Discover the Personality Type of Your Congregation

Churches close their doors every day partly because they are playing someone else’s game.

There’s no shortage of data sets to demonstrate the church in the West in crisis. The crisis of decline, the crisis of irrelevance, the pandemic crisis, the pastoral burn-out crisis, the crisis over online church, the crisis of schism between conservatives and progressives, and the crisis of a failure to innovate.

I wonder if most of these crises are a figment of our imagination. The most frequent crisis is an identity crisis. Congregations have lost their sense of identity. We live in a state of apostolic amnesia, in which we confuse means with ends.

McDonaldization of the Church and Bad Big Mac’s

In the United States, we fully embraced the legitimating narrative of the twentieth century corporate world. Denominations are structured like corporations with local churches serving as a kind of franchise location. Clergy are trained to be efficient, professional, managers who belong to the company store. We follow the recipes of ordination systems and seminary assembly lines. We serve up religious goods and services to our fast-food acclimated members.  

This is what John Drane refers to as the McDonaldization of the church. In reference to the American hamburger chain, McDonaldization is the process by which the principles of the fast-food restaurant are coming to dominate many sectors of a globalized society. Drane notes the four characteristics of McDonaldized systems as efficiency, calculability, predictability, and control, and notes that the McDonaldization of the church is partly responsible for the mass exodus of emerging generations.[1]  

We are serving up bad Big Mac’s, and the commodified version of spirituality is giving emerging generations a belly ache. People are hungering for real spiritual food, and only authentic local churches can provide the communal meal that heals us.  

Mainline denominations in particular look like a struggling franchise food chain. Staff are overworked and underpaid. Morale is low. The food quality is terrible.  

When a church realizes it is caught in a cascade of decline, often the first reaction is to default to the corporate quick-fix models. Break out the demographic charts, we need a new vision statement, we need to cut expenses and increase income, we need denominational intervention to help us navigate the storm. We need gurus to cook up better solutions to our problems. We need to implement new programs and procedures, etc. All these “solutions” are deeply imbedded in the corporate power narratives. But this is exactly the wrong thing to do.  

The Gift of Uniqueness              

One obvious issue is that the metrics we are using to assess what a “successful congregation” looks like are stuck in the McDonaldized assumptions. We are still using 1960’s measurements from the largely failed “church growth era.” These metrics are mostly irrelevant.              

I’ve had many conversations with denominational leaders and none of them contest that this is true. We’ve had many conversations about changing the metrics to get a snapshot of what actual vitality looks like in the 21st century. But standardized metrics that measure every congregation by the same parameters is the very McDonaldized thought house that got us here.             

Yet after a decade of trying to help congregations, synods, and conferences start new faith communities I’ve discovered a deeper lesson. Most congregations aren’t ready for fresh expressions, because they are often not healthy enough to begin the work.             

What I’ve discovered is that trying to measure every congregation by the same standard metrics actually perpetuates the decline and closure of churches. Because no two congregations are the same, and vitality will look different for each one.  

Because just as every human being is a unique creation of God, so is every congregation. Every church has its own unique personality.  

The dominant approach to understanding human personality today is known as the Five Factor Model (FFM). Hundreds of distinct traits have been summarized within five dominant personality dimensions universal to all human beings, (extroversion, agreeableness, openness, conscientiousness, and neuroticism). Psychologists measure these traits through the Revised NEO Personality Inventory (NEO-PI-R) more commonly called the “Big Five Assessment,” a 240-item instrument, scientifically validated through hundreds of studies across many different cultures.

Every congregation has a unique personality in the same way a human does. Just like no person is exactly the same, so neither are any two congregations. Yet, just as psychologists can condense hundreds of unique personality traits into the big five categories, so too can congregations be understood through five congregational personality types. While there are a multitude of unique variations, the types give us a framework through which every congregation can grow in maturity. The congregational types are the communal embodiment of the five basic personality dimensions (FFM).

Early in the life of the church we see some consistent traits that made up congregational life. Consider Acts 2:42-47…

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” … “wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need” … “And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”

This window into early congregational life shows us that those first believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching (proclamation centered), to deep communal life (fellowship centered) breaking of bread and sharing all things in common (generosity centered), the prayers and wonders (healing centered), and the Lord was adding outsiders to their numbers (outreach). A healthy, growing church in Acts expressed all these characteristics at some level, but this is exceedingly rare among congregations today.

Many congregations have little awareness of their personality type or what motivates them to do what they do. We who are clergy can also lack awareness of our congregation’s type and our own unique personality and leadership approach. All the activity with little results leads to fatigue. Relationships are strained, and a toxic spiral of decline continues. Meanwhile, the larger community outside of the congregations’ walls goes neglected, often suspicious of this museum-like institution occupying space in the neighborhood, like a relic from ages past.  

Every single community on earth (rural, urban, suburban, digital, etc.) needs healthy, compassionate pastors and congregations to love them toward the fullness of God’s kingdom. Every congregation has a distinct heart, which is a unique expression of Christ. That heart can be either healthy or sick.  

The ideal state of health for a congregation is to mature “to the measure of the full stature of Christ” (Eph 4:13). This would include embodying at some level each of the five personality types. However, this is more a lifelong journey of grace than a destination at which we arrive. Once we understand the five types and see our growth areas (dark side), we have a spiritual framework for growing more fully toward maturity and flourishing.  

As we’ve shared The Five Congregational Personality Types with developers, pastors, and congregations piloting the resource they have consistently said that we have articulated something they’ve known to be true in their bones. Now, the pathway is providing congregations with a shared language and helping them discover how to nurture strengths, identify blind spots, transform weaknesses, and uncover contextually appropriate strategies to increase vitality.  

Today, The Five Congregational Personality Types was launched into the world. Learn more about the book and order here.

[1] Drane, John. “Resisting McDonaldization: Will ‘Fresh Expressions of Church Inevitably Go Stale” in Mortensen, Viggo, and Andreas Nielsen. Walk Humbly With the Lord: Church and Mission Engaging Plurality. Grand Rapids, Mich: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co, 2011. P. 154-155.

2 thoughts on “Discover the Personality Type of Your Congregation”

  1. Claudia Kathleen Lalor

    I purchased your resource, The Five Congregational Personality Types but am confused about where to actually access the assessment. Please help!!

Leave a Reply