What's the Character of Your Church?

04/11/2013 11:07 am ET | Updated Jun 11, 2013

I am increasingly convinced that there are three kinds of churches -- three prevailing characters of congregations, with implicit theological underpinnings -- and that these three church types exist across denominations and worship styles, from small churches to megachurches, in rural and urban settings alike. As I see it, these are the three kinds of churches:

  • the church that asks you to be a sanitized self,
  • the church that welcomes you as a wounded self,
  • and the church invites you to live as a healed self.
The church that asks you to be a sanitized self prefers you to keep your life's messiness out of the church, or at least to dress up your messiness in all of the proper accoutrements (from family size and Sunday attire to leadership roles and eloquence in prayer). I call this church the Easter church: It holds the belief that new and resurrected life in Christ looks a certain way and lives by certain standards. It imagines a sterilized tomb and holds the goal of perfect, unwavering faith. Its fierce determination to live as an Easter church consequently sanitizes, even ignores, death's impact on life.

Easter churches cut across public theologies and social perspectives in American Christianity. There are conservative Easter churches, for example, that disallow alcohol use or bar openly gay leaders in pursuit of incarnate perfection and theological certainty. There are also progressive Easter churches that love the squeaky-clean righteousness of social justice more than they love the messiness of actual people.

The church that welcomes you as a wounded self -- the second church character listed above -- is the Good Friday church. In contrast to Easter churches, Good Friday churches proclaim "Come as you are! Wear what you want to wear on a Sunday morning, live the life that you would like to live during the week, and bring all of your baggage with you when you walk into worship!" (Generally speaking, this welcome is intended sincerely, even if it is not practiced inclusively.)

Good Friday churches recognize the ways in which death shapes life. They know that there are all manners of death in our lives: experiences of discrimination or abuse, the loss of a loved one, an inward sense of moral sin, broken relationships, etc. These deaths wound our lives, and Good Friday churches make room for our roundedness. They also allow us to remain there. Good Friday churches (again, across theological spectrums and demographics) often focus their identities on a specific need, and they set themselves up to be bandages for congregants' wounds.

The church that invites you to live as a healed self understands that wounds are not the ultimate definitions of our lives any more than Good Friday was the final definition of Jesus' ministry. The church that invites you to live as a healed self believes that the resurrected Jesus had scars from Good Friday, and he had more life after Easter Sunday. This is the Pentecost church. (My first inclination was to call this congregational character "the Eastertide Church," but I suspect that our collective understanding of Eastertide lacks the necessary and passionate restlessness that I intend to describe here, and which we traditionally attribute to Pentecost.)

The Pentecost church understands Christ's presence within death as well as life. It witnesses to our worst wounds and our best actualizations, and it echoes the Spirit's unending call to fuller life in Christ. Pentecost churches bring us along for the journey, sweep us up in the movement of healing, do not allow us to put on a tidy Easter facade or to become mired in a Good Friday death.

Importantly, I believe that congregations' characters as Easter, Good Friday or Pentecost churches do not need to be regarded as entrenched or eternal. The Easter church can be taught to bleed and make room for life's disorder. The Good Friday church can be encouraged to risk discontentment with its unending woundedness. And the Pentecost church can be challenged to widen its witness to healing, and to embrace holy restlessness more boldly in its life and work.

Because the Pentecost church character is the goal: to create and to be faith communities that strive after healing and reconciliation (both individually and collectively), that risk the messy encounter with humanity and divinity alike, and that delight to claim authenticity and explore growth.