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Dr. James Emery White Christian Blog and Commentary

Church Types

  • Dr. James Emery White
    James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina; President of Serious Times, a ministry which explores the intersection of faith and culture (www.serioustimes.org); and ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture on the Charlotte campus of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Dr. White holds the B.S., M.Div. and Ph.D. degrees, along with additional work at Vanderbilt University and Oxford University. He is the author of over a dozen books.
  • 2011 Jul 18
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I was recently asked to net out some of the types of churches currently shaping practice and thought around the United States.  There was a sense that things have been changing a bit of late.

It was an interesting exercise, and reminded me that there are many church models of influence, and each has something important to offer – as well as a few things to be cautious about.

Here are six in no particular order.

1.         The Music Church

A growing number of churches revolve around worship services, and particularly, music.  They are known for creating original music through worship recordings, and even being the home church of a touring artist (or artists).  Such churches are currently providing the bulk of the new music for the church at large.

Strengths:  Powerful worship; use of experience, and specifically music, to attract attenders; returns the church to her rightful place as a patron of the arts.

Weaknesses:  Trends toward transfer growth alone; robust teaching can be marginalized; talent can be valued over character.

2.         The New Revivalist Church

There are a growing number of churches that are very contemporary in nature, but scratch the surface and you find an old-school revivalistic preaching style.  And like the older revivalistic churches of bygone eras, these churches seem to specialize in “afflicting the comfortable.”  They are very admonishment driven, and particularly toward the passive believer.  Many of the new revivalist churches are newer church plants, in the South, and have ties to the SBC.

Strengths:  Catalyzes believers; true to the preaching of the gospel; bring a fresh breath of vitality to the over-churched, over-fed pockets of the evangelical subculture. 

Weaknesses:  Often based on transfer growth (despite “talking” conversion growth); can be very personality-centered in terms of leadership; at times unnecessarily denigrating or dismissive of other churches or the wider Christian community.

3.         The Suburban MegaChurch

The suburban megachurch, deeply influenced by the nineties models of Saddleback or Willow Creek, constitute the vast majority of megachurches.  Many are led by those in their fifties or sixties who planted them in the nineties or transitioned them during that era, but continue to have a contemporary climate and style.  They tend to be rather corporate, focused on leadership, and programmatically designed.  They offer safe expressions of contemporary worship (nothing particularly edgy), a wide number of ministries, and a focus on families.

Strengths:  Excellent training ground for the next generation of leaders; often lead the way in missions and social ministry investment; can act as a mini-denomination via networks for smaller churches to lean on and learn from; often develops programs and systems for other churches to emulate.

Weaknesses:  Can become frozen in the model, style, template and culture of its founding; succession of leadership has yet to be proven; can make themselves the end game; can skew older with each decade of existence and thus lose touch with younger generations; can be overly programmatic, overly bureaucratic, and overly “presentational” (lights, cameras, action!) in services and events.

4.         The Multi-Site Church

Few strategies have been as quickly embraced by American churches as the multi-site approach.  The idea is simple:  one church meeting in multiple locations.  The usual format is live worship, full on-site programs (such as small groups, children’s ministry), with the teaching coming via video.  The progression was inevitable: first churches offered multiple services, then on multiple days, now in multiple locations.  The multi-site strategy is usually employed to reach a specific city or geographic area, but you find multi-site churches with campuses in multiple states and even countries.  Unlike the suburban megachurch, many of the newer multi-site churches maintain smaller auditoriums - say, 1500 max as opposed to several thousand - though their overall attendance can reach the thousands.  These churches are often the leaders in technological innovation, such as apps and internet-based programs.

Strengths:  Often more successful than church plants due to funding, leadership and teaching expertise; allows a large church to leverage itself optimally in terms of reaching out; good stewardship in terms of allowing churches to grow without building mega-auditoriums; takes full advantage of technology.

Weaknesses:  There can be a weak (or at least undeveloped) ecclesiology underpinning the approach, particularly when the strategy goes beyond a restricted geographic area – specifically in regard to the nature of church leadership, the nature of community, and the nature of what it means to be “one” church.  

5.         The Post-Emergent Church

I’m as ready as anyone to get rid of the word “emergent,” right along with “post-modern.”  But let’s give both phrases one last gasp with “post-emergent.”  “Post” because most of the churches I would put into this category have moved beyond the early caricatures of the word’s associations (and its recent forays into increasingly left-of-center theology), but still “emergent” because they came into existence during a time when that word was being used to describe a wide swath of churches and leaders who were trying to reach their generation in ways that were in reaction to the 80’s/90’s suburban megachurch model.  Here’s what I’m after: the plethora of churches that started over the last decade with an urban, coffee-house, uber-hip, art-hanging, all-about community, missional focus led by a heart beating for the culture and those culturally disenfranchised from Christianity.  

Strengths:  Strong emphasis on community; acceptance of those living apart from a Christian life; taking up residence in culture, and not outside of it; openness and transparency about living as sin-stained, emotionally fragile beings.

Weaknesses:  Can be so keen to be seen as hip, and fitting into culture, that it loses its prophetic voice and holy life; evangelism can be lost in the shadow of an emphasis on social ministry; emphasis on community and relationships can degenerate into something cliquish, clannish and even cultish.

6.         The Neo-Refomed Church

I started to call this the “Calvinist” church, and the common denominator does seem being “young, restless and reformed.”  Such churches, while contemporary in style, are like the post-emergent model in that they are in reaction to the 80’s/90’s suburban megachurch as well.  Only instead of reacting in style and structure, they are reacting in content and emphasis.  No feel-good, therapeutic, topical series here; it’s exegetical, expositional, and doctrinal.  Often centered on a highly-skilled teacher, the focus is on orthodoxy and right understanding.

Strengths:  Biblical exposition in view of a doctrinal orientation; willingness to address many cultural issues of the day; attention to discipleship.

Weaknesses:  Can be more oriented toward a systematic interpretation and/or system of thought than the Bible itself; susceptible to pride, arrogance and a lack of civility toward those in disagreement with their positions; can be weak on evangelism.

Two last words

First, I am sure that many of you would have liked examples to have gone with the descriptions.  I came dangerously close to doing so, but felt that my “strengths” and “weaknesses” would be too closely aligned with the example – as if I was critiquing that particular church.  Also, no church likes to be typecast, and any “one” church example would be unfair to the generic nature of the model at hand. 

Second, you may be wondering where Mecklenburg Community Church, the one I serve, is in all this.

In truth, Meck is a mixture of all of the above. 

We’re very interested in worship and are increasingly committing ourselves to being a source of new music through our artists in residence. 

We resonate with the revivalists, and I’m told I have a tendency to plant a solid boot on the hind ends of a believer or two with my talks.

We are indebted to such trendsetting suburban megachurches as Willow Creek and Saddleback and are, ourselves, a megachurch in the suburbs.

We are multi-site with now five campuses. 

We like urban areas, coffee, art, community and mission to the culture. 

We take doctrine and biblical study seriously (my Ph.D. is in systematic theology).

But I would say that Meck is unique from many churches in that it reaches an inordinate amount of people who were previously unchurched (well over 70%).  Other distinctives include being integrated in terms of racial diversity; a willingness to engage in cultural apologetics in light of the issues of the day; skewing younger instead of older with an ongoing renewal of style and method; an exceptionally young staff working with older leaders; and more.

But more than anything, Meck has consistently been driven by a mission to reach the unchurched.  I cannot emphasize enough how distinctive this has made us.  This is different than the current vogue term “missional” and all it conveys (not that there’s anything wrong with the term); just that we have been mission-driven, and that shapes us more than anything.

So let’s create a seventh model:

7.         The Perfect Church

And here I will give an example:  Mecklenburg Community Church. I think I lead the perfect church filled with the most wonderful folks on the planet.

Just a bit biased, of course.

James Emery White

Editor’s Note

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