June 27, 2024

Types of Churches

Communities are fluid. Think of the place where you grew up. Is it the same today as it was when you were a kid? Likely not. Neighborhoods and towns are always changing. So, too, are churches and faith communities.

Like anything fluid, then, the challenge – and opportunity – is to ride the wave. Growing communities will not always grow. Diminished congregations are not destined to remain so. Trends will shift. Sometimes we can be part of those changes; most of the time, the changes are so deep and seismic that we, even for our best intentions, just roll with ‘em.

I’m trying not to say what many might think is a doomsday projection about the 6,000+ congregations in The Episcopal Church, median average worship attendance hovering around the high 30s. If we want to hold on to most, if many, of these church presences, we’re going to need an entirely different and more fluid platform. We need a broader understanding of various types of churches, and permission to adjust and adapt church types as communities invariably shift.

Recently, the Church of England’s Diocese of Lincoln did precisely that. Starting in 2021, the diocese undertook a deep dive and self-study of its more than 600 churches.[1]

Here's what they say:

“Every one of our over 600 churches in the Diocese of Lincoln, the buildings and the worshipping communities, is valuable, loved and a sign of the presence of God. Each has been nurtured and cared for, and can play a role in the Christian life of greater Lincolnshire.”

That’s not only a true statement, it’s also lovely to state. Waiting for the other shoe to drop? Consider the carefulness – and the profound mind-shift! – that these next words represent:

“Yet, importantly, each church is not the same. There’s a rich diversity of tradition and worship in these buildings. We see reach and activity, plans and people, of buildings and resources, and a balance of burden and blessing. In 2021 we invited every church prayerfully, realistically and with openness and energy, to identify its particular calling. We asked what we see ourselves offering in partnership with others, to grow the Kingdom of God in greater Lincolnshire.”

They came out with five categories, or Types of Churches:

1. Key Mission Churches
2. Local Mission Churches
3. Community Churches
4. Festival Churches
5. Closed and Closing Churches

Key Mission Churches are “large, flourishing, confident … strategically located to serve a significant population and act as a resource / hub. … Capable of significant growth, multiple congregations, well-resourced for worship, with high quality music, youth and family work, social action, area gatherings, teaching and mission. Able to cover its ministry costs and to contribute towards the cost of mission across the wider diocese. Good, accessible building and facilities. Spiritual reservoir for a large area, and an appetite to fulfil its role as a Key Mission Church for a wider area, working in partnership and collaboration with all other church types in its wider catchment area.”

It’s difficult to determine how many are in each category, but from a drop-down map it looks like there might be 18-20 Key Mission Churches.

Local Mission Churches are “flourishing, confident and well-used churches embedded in a specific village, town or area of a larger town, adequately resourced in skills and lay involvement. Everyone should have easy access to such a church. A clear sense of mission to a particular locality or a community, and a keen, prayerful and able active lay team with a commitment to growth and mission.Excellent and attractive welcome, regular worship and nurture, meeting diverse interests and stages of faith, social action and work with young people. Flexible and attractive buildings and resources. Commitment and ability to contribute financially to at least their share of the ministry they receive from the LMP collegial team, whose main focus such churches will be.”

Looks like there are approximately 105-110 Local Mission Churches.

Community Churches are those churches “whose community or active worshippers cannot support the full parish church role of [Key Mission Churches] and [Local Mission Churches], but is keen to keep open with some regular prayer and worship, with a good lay team to help deliver this, and to serve as a focus for the community, and for baptisms, weddings and funerals, and celebrations at key points of the liturgical year where possible.Able to cover the cost of stipendiary ministry received from the LMP, with a team of lay people able to fulfil all that is needed to enable the life of the church. The immediate worshiping community will have as rich a spiritual life as they want, locally led, and gaining wider engagement and worship opportunity through links with nearby mission churches, and other community churches, maybe in a rich, collaborative network.”

There are a lot of Community Churches, about as many Festival Churches, the next category. Working backwards, if you’re keeping count, a generous estimate is that there are roughly 500 other churches remaining. Divided in two, let’s call it 250 Community Churches.

Festival Churches are those “churches that want to continue as places of worship, but don’t have the personnel, resources or regular congregation to have the level of worship and prayer of a Community Church. They will still need enough budget to pay a share contribution to be part of the active church family of the diocese, and they will need lay officers of their own or shared with other churches. They may be open for private prayer, used for a variety of community purposes, offer baptisms, weddings and funerals as part of their LMP, and may be a location for special ‘festival’ events – harvest, carols, songs of praise, mission activities. The status is not permanent – if resources and will and need increase they can return to a fuller life. Local people may seek worship and fellowship in other nearby churches.”

Again, seems to be roughly 250.

And, finally, Closed and Closing Churches because, you know, try as we might not everything can be kept. Nevertheless, the diocese says, “no decision on closure is taken lightly and will involve consultation with those most involved and with the wider community.”

I don’t know how this works in practice, but I appreciate the carefulness and thoughtfulness of the exercise – indeed, the way this approach says to all congregations that all have a place, all have a home. To drive a finer point home: this is precisely the opposite message communicated in a more free, interdependent ‘live and let live’ interpretation of Anglican ecclesiology. I know that we American Anglicans, called Episcopalians, tend to put different emphases on Anglican ecclesiology than, say, our UK colleagues, but I still think it’s worth an exploration, if only for heuristic purposes, even if it’s never actually carried out once and for all in practice.

In fact, that’s the point of this exercise, even in the Diocese of Lincoln. While the types are to some degree fixed, the churches categorized into those types are not. They’re categories in which shifting communities will sometimes fit, and move and shift as life and demographic changes on the ground also happen. The spectrum of types is fluid and flexible, into which particular churches shift and counter-shift. A Festival Church today, for instance, could become a Key Mission Church, and vice versa.

Most exciting about this exercise is that it broadens the current (but unspoken) categories of churches we actually have. For the most part, in most dioceses, Episcopalians have three categories:

1. Open (Parish)
2. Open (Mission)
3. Closed

These are not helpful categories. More so, they are deeply unhelpful categories. Lincoln’s four types fundamentally broaden the question, moving away from institutional language (open or closed) toward more sensitive and theological, incarnational language. These additional categories ask what is happening in that village or town or suburb, not whether (or not) a church should remain open. It’s about what God is doing in this place or region, not whether this institution can rub more nickels together to make their diocesan assessment.

If we, Episcopalians, within some geographic region or diocese came up with various types of churches, would they look like the types in Lincolnshire, or different? Would that region or diocese give itself the permission to relate to one another more sensitively and generously? Would that region or diocese allow the changes that are happening on the ground to happen as quickly as possible – so that the church can learn from the Lord and one another what’s emerging and how to adapt? Would we like to learn how to practice adaptive reasoning and the fluid skills of adaptation, instead of simply talking about it? The comprehensive future of The Episcopal Church seems to depend on our answer to a lot of this.

[1] Page re. Church Types, Diocese of Lincoln website - https://www.lincoln.anglican.org/church-types/