Should Churches Differentiate?

A few years ago, in a show of solidarity with my daughter, I reread the classic Little House on the Prairie books and Anne of Green Gables. One phenomenon I noticed this time around (probably because I’m in the habit of thinking about church leadership) was that the books’ churchgoing characters didn’t have to choose between churches of various sizes and stripes. They simply attended the church in town and enjoyed (or put up with) the teachings of Reverend So-and-So every Sunday.

My, how things have changed. Along with the constant and dizzying array of other choices we face every day, we have the luxury of choosing the church we like best. I know some small towns and villages in our country still have only one church. But in most of those cases, people live within driving distance of other communities and might choose to drive to one of them to attend another church. The situation is very different where I live–in some areas I can find a church on every block. And on a recent trip to the area around Fort Worth, Texas, I thought I saw at least two churches on every block.

Recently someone asked me for advice in finding a church, and I had a hard time helping. After all, there are so many options, and most of the differences are subtly detected–yet sometimes important. My input became so complex, I had to stop and just list some ideas.

Sometimes I wonder how people make sense of the selection and choose a church to attend. I have my own preferences and when moving to a new area, my husband and I usually have started with the comforts of our “home” denomination. But many churches downplay their denominational affiliation, if they have one. It actually can be hard to discover. And for people without the constraints of denominational preference–and especially those for whom church attendance is not a long-ingrained habit–how do they make a selection? I’m not sure how I would (apart from visiting every church in town and receiving some clear guidance from the Holy Spirit every week).

Some churches don’t seem all that concerned about this question, while for others it seems of primary concern. Some churches have learned to differentiate and market themselves smoothly; others try but stumble awkwardly. In both smooth and awkward attempts, churches often subtly put down other churches, implying that they’re the only ones who’ve finally gotten it right. (We’re the friendly church. We’re the fun ones. We’ll welcome you. You won’t feel judged here. We’re casual and nonthreatening. We serve the community.) I know what this communicates to me; I wonder what it says to people on the outside looking in.

In my view, many of these efforts to be attractive are actually quite unattractive.

So in their efforts to attract people, should churches differentiate themselves from one another? Can they highlight their attractive features somehow without implying that other churches are less attractive? Should they call attention to themselves at all? And if they should be promoting their individuality, what sorts of differentiation do you believe make sense to people who are looking for a church?

Maybe, as in so many areas of life, it all comes down to who you know. Perhaps the best way to help people find the church they’re longing for is to go outside and be the kind of person they want to be with.

What do you think?


This blog post first appeared here on Christianity Today’s


  1. Good thoughts, Amy. Interestingly enough, my pastor preached on a similar topic yesterday. 🙂

    I am not a fan of the programmatic/attractional model that many, if not most churches have adopted these days. It allows people to be consumers of religious goods and services, I think. Yes, churches are communities, and places where people belong, and are discipled. But, we should not choose a church, nor go to church for what’s in it for us. Worship is about giving God praise and glory, not us “getting our batteries charged”. Church (literally in Greek “the ones called out”) is primarily about mission and discipleship (an important balance). I wonder how choosing a church would change if most Christians prayed and asked God to reveal the church and mission to which God is calling them.

  2. anonymous says:

    In church, I’m not looking to be entertained. I am looking to delve into the Bible, get busy living what we learn, delve into the Bible some more, worship, be with fellow believers. While very, very well-intentioned, my husband and I felt churches/bible studies/children’s ministries offered milk instead of solid food. SO! We began “home church.” Every Sunday, we watch a sermon online with our children, then everyone shares. And it has been miraculous for our faithwalks. It’s the anchor of our week, we never skip, we reference our new learnings throughout the week. We’ve been doing this for over a year.
    Why I’m really telling this rambiling tale is this: you’re smart! You love the church. May I simply ask – what do you think about what we’re doing? Also, is it not fitting with God’s idea of church?

    • Amy says:

      Interesting question! Here’s my take on it (and other Christians might disagree). The church is not a building, a club, or a cultural institution. The church is an organic body, the living, breathing, and ever-changing presence of Christ in this world, empowered by the Holy Spirit to somehow reflect Jesus’ character through flawed and kooky people. The church as we tend to think of it in our society is just that–an expression of the church in our society. So I don’t think it’s a requirement that Christians attend church as we traditionally think of it. However, disengaging from the body of Christ is not an option for followers of Christ. Whether we like it or not, we are part of that body, connected to the rest of it, and our actions (or inaction) have an impact on the overall organism. So anyone who is opting out of our traditional cultural expression of the church should be engaged with the body, and using spiritual gifts to build the body of Christ, in some other way. Otherwise, they are failing to live up to what the New Testament clearly and repeatedly requires of us. I can’t speak specifically to your situation because I don’t know how you are engaged with building the body of Christ in other ways. I hope that helps!

  3. anonymous says:

    More than you know – thank you!

© 2012 Amy Simpson.