What Kind of Church Are You?

“Eventually, someone looking for a church home will ask some variation of this question:  So what kind of church are you?” 

– Kent Carlson

Recently while signing books at a conference on spiritual formation, a sharply-dressed woman approached who seemed to have no interest in purchasing a book. Instead, she marched right up to me and said, “I have given up on church.  Completely. What do you have to say to someone like me?”

All I could think to say was, “I don’t blame you.  I get it.” Because the truth is, I do.

Not too long after that, I was talking with a young-ish former pastor about a ministry he had helped start. He described a house-sized group of couples and families who gathered regularly to be a community for one another, to learn about and experience spiritual practices that would further their transformation, and to minister to the real needs of others in their neighborhood.  Several times he also mentioned “his elders” who seemed to provide leadership for the whole undertaking.

Innocently enough, I said, “That sounds a lot like a church!  If someone were to ask, would you say that this is your church?”  He said yes, he would identify this gathering as his church but he said with emphasis, “We are not a church or anything like that… we have no intention of ever owning a building or starting lots of programs.”

Distancing Ourselves from Church?

While I was sobered by the fact that this young pastor seemed to have reduced “church” to buildings and programs, I was also aware of how deeply I could relate to his desire to distance himself from “church” in order to have any hope at all of experiencing what his soul needed and longed for. I have done the same thing myself. I, too, reached the end of my confidence that churches can be communities where spiritual transformation takes place regularly and routinely… I, too, got so desperate for spiritual transformation in community that I started something that I insisted was “not a church” … and yet, in all the ways that counts, it kind of is.

But even as I resonated with what he was saying, my heart broke one more time to acknowledge that the very thing that could and (I would argue should) be central to what the Church is all about—spiritual transformation together in Christ’s presence for the sake of others—is so absolutely missing in many people’s experience of church that they no longer even expect to find it there!

Desperately Seeking Spirituality

Let’s be honest…these days when authentic community and real life change is what people are looking for, they routinely turn elsewhere—to a yoga class, a retreat or spirituality center, a runner’s club, or an informal gathering of like-minded friends who want to “go deeper” than what they think a church would offer.  And who can blame them really? Today’s spiritually savvy seeker (myself included!) seems to know intuitively that calling something a church or letting it become a church has the potential to doom the whole endeavor from the get-go. We can judge the “spiritual but not religious” folks all we want, but spiritually-minded people today have no problem voting with their feet.

To be fair, churches are good for a great many things… some are really good at “making disciples” and shepherding new Christians into the faith.  Others have done an amazing job of attracting seekers through hi-tech worship services, high quality programs for children and youth, and ministries for every aspect of the human condition imaginable. Some are havens of traditional worship for those who love liturgy, enjoy a well-rehearsed robed choir, pipe organ and a ten-minute homily.

Still others have moved into specific neighborhoods for the express purpose of engaging the unique needs of that community in Jesus’ name. Most see themselves as a community in which the ministry of Word and sacrament is offered to parishioners from birth to death and (if all goes well) at significant life moments in between. But the church as a place where people are routinely experiencing spiritual transformation? Where people are discovering a way of life that works and produces good fruit in them? Not so much.

Telling the Truth about Church

All it takes is living through one church split or denominational melt-down to understand that even those who have been church members all their lives aren’t functioning far beyond the reptilian brain and the false-self patterns that seem to have us all in their grip.  When push comes to shove, those who have been in church all their lives often don’t behave any better than people who choose to enjoy their coffee and a newspaper on Sunday mornings.

Observing this, one has to ask, Does church really make a difference when it comes to the transformation of human beings into the image of Christ? Does being part of a church make us better or just busier? Does going to church affect who we fundamentally are? Do our well-crafted statements of faith about the power of the Gospel matter if nobody is really changing?

Are good Christians even allowed to ask such questions?  I sure hope so, because I just did!

Sometimes I am completely undone by the simple goodness or raw courage I see in others but so rarely experience in myself.  Everything from the care and pride the bagger at the grocery store takes in packing my groceries just right…to the kindness of a stranger who inconveniences himself to stop and help with a flat tire…to the courageous love demonstrated by Mother Theresa…to the radical life-style choices of St. Francis of Assisi…to the risk-defying leadership of MLK, Jr. … can leave me feeling chastened to the core.  I can’t help wondering, “Does what goes on in churches today turn out these kinds of transformed and transforming people? 

The Tares and the Wheat Together

Let me be quick to add that I have experienced some transformation in the church—who knows who I would be without it.  But I can also say that church has contributed to the care and feeding of my false self almost as effectively as it nurtured my true self; the tares have definitely grown up with the wheat.

As I passed from the early stages of basic Christian discipleship into some of the more challenging stages of faith, there came a point when I had to admit that even though I’ve been in church all my life (both as a lay person and a pastor) there was something seriously missing. In times of greatest brokenness, awareness of sin, spiritual longing and questions, I have had to look outside the church (local, not universal) to discover next steps for my own spiritual transformation.

And that’s not even to mention the layers of Christian busyness that have, at times, contributed to a pace of life that is completely unmanageable.  That fact alone has, at times, caused me to run from the church rather than run to it.  This is disheartening, at best.  And yet, I am not ready to give up on the church!  I have loved it and believed in it for too long.

Wrestling with the Questions

We here in the Transforming Center have been wrestling with these questions for a long time in the deep inside places of our own hearts and within the communities of pastors and leaders we are journeying with.  We have been gathering intentionally for years to discover ways forward in identifying the characteristics and practices of churches and communities in which spiritual transformation takes place regularly and routinely.  We have bravely faced into the question “What makes a church community transforming or deforming?” and worked hard to articulate what we are learning. We’ve been in the trenches with churches who are desiring to order their life together around spiritual transformation.

We are ready now to open the conversation to a broader community of leaders so we can continue to grapple with these questions and share hard-won learnings. Gather some of your key leaders and join us in September!

©Ruth Haley Barton, 2017.  This article is adapted from Ruth’s forthcoming book Becoming A Transforming Church: A Guide for Leaders (InterVarsity Press). Not to be reproduced without permission.

Ruth Haley Barton

Ruth (Doctor of Divinity, Northern Seminary) is Founder and Chief Essence Officer of the Transforming Center. A teacher, seasoned spiritual director (Shalem Institute), and retreat leader, Ruth is the author of numerous books and resources on the spiritual life including Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Sacred Rhythms, Life Together in Christ, Pursuing God’s Will Together, Invitation to Solitude and Silence, Invitation to Retreat, and Embracing Rhythms of Work and Rest (Oct 2022).
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Ruth, your article sums up my struggles with ‘church’. Thank you for your honesty.
2 reasons for my comments are, the first one a personal observation, and the second a personal experience.
First, an observation. Our family was involved in one church for years. Something crept in about 15 years ago that I couldn’t put my finger on. We started hearing words like ‘metrix’, ‘branding’, ‘excellence’, ‘seeker-sensitive’. As time went on our faith community started operating more like a business rather than the living body of Christ. Members of the elder board were chosen for their business & professional savvy rather than primarily for their wisdom and spiritual maturity.

Secondly, a personal experience regarding our church which eventually led to our leaving. One of our children was molested by a church leader. The leader was removed and instead of entering into our pain and being Jesus’ heart & hands to us, the church’s leadership chose to use worldly methods to deal with the situation. They hired a lawyer and offered us a settlement with a non disclosure attached. The message sent to us was that we didn’t matter and that we were a problem to be dealt with using the harshest of means. The damage that they caused, along with the sexual abuse, is deep and insurmountable. The church was not a place where we found healing.

We’ve been gone from this church for quite awhile and whenever I consider going to other churches I only have to visit their website and I see the same happy/clappy, phony, shallow, ‘we’re all so happy & get along great’ hypocrisy that it makes me cringe. It feels like a marketing strategy to ‘sell’ their product – the image of the church.

God bless you in your efforts in trying to make a difference in His Body.

Thank you for your tender sharing. What you describe here is what I often describe as the secularization of the church. It hurts and makes the heart so heavy. I am sorry for the pain your family has experienced…Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer. Hear the prayer that is tears behind our eyes… hear the prayer that is a longing for healing deep within…hear the prayer that is our pain–plain and simple–at what your dear ones have sometimes experienced in your church. Hear the prayer that is sometimes a glimmer of willingness to hope. Lord, in your mercy, hear these prayers, we pray. Amen.

Just posted a blog on this very topic after 18 years of leadership in church, you can read my thoughts here; https://thetrektotiny.com/2017/06/15/unchurched-church/

This article is spot on, thank you for your insights!

I loved your article and found it very insightful. My husband and I planted a church 11 years ago and asked ourselves how we would determine success. We came up with one thing…..transformed lives. We, too, had been hurt in church and wanted to create a safe place for people to be healed and transformed. We have a strong emphasis on healing, emotional and physical and then ministries that equip in kingdom truths. We find consistently that when people learn who they really are, and that they are loved unconditionally, they will come alive and blossom into who God created them to be. Jesus said in Luke 16:16 that” when the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached, everyone is forcing their way into it.” We believe that a “partial” gospel has been preached for years and it is the gospel of the kingdom that will truly liberate, transform and empower people. Thank you again for sharing this needed truth! Blessings!

Thank you, Ruth, for so eloquently voicing the statements and questions that have been on my mind for decades. I led a small group using your book “Sacred Rhythms” several years ago. The people who attended asked for more. Unfortunately, my pastors did not encourage me to lead another small group. Recently, I decided that I would lead small groups with or without the encouragement of church leadership. I have been “allowed” to hold the meetings in my church. In the three years the group has met learning spiritual disciplines and sharing deeply, transformation is occurring. Spirit has led the group to new depths of faith. I wish I could attend your seminar,but distance and cost prohibits me from coming. May you, the presenters and participants learn from one another, and may Spirit led all of you to new depths.

Thank you for your prayers for us as we meet! Keep doing what you’re doing, we will keep doing what we’re doing, and I have no doubt God will use it to strengthen his church.

i have read some that you have written. say this to forward you a question regarding intercessory prayer that meets every other week at church that i attend. i am struggling with the way we pray. we are asked to take time to silence ourselves for five minutes, requests are read and then we are to go to scripture and ask the Holy Spirit to give us a verse that will lead us to our prayer for the person or persons we are praying for. I am concerned that i am finding it hard to be genuine that i am receiving a scripture from HS as it seems I am going to where I will find words of encouragement in books of wisdom. It seems other use their phone to find scripture and i wonder if the one who inspires is HS or Google. I am a leader in this church and I am afraid of being insincere in my prayer posture. Straight out prayer without a scripture does not get encouraged. the alternative is to agree with prayers being offered and be silent in offering prayer. Any counsel in this matter?

In Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership I devote an entire chapter (9) to this topic. I even offer a prayer practice that is closer to what you seem to be looking for. Check it out and then let me know what you think. It’s a little too much to put in a blog comment.

Thank you, Ruth, for your transparency and vulnerability in speaking about your experiences with weaknesses which can be easily found in churches, …and subsequently transferred to our own lives. A dozen years ago I became deeply discouraged with my church experiences – my participation in worship with the body of believers and my service to them seemed to be missing the ‘heart’ of what Christ intends. I began searching for and absorbing some of the wisdom of Christ-followers who swim in the stream called spiritual formation and I began to find some real ‘life’ and began to taste some transformation. I partnered with a local para-church ministry that was yearning for and advancing some of the same beliefs and practices, and we now offer spiritual formation work-shops which encourage and promote transformation like you write about. (We use your book, Sacred Rhythms, as one of our texts.) We have participants from many varied churches in our area and nearly every one of them asks us this question: “why aren’t churches doing this?” I am very appreciative of your dedication and surrender to living the Jesus life and doing the Jesus truth in the Jesus way – it’s about transformation. Keep up the good work and thanks again for inspiring and nuturing us!

Thanks for highlighting so compellingly the very point of this article. God bless you all as you stay with the question “Why aren’t churches doing this?” Obviously, that’s our question, too. 🙂

Thank you for this thought-provoking post. In the spirit of “wrestling with questions,” I have a few more questions from a curiosity standpoint; not an opinions standpoint, as I certainly do not have the answers:

I am a 35 year old single gal attending a mid-sized church in a predominately middle-to-upper class community. It has been my observation that one of the most common and first questions I get asked by fellow church members is: “ What ministry are you involved in?” or “How are you serving?” Is it just me, or does anyone else think this is a strange question to ask someone, without first knowing about their relationship/walk with the Lord?

If our primary “calling” is to abide, and be in fellowship/relationship with the Lord – why do questions and conversations tend to begin with how one is serving? It seems less often that someone wants to talk about our relationship with the Lord; and in turn our spiritual transformation and growth.

My church is offering a “spiritual gifts” class this summer about how we should use our gifts to glorify God and serve others. There is great value in this type of class/program. However, a question I would raise is: do the leaders have an understanding/awareness of the attendees’ relationship with the Lord? Isn’t it important to know this before talking to them about how they should use their gifts?

In our casual conversations; interactions; classes; and programs – have we as a church – on a subconscious and inadvertent level, disordered our priorities by placing more value and emphasis on our secondary calling: using our gifts to glorify God and serve/love others?

Is it possible that in our “doing” and “serving,” we’ve become “busy,” and therefore lost sight of the importance of spiritual transformation/growth through one’s relationship/fellowship with the Lord?

I don’t know the answers…but certainly a thought-provoking post. Thank you.

You’re welcome! This a great question and the right question for transforming leaders to be grappling with as they seek to lead transforming churches. We deal with this question quite a bit in our Transforming Communities and in what we are doing with transforming churches. A short answer might be that our doing should flow from our being (who God has created us to be) and from our belonging (to God) and how we are cultivating that relationship. The order of things really matters, as you state so well here.

Great questions to be asking. I don’t have the answers but more questions. In light of the fact that we all see the world through our own set of glasses, shaped by life experience, knowledge base, cultural background, etc., do we not have to give grace to fellow church members who don’t always get it right?

We are a people whose communication skills are getting poorer and poorer and whose priorities change. However, the truth never changes. Priorities will change personally and corporately in our churches. We do make mistakes and disorder our priorities because we are humans in the process of being made holy.

I believe you speak of a “both and” situation. Our church tries to focus on spiritual growth AND serving/loving others. I believe most churches try to do this. We don’t do one without the other. If we focus solely on spiritual growth, we are only focused inward. If we focus only on serving, we lose sight of why we serve.

However, communication is a two-way street. There are hundreds of ways to send a message and thousands of ways those messages are heard (again, through our own set of perceptions). Is it possible that the questions asked are misunderstood as they are filtered through individual perceptions?

I have experienced being so busy serving that I have lost sight of my relationship with the Lord. I have even blamed my church for leading me to do too much. If I am honest though, it’s me that is at fault. I must adjust my perception to focus on the truth rather than questions of judgement or what’s right or wrong or the best way.

My God is Sovereign and Perfect and Loving. He will bless his people and his churches as he chooses and if we think we have the right to criticize the church leaders whom God has placed in authority for not being perfect, we are wrong. Romans 13 says that all authority comes from God, and those in positions of authority have been placed there by God. So anyone who rebels against authority is rebelling against what God has instituted.

These posts are thought-provoking, but they are also promoting disunity among our churches. Our churches are living and changing organisms and if they’re not, they are dying. These questions of right or wrong make us all Pharisees. No wonder “church” gets such a bad wrap.

Your books and writings are consistently thought-provoking, inspiring and brings a good stirring to my soul. I love the local church because it is a great entry-way for the community to experience a relationship with Jesus. My husband and I are church planters, and God has grown the church we began with 13 people 30 years ago to six multi-sites. It is a battle to not get caught up in the busyness and continue to be about transforming lives. We do this (imperfectly) but as intentionallly as possible through several practices. One is to “be the church” not just go to church. To serve our communities as humble servant-leaders. It’s important to ask the questions, “If our church closed its doors, would it impact our community? Would they feel a void and loss? How are we being the church outside the walls to our local schools, sports teams, and other community groups?” The other is to do life in authentic small group communities. We truly believe this is where life transformation takes place, not on the weekend starring at the back of someone’s head. We meet at our campuses throughout our county on Sundays as a gathering of all our life groups. Our journey is wrought with all sorts of battles, just like all churches, but it is worth the fight to try and create small transformational groups where each person, who is so precious to us and Jesus, can be known, loved, serve others and celebrated together. Thirdly, as one walks in their passions and callings that they serve – in the church, outside of the church, wherever it is – another way God transforms us is through using the gifts He gave us to serve others.

Sounds beautiful and exhausting–6 multi-sites, that is. 🙂 It also sounds like God is showing you a way to do it well. God bless you and sustain you in all he has called you to do.

It is very important to be reminded of what we are up to since so very often we forget. Many of us are focused on the details of our message while forgetting why we are doing what we are doing. It is about transformation and not imparting information. The people we work with need to also be made consciously aware of the intent in order that it can be internally digested and put into practice in our faith with the help of the Holy Spirit. Transformation is the higher name for a change. People subscribe to wanting change and resist changing themselves. We own too many years of wanting to be right and it is hard to comprehend anything that suggests we might be wrong. Christ confronts our thinking and it is difficult enough to handle this variance with our thinking. It is important to look at the “fruit” we are bearing and who are we serving? The answer these aspects will say a lot about us and what we are up to in the name of Christ.

Transformation is a wonderfully rich, deep and biblical word, isn’t it? Sometimes when I hear the word “change”, I hear the subtle idea that it is something I am going to accomplish. Because the Pauline language of formation and transformation refers (respectively) to the process by which an embryo is formed in its mother’s womb and a caterpillar enters into its cocoon and emerges as a butterfly–it communicates in a highly nuanced way that God is the one who brings about change as we find ways to open to it. The process of transformation is mysterious and yet it is normal for Christ-followers. It is God-given and yet we can bring wise effort to it. It is universal and yet utterly unique in the life of each person. Beautiful, isn’t it?

Dear Ruth,
Thank you so much for your honesty and commitment to the over all care of the church as you love and understand it. I have been out of the organized church for 10 years simply because I had to go somewhere to find the healing I could not find inside the building. Its not easy being outside, its very lonely at times and it is also just as difficult to create a true living organism of what Jesus prayed for us before he died, “that we would be one as he and the Father were one.” I have not found the answers either. I love what you said about just being Love in our everyday ordinary life doing the little things. I have taken on a motto to love what is and I believe that its time for me to enjoy living with the commitment to God is taking care of his own business and I have a very tiny place to choose how I will do the little things in my space in time. Thank you for asking the hard questions we all want answers for. We must go deeper. My prayer is for transformation. I need the new wine and a new wine skin to put it in. Blessings to your search

Thank you for joining us in this passion and prayer. God will meet us here if we keep facing into our truest questions.

Thank you for the courage to raise your questions. I have recently experienced this failure in a church, which my husband and I chose to leave. Church leadership failed to address the real-life everyday brokenness that we experienced through a recent situation, and missed an opportunity for real transformation. When one of our worshipers was arrested on charges of child sex abuse), the pastor minimized the charges, embraced the perpetrator, invited him to participate fully without supervision, and told the congregation to accept his pleas of innocence.

In this case, the pastor’s inability to acknowledge the wounds caused by this man (the evidence and charges were significant), created another level of pain and trauma for the worshipers. He wanted to walk alongside a sinner (who never sought forgiveness), and he asked the rest of the congregation to follow him. As a former counselor, I witnessed the shock on the faces of adult survivors as they re-experienced the trauma of their own childhood abuses.

Oh My Goodness! This is a very good reason for people to leave church. The potential for being wounded is so great that it’s almost unsafe to be part of a church. This may be an extreme case; however, it illustrates the point that we come to church with the expectation of healing and in opening up our hearts, we allow ourselves to be vulnerable. When this sort of damage comes at the hands of a pastor, we have a difficult time separating his actions from God. If we want to experience the presence of God, how can we do so in this kind of environment? I’d say that church is not always a safe place to experience transformation.

Yes. Parker Palmer says that the soul is like a wild animal–tough, resilient, savvy. It knows how to survive in hard places and it simply will not come out if there is any sense at all that the environment is not safe on any level. When a community is not involved in a serious process of ongoing transformation, it cannot be the safe place souls need in order to flourish. I am sorry this has happened to you all.

Thank you for a thought provoking article. My heart agrees with so much of is especially the need to find somewhere that i could experience what my soul desired and longed for. This has been part of my Journey as a third generation Pentecostal Pastor who acknowledges the need for more than anyone style of church can offer. Five times during lent this year, I found myself praying with a small group of Anglicans in a village church in a way that nothing like my tradition. I think that Christians in general dont pay enought attention to the soul and its transformation/ restoration. In the end, intimacy with Christ and His word has to be a major part of this. King David wrote, “HE restores my soul”. I guess time with HIm , listening to Him therefore has to be a an important part of soul transformation.

Yes, and thus this really does need to be a key emphasis of a transforming church. We should not have to go outside our churches to get this! 🙂

I have long wondered – do we “go to church”? Or do we come to worship God? I served a church that was amazed to think that they came to worship and put the focus on God – instead of thinking the hour in church was to be “entertauned.” (“Wow me, Pastor”)
The idea that they come to GIVE to God their worship rather than to GET something from their time in the building seemed odd to them.
Sometimes I wish the language would change from – this is where I go to church – to – this is where I worship God.

Yes, AND I think sometimes people go to church for a feel-good worship fix rather than engaging a community committed to fostering transformation in Christ’s presence in all sorts of intentional ways–from the way we worship to how we discern God’s will together at the leadership level to how elders and staff relate to one another, to how it effects our human resources policies, to the practices we teach and model, to how we do “production and programming.” At the BTC retreat we are going to grapple with transforming worship as one key component –among many–to cultivating a transforming church.

Thanks Ruth,
I love reading your articles, as a Church Pastor they often scratch exactly where I am itching: just how do I lead a group of believers to grow more like Jesus with all the other Church stuff going on? It’s an on going daily battle. Add to that, I’m also stuck in the U.K.!…. keep writing, I’m looking forward to your new book,
God bless

Ahh…that’s exactly what we will be working on in Sept. and believe me, we do have ideas! 🙂 Wish you could join us.

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