Seven Distinguishing Characteristics of Unified Churches

The exercise was simple. I made a list of over 30 of the most unified churches I know. Some of them have been my clients in the past. I then made a list of over 40 fragmented churches (they were easier to find). From that point I began to answer my own questions: What makes this church look like it’s unified? What makes this other church look like it’s fragmented?

I then compared my two columnar lists to find the greatest contrasts between the two groups. When it was all said and done, seven characteristics stood out.

  1. Longer-term pastorates. The average tenure of a pastor in the unified churches was an amazing 8.2 years. The pastoral tenure in the fragmented churches was 2.1 years.
  2. Shorter and less frequent business meetings. Slightly less than half of the unified churches had annual business meetings only. Only two had monthly business meetings. The remainder of the unified churches had quarterly business meetings. All but four of the fragmented churches had monthly business meetings.
  3. Balance of ministries for members and outreach ministries for non-members and non-Christians. While I cannot say that the balance is 50-50, there were certainly more outreach ministries in the unified churches than in the fragmented churches. The latter group of churches focused their ministries on their members.
  4. Celebrate new Christians more. In the unified churches, the greatest joy expressed by members was hearing about people becoming followers of Christ. During one service where 14 new believers were baptized, the excitement was palpable. The fragmented churches tended to celebrate building programs more.
  5. Highly intentional small group or Sunday school ministries. The unified churches exhorted everyone to get into a small group or Sunday school class. The fragmented churches usually had those ministries, but they were not a point of emphasis.
  6. Emphasis on corporate prayer. The unified churches’ members prayed a lot together. The fragmented churches’ members did not.
  7. Most ministries led by laity. Most of the ministries, even the largest and most important, were led by laypersons. To the contrary, the fragmented churches typically insisted that a ministry had to be led by a ministry staff leader.

Of course, I don’t know which of these characteristics were cause or effect. Do you see anything in your church that adds to its unity or fragmentation?

Posted on April 10, 2013

With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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  • Diana Harding says on

    I am in a leadership role in my small church of around 70-80. My husband and I head the worship team,and have no positional ‘paperwork’ as such. There are,however,a lot of upcoming leaders. And we are encouraged to do some leadership courses or bible school certificates to help in personal spiritual growth,as well as growth in our area of leadership. There are numerous mentoring programs and home groups also,as we feel it’s important for the church body to look after each other. We are very mission minded,and have a missions offering once a month as well as an opshop,with proceeds going directly to India. We also run a prayer meeting once a week,which I think is vital for our church’s growth. As a whole,we are very unified,with a small amount of members finding it a little difficult to accept some of the changes that are happening (there are a fair few older members) but with that said,I can see they are really wanting to push through and see what God has in store!

  • Keith Henry says on

    Number 7 “Most ministries lead by lay people” suggest a culture of shared leadership. Apparently the pastor, the staff, and other key leaders are applying some level of Team based leadership which requires alignment of individual goals to corporate vision.

  • Love this list, and I can validate it from experience. Numbers 2, 5, 8 have been drivers in unifying our congregation. Interestingly, #7 seems hardest to achieve. People have come to prefer staff-driven ministry.

  • I’m in a very unified church, and the list of 7 characteristics is right on. We are located in midtown surrounded by the homeless and high crime, so we are very outreach-oriented. (We have a bus that picks up people from the area homeless shelter.) Members are urged to be a part of a small group, and the church theme is “every member a minister.” If you have a burden for something, do something about it and start a ministry. You have the pastor’s blessing. Every member also is urged to go through the one-on-one discipleship process, so everyone is on the same page. The Tuesday night prayer service is the heart and soul of the church. Most of the congregation is under 30, and most were not raised in Christian homes, but came to faith later. It’s not your ordinary Baptist church, for sure.

  • If there is a cause and effect relationship to any of these characteristics, my guess is that #2 Shorter and less frequent business meetings would be in the cause position. There are some very good aspects of local church autonomy, but it can also be a vexation to a church. When a congregation trusts their spiritual leaders and when the spiritual leaders who are trusted are persons of good character and spiritual integrity, the model works well. Leaders lead and feed and the flock feeds and follows. God is glorified and the church is unified.

  • I would have to say, unwavering leadership and vision. We have been on a 7 year journey of changing everything about our church. And we have been successful. This is nearly unheard of in the church world.- In my opinion lots of pastors start church plants because they don’t think existing churches are willing to change and grow (don’t get me wrong, I love church plants. I just think existing churches have tendency to get stuck in their “old” ways.) Our pastor has led fiercely. He got the staff on board. They led fiercely. They got 50 key leaders on board. They have led fiercely. And so on and so on. They have led towards a single vision which they remind us of often. Naturally, there has been some dissension. But the people (friends) that did not accept the vision moved on for the most part gracefully. We did not crack. We did not crumble. And seven years later, we are stronger than ever. A unified body following a vision God put before us through our godly leaders. (If you want you can read about our experience as a church at

  • Don Matthews says on

    Emphasis on corporate prayer and highly intentional small group or Sunday School ministries are some of the most important. Dr. Elmer Towns said Sunday School was the “Elmer’s Glue” that held the church together and I say pray is the Holy Spirit’s glue that keeps it together.

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