American Pickers is a television series about a couple of guys who own an antiques business in Iowa. They travel around the United States digging through old barns, attics, warehouses, and just about any other imaginable place where things accumulate in order to find items for resale. They buy and sell everything from old cars and motorcycles to old toys and signs. I enjoy watching it from time to time because some of the places they “pick” remind me of my grandparents’ home in Texas, a place I loved to explore when I visited as a child. Recently, while watching the program, my son Joseph grinned and said that someone needs to make a show called American Nitpickers. I told him that I was going to have to borrow that title, and he said that was fine as long as I gave him credit for thinking of it. So, a tip of the hat to Joey for the title.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines a nitpicker as “a pedantic critic; one who searches for and over-emphasizes trivial errors.” Before proceeding any further, let me clarify by mentioning a few things that, in my opinion, certainly do not qualify to be dismissed as nitpicking. It is not nitpicking to desire and expect excellence in your own work and the work of others. It is certainly not nitpicking to point out mistakes when people’s lives are on the line. If a supervisor at an airline maintenance facility discovers that an employee has made an error that would result in catastrophic engine failure if not corrected, the supervisor is not being nitpicky. Note again that the definition of a nitpicker involves trivial errors.
It is also not nitpicking to seek precision in our understanding of Scripture. Some people, even many professing Christians, would relegate all theological debate and criticism to the category of nitpicking. They consider most or all differences over biblical interpretation and Christian doctrine and practice to be trivial. It doesn’t matter what you believe about God or Jesus Christ or the atonement or justification, they say. What matters is that we tolerate one another. Of course, if the Bible were merely a human book and if God did not exist, they would be correct. However, if God is who He reveals Himself to be (and He is), and if Scripture is His inspired Word (and it is), then we need to think twice and then think again before treating His self-revelation so flippantly. Seeking clarity and precision in biblical interpretation and theology is not nitpicking because when God speaks, it is not trivial. Nitpicking is searching for and pointing out trivial errors. While some theological errors are more significant than others, none are trivial, because all theological errors concern God in some way.
In short, recognizing and pointing out important errors is not nitpicking. The question I would like to consider is this: Do we ever encounter nitpicking in the church? A better way for each of us to ask this would be, Do I ever engage in nitpicking in regard to the church? Before you answer the question, try a thought experiment. Imagine that you found out someone had secretly placed a recording device in your car and had recorded your conversations every Sunday on the way home from church. Imagine they had a year’s worth of recordings. Now ask yourself whether you would want anyone to hear those conversations. Would you want your pastor to hear those conversations?
Perhaps you would have nothing to be embarrassed about. But I imagine some of us would be mortified if we knew the pastor would hear all those conversations. Why? Because of our tendency to nitpick trivial issues regarding the sermon, or the music, or the announcements. You name it; we can find something to complain about it. Again, I’m not referring to critical and thoughtful reflection on a sermon or questions about it. That is not nitpicking. Nor am I speaking of a situation in which the preacher made a serious theological error. Talking about that would not be nitpicking. I’m referring to a habitual practice of finding something unimportant to complain and gripe about.
I believe that our tendency to nitpick at everything related to the Sunday morning worship service may be related to our hyper-consumerist culture. In this culture, the mantra is: The customer is always right. We seem to have taken this way of thinking and applied it to the church. We sometimes approach the church as consumers rather than as worshipers. We go church shopping and end up church hopping when the make and model of the church isn’t to our satisfaction. We walk into the sanctuary running our finger over the pew searching for dust rather than searching our hearts for sin and repenting in dust and ashes. We attend to the service the way we might attend to a film or concert and go home criticizing everything we didn’t like about the “performance.” We become nitpickers.
A particular focus of this nitpicking attitude is often the pastor. We criticize him for everything imaginable. His sermon was too long. His sermon was too short. He talks about the original languages too much. He talks about the original languages too little. He spends too much time on doctrine and doesn’t focus enough on practical application. He spends too much time on practical application and doesn’t focus enough on doctrine. His hair is too long. His tie is too short. His kids are too fidgety; he must not discipline them at home. His kids behave too well; he must be a tyrant at home. And so on. If the pastor doesn’t become the focal point of our criticism, then it’s the music, or the choir, or the way the bread and wine are distributed in the Lord’s Supper.
Most people have no idea how difficult the work of a pastor is. Whatever you might think, a pastor doesn’t work for an hour on Sunday and then spend the rest of the week lounging around the pool. If you were to accompany a pastor for a week, you would likely leave stunned and exhausted. Rather than nitpick our pastors to death, let us pray for them instead. Let us pray for our pastors who put in hours and hours preparing for Sunday morning, all the while they are visiting homes and hospitals, counseling those dealing with all manner of problems and leading their own families. Let us also pray for those who put in untold hours preparing and cleaning the sanctuary and for those who put in untold hours preparing and practicing music. Let us pray for our brothers and sisters with whom we will gather to worship. And if we are going to criticize, let us start with ourselves. Let us take the beam out of our own eye before nitpicking at the specks in everyone else’s eyes.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on June 19, 2020.