I am increasingly convinced that there are three kinds of churches — three prevailing characters of congregations, carrying implicit theological underpinnings — and that these three church types exist across denominations, across worship styles, from small churches to megachurches, in rural and urban settings alike. (And I’m interested in your own experiences and perspectives on these characterizations, if you’re willing to comment.)

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

+ the church that 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 to Sunday attire, from leadership roles to eloquence in prayer). I call this church the Easter church: it holds the belief that new & resurrected life in Christ looks a certain way and lives by certain standards. Its determination to live as an Easter church implicitly turns its back on, even ignores, death’s impact on life. Easter churches cut across public theologies and social perspectives; there are conservative Easter churches, for example, that disallow alcohol use or bar openly gay leaders … 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 is the Good Friday church. In contrast to Easter churches, Good Friday churches are sincere when they proclaim “Come as you are!” Wear what you would like 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. Good Friday churches recognize the ways in which death shapes life and that there are all manners of death: 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 woundedness … they also allow us to remain there. Good Friday churches (again, across theological spectrums) often focus their identities on a specific need or demographic, 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 that he had more life after Easter Sunday: this is the Pentecost church. (My first inclination was to call this character “the Eastertide church,” but I suspect that our collective understanding of Eastertide lacks the necessary & 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 become mired in a Good Friday death.

In my experience, a whole congregation maintains an Easter, Good Friday or Pentecost character although individuals within a thus-characterized congregation can embody any of the three types — an Easter person in a Good Friday church, for example — although the character of the congregation will generally attract persons of a similar character. I’ve especially witnessed the Good Friday person who cannot feel “at home” for long in a Pentecost church that witnesses to and cares for his/her wounds but continues its testimony to healing rather than contorting itself into a personal bandage.

Importantly, I believe that congregations’ characters 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, to embrace holy restlessness more boldly in its life & work. With caring leadership and attuned spiritual wisdom, churches of all shapes & sizes can mature (or would it be more accurate to say that they can become younger?) into Pentecost churches … striving after healing both individually and collectively, delighting to claim authenticity and explore growth.

How would you describe your church’s character? What do you imagine would be needed to shift an Easter or Good Friday church toward a Pentecost character, to encourage a faith community in which healing prevails over worries of wounds or fears of imperfection?

“The Three Churches” is cross-posted on The Huffington Post.

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