4 Kinds of Churches
Churches come in all shapes, styles, and sizes, and we should not judge churches based on such trivial matters as these. But that is not to say that all churches are equal. Quite the contrary, not all churches are equal, as can be seen by reading Jesus’ scathing reviews of seven churches in Revelation 2 and 3. The reality is that some churches are better than others, but the question is, how can we evaluate that?
Here I propose one model of evaluation. It is not the model, but hopefully it is a helpful model in terms of simplicity and usefulness. I am suggesting that we judge churches based on three different categories of Christian life, and how those three categories relate to each other. These categories first came to me from Mark Yarhouse, though I am not sure if they are his idea or taken from elsewhere. Nevertheless, it has helped me think through what makes churches stack up so differently from one another.
Category #1 – Believe
True Christianity is comprised in part of true doctrine. To be a believer, one must necessarily believe certain things. This is one category of Christian living.
Category #2 – Behave
True Christianity also contains a set of moral standards for our behaviour. It is not enough to just believe the right things, because our actions must line up with our knowledge. This is another category of Christian living.
Category #3 – Belong
Churches are by definition communities. They are partly social entities where relationships can and should be fostered. Having a church family is a necessary component of the Christian life.
Using these three categories and how they relate to one another, we can determine four basic kinds of churches and better understand how they function.
The Fundamentalist Church
behave –> belong
I use the word fundamentalist here in a negative sense. A fundamentalist church’s top priority is morality. They place a premium on Christian ethical standards and demand people live up to them—even if those people are not Christians. These are the churches that try to impose their moral views on the culture around them, and once people shape up, then they are permitted to be a part of the church. You belong only once you behave the way we demand. In many fundamentalist churches, whether or not someone actually believes the gospel is not that important. In fact, these churches don’t really seem to understand what the gospel is anyways. They are likened to the Pharisees of the New Testament, focused on external obedience and not inward renewal.
The Liberal Church
Liberal churches are really not that interested in doctrine. They usually follow the sway of culture when it comes to their beliefs and moral standards. All they really want is to create a place where anyone can belong. They are driven by relationships at the expense of truth and holiness. Their goal is not to make people feel welcome in order to share the gospel with them, as much as to make people feel comfortable for the sake of personal peace and happiness. The language of Christianity—Jesus, love, grace—is mainly a veneer to make it seem like biblical Christianity, when in reality it is not.
The Safe Church
behave –> believe –> belong
The safe church is truly interested in evangelism. They want people to receive the gospel and so be saved. The problem is that they are only willing to tolerate non-Christians who are already relatively moral people. If you are basically an upstanding citizen, then you are welcome within our walls. Once there, we aim for your conversion, at which point you really become one of us. But if you are someone who is inconvenient to love and don’t present an aura of respectability when you first show up, then you will find these churches a lot more reluctant to take on a messy challenge like the one you present.
The Missional Church
belong –> believe –> behave
The missional church, like the safe church, desires true conversion. But they are willing to bring among them people who are far from God right away, without any moral standards being imposed on them first. Missional churches are full of people you might never expect to be in church, because they are willing to accept you as you are in order to be one of them. But they also have no intention of letting you stay where you are; they want to see you repent of sin and come to faith in Christ, and then out of that genuine faith grow in a life of holiness. In other words, missional churches open their doors to anyone, trusting that God will, in his own timing, bring about true faith and a life of change.
I suppose that this 3-category model could help define several other types of churches. I also suppose that this model force-fits certain churches into overly-simplified characterizations that lack nuance. Any time to you try to simplify things, it will have limitations. Yet I have found that how churches relate the categories of belief, behaviour, and belonging is important and clarifying.
In my own estimation, the missional church is the closest model to biblical Christianity. Christ himself was often chastised for hanging out with social outcasts, the tax collectors and Pharisees of his day. He did this before they repented of sin, and before they believed on him for salvation. This means that we must give people a place to belong and forge relationships just as they are.
But Jesus wasn’t just into relationships for the sake of relationships. He had an end goal in mind. He desired their repentance and faith. He wanted people to be born-again and then walk in the new life that the Spirit had wrought in their hearts. And as best as I can tell, that means Jesus exemplified the model of belong –> believe –> behave. If I am accurate in my assessment, then I hope to be a part of a church that follows Christ’s lead. The term “missional” is disposable; it’s the concept that matters. But if missional is a word that captures the essence of the ministry of Jesus, then I hope to imitate it as best as I can and facilitate a church that does the same.