There are many different kinds of churches. You probably know that I am a proponent for integrity in the Church, seeking reconciliation toward unity instead of the usual process of continuous fragmentation. Therefore, feel compelled to add that there are too many different kinds of churches. But we can have that discussion some other time. There is a more essential point I hope we can consider here.
But first, let me ask: what kind of church are you? Does that seem like a strange question? Let me explain for just a moment.
I recall it being Ron Frost (Ron is an educator with Barnabas International and one of our special presenters during doctoral studies at Multnomah Biblical Seminary.) who first suggested to me that individual Christians are just as much church as are any group of Christians congregating in any number of churches. We each represent the body of Christ, and are each responsible for responding as the body of Christ. We are also responsible to congregate together, so please do not mistake me for advocating some sort of isolated religious practice that could be accurately called “Christian.” But even as we consider the various kinds of churches, please understand that I am asking what kind of church you are.
Several Kinds of Church: Governing Structures
In order to accomplish the tasks of vision-setting, decision-making, and ministry operations, there are three primary structures churches employ. Where decisions are centralized in a hierarchy of individuals fulfilling these functions, it is called an episcopal structure. (Which is not necessary limited to the Episcopal Church, a name applied to some offshoots of the Anglican Church or The Church of England.) This term, from episkopos in the Greek, means that there is one key person responsible to over (epi) see (skopos) the life and ministry of a given congregation. Where groups of mature Christians serve this function together, the term used is presbyterian, from the Greek presbyteros, or “elder.” (Again, this applies to other denominations that those which use the word Presbyterian in their titles.) When the tasks of vision, decisions, and ministry are discussed and decided by all those who gather in a given local organization, that form of “church government” is referred to as congregational.
Many congregations and denominations employ some combination of these structures, with varying leaders or groups of leaders in specific areas of ministry. But one form or another usually dominates most of any particular church’s function.
Many More Kinds of Church: Ministry Emphasis & Personality
So, are there just three kinds of churches? No. In addition to a variety of governing structures, churches pursue differing characteristics as their primary mood, ministry purpose, or perceived personality. For example, in most communities there are churches that openly advertise themselves as being the simple church, or the easy church. There are exciting churches, happy churches, and friendly churches, and not only are there significant differences among them, it can be frustrating to discover only months into your attendance that what you thought was a friendly church is intolerant of anyone who fails to fit the happy-Christian mold.
It is not merely mood and personality that determines the character of a local church. Some Christians gravitate toward a dogmatically-exclusive church, while others seek out a tolerantly-inclusive church. Of course, either of these might also be a politically-active congregations but pursuing very different platforms.
Again, there are hybrids here, just as with governing structures. Among the congregants in any one place, you will find different reasons for choosing the same body to which they choose to belong. But the children’s ministry church, the youth group church, the singles’ studies church, and the senior citizens’ road-trip church tend to be more uniform in composition. Still, there can be a surprising range of ages, socio-economic levels, and other demographic categories found in community-service churches, theological debate churches. And all this may be irrelevant to those who define their Christian experience by the musical styles of their worship team. Those, of course, range from classically-trained flamboyance in hymn-accompaniment, through grunge-rock mystical mumblings, to what one astute observer referred to as her church’s version of “The Country Bear Jamboree.”
Two Key Categories of Church
No matter what governing structure is implemented, nor what emphasis or personality results, each ministry in every local congregation falls into one of two categories.
The first is more prevalent. Usually, whatever the governing structure may be, there are distinct decisions about what that gathering of Christians will do in order to serve the purposes they believe God has called them to fulfill. They then pursue any number of activities they believe are appropriate to the task, and they pray that God will bless their investments and fulfill their expectations with the appropriate results. The temptation to pursue specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and timed (SMART) objectives usually leads to counting “nickels and noses,” evaluating ministry-success in terms of “butts in the pew and bucks in the plate.”
Consider for a moment, though, that even if the way we keep score were to change, other aspects of that first category’s description might still require some revision. Several improvements may come to your mind. But the first and foremost among them is what, in keeping with E.M. Bounds’ chapter, “A Praying Ministry Successful,” points to the foundational perspective and essential activity of churches in the second category. This second category contrasts distinctly with churches whose leaders define their objectives of success, set goals along a path toward those objectives, make ministry-shaping decisions along the way, and pray for God to bless their efforts.
As Bounds writes, where the objectives of success is “holiness” as evidenced in “transfigured hearts and lives,” it is not in the board room, but in the prayer closets of a church’s leaders (whether one, some, or all members of the congregation are considered such). What brings about these results? It is that “their prayers entered into and shaped their characters; they so prayed as to affect their own lives and the lives of others; they so prayed as to make the history of the Church and influence the current of the times.”
Still Just One Kind of Christian
Three major forms of governing structure, unlimited and ever-growing types of personalities, and myriad minutiae of doctrine over which we divide from one another—there are so many ways to categorize the (too) many kinds of churches that you and I may choose to be. But what Jesus promises to the two or three gathered in His name, agreeing together in prayer, is still available today. For whatever other adjectives you think may properly modify “Christian” (usually a denominational or traditional identifier), would there be greater unity in the body and greater effectiveness in our ministry together if the main distinction could be that we are “Praying Christians?”
Perhaps, but I hope we would never call ourselves that. I object to so many other adjectives on the grounds that they serve primarily to define divisions among Christians. But I will critique this one for a completely different reason: redundancy. If we claim that being a Christian means having a relationship with God through Christ, and that where there is a relationship there must be conversation, then why would the idea that Christians are praying need to be emphasized. We are praying, or we are not Christians. So, why are we not praying together?