My family clambers onto the porch the other day. It’s shortly after a rainfall, like every day when you live by the Great Lakes.
In the sunbeam, we see another spiderweb glistening between the wrought iron rails. It weighs slightly more than nothing and yet survived a deluge.
Wow. What strength! What elegance!
And then my two year-old picks up a stick and destroys it.
The body of Christ can feel like this. Strong and resilient. Intricate. And then wrecked by childish things.
I want to think about what holds humans together in the Church, and how.
Here are three basic church-forms: all of them biblical, emphasizing mission in different ways, and with real trade-offs.
- The Society
- The Subculture
- The Crucible
Society churches weave a wide web. They connect people together such that every type of person can find a place. A Society church is not simply big but broad.
Our word “society” comes from the Latin societas, which was an association of allies. It was political. In a Society church you don’t agree with everyone on everything. But on your common goals, you are 100% together, and you marshal the resources to make it happen.
Deuteronomy describes a Society church. It’s a big vision to get wide-ranging people to fit together in ways that work. This is one way to understand Moses’ lattice of rules: they are protocol.
Today, many people accuse Society churches of being “seeker-sensitive,” in the pejorative sense of that phrase. Some are. But some are just Society churches. They will not unnecessarily offend, because they have a diverse group to keep together.
A Society church needs Society tools and strategy.
The church itself needs to be big enough for all sorts of programs, or be allied with other churches to support a network.
More than that, the Society church needs a Society vision.
On the one hand, it needs to have a clear, one-sentence mission that everyone gets, everyone says (a lot), and everyone believes. A local church near me: “Reaching every man, woman, and child with repeated opportunities to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ.” That’s a really good one!
On the other hand, a Society vision needs to be able to go big. This is where the singular, one-off Society megachurches fail too often—they oversimplify. Instead, they must offer classes on integrating every part of Christian life, link up chains of believers in similar fields, and support the arts.
The Society church needs to understand that it is not just a vision for Sunday mornings—it is a vision for society.
The best Society churches produce the best, most balanced Christian political thinkers: like Thomas Aquinas in the Roman Catholic Church, and Abraham Kuyper in the Dutch Reformed church.
But if you consider yourself a dissident, you are probably attracted to a different congregation: the Subculture church.
Subcultures smell hypocrisy.
They look at Societies and see all the gaps, the patronage, the tendency toward the middle. But Jesus wasn’t afraid to offend, and neither are we!
The thing about subculture thinkers is that you don’t need to be overly realistic. Read Bonhoeffer’s Life Together or Stanley Hauerwas. They are exciting! It doesn’t matter whether this has been done on a mass scale; what matters is that the kingdom of God has something to say to the world.
Standing in the shadow of a bigger Christian culture, or in the shadow of the secular culture, a subculture can slice some really sharp criticisms. And good ones: you can’t do surgery without cutting deep.
Subculture pastors know what they are against. They know the solution, too, but it’s not just about having a solution. It’s about developing a subculture that knows the problem together. This generates a lot of people with concern and creative solutions for that problem.
Subcultures are great when the church needs to survive, when there are threats and it is very hard. People know they need this place: “To where else would we go?”
Subculture churches are also very good at constantly producing high-quality leaders. Young, idealistic, impressionable people buy the vision, eat the culture, and want to reproduce it. They are all-in.
Subculture church needs Subculture tools and strategy.
You need common lingo. You talk about a “conspiracy” and you wink. You make a high barrier to entry and challenge people to step up.
If you lead a Subculture church, you might say that it is welcome for everyone. It’s not. That’s what makes it so good.
That sounds bad. There should never be churches for young people, or for majority-culture people, or drive our non-gospel differences down to the core. But a subculture has a particular gospel emphasis that makes it unique and compelling and serious, and through all that, it creates a strong web of culture that is deeply attractive.
So much of Acts feels like Subculture church. Or rather, Subculture church is our best shot at approximating what we read in Acts—historically, whenever you read of a church saying, “We need to return to the book of Acts,” it’s a Subculture church. From the Benedictines to the Benedict Option; from Pentecost to the Pentecostals.
Full disclosure: my church is, for the most part, a Subculture church. We started from scratch in a not-gospel-friendly neighborhood. We ask for high commitment and we have great community. It works.
The Society and the Subculture both rely on a common tool: culture.
Culture is so helpful because people tend to default to what others around them do, and to do the kinds of things that regularly happen. The floor is high, but the ceiling is also low.
To say it better: culture can make Christians, but it cannot make saints.
A Crucible church makes disciples.
I mean, it really makes disciples. The tools of the Crucible are spiritual directors, the practice of confession, and triads of intentional formation.
Elijah goes up on a mountain and declares: “I have burned with zeal for the Lord God of hosts.” Today’s Elijahs are prophets, wise men and women. They may be shy or affable on the outside, but then you chat over coffee one day and realize how much they have learned through suffering.
The Crucible says, with John Henry Newman, “To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.”
It’s hard to imagine a wholly Crucible church, right? Where they exist, they are small, highly devoted, almost cult-ish. More likely it’s a discipleship network, or gravitating around a spiritual master.
A great benefit is that the Crucible is immune to the culture.
Or rather, the Crucible forms people who are immune to the culture. The faith flashes its Stoic side: no matter what hell may descend, Christians formed in the Crucible know their Redeemer. They have walked through the valley of the shadow of death with St. John of the Cross. They have faced their sin nature with John Owen. They have heard the still, small voice with Elijah.
Honestly, it’s just too much for most people, most of the time. The Crucible is typically taken in doses.
Some Societies and Subcultures can produce good spaces for Crucibles to exist. But Crucible leaders tend to get frustrated with the complacency of the cultures. Unless, that is, they have already become saints.
Society, Subculture, Crucible
You already see, of course, that churches can operate on different levels.
- A healthy Society church creates space for radicals to group within its midst.
- Subculture churches network together and refrain from burrowing too deeply into their particular visions.
- And both of those cultures become shallow without the uncomfortable brilliance of Crucible Christian pockets.
They all have their problems, too.
For example, Crucible leaders are deeply sympatico with each other—only a few understand—but at their best they give themselves to the benefit of others. This is great, but it is not easily reproducible.
Where will you focus your attention? What is proper to your context?
More importantly, given your vision, how will you create the tools and strategy to make that vision work?
Too many Subculture churches use essentially Society tools, like a low barrier of entry or softening the church’s edge against the culture.
Too many Society pastors were (praise God!) formed by Crucible mentors, but fail to translate that into a Society-workable discipleship program.
Anglican churches in particular are in a funny position. American Anglicanism (in my experience) is mostly Subculture: we have unique—even weird—rituals, a shared lingo, we’ve weaponized our liturgy to be a corrective against the culture.
But Anglicanism is structured at its core as a Society church, obviously. It’s always a big tent, it’s catholic in its tastes, it is bound by a shared history.
I hope you can see that I think there are many legitimate, biblical, and context-appropriate solutions.
But here’s my question: which are you first? Society, Subculture, or Crucible?