In my Christian experience I’ve come to recognize and appreciate two types of churches, what I call the local church and the regional church. I categorize the local church as something under 100 persons (including children). I categorize the regional church as something around 500 persons (including children). There are of course churches with memberships between 100 and 500, but such churches are by-and-large either on a path to be a regional church, or they are on a path to be a local church, that is, they are growing or they are declining. It seems that the stable churches are either under 100 persons or over 500 persons, and there are differences between the two types. Churches under 100 persons can be pastored by one person effectively. Churches larger than 100 persons required multiple ministers to meet the needs of the organization and congregation.
Every church began as a local church. Even the mega-churches, with memberships in the tens of thousands, began with a handful of people with a dream and a vision. I’ll also say that one church type is not superior to another; both have their function and their place and both exist because they serve a purpose.
Overall, a church should be a place where the unsaved can come and hear a gospel message and come to know Christ as savior. It should be a place where baptisms are carried out, infants are dedicated, solid teaching and preaching is brought forth, and the saints are equipped for the work of the ministry. It should be a place where relationships are formed and men and women do their part to advance the kingdom of Heaven. This should be common to both the local and regional churches.
Yet there are differences, and each has strengths and weaknesses, and each has unique things to offer the Christian. The leadership is different between the two church types, the needs are different between the two church types, the opportunities for service are different between the two church types, and the exposure to visiting ministry is different between the two church types. Again, one is not superior to the other, but it’s worth knowing the differences if you are searching for a church to be a part of. Following are the differences in my experience.
Leadership – Education The leadership’s educational background in the regional church is typically more formal. As a rule the regional church pastors will have as a minimum a master of divinity degree, with many pastors holding doctorates. The local church typically has less formal education, with many of their pastors being self-taught and coming up through the ranks of Christendom. Often a local church pastor had a career before being a pastor, and felt the call of God on his life and with experience more than formal education embarked into the ministry. Regardless of the formality of one’s education, they should be godly, experienced, and not a novice, and able to handle the scriptures. 2 Timothy 2:15 Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.
Leadership – Availability The leadership in the regional church can be expected to be at the church office during business hours. They are accessible since they are employed full-time because the church has the resources to support them. The local church pastor may well be working a full-time job during the day, and is only available evenings and weekends since the church may not be able to support the pastor, the rent, utilities, and other common expenses. However, the local church pastor is much more likely to visit you at your home and you visit him at his. The regional church pastor by the sheer numbers of the congregation will not be able to be as close personally to those in the congregation as would the local pastor. The regional church pastor is also more likely to travel abroad (the larger the church the more likely this is) and thus then not be personally available, but there will be a staff member available virtually all the time. 1 Peter 5:1-3 The elders which are among you I exhort, who am also an elder, and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed: 2 Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre (money), but of a ready mind; 3 Neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but being examples to the flock.
Leadership – Personality The local church pastor is more likely to be a people-person, that is, they would be the shepherding type, very involved in the lives of their congregation and very much inclined to visit them and fellowship with them. They know when someone is sick, graduating, changing jobs, or wanting to move into ministry themselves one day. The local pastor is at ease visiting the membership, having barbeques with them, going out to lunch after service with them, and having members over to their home. They’ll share their personal information with them and enjoy hearing the stories of others. Regional pastors can be more program-oriented and be concerned about brick-and-mortar. They too love people but their personality is driven to excel in other areas of the kingdom. They run a staff, they have to make ends meet at a high level and thus have less time for the individual, especially an individual needing a lot of attention. Highly educated ministers may prefer study, group teaching, and attending conferences above visitation. Whether a local pastor or a regional pastor, the pastor should be called of God to the ministry and as such be faithful in the areas God has gifted them. Acts 14:23 And when they had ordained them elders in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord, on whom they believed.
The Building A regional church has its own facility. Local churches may or may not have their own facility; they are more likely to rent a facility or meet in a home. Home churches often meet in the home of the pastor. These are very intimate gatherings, with much prayer and teaching. By virtue of the closeness of the people there is much accountability and growth is expected and observable. If you are absent it’s known immediately! Local churches often need the congregation to provide necessary building maintenance. This is another way to get involved. Regional churches have paid staff who handle the building needs. Acts 5:42 And daily in the temple, and in every house, they ceased not to teach and preach Jesus Christ.
Exposure A regional church is far more likely to have a broader, more diverse number of visiting ministers and missionaries coming through the church over time. Local churches will often be limited to local ministers who visit and share their ministry. This is not good, bad, nor indifferent; it’s just the way that it is. You may well be able to develop a relationship with the visiting ministry in the local church, since they’re likely from your same area. Far less so ministry visiting the regional church (though now with email it’s been my joy to keep abreast of foreign missionaries who send out email newsletters; years ago that wasn’t possible). Be it the local church or the regional church, expect that missionaries will visit your church and when they do always put something in the offering for them, always! Acts 13:2-3 As they ministered to the Lord, and fasted, the Holy Ghost said, Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them. 3 And when they had fasted and prayed, and laid their hands on them, they sent them away.
Opportunity The local church is typically run by volunteers and by virtue of the many needs and the sole pastor, a person can rise up and participate in decision-making and ministry much faster and in much more significant ways than they ever will in the regional church. The pastor is much more likely to provide you with responsibility and opportunity because it’s necessary, you are available, and if you have leadership ability and a desire to serve, you will be called upon. Personal spiritual development comes faster, in my experience, in the local church, because you have opportunity and you get to stub your toe trying while you’re learning, and you’re doing this on a small stage, that is, in the small local church. The regional church typically has paid staff who handle the spiritual matters and even the practical matters. Local church members can be involved in work parties, painting the church, mowing the lawn, and other practical helps that are covered already in the regional church. The exercise of the gifts of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12, 14) are much more likely to occur for you in the local church since it’s less intimidating to do so in smaller groups, and there is more time flexibility in a local church (regional churches have to keep to a schedule if multiple services are run on a Sunday morning). In a regional church, if you want to, you can hide out and make no friends and do nothing but sit and watch and never get involved. This cannot happen in a local church, everybody knows when a new person comes through the door and everyone knows if you’re absent! Acts 6:1-4 And in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplied (becoming a regional church), there arose a murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews, because their widows were neglected in the daily (local church – personal) ministration. 2 Then the twelve called the multitude of the disciples unto them, and said, It is not reason that we should leave the word of God, and serve tables. 3 Wherefore, brethren, look ye out among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business. 4 But we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word. Note that the apostles were not going to be available for daily fellowship and care; as the numbers grew others had to fill that gap, and do some of the ministry and the practical things as well. This happened in the days of the early church and it happens today.
Know Thyself Whether you are a minister, a would-be minister, a new Christian, or a mature Christian, know what you are all about, what you want, who you are, and then align yourself with either the local church or the regional church, and be content with that and get in and get busy. Do not go to a regional church and then murmur and complain that the pastor doesn’t come to visit you at your home (in my three local church experiences many times I was at the pastors’ home and they were at mine; in my two regional church experiences I have never been to the pastors’ home and they’ve never been to mine – that’s just how it is). Don’t go to a local church and expect the pastor to be a Hebrew and a Greek scholar (all of my local church pastors were self-taught or taught by their local association but not in seminary; all of my regional church pastors have had advanced degrees from formal colleges). If you chose a regional church, then expect that some big-name ministers will come by (in my regional church experience I’ve met national and international personalities such as Joni Eareckson Tada, Ravi Zacharias, Mark Buntain, R.W. Schambach, Hank Hanegraaff, Chuck Colson, Dinesh D’Souza, The African Children’s Choir, scores of missionaries, and more), but don’t be jealous of your friend at the local church who, after five years, is an elder and gets to preach occasionally on a Sunday and you’ve been at your regional church for ten years and have never been asked to preach nor ever will be. Problems arise when expectations are not met. If your local church is searching for a pastor and you get one with advanced degrees and a penchant for growing the church five-fold then you’ve gotten a regional church pastor (mindset) for your local church, and everyone will be miserable. 1 Corinthians 12:14-18 For the body is not one member, but many. 15 If the foot shall say, Because I am not the hand, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body? 16 And if the ear shall say, Because I am not the eye, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body? 17 If the whole body were an eye, where were the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where were the smelling? 18 But now hath God set the members every one of them in the body, as it hath pleased him.
Common Attributes Whether a local or regional church, all churches should have the following in common:
- Preaching from the Bible, preferably from the King James, New King James, or New International Versions. Some other versions are acceptable, but beware a church that uses a toy Bible (Living Translation, etc.) that lack doctrinal authority and are paraphrases rather than translations. Acts 18:28 For he mightily convinced the Jews, and that publicly, showing by the scriptures that Jesus was Christ.
- Congregants bring their Bible to church. Acts 17:11 These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so.
- A solid Statement of Faith outlining what the church believes. Titus 1:9 Holding fast the faithful word as he hath been taught, that he may be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers.
- Strong, inspirational singing and worship. Psalm 100:4 Enter into his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise: be thankful unto him, and bless his name.
- Active in outreach, in the local community as well as in foreign missions. Matthew 28:19 Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
- Observing the sacraments – the Lord’s Table and Water Baptism. 1 Corinthians 11:24-26 And when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me. 25 After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, this cup is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me. 26 For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do show the Lord’s death till he come.
- Altar calls after service and prayer time after service. Romans 10:9-10 That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved. 10 For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.
- Strong leadership, financially sound, consistent, caring. Acts 20:28 Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood.
- Accountability and discipline as needed, administered properly, but still administered. Matthew 18:15-17 Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. 16 But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. 17 And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.
- Equipping the people to carry on the work of the ministry. Ephesians 4:11-12 And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; 12 For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ.
There are other things too, such as men’s and women’s ministry, Sunday School, children’s ministry, almsgiving, and any number of other good works and good activities. All churches should be bringing people from spiritual infancy to spiritual maturity. People should be getting saved as a result of the work of the church. Families should be being strengthened. Even seasonal activities are a blessing (Easter, Christmas, etc.). 2 Timothy 3:15 And that from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.
Another common attribute of any church is that they are run by people and people are imperfect. Try as we might to be conformed into the image of Christ, and do the will of God always, and make good decisions, and lead properly, the reality is that sometimes a minister makes a mistake. They say the wrong thing. They offend someone, unintentionally, but still do so. James 3:2 For in many things we offend all. If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man, and able also to bridle the whole body. There are no perfect ministers; herein we all have an opportunity to extend grace as the minster, even when doing his best, is still fallible.
Something to watch out for are churches, local or regional, that don’t preach the entire Christian message. Some leave out orthodox doctrine, feeling that it is divisive (it is, but that’s not a good reason to ignore it). Some embrace false doctrines, and as a result err and live in confusion. Some are social churches, more interested in appearances and “getting along” rather than doing the will of God. Some have ministers who themselves are not born again. So how do you know at first look if a church is on the right track? Well, ask them for their statement of faith. Ask them about outreach ministry. Ask them about their vision, their plan, how they were founded, how they handle church discipline, and what Bible do they preach and teach from. This can all be handled in 15 minutes. The first time I went to the church I now attend I asked the pastor this, I said, “pastor, I’m involved in jail and prison ministry. There may well be a time when someone I’ve ministered to wants to come to this church. How would you feel about that?” Some ministers would say, “Well, they may be more welcome at the church down the road a bit…” My pastor didn’t bat an eye, he looked me in the eye and said “you bring as many as you can, that’s why we’re here.” That’s what a minister of the gospel does, that’s what my pastor did. Jeremiah 3:15 And I will give you pastors according to mine heart, which shall feed you with knowledge and understanding.
My Story In my Christian life of over thirty years I’ve been a part of five churches. My first church was a local church, it had a small congregation. Very personal. I liked it. I had nothing to measure it against, so I figured this was how all churches were. My second church was a regional church; this was the church I was married in. Major ministries came through, and missionaries from around the world spoke there. In both of these churches I was what I consider to be a liability, that is, they had to teach me, train me, equip me, feed me and spiritually burp me and I wasn’t able to provide much in return in regards to ministry. I was learning. I was giving. I was faithful, but I just didn’t know much of anything so I couldn’t be trusted with anything beyond folding chairs after a banquet. My third church was a local church. This was a transitional church for me, that is, I went from being a liability to an asset at this church under its leadership. These were happy and exciting times. I was now an asset and I could minister too. This was the goal! My fourth church was also a local church, one I helped establish. I walked in the door as an asset; I was experienced in ministry, doctrine, family, outreach, and the workings of the Holy Spirit. In my fifth church again I entered as an asset and have been with this church longer than all of the previous four combined. My fifth church is a regional church and fits my needs, since most of my ministry work is done with Prisoners For Christ.
The exposure to national ministries in the regional church fits for me. Not being on the ministry team at church fits because I do my ministry mostly with the international Prisoners For Christ Outreach Ministries. As chairman of the board for Prisoners For Christ, and ministering monthly in jails and prisons, and annually travelling overseas, the time-freedom I have by being a part of a solid and stable regional church allows me to focus on my main ministry, which is to inmates of jails and prisons. I’m not expected to mow the lawn at my regional church, nor paint the building. I show up and everything is set up. I can help at the altar for prayer as needed and as I feel moved, and when it’s time to go I don’t have to lock up the building (like I did in the local church on occasion).
My disposition is toward people. If I was ever a pastor I’d be the type who had a previous career, who came up through the ranks, who was largely self-taught and taught by pastors and teachers in a church environment. I’d want to know the congregation and visiting would be something I’d do (which I presently do). That’s how I’m wired. That’s why I can visit the prisoner, write to them, spend one-on-one time with them, because I think like the local pastor, not like the regional pastor. At my church I’m a certified minister of the gospel, accountable to the local church, but able to minister with credentials in hospitals and even performing weddings. Yet I’m also on the board of an international prison ministry and there I have to make decisions and think like a regional pastor as we seek to expand the work of the ministry. A local pastor too has to have an eye toward growth, and as such has to stretch himself in this area because it’s not his first desire (the administration of resources), he’d rather be visiting and sharing. Counter this with the regional pastor, who is very comfortable in the business side of the church, and is comfortable in fundraising, planning, hiring and firing, and balancing the books. For him he has to make the effort to be more engaged on a personal level with people, since people really are what it’s all about.
There is a special burden that I’d imagine all ministers carry, and especially pastors, be they local or regional pastors, and that’s having your heart crushed by people. Maybe the average man thinks pastors and Christian leaders are immune to hurt feelings. Maybe they think that because they’re mature men of God and skilled in the ways of the Lord and are in full-time Christian service that they aren’t really bothered by criticism, backbiting, and endless suggestions on how they can “really be effective in ministry.” Even at my level I’ve experienced this and I can tell you I don’t like it and no one does. Pastors need encouragement like anyone. Pastors have feelings, like anyone. Romans 16:17 Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them.
A very close friend and pastor friend of mine completely quit the ministry and left his family; this was years ago but I’ve never forgotten it. A survey from the New York Times dated August 1, 2010, reported, among other things, 50% of pastors feel unable to meet the needs of the job, 52% of pastors say they and their spouses believe that being in pastoral ministry is hazardous to their family’s well-being and health, 57% would leave the pastorate if they had somewhere else to go or some other vocation they could do, 70% don’t have any close friends, 75% report severe stress causing anguish, worry, bewilderment, anger, depression, fear, and alienation, and 94% feel under pressure to have a perfect family. 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13 And we beseech you, brethren, to know them which labor among you, and are over you in the Lord, and admonish you; 13 And to esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake. And be at peace among yourselves. Ministers do have feelings. Do what you can in the local or regional church to be a blessing and not a burden, to become an asset and not a liability, to be a giver (time, talent, energy, resources) and not a taker.
Some of the incongruities of these statistics could be found in a local pastor trying to be a regional pastor, and a regional pastor who is really better suited to be a local pastor. I’ve been in what I call full-time part-time ministry for years with Prisoners For Christ, and I and an army of my friends in this ministry serve God with joy and gladness year after year behind bars. Ministry should be like this. Some of my close chaplain friends have had their job descriptions change from being a minister to being an administrator, and as a result some have moved on to other areas of ministry and have left the jails and prisons. Chaplains love people and do a lot of one-on-one ministry; take that away and they are incongruent indeed. Stress is one thing, being in an incongruent situation is one thing, and not being appreciated or encouraged is yet another thing. I have watched key persons in the church leave and I see the effect that has on others in the church and its leadership. It’s not easy, and some ministers just develop a hardened heart toward people as a result; others quit, and others become the statistics cited above. This ought not to be, ever, but it happens. 1 Timothy 5:17 Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially they who labor in the word and doctrine.
The church I attend has a “cathedral model” of ministry that includes the founding of numerous local churches that have access to the regional church. Persons who attend the local church have all of the opportunities for service that is afforded in a small setting, but also have access to the major ministries and other advantages of the regional church on Sunday evenings and at other events (plays, camps, etc.) not usually available to small congregations. My church, Cedar Park Church, and other churches are using this model and it works very well. Other regional churches use the cell-group or small-group model where an elder leads a smaller group in weeknight or Sunday night home meetings, and the advantages of the local church are realized but also the advantages of the regional church are likewise experienced. Yet another model is where a regional church broadcasts its sermons live to other affiliated local church congregations who have their own pastoral staff and worship teams but the main sermon on Sunday morning is given via video feed by the regional church pastor.
This broad-brush assessment of the local church and the regional church is my own and it is imperfect. But it should provide you with a framework with which to consider your own needs and desires and then set out to find the appropriate church when the time comes. I have been at my present (regional) church for 19 years. My first church (local) I was at for about a year. My second one (regional) for about two years. My third one, the transition church (local), for eight years. My fourth church (local) for four years. All met a need and fulfilled the will of God for me at that time. Church life should be a good experience, and for me it’s been excellent all the way. For a young couple I’d recommend the local church – you can get in, get to the know the pastor, and get involved and really accelerate your Christian growth. Even the mature Christian with a deep love for people and the growth in people may feel a calling to the local church where they become an instant asset and provide example by word and deed to the younger members as well as assisting the pastor in spiritual matters. The church where I transitioned from a liability to an asset had a solid pastor and four solid deacons, who all could teach, preach, were busy about outreach, and were outstanding examples to us younger Christians. From that church came ministry that continues in many quarters to this day. There was opportunity there and many strong Christians and Christian families were produced there, thanks in part to the opportunities and to the leadership team. But growth and opportunity can be found for the young Christian in the regional church too, if there is provision for this (there is at my church). Where ever you are, be sure you are congruent and are having your needs met, and that your expectations fit the church type you are a part of.
Again, carefully consider which church and ministry type fits you and get in and serve the Lord Jesus with all you have and be a blessing and an asset to the church and ministry God has placed you in. Encourage the pastors and elders and deacons, be a friend, and as such even though you may be a babe in Christ, you can be an asset in this area, being someone who appreciates their pastor and their church, and serves God with gladness for a long, long, long time to come, bringing glory to the Master Jesus Christ the Righteous, whose name is blessed forevermore. Ephesians 3:20-21 Now unto him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us, 21 Unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end. Amen.