The following thought-provoking article was written by Rev. David Michel, District Superintendent of the Northeast District. It is being shared with you with his permission. (Thanks Dave!)
Years ago I read Lyle Schaeller’s suggestion that one identifying mark of a local church is which member of the Trinity they most embraced – Father, Son or Holy Spirit.
I believe there are other identifying characteristics that are perhaps as helpful – organizing for mission by size characteristics, demographic background of the people including ethnic and economic factors, and denominational background and theological heritage, although that one is fading. A church’s actual (not official) mission statement is also pretty compelling in forging an identity. But often that is related to the categories below, I think. And perhaps whether a church is IU or Purdue dominated, but that is another article.
But in my current role as a DS, as I travel around the churches (Acts 15:41) I sometimes note that the language, concerns, driving force, worship and hymns/songs of a church fall into a pattern around the Trinity. We discussed this during Cabinet once, and Bishop Mike commented that there is also a fourth member of the Trinity that shape some churches identity. And there might be a fifth, I think. (You have to read on.)
An issue where this is sometimes helpful: when the pastor preaches and leads out of one paradigm, and the church has traditionally operated out of another, and they find themselves in conflict, often unable to articulate why. They just are puzzled why the other thinks like they do, and are convinced they would be happier if all thought alike.
And it’s not that these categories are exclusive, but rather one is dominant, a couple others are referred to somewhat, and some are almost totally missing.
I mention this in my January S/PPRC trainings, and it often gets a lot of conversation going. And it came up at least half a dozen times in my summer conversations with pastors puzzling over their churches.
So let’s explore this. At the end I’ll invite you to consider:
What is the dominant theme for your church?
And what does your personal ministry emphasize?
I think there are two types:
God the Creator churches and pastors emphasize inclusiveness, the universality of God, are usually pretty precise in their language regarding gender, hold Creation in high regard, and less emphasis is put on the intimate presence of God in our lives.
God the Father churches and pastors emphasize Jesus’ “Abba” relationship with God, a closer, intimate, personal relationship is in the prayers and teaching, less so the transcendent God of the ages.
Again, I think there are two types:
Jesus the Christ churches and pastors emphasize the divine, exalted, resurrected Christ, Lord of all, Savior and Christ of the Church. There are sure a lot of great hymns and songs for this one!
Jesus of Nazareth churches and pastors emphasize the humanity of Jesus. He was a Jewish Rabbi with dust on his feet, who ate with sinners, was frustrated with his Disciples, suffered with people and at the hands of people, was crucified dead and buried. Again, it doesn’t preclude the resurrection of Jesus the Christ, but the humanity shines through a bit more than the exaltation. He walks with me and He talks with me in these churches and pastors.
Holy Spirit Churches
Charismatic churches and pastors emphasize the gifts of the Spirit, where you hear “The Holy Spirit led/told me to……” There is less need for hierarchy or Christian conference if the Spirit directs our every step. The worship in these churches can be energetic. Sometimes I picture the worship in heaven like this.
This might be a stretch: Feeling Spirit churches and pastors are those that most value an emotional language and people’s affective response to the Church community and the Gospel.
The Bishop mentioned a fourth member of the Trinity that some churches construct:
Again, there are perhaps two types:
The Bible as Authority churches and pastors have a lot of “The Bible says…..” and refer to it as the guide and rule for most or all of our life. Some churches even have rules about what you can and cannot do with a Bible as a book. (Don’t put that Bible on the floor. Don’t put anything on top of the Bible.) People carry them and mark in them. Arguably, I think such churches/pastors tend to fall a bit more on the Law side of things. There is a belief that the Bible means one thing which is self evident, although there is a lot of disagreement out there. Tradition, reason, experience and Christian conferencing to understand the Bible is less relevant. Personal comment: I thought the Bible said the Word became flesh, and He is full of grace and truth. But I tip my hand.
This is definitely a stretch, but I’m not sure where else to put this. The Proverbs as Authority church and pastors have a lot of sayings that are almost regarded as divinely inspired. Although they aren’t in the Bible, they are almost sacrosanct. The Sunday morning schedule shall be …….. You cannot take coffee into the sanctuary. In worship you must dress like ………. Children should be respectful by ……… The Budget (note the capital B) must be ………. Organs/guitars/drums/NODRUMS are the way God wants us to worship. Communion shall always be taken by ……… (I once followed a pastor who moved away in a U-Haul after violating that one.)
I guess you can tell this is my least favorite category?
And I think I have noticed one other paradigm that no church or pastor will admit to, but I really see it as the operative mission in some churches:
The Church as Ultimate Concern
Again, two ways I hear this lived out:
The Church as a Building churches spend most of their conversation, volunteer effort, and fundraising on maintaining a meeting place. Some churches even hang on long after most of the congregation has left, and resist closing out of reverence and affection for their spiritual home. There are even a lot of church arguments over stuff in the building: sanctuary furniture, carpeting, paint color and the like. I’ve been called in to adjudicate several of these.
The Church as Congregation emphasizes a healthy, growing congregation. The graphs should reflect an upward trend. Or people express their mission “Our church needs to reach new/younger people” and the unexpressed purpose is that this will be good for the congregation. You are less likely to hear “We need to reach people because they need Jesus/are lost” as a motivating force. Serving and helping the institution survive is a dominant theme.
What doesn’t fit?
Areas that don’t fit into this scheme nicely: Churches that emphasize service and meeting the needs of the last and the least, the poor and the marginalized; St Theresa type churches? And prophetic churches that spend a great deal of energy witnessing to a corrupt culture? Maybe sacramental and monastic orders? And there are probably others. But no paradigm is all inclusive, and I’ve probably stretched this one as far as it can go.
Conclusion and Challenge
Some might say “We don’t emphasize one over the other; we are balanced!” But as I watch churches operate (I’ve been in over 100 in the last five years) one or two tend to dominate, with the others less frequently mentioned, and some even totally overlooked.
And I’m not saying one is better than the other. Well, maybe I would say the Proverb as Authority Church sure isn’t what Jesus died for. But I bet that there have been times when I’ve operated out of the others.
I have mediated conflicts over a Bible preacher in a God the Creator Church. “Why don’t they believe the Bible?” “Why does the preacher harp on these harsh rules?” I have had pastors who are stunned to hear “Preacher, you mention Jesus too often.” In another District a very faithful and fruitful pastor, who I think is primarily a Jesus the Christ pastor is serving a God the Creator congregation; very tall steeple, educated, respectable. The congregation was surprised on the first Easter with the new pastor when he went on and on about the bodily resurrection of Jesus and the empty tomb. He was surprised that they were surprised.
What I don’t want from this article is a lot of feedback telling me why this is wrong or misguided. The Bible/Jesus/God/Spirit/Schaeller told me so. So there.
What I do encourage is that for fun, perhaps insight, and perhaps growth, that you to talk with your Covenant Group, friends, church leaders, and your Ministry Cluster about these things:
What is the dominant inspiration or authority that gives your church its marching orders?
And what is the dominant inspiration or authority that gives your ministry its marching orders?
Do they match? Do they complement each other? Are they in conflict with each other?
Me? I’m primarily a Jesus of Nazareth follower. Secondarily, I appreciate God the Creator and God the Father emphasis, and I love the worship of Holy Spirit churches. I am afraid I have bowed at the altar of the healthy congregation from time to time. I hope I didn’t confuse the Church with its building too often. I acknowledge that I really struggle with people who believe they are directed directly by the Holy Spirit and don’t need listen to others. Especially me. And the Bible as Law and Proverb churches really try my soul.
But as 1 Corinthians says, there are many parts and one body, so……..
Dave Michel, neds, Jesus follower