Every local church is one of a kind. Each one is unique. There are an estimated 350,000 churches in the United States. They are all distinct and unlike any other.
You can find churches with similarities based on common beliefs or methods, but no church is exactly alike. There are churches with similar architecture, race, methods, and programs, but none of these are exactly the same. Every church has its own DNA.
These elements are what often draw people to the church. They are also what lead people away. Pastors, elders, and staff members should understand these elements. Potential church leaders and members should also know them.
To understand a church you have to know its DNA, and there are four DNA elements found in every church. I will lay out each element and highlight its implications for the church.
Every church has theological convictions and beliefs. These theological beliefs—whether they are orthodox or biblical—cover views on creation, the Bible, God, man, salvation, the Church, gifts, eschatology, and more. These beliefs also include convictions on social issues and ethics like homosexuality, marriage, abortion, racism, materialism, and others.
As a pastor, you need to know and guide the church’s theology (along with elders and other pastors) towards biblical foundations. You must also communicate clearly with new or prospective members where you stand theologically. And while there may be common denominational beliefs, this is a distinct DNA element of every local church.
2. Philosophy of Ministry
Every church has a philosophy of ministry or approach for doing ministry. These methods are how they carry out their purpose and mission to make disciples. These include decisions like small groups in homes vs. Sunday School at the church, praise band vs choir, weekly communion vs. quarterly (or some other frequency) communion, board led vs. staff led vs. congregational led (though this decision can flow from theological belief), kids programs vs. family integrated ministry, and many more.
The purpose of contrasting is not to suggest one is right and the other is wrong, but to simply show that philosophy of ministry is usually a decision of how ministry is going to get done.
A church’s size determines how it will function and operate. This shapes people’s experience and involvement in the church. Tim Keller has written an incredibly helpful article on this subject entitled: Leadership and Church Size Dynamics. He outlines the dynamics that accompany different size churches.
Churches of 60 and 600 have many differences in approach to discipleship, care for members, planning worship gatherings, and the role of staff. People coming from a church of 60 to a church of 600 may find their expectations unmet. Why? They are imposing a size culture of 60 onto their new church of 600. The opposite can also happen. Someone coming from a church of 1,000 with dynamic, high-quality worship gatherings, may experience shock when they attend a church of 100 and Aunt Betty—who cannot sing—is singing a solo during offering. People expecting deep friendship with every person at church should never join a church above 30 people, yet many attend larger churches while exhaustingly and foolishly trying to impose that size expectation upon them. Pastors and congregants need to understanding the DNA element of size.
Every church is situated in a community. There are obvious cultural differences between churches in New York, California, Minnesota, Tennessee, and Montana. There are also social cultures in each church. Some are formal and others are casual. Some are friendly and welcoming, others feel more exclusive. Many elements converge to form a church’s unique culture. This DNA feature is distinctly evident in an example of two churches with nearly identical theology, philosophy of ministry, and size, but one is in Seattle, Washington, and the other is in Des Moines, Iowa. Similar, but very different churches.
These are the four DNA elements present in every church. Understanding them has helped me avoid knee-jerk changes when someone leaves the church.
I have seen people drawn to my church for different reasons. Some like our preaching of the Bible and strong emphasis on theology. Others love the friendly environment, fun kids ministry, and our worship music. These features are all a part of our church. Some may be drawn to our strong biblical convictions and unashamed willingness to preach Christ crucified for sinners. But those same people can be—and have been—turned off by our style of music or lights on stage or the fact that I preach in jeans. Conversely, we have reached people who love our music and laid back environment (philosophy of ministry), only to be turned off by a message on the sinfulness of homosexuality (theology) or the fact I did not visit the ER when little Johnny sprained his ankle (size dynamic).
Nothing changed about us. We didn’t do anything wrong. They were simply drawn to one or more elements of who we were, while not understanding or looking at other elements of who we were. Before I understood these dynamics, it drove me nuts trying to figure out why people who previously loved our church, suddenly did not. In most of those cases, people left our church because one or more of our DNA elements were not compatible with them. And that’s okay.
Pastors and leaders must grasp this issue. We can help others understand it through membership or newcomers classes. Not every person will be a good fit for our churches. However, you can help connect the right people by outlining the whole picture of your church. Yes, always seek to learn from those who leave your church, but don’t assume someone leaving means you did something wrong. Every church is one of a kind. Grasping this can give you clarity and peace.