Horizontal Hostility: What Is It, Why Is It Killing the Church, and How to Fix It

Horizontal hostility is a sociological phenomenon used to describe infighting or factionalism within a minority movement. Rather than banding together, subgroups snipe and fight with each other.

It’s that weird thing that happens in small subcultures – when outsiders look in, they can’t believe the groups fighting each other. Some humorous examples would be:

  • Why do people who love Star Wars not get along with Star Trek fans?
  • Did you know that vegans can’t stand vegetarians because they haven’t gone “all the way”?
  • There are people within the Disney fan subculture who love Walt Disney World in Florida and refuse to go to Disneyland in California (and vice-versa)!
  • Within the motorcycle community, there are BMW bikers who would rather walk than ride a Harley Davidson (but don’t worry… the feeling is mutual).

To people outside these subcultures, these differences seem almost comical or trivial. But to the people in the midst of these communities, the differences are huge and define who they are. In fact, as these subcultures become more enthusiastic and entrenched in these turf wars, they end up looking more and more bizarre to the general public.

There are times when the consequences of horizontal hostility are even greater and have a deep impact on social change movements. For instance:

  • Heather Whitestone was the first Deaf Miss America; however, she was protested against by deaf groups because she uses oral English and not American Sign Language… she wasn’t “deaf enough” for her contemporaries. [ref]
  • Maria Hylton was the first African American Law Professor at Northwestern University and was protested against by the Northwestern Black Student Association because she was too light skinned and not considered “black enough”. [ref]

In recent years, this behavior has accelerated because it is now possible for these subgroups to self organize on the internet. The dark side of finding a community online is that groups can continue to splinter into smaller and more passionate subgroups, having even more stringent rules defining who’s in and who’s out.

This behavior is pervasive within the Church too, and it’s killing us.

The widespread impact of “horizontal hostility” on the Body of Christ is accelerating our collective irrelevance and paving the path toward the decline of the Church.

Unfortunately, it’s relatively easy to find examples of this behavior online. Even a quick search can find fresh examples of Christians within relatively similar communities of the evangelical Christian world sniping at someone else within our same community. Here are some examples:

All this arguing among ourselves would be interesting parlor conversation if the broader church was having widespread impact but it’s really the opposite that’s true. We don’t have that luxury anymore.

94% of churches are losing ground against the population growth of their communities.

By 2050, the percentage of the US population attending church is estimated to be half that of 1990. [ref]

The Church is caught in a dramatic downward spiral and rather than banding together, we’re scattering farther and farther apart. At the very moment when we need to see the commonality of our fellow Christ-following brothers and sisters, we’re actually fracturing into smaller and smaller subsets with decreasing impact and effectiveness.

Where are the unifying voices of the Church looking to find common ground among broader movements to build consensus and agreement toward the end of getting people to come into relationship with Jesus? Billy Graham unified a community of “progressive fundamentalists” who would go on to call themselves “evangelicals” and reach millions with the message of Jesus. [ref] They stood up against the fringe voices among themselves who wanted to divide and split hairs rather than accomplish their common desire to see people encounter Christ. Those days seem like distant faint memories or maybe even worse, like something off the Andy Griffith show from so many years ago.

Six Ways Horizontal Hostility Is Killing the Church

  • Stunted Discipleship // If we end up just gathering into communities of Christians who are just like us and believe like we presently believe, our spiritual growth will be stunted. We aren’t all the same and it’s actually in reveling in our differences that we see a full picture of what it means to follow Christ. The Holy Spirit is in all of us and I need to see how God is leading other Christ followers as a part of our own discipleship journey. “If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell?” 1 Corinthians 12:17
  • Shifted Focus // Picking on other churches is an easy and secondary target. It’s small leadership focusing on small issues. It’s taking our eyes off Christ’s final command to his first followers when he said “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” Acts 1:8. His last words to us need to be our first priority. Picking fights among ourselves distracts us from what we’re supposed to be doing.
  • Sideways Energy // If you have ever been attacked by another Christian, you know the feeling that ends up happening. It results in hours, days, even weeks of distracted conversations as you think through what is the best way to respond. It means that you end up having a bunch of thoughts wrestling through what your next response should be. Even if you end up deciding it’s not worth the effort to try to correct a brother or sister, you only reach that point after a tremendous amount of energy is exerted. Ironically, you didn’t instigate the issue, but it ends up negatively impacting your ability to work on what God is calling your church or ministry to do.
  • Echo Chamber // If you look around and everyone in your ministry looks and sounds the same, it’s time for you to change. The Body of Christ should be the most dynamic and diverse gathering in our communities. Horizontal hostility ends up forcing us into homogenous units that look increasingly strange to the outside world. Think about the last time you saw a religious group that all dressed and acted the same … how did that make you feel? Creeped out, right? The impact of this behavior will make our ministries blander and ultimately less effective in reaching out beyond ourselves.
  • Operational Drag // I was trying to think of a more lofty way to say this but it’s just a waste of resources. The effort required to define the line between who is in and who is out proves to be costly. The time, effort, and energy that you spend on this slows you down on your mission. It creates fuzziness in the people you are attempting to reach out to because rather than getting people to wrestle with where they are at with Jesus you are asking them to consider what they think about this other ministry. It’s a waste of effort.
  • SEO Impact // I led in a ministry that was falsely attacked online. Honestly, the claims were baseless and I think the people making them were really just bored and wanted to take us down a notch because of the growth and impact our ministry was making. It might seem like a trivial consideration, but the long term impact of those people’s posts and forum discussions lingered on for years in our ministry. It had real world impact as we interacted with suppliers, town officials, and vendors for years to come. We ended up needing to explain these false claims to people and I’m sure it negatively impacted our ability to get some ministry work done because of it. Search engines attempt to present a balanced view of an organization so negative stories like this quickly float up in the ratings and stick around for a long time. It might seem fun for you in the short term to take someone down a notch online, but if you love the message of Jesus, consider the long term impact those words are going to have on a brother or sister.

Can we stop thinking we’ve got it all figured out?

These verses haunt me as I think about people in church leadership. Look closely at what Jesus is saying here in this passage. I wish it were more obscure and hard to understand. The fact that it is so straightforward is what makes it so powerful.

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’” – Matthew 7:21-23

Jesus is saying that there are people who are going to have amazing ministries but they are somehow doing it apart from him.

That message should cause us all to walk humbly. If you read that and your mind jumps to other people who you think Jesus is talking about … repent. That’s a message for all of us to walk closely with the Lord and keep our relationship fastened to him tightly.

It’s not a weapon for you to lob at that other church across town. Seriously.

Four Ways Every Church Leader Can Fight Horizontal Hostility

  • Jesus // He’s our example from start to finish. Before you look to take on someone else ask yourself if what you are reflecting is the Spirit of Christ. In a world that is walking farther and farther away from God … is this what will help people see Jesus more clearly?
  • Befriend Church Leaders // Get outside your tribe. Find some Christ followers who aren’t like you. Get to know them. See them in their finest hour and celebrate with them. Get to know their dreams for the future. Pray for those dreams.
  • Publically Celebrate // The Kingdom of Christ is bigger than any of our individual expressions. It feels so strange to have to declare such a stunningly obvious thing like that. Take time in your services to celebrate what God is doing through other churches and ministries close to you. Bonus points for doing it for that church that people are leaving your church to go to.
  • Ignore the Arguments // Don’t be entrapped by this red meat. Don’t feed the trolls. Rise above this and move on. Be blissfully unaware of what people are talking about. Walk away when you’re with those other church leaders and they start to poke somebody else. Repent and ask for forgiveness if you’ve engaged in it.

I’d love to hear from you. Where do you see this at work? What am I missing? Where is my blind spot in this? How do I need to learn and grow?

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  1. This is spot on. Over and over, I’ve seen the very tribal nature of humanity undermine the Gospel as we decide who can participate and who can’t, who’s legitimate and who’s a heretic. We only want to hear our own opinions reflected back at us, and I can’t see how that will lead to transformation.

    1. Thanks Sandi!

      It’s so hard to fight the “tribal” nature of ourselves. I know I feel the pull to surround myself with people just like me. It’s encouraging to find people who are push back against that!

      – Rich

  2. Generally agree and have worked hard on my pastoral relationships across denominational and philosophical lines. As you’ve stated here, it is not “unity at all costs.” There are times when error should be called out.

    I’m trying to reconcile, though, the fact that you call some guys out for calling guys out. 😉

    1. I see what you did there. 😉 Nice.

      I love Harvest. Love what you guys have done to connect people to Jesus. Love how aggressive you are with church planting. Love how y’all raise up next generation leaders.

      – Rich

  3. Rich, what a wonderful article. I agree completely. I am tired of the in-fighting. Perhaps the church in the West needs a bit more persecution so that we don’t keep on fighting one another and focus on coming together as a family and fight the real enemy. Let’s keep our eyes on Jesus and stay humble. “Each of us has a thousand heresies.” I love my church community and the healthy True City movement in Hamilton. I need my brothers and sisters. I can’t do this alone.

  4. This article is a walking contradiction! It is basically calling out people who have wasted their time and the churches resources or “sideways energy” for calling people out on minor disagreements! But the “podcaster” cannot even realize that he is doing the same thing! Thus this article diffuses everything he has claimed! Bad logic here! This is like the person who says a person “it is wrong to judge” but fails to realize that he himself is judging! 🙂

  5. You ask some good questions! I agree that some things are just not worth fighting over and we should celebrate the God glorifying diversity within the Church. After all, aren’t all nations, tribes, peoples, and languages represented around the Throne of God? (Rev 7) Knowing however that “all” here is all without distinction (rather than all without exception), I wish you would have gone into more detail about when differences become so great that someone cannot even be considered a Christian! Can there be unity between a church who affirms biblical inerrancy, infallibility, and supreme authority and one who does not? Can there be unity between a church who claims Jesus is the only way to the Father and a church who holds multi-faith services? A hot button issue today is the question of whether or not there can be unity between a church who affirms same-sex marriage (on the basis of rejecting Paul’s writings for example) and gender fluidity and one that does not. I want to be open to correction but would you not agree that at that point it’s not a matter of being “vegan enough” but a matter of a vegan eating a steak and still wanting to be called a vegan. At some point it is not simply infighting, it becomes battling heresy.

    We need discernment when to rebuke and even judge in a godly way those who claim to be Christians but are making grievous errors in the faith! We are even being disobedient if we fail to do this (1 Cor 5:12)

    Curious as to your thoughts on that Rich!

  6. There is a lot to like in this article and a lot to like about the argument for small ‘c’ catholicity in general. I particularly resonate with the call to develop friendships with people from other camps within the Christian clan – people like John Newton, Billy Graham and J.I. Packer model how the gift of friendship can do a great deal to advance understanding and promote Gospel unity.

    That being said, there is a time to contend for the faith and our disagreements today are not all “secondary” in nature. Some of the progressives are giving away core doctrines of the church – the doctrine of Scripture and vicarious atonement. Its hard to see how those things can be safely ignored. What good is unity if it comes at the expense of Gospel essentials?

    On balance I think the viewpoint expressed here is perhaps too simplistic. The Bible itself offers a more nuanced approach: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven … a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up…a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak” (Ecclesiastes 3:1–7 ESV). The need of the hour is for discernment. We need leaders who know when to tear and when to sew, when to keep silent and when to speak. God help us all!

  7. Thanks Rich. I found there was generally less infighting when we served on mission in France, as the Church there knew that it was a small minority of the overall population. Over 21 years in France, we worked in & attended a variety of churches & denominations (Evangelical Free, Baptist, house church, Anglican, Reformed, Hillsong). There were a few groups that felt like they were “the only ones,” but this was less common.

    If we are serious about contextualizing the Gospel to those on the margins, then we do risk syncretism. There is a need for theological reflection & openness to criticism by others. This is hard, especially if the criticism isn’t done in a positive way. And in the end, we may feel that we’re still doing the right thing and need to just let the criticism slide off.

    When we do see a problem in another’s ministry, any criticism should be done first in private, assuming & praying for the best, with humility & self-examination as to our motivation in feeling we need to do this. Are we criticizing out of jealousy of their success? We might not have understood completely or seen correctly the situation. Some of what is out there publicly should have first been a private conversation. With blogs & the Internet, this becomes even more of a problem if we are shooting each other publicly without following the Matthew 18:15-20 teaching of Jesus.

    1. I agree with this response. This area calls for Spirit- led wisdom and sensitivity, and often there is a cross to be borne, as was true in the life of our Lord Jesus. The immediacy of social media magnifies effects of impulsive communication. The tipping point can occur between the writing of a message and the sending of the message. Slowing that whole process could help. It takes time, Prayer, and reflection. When in doubt, don’t send yet. Ultimately we are responsible for our own motives and actions, and their impacts. If they are pristine, they may not be recognized as such. The challenge is to do all we can to clarify and persuade for the glory of God and the good of people. After that, things are in Gods hands, who sees and understands everything. We must trust His heart of love and justice. His ways are just and true. I think of the silence of Christ when accused and on trial.

  8. Great article… I was an atheist who was miraculously saved in 1986…I used to sing the song by Tony Elenberg called “We Are One” from back then…

  9. Hi Rich.

    I followed your article from and wanted to drop you a comment.

    I loved this article! I grew up in the Assemblies of God tradition and as I’ve discovered other viewpoints I’ve realized just how different we can read things.

    I’ve had to step away from the institutional church while I sort things out. Some of my current thoughts would be seen as heretical by almost all traditions in Christendom and I don’t want to make anyone stumble.

    From my perspective it would be helpful if the church fostered a “belong first, then belief.”

    I would rather see the church embrace love as the foundation, use the content of someone’s character as a mark of their maturity in Christ, and keep the discussion open for doctrine.

    It seems to if doctrine is the community’s foundation rather than relationship and love, when someone changes their opinion on something the foundation crumbles and they have to leave the community.

    It leaves no possibility of being wrong or growing in understanding.

    That’s what I see…

    Be blessed!

  10. I appreciate the word here. I agree with the premise. I just read a book by Rainer that says 9 out of 10 churches are losing ground in their communities. I think some churches have lost their mission. With that being said, I would be considered a conservative evangelical, maybe a fundamentalist by some.

    My only concern is standing where we should stand. I think we would do better to reach the world by coming together on the Gospel, but sometimes we divide simply because there are gospel issues to divide over. A good example from my perspective is marriage, pro-life issues, racial equality, some social justice issues (not all are all gospel issues), etc.

    My only question is this. If I could ask it too respectively online. Wouldn’t it be better to figure out first what to divide over and what to unite on? Or maybe to consider Al Mohler’s theological triage? That is, consider what is fundamental and what is secondary. From there, we could consider how to unite?

    I appreciate the four takeaways. Many pastors would do better by simply coming together and getting to know each other.

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Rich Birch
Rich Birch is one of the early multi-site church pioneers in North America. He led the charge in helping The Meeting House in Toronto to become the leading multi-site church in Canada with over 5,000+ people in 18 locations. In addition, he served on the leadership team of Connexus Church in Ontario, a North Point Community Church Strategic Partner. He has also been a part of the lead team at Liquid Church - a 5 location multisite church serving the Manhattan facing suburbs of New Jersey. Liquid is known for it’s innovative approach to outreach and community impact. Rich is passionate about helping churches reach more people, more quickly through excellent execution.His latest book Church Growth Flywheel: 5 Practical Systems to Drive Growth at Your Church is an Amazon bestseller and is design to help your church reach more people in your community.