The indistinctiveness of church


I was recently at a conference where the presenter suggested six ways to maintain movement dynamics within a local church. The idea was that these were some ways in which a healthy, self-propagating, ‘organic’ culture of church could be encouraged, which (in the context of the conference) would be a healthy scenario for planting new congregations.

It was good stuff. But one of the six ways raised a question for me. It was suggested that each church needs a distinct, simple and compelling vision. I’m all for ‘simple’ (in more ways than you can imagine!) and I can understand why ‘compelling’ might be useful, but I had a question about ‘distinct’. What is the place of distinctiveness in our local churches? Is it necessary that the vision of one local church is discernibly distinct from the next local church, or should there actually be an element of sameness or indistinctiveness in our vision? And if so, should we be aiming to express our distinctiveness and our indistinctiveness? (Have I stepped over the line of ‘simple’ already?)

I was particularly prompted to think about this question because, just before our speaker presented his six points, we had heard from a church planter who by his own admission, with his staff, had spent thousand of hours and thousands of dollars considering and refining the vision of their church. He presented the final outcome of all this effort to the conference and while I can’t remember the exact details, it was along the lines of “pray, preach, worship, disciple”. I have to admit that my first reaction was: “That doesn’t seem particularly profound or distinctive. Could that money and time have been better spent?”

And so, I started thinking about the indistinctiveness of the local church. My starting point (and there need to be many points to follow I am sure) was to read the introductions of Paul’s letters to the early churches he knew, and see how he addressed them as distinct, or indistinct groups.

Such an analysis is not the stuff of water-tight arguments, given the formulaic approach of Paul’s greetings, but it perhaps provides another brick in the wall of our understanding of what the local church is and how we should talk about it.

Here’s the list:

  • Rom 1:7: To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints.
  • 1 Cor 1:2: To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours.
  • 2 Cor 1:1: To the church of God that is at Corinth, with all the saints who are in the whole of Achaia.
  • Eph 1:1: To the saints who are in Ephesus and are faithful in Christ Jesus.
  • Phil 1:1: To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons.
  • Col 1:2: To the saints and faithful brothers in Christ at Colossae.
  • 1 Thess 1:1: To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Three points struck me from these verses.

First, in each greeting there is a clear indication that each church has a distinctive characteristic—location. (Although in some cases, for example, Ephesians, this geographical label comes under the scrutiny of textual analysis.)

This is a good reminder that, as we think about what is common, there are always some very basic distinctive elements for any local church. Features like geographical location, the language used and the time of day church meets all define distinctives—although in most cases these are often not the profound matters of church vision statements. And so, as it was in the first century, your local church is different from my local church.

But there are two key commonalities that emerge.

First, Paul often identifies the people in the church as ‘the saints’. For some this conjures up an image of statues and halos, but this is not Paul’s intention. Perhaps a literal (and more helpful in our age) translation is ‘holy ones’, with the background being the nation of Israel, brought into a covenant relationship with the holy God. Peter O’Brien writes:

Christians are saints, not in the sense that they are very pious people, but because of the new relationship they have been brought into by God. It is not because of their own doing or good works but on account of what Christ has done. They are set apart for him and his service; as the people of his own possession they are the elect community of the end time whose lives are to be characterized by godly behaviour.1

So the label ‘saints’ is not just a badge to wear, but a call to activity, the activity of godly living.

Secondly, and closely associated to the first, is the declaration of the church member’s status before God. They are loved by God, sanctified in Christ Jesus, in Christ. It is this status which allows the label ‘saints’ to be used in the first place. The nuance of the ‘status statement’ varies letter by letter, but the meaning stays basically the same. The people to whom Paul writes are God’s people, those who have a relationship with God because of the work of Christ.

A more detailed investigation about the ‘in-common’ activities of churches like Bible reading or prayer is for another time and place, but perhaps just from this brief toe-in-the-water survey it is worthwhile recognizing that while by definition there will always be distinctive features of a local church, there are also indistinctive elements. From these examples we can see that some of those indistinctives reflect the fundamental relationship believers have with God, the relationship which underpins the very existence of the local church.

The conference speaker urged us to emphasize the distinctive. Is it possible that in doing so, we can overlook (often by assumption rather than intention) and therefore sideline the very things that give the church its identity and reason for being? Perhaps in a time when originality and new-ness are badges of respectability, it is not distinctiveness that we should be striving for, but indistinctiveness.

1. Peter T O’Brien, The Letter to the Ephesians, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1999, p. 87

20 thoughts on “The indistinctiveness of church

  1. It’s a tough one – perhaps dependent on your audience. I can think of many churches that would need to hear that particular exhortation, so that they’d stop trying to be like ‘Insert Successful Church’s Name Here’…!

  2. I think there is one kind of take on ‘distinctive’ that runs the risk of what you describe here, Peter.

    But I don’t think it’s right to totally dismiss the advice, once it is put in its place as ‘wisdom advice’.

    There are subtle but meaningful flavours to people, communities, Bible Colleges, denominations and churches. It just is.

    Even the way we try to summarise the commonalities and ‘similarities’ of all churches will display the peculiarities of our language, culture and theological influences.

    So although it is a drastically secondary issue, I think that have a clear grasp of your distinct flavour and values and vision is very helpful.

    Even we fancy we are ‘distinctiveness-free’ just ask those near you – they’ll tell you your distinctives!

  3. Hi Peter; a good reminder for all of us to keep the gospel central in all our church planning.

    I had a brief think about places in the Bible which make something of the “distinctiveness” of different churches.

    The main passage I thought of was Revelation 2-3; the letter to the seven churches. Jesus singles out various churches for being distinctive in various ways. But the “distinctives” he’s interested in aren’t unique cultural strengths to focus on for a healthy self-propagatic organic church culture; instead they’re distinctive temptations, distinctive sins, some distinctive expressions of godliness and endurance in the face of temptation, and distinctive ways in which each church needs to repent.

    Maybe this is a more helpful way of thinking about our church’s “distinctives”. Where do we particularly well in following Jesus? What are our blind spots, our distinctive sins? What is it about the place we live in that creates distinctive temptations for us to forget about Christ, etc. And what do we, in particular, need to do to address these sins and temptations?

  4. @Mikey – I hear you and agree. I have my distinctives pointed out to me all the time! I think its usually kind!
    I guess the ‘application’ of the wisdom that I saw at this conference was a bit over the top – it wasn’t subtle or meaningful as you suggest, but dominant and perhaps even the focus (in my opinion) and so it got me thinking about things.

    It seemed to me that there is sometimes a temptation for too much sociology / anthropology at the expense of theology. And thus the ‘distinct flavor’ of what happens in church becomes something other than the gospel.

    Just thinking out loud – interested in your opinions and experience in the exciting world of church planting.

  5. Hi Lionel,

    Thanks for that – interesting to see how in Rev the distinctives are matters of godliness etc. I guess part of the issue to think about is how we express those to our church members, and to the world, as often that is the purpose of their mention in vision statements etc.

    By the way – I’m with you in spirit at the moment. Snowflakes are drifting past my window!

  6. @Anthony,

    You raise an interesting point – the desire of some churches to ‘mimic’ others. Is that OK, or not? What are the categories they are trying to mimic? If they are godliness etc – then perhaps that is a good thing?

  7. Thanks for your reply, Peter. I completely agree with you that the vast amount of our energy and efforts should be on what makes us ordinary!

    I pray God gives you grace and tact to know how to address an over-emphasis on sociologobabble in your context.

  8. Isn’t it almost disobedient to set about coming up from scratch with some grand mission statement when Jesus already gave us one?

    I realise there is some distinction between vision and mission but I don’t *see* it yet.

    Also of interest,  was prov 29:18 (mis)quoted?

  9. Hi Michael,

    No mention was made of Prov 29:18 – perhaps thankfully!

    I think we may stray into the realms of obedience / disobedience if the sociologobabble (to quote M. Lynch) becomes ‘the new gospel’, but there probably is a place for thinking about distinctives and expressing that in some helpful way. Where the emphasis is, and what place that has – thats where I think we possibly need to give more weight to the indistinctives.

  10. Since the vast majority of church growth consists of attracting people who are already converted from other churches at is important to be distinctive.  Otherwise, why would they leave their current church and join yours?

  11. I wonder to what degree we problematise something that would otherwise be more straightforward.

    We are concrete, specific people – individuals and communities – who hear the one Word of God that forms and reforms us.

    To respond to that Word properly requires a total response from us, which involves everything that makes us particular, as well as what makes us fundamentally human.

    Hence, a whole-hearted response to the Word should actually involve differentiation anyway.  Even if you and I agree theologically, I will lead services, lead congregations, disciple, preach, teach, pastor, evangelise, be a friend differently from someone else.  And a congregation will be similar – it will have its own corporate identity (that will change over time).

    I wonder if the issue is not so much one or the other, but that focusing on differentiating is like focusing on style over substance – its shallow, flakey, and self-absorbed.  It’s celebrityitis, an ecclessial version of a Pop Star, or Hollywood actor.

    Whereas a generic church is the problem in the mirror – there still hasn’t been a full engagement with the word that addresses us in all our particularity.

    Having said that, some of us have more boring personalities than others.  And some churches will likely be ‘greyer’ and have less colour than others. I don’t think that’s a problem (as long as we’re fine with colourful personalities and churches too), but I wonder if part of this is to try and pursue a charisma that only a few of us ever have.

  12. @David,

    While the ‘transfer growth’ of church planting may be a real issue (although many church planters I know say ‘thanks for coming – now go back and serve in your own church’ if people come ‘shopping’ for no particular reason) the evidence I saw presented at this conference was that many of the new people joining new congregations were either brand new to Christianity, or were ‘inactive’ Christians (if there is such a thing!)

    Anecdotal evidence suggests that for many of these people, it the ‘distinctiveness’ of the new church was significant in confronting them with the truths of the gospel. The fact that it wasn’t what they expected made them sit up and listen. So in that sense, the distinctives are very positive. Perhaps we could say that the distinct things allow or invite interaction with the indistinct?

    I guess a ‘test’ might come when they have to move city and try and find a new church. What happens if their new city doesn’t have a church that exhibits these distinctives – will they demonstrate a conversion to Christ, or to a particular form?

  13. Hi Mark – I suspect I might be one of the ‘greyer’ ones (although maybe that is just part of the ageing process…)

    Your comment about celebrityitis was an interesting one – got me reflecting again on the evidence we were presented with. I think the majority, if not all of the churches presented as ‘good examples’ were aiming at quite a ‘niche’ – for example the arts community, the homeless, the hip or the high flying city professionals. We didn’t hear any stories of the people reaching out to the average suburban 9-5 types. I presume these exist – in fact I know they do. Are we getting to impressed by the ‘spectacular’ to appreciate and be thankful for the ‘normal’ (in the statistical sense).

    Perhaps as you mention, the problem with this is that we feel the need to present ourselves as special and distinctive when we’re not, and the only people who can plant a church are the distinctive and charismatic, when maybe the faithful and ‘average’ are needed as well?

  14. “We didn’t hear any stories of the people reaching out to the average suburban 9-5 types. I presume these exist – in fact I know they do.”

    This raises an equally problematic concern. Sometimes those who presume to speak for the non-remarkable and the ‘jus plain ol’ Christianity’ make all sorts of cultural assumptions about what ‘average’, ‘ordinary’ and ‘unremarkable’ are.

    We claim to be simple delivering ‘the Bible with no bells and whistles’ but are actually delivering a very distinct package for the middle class suburbanite which is alienating to others in our community.

  15. Mikey,

    Agreed – every time we do something we are going to make assumptions that some will identify with and others with find alienating.

    I guess my question was why the ‘trophy’ church plants (in the context of this conference anyway) were the ‘quirky’ (in the statistical sense).

    Perhaps one aspect all churches need to work on is encouraging those who are on the statistical ‘edge’ to stick around and do what they can to welcome others who feel that this normal is not their normal?

    Then again – there’s always plenty of space for many a new fellowship group starting – so its probably a both/and situation.

  16. Agreed.

    The high flyer must welcome the ordinary.

    The suburban ‘average’ must welcome the poor, the crazy and the single mother.

    The hipster must welcome the daggy and the instant coffee drinker…

  17. Thanks for the discussion, much appreciated.  There are three issues that puzzle me. 1) People keep using the word “church” with all of its conceptual confusion (Thanks King Jim) 2) When did the gathered people of God become the primary means of evangelism, (Confusing 1 Corinthians 9 with 1 Corinthians 14) 3) How do you tell someone the invitation to follow Christ is an invitation to come and die, but we don’t expect you to have to put up with a congregation that isn’t like you?

  18. I am wondering: do pastors, when they come in to a church position, look at the strengths and weaknesses of their church and work out a ministry strategy from there (eg preach against the sins, look at people’s gifts and work out plans to utilise them, etc)?  Or is that a bit rigid?

  19. Pete and Mikey, the real problem is that we make the assumptions without realising we have done so!
    My husband faithfully attends Men’s Convention with our church contingent.  The jokes and illustrations are mostly about cars, footy and DIY.  My husband doesn’t relate to this at all, but he isn’t there to feel comfortable: he’s serving the men of our church.  He also knows that being a Christian man *doesn’t* mean being a blokey bloke, but I wonder if everyone present does?  (As for me, I live in terror of the time when Gingerbread House Night arrives at our church!)

  20. Hi Ellen,

    Good question and pastors and new churches. Perhaps we’d better wait for some answers from the practitioners??

    The point you make (illustrated by Men’s Convention) is a really good one. Of course we make assumptions all the time – thats just the way it is I guess. But the idea you raise about how we respond to a distinctive that is not us is a really good one. OK – so its not me (and I completely understand the issue you raise), but for some people that distinctive is helpful, and we are there to serve – so we can help others by continuing to go.

    Having said that, we also need to work hard at the distinctives we are assuming, and see if they are really representative of the people there and make changes if not. That is also equal service.

    Service does not equal ‘putting up with it’, but being constructively critical in a context of brotherly love.

    Greetings to you and your non-DIY, non-footy and non-car husband!

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