the weblog of Alan Knox

What is a "traditional" church?

Posted by on May 22, 2008 in books, definition | 7 comments

I recently acquired a book by J.D. Payne called Missional House Churches: Reaching Our Communities with the Gospel (Colorado Springs: Paternoster, 2007). The author surveyed 33 leaders concerning “missional house churches”, and this book is the result.

In the introduction, Payne spends much time on definitions. He explains what he means by all of his terms. As a comparison, Payne also defines what he means by “traditional” church. This is his definition:

In this study “traditional” describes the generally held understanding of the local church. Traditional churches usually have Sunday morning as their primary time to gather. The Sunday worship gathering generally requires much time and energy to prepare for a one- or two-hour weekly event. For many such churches, the majority of their income is devoted to minsters’ salaries and physical properties. These churches tend to be campus-based in their identities. It is at these locations that the majority of their ministry events occur.

Traditional churches tend to be program-oriented, event-oriented, or categorically purpose-oriented in their identities. Pastoral leadership tends to be more positional in orientation and less relational. Evangelism is, many times, one program among many programs of the church and/or is primarily accomplished through the members inviting unbelievers to a worship service where the gospel is shared. The number of members usually far exceeds the number of people who gather weekly for worship and actively use their gifts and talents to build up the church. Many traditional churches identify themselves primarily in terms of their services, events, structures, buildings, and organizations.

I appreciate the fact that the author attempts to define the “traditional” church in terms of trends and generalities. I also appreciate the fact that Payne attempts to write his definition without making value judgments. He does not say whether these are positive or negative characteristics; he merely states that these are the general characteristics of a “traditional” church.

What do you think about this definition? Does this definitional adequately describe what you would normally consider a “traditional” church? Is something missing?


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  1. 5-22-2008

    The best way to know is probably to ask someone in what you would call a traditional church. I suspect that they wouldn´t agree to the description. (They would use other words for example, maybe talking about the importance of “listening to the Word of God” and things like that. I also suspect that thwy wouldn´t agree to the relational – positional dichotomy.)

    There´s no neutral way to describe things. This seems to be an attempt to make this look as an neutral scientific description, but it is not (allthough I agree with it). The critical fingerprints are all over the description.
    /Jonas Lundström

  2. 5-22-2008


    It would be good if someone involved in “traditional church” would weigh in on this definition. I also agree that it is impossible to describe anything in a truly neutral manner – all of us have biases. I think, in this case, the author did a good job of describe the general tendencies of a “traditional church” without giving value – either possitive or negative – to those characteristics.


  3. 5-23-2008

    Alan. I see what you mean. But I think that the very words we use are loaded with values. Language is the eyes we use to structure “reality”. I tend to agree with post-modernism on this one. And the second section in your quote is especially clearly loaded with values, words like “program-oriented” is not neutral and would be opposed, I guess, by many in traditinal churches, who would say that they are “Bible-based”, “God-oriented” or something like that. But I agree, it would be nice for some traditional people to comment, they might show us how free from value the quote is.

  4. 5-23-2008


    I also see what you mean. It is impossible to describe something in completely neutral free terms. The author in the book that I quoted claims to be part of the traditional church. He also claims to have worked with “house churches”. I can tell from further reading that he sees positive and negative aspects from each sector. I would love to find a description from someone who is a leader in a traditional church. Perhaps I’ll look for one.


  5. 5-27-2008

    I learned that what is traditional to one may be “cutting edge” to another. Traditional church is what we understand church to be. I think his description may portray the majority of churches, but traditional has to do with tradition, and that is different from one group to another. I think it is important for him to give his definition so that people know what he is referring to.

  6. 5-28-2008


    I think you’re right in many ways. Different groups consider different things to be “traditional”. While reading this book, I also appreciated the fact that the author described what he meant by “traditional”. It helped me to understand what he was saying.


  7. 5-13-2010

    After serving 30 years in traditional churches as a United Methodist pastor, I think I can speak as an expert and say that this is a good definition … but with a major weakness.

    Another really good definition is Ralph Neighbor’s PBD or Program Base Design church described in Chapter 2 of the classic Where Do We Go From Here?

    The weakness of this definition: the larger the church, the more true is this definition. The classic lines are drawn at 300 in average Sunday attendance – in this church or larger, the definition is very likely to be true.

    In a church under 100 in attendance, the focus is on relationships and community, so the definition is partly true.

    There are very clear and distinct differences between to two sizes of churches, and churches between 100 and 300 in attendance are usually a battleground for the differing characteristics.

    Herb Miller produced a lot of good research on this, and another good book is Kevin Martin’s The Myth of the 200 Barrier.