustrate the importance of constructively critical interaction between the members. To do better we must get better. A toothpick symbolizes the decent and appropriate approach to finding and removing flaws.

So, the first message focused on function and the second focuses on relation.

To keep the picture clear it is important to start with a few passages of Scripture. We are talking about the church so it is important to have an idea what the Bible says about this organization.

That makes sense. Church is not my idea or your idea or just a good idea, it is God’s idea so we need to know what He says about it.

So let’s take a look.

The Church Is Functional

In Matthew chapter 16 and verses 19 and 20 Jesus was speaking to His disciples – core members of the church He started – and He said:

I will build my church (you guys), and the gates of hell will not prevail against it (you). 19 I will give you (the church) the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

There are a couple of interesting observations to take away from this passage.

  • One, Jesus is the one building the church.

We, the church members, work but Jesus is ultimately the leader and builder. He makes things work together for our good. He does what we can’t do and brings about outcomes that we might not otherwise realize.

As builders with Christ we must be faithful, committed and determined to do our best but Jesus is in the lead. It’s kind of a paradox. He does the building but not without us. He works through people and for them.

  • Two, this passage resonates with delegated authority and personal responsibility.

Jesus is the builder but we have the “keys” to the kingdom. The person with keys is trusted. God designates which doors are to be opened but “key” people unlock them. That’s power!

Simply put, having the keys means we are authorized to make decisions, initiate action and perform functions – binding and loosing. And to say we are authorized to do this means we are accountable if we don’t. Sitting around doing nothing is not an appropriate response to a passage like this.

The Church Is Interactive

That brings us to a second important passage. In Matthew chapter 18 verses 18 through 20 Jesus, again speaking to His disciples, said:

I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19 “Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.

The phrase “agree about anything” is significant. It speaks of a talking-discussing-debating-arguing process, which may last a while but eventually ends in agreement. Members of the group share ideas and other members ask questions until they understand exactly what is being suggested, why it is important and how it fits into the overall vision/purpose of the church. The goal is mutual agreement followed by appropriate action.

And when churches follow that process, Jesus guarantees to do two things:

He will be with the members in the discussion process, even if there are only two, and once they agree on a course of action, He will bless the effort.

This talking, discussing and debating process is probably the one area where churches fail the most. Heck, this is where many organizations fail. Strong dominant leaders don’t allow much room for discussion and this is not an art that comes naturally. It must be learned.


Later in the New Testament, to the same group of disciples, Jesus said:

Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. (Mark 16:15)

I mention this because this statement gives us the over arching point of our effort, the goal, the target. Everything a church does must somehow flow toward that mark, reaching everyone with the Gospel.

What Affirms You

Now, lets take a different direction.

I want to ask a question that may seem a little out of place here but indulge me for a moment. There is a point.

What makes you feel good about yourself?

Do you have a sense of self worth because you’re:

  • Smarter than those around you
  • Better looking than everyone around you
  • Have more money than most people
  • Or have a bigger house, better clothes, more friends and better than average abilities.

Don’t get excited if any of those points describe you. Those advantages are not solid reasons to feel good about yourself and not having them is a poor reason to feel badly about yourself.

So, what is it that makes people feel good about themselves?

Well, chopsticks and toothpicks can help achieve a sense of self worth if principles are implemented properly. In the chopstick message, we emphasized the dynamics of group functionality. Church members work together, much like a team, to accomplish predetermined goals and each participant derives a sense of self worth from that experience.

But is that all there is to it? Is there something more to consider?

The Most Important Ability

The question we need to ask now is, what makes a team successful? What enables a team to continue growing, getting better and reaching even more significant goals in the future? It’s a good question. They don’t all succeed in this sense even when they reach certain preliminary goals.

The answer has nothing to do with ability or privilege. The members of the group do need ability but is natural ability the most important component of success? Can being highly capable, super intelligent, astoundingly beautiful or enormously wealthy automatically make a group successful?

No. Those things help, but the most important ability is the ability to get along with others and there is nothing natural about it. That ability enables the group to work through misunderstandings and disagreements. Agreeing to disagree is not the point. This ability focuses on understanding fully what everyone is thinking and seeing how an idea could be implemented effectively.

It doesn’t matter where an idea comes from. What matters is how a group handles an idea once it is aired.

We all want the same thing but it may take time, effort and a little friction to figure out what it is. Successful groups thrive so much on the areas of agreement they forget about the disagreements.

A Culture Of Mutual Benefit And Progress

Now, let’s change directions again. The following statement describes the working culture of a highly successful company, W. L. Gore & Associates. As you read, answer the question, “does this sound like any church I’ve attended?”

How Gore works sets us apart. Since the company was founded in 1958, we have been a team-based, flat lattice organization that fosters personal initiative. There are no traditional organizational charts, no chains of command, nor predetermined channels of communication.

Instead, we communicate directly with each other and are accountable to fellow members of our multi-disciplined teams. We encourage hands-on innovation, involving those closest to a project in decision making. Teams organize around opportunities and leaders emerge. This unique kind of corporate structure has proven to be a significant contributor to associate satisfaction and retention.

We work hard at maximizing individual potential, maintaining an emphasis on product integrity, and cultivating an environment where creativity can flourish. A fundamental belief in our people and their abilities continues to be the key to our success.

How does all this happen? Associates (not employees) are hired for general work areas. With the guidance of their sponsors (not bosses) and a growing understanding of opportunities and team objectives, associates commit to projects that match their skills. All of this takes place in an environment that combines freedom with cooperation and autonomy with synergy.

Everyone can earn the credibility to define and drive projects. Sponsors help associates chart a course in the organization that will offer personal fulfillment while maximizing their contribution to the enterprise. Leaders may be appointed, but are defined by ‘followership.’ More often, leaders emerge naturally by demonstrating special knowledge, skill, or experience that advances a business objective.

Associates adhere to four basic guiding principles articulated by the founder:

  • Fairness to each other and everyone with whom we come in contact.
  • Freedom to encourage, help, and allow other associates to grow in knowledge, skill, and scope of responsibility.
  • The ability to make one’s own commitments and keep them.
  • Consultation with other associates before undertaking actions that could impact the reputation of the company.

Obviously, Gore has a different vision to a church but their rules of engagement, the way they interrelate, can be used by any group. And it certainly doesn’t disagree with the Bible.

Do you think this describes any church you have attended?

Now, lets take as a good church vision or purpose statement the following:

  • Our purpose is to bring God to people and people to God.

That statement agrees with commission Jesus gave the church. The question is how could any church achieve that objective as an individual group?

Well, at the minimum, the people in a given church will have to do and be better to make progress. Gore’s culture statement describes an environment in which everyone is encouraged to grow, change, become better, more useful people and they are successful because of it. Surely that should be true for church also.

How Do Churches Initiate Growth

However, what do churches normally do to achieve success?

They go out and see what other churches are doing and copy that. That’s not entirely bad and it is the easiest approach to take but the individuals may be forcing themselves into preexisting molds that don’t fit. Not a good way to feel good about yourself.

A second approach is for the church to look inside their own community to see what mix of abilities and talents they have and figure out how to use it effectively.

Copying other churches is easy but allowing individual talents and perspectives within the church to shape ministries is much more fulfilling. That’s a good feeling to have. Takes longer but is much more rewarding in the end.

What is it a church needs to do to achieve the “Gore” kind of atmosphere? One in which people develop and fruit bearing ministries emerge. Two things. Simply put, they are:

  1. Communicate.
  2. Allow for Constructive self-criticism. Keep your toothpick handy.


Admittedly, communication is not easy. Church members see each other rarely and when they do, a public speaker does most of the talking. The communication may be good but it isn’t interactive. It is one person’s idea only and it may raise many questions that weren’t answered simply because they were never asked.

Larger churches solve the communication problem by having a core number of people offer, assess and implement all the ideas. As long as results are forthcoming, no complaints. Large or not, however, churches need to find effective ways of engaging a broad representation of members in the thinking process.

This can cause problems. Sharing and assessing ideas is a learning process, meaning it requires patience. The person who shares a “good” idea doesn’t always articulate it clearly. And even when the idea is clearly not right, the one offering the idea must be allowed to see how “not right” it is rather than dismissing it out of hand.

And for ideas that aren’t clearly understood initially the only decent thing to do is ask enough questions to figure it out before accepting or rejecting. That takes time but will generate a lot of comradery in the process.

Constructive Criticism

The job isn’t done once an idea is accepted. A plan to implement it must be formulated, practiced and reworked to get it right. The reworking part is the result of critical analysis. Figuring out what works and what doesn’t and making adjustments. It sometimes becomes personal but it is a learning process. We have to learn to give and take constructive criticism without offense.

Constructive criticism has several downsides.

  • Some people offer only praise.

They never see or acknowledge anything negative. The absence of negative feedback is good if you’re talking about a six year old’s performance in a school play but adults won’t believe it. Being incurably nice is not a good way to make progress.

  • Some people offer only criticism.

Even if 80% of a performance is good and only 20% is bad, only the bad is verbalized. Building on the positives is the best way to correct the bad but unfortunately Mr. Negative doesn’t’ understand that. Additionally, the obsessively critical aren’t very constructive. Everything is “just wrong.” You can’t do much with that.

  • Some people offer nothing at all, there’s no reaction.

The answer is to encourage feedback, teaching the overly positive to be honest about the negative and the overly negative to turn their message of rejection into a recommendation for making things better. Detail, detail, detail. The more detail there is, the less personal it becomes.

Everyone wants the same thing. Keep asking questions until you discover what that is. Nitpicking is not nice. Toothpicking is essential. Carry one with you always and use it carefully, wisely, gently on yourself and others. Your church will be better for it.


Heaven Is For Real is a bio of a “near death” experience (NDE) but without all the “weird” and “sketchy” images that usually accompany such stories.

This story is different in that it doesn’t focus on “long tunnels with lights at the end” or the sensation of watching medical personnel feverishly operate from a hovering out-of-body perspective. It is a matter of fact story shared from the perspective of an almost four-year-old child who had no preconceived ideas and explains everything casually. To him it wasn’t strange.

“90 Minutes in Heaven” is a true story that covers 15 years of Don Piper’s life and is best described as a tragedy with an unusual twist. We know what is happening in Don’s life now and where his journey eventually ends.

What is surprising is the beginning.


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