Nov 292013

This is a question I’ve heard a number of times in my life. Two Christians are talking, and want to understand each other’s church or theological traditions. So they ask a very natural question: ‘What is your church like?’

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I think there is a problem with this question though.

As an aside, it can sometimes be an unfair question, because by learning about someone’s church you don’t always learn about them. A lot of people are part of churches that don’t reflect their own theological convictions for a whole variety of good reasons – commitment to their local church and community, a calling to be an instrument for chance, respect and love for a family member… But, that’s an aside.

The answers are wrong

My real problem isn’t with the question itself – ‘What is your church like?’ – but with the answers we can expect to get when we hear it.

Go on. Try it. If you’re a Christian who’s part of a church, try to describe in a sentence or two. Please. Now. Go on, have a go.

Did you do it? Or just keep reading? That’s very naughty. I’ll give you another chance. Try now.

If you did (I know some still won’t!), what sorts of things did you describe. The answers I hear to that question tend to rely heavily wither on (1) denominational – or other – labels, which I don’t think are helpful for the way we end up viewing ourselves, or on (2) structures and activities. I could describe my church in these two ways:

  1. Gold Hill is a large, evangelical Baptist church which is – broadly speaking – conservative theologically and with a charismatic expression of worship.
  2. Gold Hill has three main meetings on a Sunday, one midweek on a Thursday, an array of small groups and a whole host of different ministries.

But do those answers really tell you about my church? The first one is a description that’s more likely to divide than unite (“Hmmm, not sure I like all of those labels myself…”), and the second describes the programmes but not the lifeblood or heartbeat of the church. I suppose a third would be to describe the building.

Tell me who you ARE!

We can get very hung up on structures, labels, formats, activities, building and all sorts of other peripheral things. The thing is, these either describe what we do, or what we are NOT like. But I want to know who you are! And the truth is, structures aren’t what matter the most. In a recent blog post on his brilliant site, Jeremy Myers wrote this:

I don’t think God cares too much which church model we use, house church, mega church, liturgical church, or free-for-all charismatic church.

And I think he is right. There are deeper concerns than what we do at services and what wider bodies we belong to.

Better descriptions of churches are about what the church is committed to, what our priorities are, what our goals, hope and dreams are. What is our vision. Service styles come and go. Leaders come and go. But what is the vision, heart and pulse of a church?

Finding the words

Gold Hill has a vision statement. Gold Hill is seeking to be an authentic Christ-like community, encountering God, making disciples and transforming the world. I can tell you that without telling you about what sorts of songs we sing, whether we sing songs at all, or a whole host of other things we often deem more important than they are.

We also have values. In all we say and do, we seek to be generous, Spirit-led, missional, biblical, courageous, welcoming, prayerful and loving. Again, no mention of structures.

I tell you that not to glorify Gold Hill. I’m sure we often define ourselves too much by our affiliations, size or structures, but I’ve found having another way to describe us very useful indeed. It may be that finding words yourself or for your church would be useful for you, too.

Now, when people ask what my church is like, I try very hard to start with WHO we are, not WHAT we do.

So, let’s go again: what is your church like?

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  • James Pollard

    Excellent post young Criddle. I was musing this the other day, and had to conclude that the only honest answer I could give would be ‘come and see.’. Because for every new person who arrives and sees the community changes.

    • Dave Criddle

      That’s a really cool take, too! Though – and I might be being pernickety, but – does the idea of having to ‘come’ to see still suggest that seeing what a church service is like is the same thing as knowing what a church is like?

  • Graham Wakeman

    Your right, many describe only buildings, denomination, theological position, numbers, services or ministries. (Done this myself and these things can be helpful to understand) Vision and values are a big step forward and I love these but perhaps these are often (by nature) more reflective of direction (eg seeking to be) than current reality of a whole church family? Perhaps we should start with the people – the church. What are they/we like? If we are describing what our church is like, a great place to start would be with those who make up the body of Christ in this local expression. Every local church has a unique group of people who together shape what the church is actually like. However for me a massive part of what church is like is about our identity in Christ. (‘Who are we’ before ‘what do we do’) As those who are called out and have the Spirit of Christ in them and are being transformed into the image of Christ, (so much more could be said) a description of church then begins to point to Christ himself rather than any man made traditions, preferences or cultures. Of course this in not unique to any one church! Combined with vision/value statements this then brings together who we are (identity) with vision (purpose). Adding further info on services/ministries etc etc builds upon this and would give people a better overall perspective. Having said that putting this into words is not so easy! Keep up the the thought proving posts!

    • Dave Criddle

      Graham I love this comment! I think what this shows is that there are so many different ways we could describe a church:
      – The character of the members of the church (personality)
      – The status of those members in Christ (ontology)
      – The vision and mission statement of the church (direction/motivation)
      – The size of the church (figures)
      – Denomination/affiliation (tradition)
      – Doctrinal statement (theology)
      – Programmes, services, ‘what we do’ (facts)

      Maybe we often start with the ‘what we do’ stuff because (1) it is the bit MOST unique to the particular local church we’re part of, and (2) it is a whole lot easier!! But it shows how big an answer to ‘What’s your church like?’ could be.

  • Mary Pearce

    I’m soon to move, so I wrote to a few potential churches asking them what they were like and I mostly got the structural response as in the time of the service. Not very helpful! Then I wrote to a different, but overlapping list and asked if they could ask around for a possible flat for me. Some replied that they didn’t do requests like that and others didn’t reply, but still others said “We will do our best, and you are welcome to visit and have lunch – no pressure to join us!” I think the second question actually answered my first!

    Incidentally, my description of Gold Hill was a mixture of labels and mission statement!

    • Dave Criddle

      Haha! Yes – asking people to describe themselves may be a little pointless. Don’t tell me what you’re like: show me!! And that in itself is a warning to us all to practice what we preach.

  • Nick Smith

    We’re starting to look for a new church too and so visiting places to get a feel for them. I agree that show me is def better than tell me. But I think you can tell something about a person and a church by what is actually said and not said. If we talk about structures then they must be important to us, if we mention the denomination then that suggests we think we are typical for that church flavour (or we are too insular to realise that intra-denomination differences exist).
    The places that interest me more are where people a) speak with passion (even if it is structures and denomination stuff – although that’s unlikely!), b) talk about the people (maybe they are important) and c) mention the outreach.
    However, if we only ever ask ‘what is your church like?’, it will be as useful as asking a stranger we meet in the street ‘what are you like?’. Surely we always need to ask supplementary questions that get to the heart of what we want to know. We as the questioner will have a variety of issues that we want to see addressed in the answers which will not necessarily match the interests of the interviewee.

    • Dave Criddle

      Very interesting! As always, questions and more questions are indeed very important. And you’re right, just because I want to tell you a bunch of things about my church, it doesn’t mean those are the things you’re interested in. I find the idea of learning people’s priorities based on what they choose to tell very interesting – makes me wonder what I inadvertently tell people my priorities are…