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Perhaps recognizing that every church should not be the same is the best way to begin this discussion. It would be sad if all churches were identical because people, cultures, regions, trends, and eras differ. The devastating effect of multiculturalism is the belief that you can bring the world together as one collective, and we will get along. This worldview defies the purpose of God confounding the languages in Genesis 11, as well as the total depravity of humanity, kicking off in Genesis 3:6. God does not want us to think and act as one because we cannot be trusted to play well with each other. Trying to create heaven on earth is the errand of fools. The wise person recognizes the upside of diversity, that we are different, and segmenting ourselves off from—certain—others is wise. Even our dating apps have compatibility assessments because they know people polarize.
However, finding a good local church that meets a Christian’s season of life, family dynamics, and preferences can be challenging. Because our preferences are so broad, it would be impossible for one church to accommodate all the flavors the core membership desires, though there are non-negotiables: the gospel is front and center (Philippians 1:15-18; Galatians 1:8-9). Sound theology is another vital need that no biblical church can survive without. A church should continually grow in their theological precision. Perhaps you would add humble, Christ-emulating, non-lording shepherds to your list of non-negotiables. Most everything else is a preference.
Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock (1 Peter 5:2-3).
I have listed six of the more typical church styles. I will assume all of them preach the gospel, lean toward theological precision, and are led by humble shepherds. They all have their place in the Christian landscape, though you will probably prefer one over the other, depending on your walk with God, your season of life, and what you consider more preferential in a local church.
The seeker church is a group that desires a relevant connection to its culture and proximate communities. To do this, it learns how to cater to the culture’s palate. Some have even surveyed the culture to create what they like within the church environment. These churches have drawing power if they do their homework. Many people enjoy this kind of church life. The upside is they are excellent on the front end, drawing people to the church to give them the gospel. The downside is that they overemphasize relating to their culture, which weakens their theological education and practical equipping of its members. The people can be deficient in living out progressive sanctification to a great extent. If the seeker church endures, it will plateau quickly because the learning environments and expectations for holiness have a low ceiling. Because spiritual stagnation is common, the back door will become as busy as the front door as folks who want to mature will leave, creating a transient environment of unregenerate, nominal, novice, and growing believers left behind.
One of the most popular kinds of church is comprised of people burned out by a former less desirable church experience. This demographic seeks something different from their pasts and gravitates toward a refreshing, vibrant church culture. People from heretical church environments or legalistic cultures are perfect for this kind of church. They recognized the heresy or grew weary of the restrictive legalism. A church like this will make much of grace, even to their detriment. If you ask them why they attend their church, you will hear repeated themes:
Nearly all of the good things they say are framed in comparative language—aligning their current church experience with their past experience. They love the do-over opportunity because their former church experience became a heavy yoke that accelerated joylessness, even tempting them to sin by grumbling, judging, cynicism, and despair. Their new church moves the theological needle more toward soundness than cultural relevance or legalistic smothering. The people typically have more Bible knowledge but have difficulty letting go of the past. You can take the fundamentalist out of fundamentalism, but it’s hard to remove the characteristics of fundamentalism from the expat.
Some churches do a fantastic job reaching the lost locally and globally. They want to go into the world with the gospel and do it exemplarily. As you leave their auditoriums, you may read a sign that says, “You are now entering the mission field.” Like seeker and do-over churches, they focus more on the outward mission field than the inward mission field of each member’s heart. The seeker relates to their pagan culture but is weak in maturing within the church. The do-over group relates well to the burned-out religious people but is also weak in discipleship. The evangelistic folks know how to win people to Christ but are not so good with sanctification issues. In each of these demographics, you’ll notice a reactionary attitude among them. The backward look to where they came from continues to manage them as they move on with their lives.
These ministry-minded people are busy doing everything for their community and the world. Like ants scurrying around an ant hill, these Christians know how to get things done for Jesus. I am not talking about a social gospel. These are missional Christians who are on a genuine quest for Jesus. The leadership is adept at providing ministry opportunities for their people. All you need is a burden to start your unique ministry. If the church does not have a ministry that matches your burden, they will figure out how to spin you up because they want the world to know about Jesus. Ministries are portals to reach the world. The downside is similar to the previously mentioned sanctification problems with the other models. This group is too busy to slow down to do expert soul care. They are ministry-minded, even to the detriment of their marriages and families. Character does not rank high when they assess a person for ministry duties. You can be an unkind spouse or ill-equipped parent and still lead a ministry. A person’s passion for ministry carries more weight than Christlike character qualifications.
This people group loves to study their Bibles. They have an endless supply of Bible studies for every demographic within the church. Knowledge is king. They are correct that being theologically sound is the essential prerequisite to growing in sanctification. The downside is that growing in sanctification requires more than Bible knowledge. They do not match their penchant for the Bible with an equal, appropriate, and practical application of the Bible. One of the more incongruent things with many Christians, who know a lot about the Bible, is they do not know how to walk a person, or even themselves, through critical sanctification issues. The gulf between what they know and how to practically apply it to a struggling person’s life can be broad. Like the previous models, eventually, you are tempted to leave this kind of environment because you want practical help that transforms lives. Building taller silos to store more Bible knowledge is not the answer when your life, marriage, family, or community is spiraling into ever-increasing dysfunction.
Disciplemakers are probably the rarest group because it is the most challenging aspect of our religion to accomplish. Creating contexts where people are honest, transparent, intrusive, humble, compassionate, courageous, and able to practicalize the gospel into personal problems and situational challenges is a bridge too far for many churches. To take a couple, a single, or a teen through relational difficulty in the context of a local church is the exception rather than the rule. Our inability to replicate Christ in people’s lives is perplexing in light of Peter and Paul’s expectations for God’s Word. (See 2 Peter 1:3-4; 2 Timothy 2:2, 3:16-17.) The Lord’s intent for sanctification is to happen in a community of competent and compassionate Christlike disciple-makers. The downside of this group is that it may lead to ingrown stagnation if it does not do some of the things the other groups are doing. However, this model best represents a New Testament church because it preaches sound theology and creates equipping contexts to apply it within the milieus of the local church. If it also reaches its community and the world, it’s as good as a church can be.
Which one do you like? If you are like me, I suspect you enjoy a combination of all the models. You want to be biblically relevant. Jesus was. You want to be evangelistic, missional, and ministry-minded, for sure. You also want to grow in your faith. These are all good things for a local body, so how do you decide? If the gospel is correct and the theology is precise, what kind of imperfect church will you call home? Factoring imperfection into your church experience is essential. If you do not, you will be disappointed. All local churches are full of imperfect people. The whole is a collection of its parts. If the parts are unclean, which they are, the whole will experience traces of uncleanness. To expect otherwise will tempt the Christian to leave their church for the wrong reasons. Say this aloud: there is no perfect church. If the gospel is sound, if the theological depth is deepening, if the imperfections are not too glaring, if transformation is happening, one of the most important questions you can ask regarding the church you want to attend is, “Who do I want to shepherd me?”
Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are watching your souls as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not groaning, for that would be useless to you (Hebrews 13:17).
The church you attend will reflect its lead pastor in many ways. His life and vision will be the primary imprint, unfolding into a combination of the models presented. The question for you is whether or not you can follow him as he follows Christ while accepting the vision he believes is suitable for this local assembly. His vision will directly and practically impact your life and those under your responsibility. Perhaps thinking through the shepherding question with these questions will assist. Who do you want to follow? Who do you want to affect you? Who do you want to influence your spouse, children, and friends? Let’s say you are married, and your spouse has a relational or situational difficulty. Can your shepherd shepherd you? Does your shepherd know how to provide care for you and your spouse?
Suppose you have a teenager who is struggling with sin. Can your youth leader/pastor walk you and your child through this challenging season? Who do you call when you need a practical shepherd’s care? The church should reach the lost and create ministry portals so more people can hear the good news about Jesus. The church must be a sanctification hospital for its members. If the church cannot care for its wounded, those who march under that church’s banner are in the wrong place. It would be like a company saying, “We can do [such and such] for you.” After you buy their product, you realize they cannot fulfill their promises. Your salvation is much more than being born again. Regeneration is the beginning of your journey with God and others. If your best efforts get people in the door but cannot provide practical sanctification care, you must re-evaluate your priorities and your local church.
Rick launched the Life Over Coffee global training network in 2008 to bring hope and help for you and others by creating resources that spark conversations for transformation. His primary responsibilities are resource creation and leadership development, which he does through speaking, writing, podcasting, and educating.
In 1990 he earned a BA in Theology and, in 1991, a BS in Education. In 1993, he received his ordination into Christian ministry, and in 2000 he graduated with an MA in Counseling from The Master’s University. In 2006 he was recognized as a Fellow of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC).