It’s hard to believe I have been traveling and working with churches and leaders full time since 1993. Wow! That’s almost thirty years. I have watched, listened and learned over that time as I have engaged with churches of virtually every size and shape from denominational to independent, large and small congregations that are traditional, contemporary and somewhere in between. Over the years, it seems to me that most churches have a dominant style or philosophy of operation, and that style defines their identity, purpose, and even effectiveness.  

Let’s talk about different styles of church in America today.

I will list three for our consideration. None of them are wrong, in and of themselves. They all have strengths and weaknesses, areas of effectiveness and efficiency, and areas of ineffectiveness and inefficiency. Below, I’ve listed them and some of their characteristics that I have observed over the years.

  1. The Event Driven Church
  • Generally, they are personality focused and driven.
  • Usually led by dynamic speaker(s) 
  • Normally heavy on religious structure and culture – Typically,   their leadership orientation is “command and control.”  
  • Performance driven (Know “how to do good church”)
  • Experience oriented (Their main success metric was someone’s experience.)
  • Normally strong in experience and evangelism, but weak in discipleship 
  • Low volunteer engagement/high leadership burnout rates
  • Key Word: Experience 
  1. The Program Driven Church
  • General leadership style is through administrative gift
  • Programs drive their culture and gravity in the community.
  • They  tend  to offer strong  programs  that are normally targeted at specific demographics like men, women, children and youth, etc. They can also be oriented to deal with issues like drug and alcohol addiction, divorce, parenting,  etc. 
  • Most services are less about experience and more about recruiting for ministry programs. Sunday is a sort of showroom where programs are sold. 
  • Success metric is normally based on levels of participation in programs and organizational membership.
  • A weakness is the lack of collective purpose in the organization. One can participate in three or four programs and not necessarily grow as a believer or in community. 
  • Heavy on activity not always strong in discipleship 
  • Key Word: Participate
  1. The Process Driven Church
  • Everyone is encouraged to be in the process of discipleship and service.
  • Volunteers and serving are critical in the process.
  • Engagement and activation of believers is the focus.
  • Personal development and growth of the person is the goal.
  • They can be similar to program driven churches, except there is a core concept of integrated growth objectives and philosophy that are threaded through programs, leading the participant toward a deeper relationship with God and local community. 
  • Normally, there is a path that facilitates the process (like Growth Track, Next Steps, etc.).
  • Key Word: Development (Discipleship)


While each of these can be effective to varying degrees, I believe that great churches learn to integrate the best elements of all three. For example, about 70% of people come to Christ in moments of personal crisis. This is why an experience, something they can feel that creates hope, can be so effective, evangelistically. But, if we offer only an experience, we must always be one-upping their last experience to hold their attention and to sustain their commitment. It can create an unhealthy “What have you done for me lately?” culture that creates consumer Christians instead of disciples of Christ. The experience should only be the beginning of a relationship. Great churches understand the power of a strong experience-based event, but also understand that we must add great programs that encourage deeper community in smaller settings. It’s in these smaller settings that people are engaged on a personal level and can encounter and process truth. Here, we begin to see lasting transformation. Jesus said, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free,” but truth is encountered and experienced through layered progression as it is taught and modeled through a process. When programs are simply steps in a greater process that is filled with transformational truth, disciples are created, community is developed, and individual and collective purpose is discovered. Churches that master these elements grow, and many grow a lot! 

What’s your church’s style? How does it operate? Do you know? Have you ever thought about it? Well, it matters. It can have a lot to do with growth and missional effectiveness.  Three keys to church growth today? Great events and strong integrated programs that lead people through a process of spiritual growth are critical keys for any church moving forward. 

What are some qualities of each that are appealing to you?

this article was originally published in the 2021 Summer Destiny Magazine