Your Church's Personality
Today we have a great variety of churches. Their theological and spiritual emphases differ, and they do things differently from one another. These differences form what I call the 'personality' of a church.
In a day when dissatisfied believers are leaving their churches, it is my hope that an understanding of the concept that churches have personalities will encourage those considering leaving church altogether instead to seek out churches whose personalities more closely match their own. I also hope that individual churches will be encouraged to broaden their approach so that people are more readily able to find their niche and no longer feel the need to move on.
Heart and Mind
Jesus was confronted by a Pharisee, an expert in the law, who asked the question "Which is the greatest commandment?"1 And Jesus says: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind."2
This, the greatest commandment, tells us plainly: love God completely, with heart/soul and mind. Biblically the word 'heart' is used to refer to the centre of our will and emotions, our psyche. 'Psyche' comes from the Greek word psuchee which is translated as 'soul' in the verse quoted above. From here on I will use the word 'heart' to refer to the composite heart/soul. Here, then, is the first dimension of our model for the personality of the church.
At times our emotions and values are exercised strongly in the love of God. At other times it is our intellect, our thoughts, our minds which are more strongly at work. A complete, balanced love of God, however, requires the exercise of both heart and mind.
Churches and their services of worship vary. All will involve both mind and heart but some emphasise the mind, some the heart. A church with a tradition of systematic, exegetical teaching has different strengths to a church which emphasises charismatic worship and spontaneous response to God. Both have strengths, the former appealing to mind, the latter to heart.
We don't have to look far to find authors who see an imbalance in the church at large and who sound the trumpet for more active use of the mind. In his classic book The Christian Mind written in 1963, Harry Blamires said, "There is no longer a Christian mind . . . . It is difficult to do justice in words to the complete loss of intellectual morale in the twentieth century Church."3
Two decades later Os Guiness sounds the same alarm: "At root, evangelical anti-intellectualism is both a scandal and a sin. It is a scandal in the sense of being an offence and a stumbling block that needlessly hinders serious people from considering the Christian faith and coming to Christ. It is a sin because it is a refusal, contrary to the first of Jesus' two great commandments, to love the Lord our God with our minds."4
On the other hand, people who see the need for a greater expression of heart in the church tend to emphasise their point by talking about it - using the 'heart motivation' of persuasion through testimony and anecdote rather than the 'head motivation' of writing. The spreading of the Toronto Blessing by the testimonies of those who had recently experienced it was an example of heart-orientated motivation. Music, extended congregational singing, singing in the Spirit, praying in tongues and 'resting' in the Spirit are other activities which largely impact directly on the heart rather than on the mind.
The word of God instructs us to worship the Lord our God with heart and mind - both/and, not either/or! It is indeed "both a scandal and a sin" when people who have discovered God's blessing and fruitfulness in mind or heart are so engaged and fascinated by that one faculty that they believe that that is all they need and so the other faculty shrivels up through lack of use. An even greater scandal is the 'labelling' and criticism of groups who emphasise the opposite faculty to our own group's favoured mode of operation.
Both heart and mind are God-given faculties by which we engage with God. As we 'see' God more clearly with heart and mind we are transformed into God's image. If we are already strong in mind then our greatest growth will come through developing heart connection and fellowship with God. If our strength is already in heart fellowship then our greatest growth comes through engaging our mind, deepening our understanding and knowledge of God through dialogue with God and study of God's word.
Immanence and Transcendence
The Bible reveals God to us. Most biblical accounts emphasise one of two major truths about God: God's transcendence and God's immanence.
God's transcendence speaks of the greatness, the sovereignty of God: the reality that God is totally 'other', a mystery beyond our intellect and imagination. This revelation of God is perhaps best portrayed by God's answer to Moses at the burning bush, where Moses asked God's name and was told I AM WHO I AM.5 No human name or description could begin to represent and describe awesome, mysterious, wonderful God.
God's immanence is seen in the incarnation: the incredible, miraculous birth in the most marginal of human circumstances of Jesus, God in human flesh. Here is God with us, God whom we can see and hear and touch. God like us, who eats and drinks, gets weary, laughs, cries. God who can say "if you have seen me, you have seen the Father".6
The prologue to the gospel of John gives us the incredibly good news "The word became flesh and dwelt among us. We have seen his glory."7
Just as we are to relate to God using both our mind and our heart, we are also to relate to a God who is both immanent and transcendent. A God who is like us - our friend and sibling - and a God who is infinitely beyond us - whose ways and thoughts are not ours, whom we approach in reverent awe, before whom we kneel and take off our shoes.
Individuals tend to emphasise and relate more comfortably to one or other of these revelations of God. Interestingly, so do individual churches, denominations and parachurch organisations.
Historically, emphasis on the transcendence of God has led to 'apophatic' spirituality and forms of spiritual growth. These place emphasis on the values of self-emptying or denial - on suffering, sacrifice and serving.
I call this spirituality the 'Spirituality of Subtraction'. Scriptures that speak of God's wisdom and mercy are emphasised. This spirituality is seen in many places throughout Scripture in both the Old and New Testaments. Consider for example the servant passage in Isaiah,8 the example of the humility of Christ in Philippians9 and those honoured in Hebrews, whose faith sustained them through persecution even though they didn't receive what was promised.10
'Kataphatic' spirituality, or the 'Spirituality of Addition' is a spirituality that emphasises the immanence of God. God with us, actively manifest in our world. It is a spirituality which emphasises God's justice and kingship.
Success, progress, overcoming and victory are highly valued. Military imagery and the symbolism of warfare are frequently used. Examples in Scripture include Revelation's promises for those who overcome,11 the growth by addition encouraged in 2 Peter,12 the armour of God described in Ephesians13 and Paul's charge to Timothy to fight the good fight.14
Clearly, if we are faithful to Scripture, we are called to embrace the spiritualities of both addition and subtraction. Being conformed to the image of Christ will sometimes mean victory, success, plenty and at other times sacrifice, seeming failure and defeat. Paul could say with conviction that he had learned to be content in all circumstances, with plenty and in want.15 Near the end of his life he tells Timothy that he is both "being poured out like a drink offering" and that he has "fought the good fight and finished the race"!16
Again it is the unbalanced either/or attitude, be it triumphalist prosperity doctrine, or self-chosen abject poverty and excessive asceticism, that so distorts the Christian life proclaimed in Scripture. But more serious than that, these either/or attitudes and the 'christian' lifestyle that flows from them promote a terribly distorted image of God.
Given this, it is not so amazing after all that numbers of people have difficulty believing in God. I'm sure that if I could ask them to describe the God they can't believe in I could often say with integrity "I can't believe in a God like that either!"
And so we have . . .
The Personality of the Church
It doesn't take a rocket scientist to realise that we do not live in an ideal world! Biblical Christianity urges us to maintain a balance between head and heart and between the transcendence and the immanence of God. In our real, fallen world, however, each of us and each church, denomination and parachurch organisation favours one side of each pair over the other.
This divides the central circle of our model into four quadrants that favour, or have preference for: Mind - Transcendence; Mind - Immanence; Heart - Immanence; Heart - Transcendence.
A church, denomination or parachurch organisation which emphasises the use of the mind in the worship of an immanent God values right Doctrine very highly. The centrality and supreme importance of the Bible is proclaimed, both in normative personal devotion and in the meeting together of the church.
The sermon is usually the most important part of the church service. Churches from the evangelical and holiness traditions are representative of this church 'personality type'. If the preference for using the mind in worshipping an immanent God is taken to excess, excluding the truths contained in the other quadrants, then the church falls prey to legalism,17 and in this state is dysfunctional.
A church, denomination or parachurch organisation which emphasises the use of the mind in the worship of a transcendent God values right Service very highly. The centrality and importance of living the good news in society, especially in ways that change society, is proclaimed. Discussion and action are encouraged. Awareness and comment on socio-political issues and environmental issues founded on God's creation and care for the world lead to direct involvement in both service and protest.
Churches seen in some circles as liberal are often representative of this church personality type.
Churches with a strong focus on the Kingdom of God, or with a strong tradition of social action, also draw on the strengths of the Mind Transcendence personality. The danger of overemphasis here - with consequent devaluing of other aspects - is nominalism.18
A church, denomination or para church organisation which emphasises the use of the heart in the worship of an immanent God values Experience very highly. The centrality of a dynamic personal encounter with - and ongoing experience of - God is strongly emphasised in word and in example.
Church services typically emphasise praise and worship involving enthusiastic and extended congregational singing, the use of personal testimony and anecdotal material in sermons, and the encouragement of personal response with prayer ministry. Pentecostal and charismatic churches represent this church personality type. As always, there is a danger in overemphasis of the area of strength and an unwillingness to acknowledge the strengths of other traditions. The danger here is emotionalism and a tendency to follow the crowd: conformity without really knowing God.19
Finally, a church, denomination or para church organisation which emphasises the use of the heart in the worship of a transcendent God values Adoration very highly, displaying reverence and awe in the presence of Holy God. Silence is an appropriate response. Beauty - in architecture, altar setting, music and liturgy - reflects something of the beauty and shalom of God.
For some individuals and groups sharing these preferences, solitude and simplicity take precedence over the beauty of church buildings and services - the desert fathers and mothers are early examples of this. Churches from a liturgical tradition and contemplatives, both communities and individuals, exemplify this church personality type. Here the danger is best described by the old word 'quietism' - such a great emphasis on 'being' that little or no 'doing' occurs!20
Our model is now complete:
It is my conviction, based on personal experience and observation over forty plus years of active church life, that mismatch between an individual's own spirituality/personality and that of the church they attend is one significant factor leading to dissatisfaction and increasing alienation between that person and their church.
This is intensified if the church concerned strongly favours its preferred personality. Then people who are different not only feel that they don't fit, they are also made to feel that they are somehow unacceptable to God.
Fowler's stages of faith21 have a bearing here too. The fit between our own personality/spirituality and that of the church we belong to is usually good initially that is why we are part of that church. But when we grow and our spirituality changes, if the church we are a part of is not sufficiently diverse to accommodate this, then frustration and tension result.
If the frustration and tension grow and cannot be resolved, moving on or moving out is often the only course of action left. Moving church may not be a good solution. While the new church we go to is likely to be one sympathetic to our newly found spirituality, if it is narrow and inflexible in its focus it will likely be constraining after some time too.
What we need are churches which are secure enough to accommodate and affirm the strengths of each of the church personality types. When we grow from one to another we don't need to reject or leave the old behind. The old has strengths and has brought blessings which are foundational to us and which have made us who we are. We need to build, layer upon layer, not swap one partial expression of church for another partial expression.
In my own case I appreciate and value the evangelical heritage into which I was born and in which I was raised. I appreciate and value the charismatic experience, the exhilarating years of kingdom dreams, of helping to establish and support an emergency home, training-for-employment schemes, Christian schools and a Christian community, all of which are still vibrant nearly two decades on.
I appreciate and value the Pentecostal movement which accepted me and allowed me to function in leadership positions in their national Bible School and I appreciate and value the Pentecostal church of which I was a part for twenty-five years.
In the last decade and a half my life has been marvellously enriched and nurtured as contemplative and liturgical spirituality has overlapped with evangelical and Pentecostal spiritualities. Yet again I have had the experience of coming home, of being like a dry sponge growing and softening as I've soaked up the living water.
Are there churches that can accommodate the fullness that we need?
Yes there must be! The church personalities described here were developed from an examination of Scripture. Two biblical images of the church are the body of Christ and the bride of Christ. Nothing less than a church which exemplifies the full extent of these 'personalities' can adequately fulfil those descriptions.
Yes there are! Imperfectly, at a cost and with some struggles, there are churches which are at least moving in that direction. As a Protestant with a lot of Catholic friends and colleagues, both religious and lay, I see this as being one of the great treasures of the Catholic Church: that it accommodates and embraces charisms as varied as those represented by Fransciscan, Jesuit and Dominican orders, each with its own uniqueness, yet with a strong central commitment and fellowship. This is a challenging example to me as I look at the plethora of Protestant denominations and independent churches.
Two examples from local Protestant churches: two years ago a Wellington Baptist church ran a Winter School where people could select either a charismatic stream (Gifts in the Healing Ministry) or a contemplative prayer stream; the Kapiti Christian Centre, an independent Pentecostal church, accommodated contemplative and liturgical evening services alternating on a monthly basis for many years. I am sure that there are other examples both in New Zealand and worldwide.
It is my conviction that in the ferment of decline and revival,
church growth and church leavers, postmodernism and a new hunger for spirituality, churches which reflect more faithfully and more fully the personality of Christ will be those which thrive. Who would want to leave a church like that?
Foster, Richard J. Streams of Living Water: Celebrating the Great Traditions of the Christian Faith. Harper San Francisco, 1998.
Ware, Carrine, Discover Your Spiritual Type. The Alban Institute: New York, 1995.
Westerhoff, John, Spiritual Life: The Foundation for Preaching and Teaching. Westminster John Knox Press: Kentucky, 1994.
9. Philippians 2:5-11
After a career in engineering and technical education Andrew had seven years in full-time leadership of the Kapiti Christian Centre followed by three years as Deputy Principal/Principal of Te Nikau Bible Training Centre. He now fellowships with a newly emerging church which seeks to embody the principles outlined in this article.
Andrew works in spiritual direction, ministry supervision, work, life and faith coaching and teaching. He and his wife Lynn are foundation members of Shalom Christian Community.