Posted in ecclesiology & sacraments, reflections

If denominations took a StrengthFinder™ test

dscn6415Gallup’s StrengthFinder™ is all the rage. Take a 30 minute test online and you’ll discover your “Top 5,” the key elements of who you are and how you see the world. This constructive tool has helped me understand how God has wired me and what value I can add to the organizations where I work. It focuses on what is right with an individual and not what is wrong, designating 34 “strength themes” and describing them in detail.

Disclaimer: Though I’ve taken the test, have been in 2 workshops explaining the strengths approach, and have been coached on my Top 5  strengths, I am not a certified coach.

But I wonder:

What would the top strengths be if the StrengthFinder™ test were applied not to individuals but to Christian denominations?

I’m a lifelong Nazarene (in the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition), so I have a better basis of speculating what my own denomination’s strengths might be. But because my readers come from a variety of Christian backgrounds, I’ll attempt an assessment of a handful of other Christian traditions based on what I’ve studied and observed about them supplemented by conversations over the years with individuals within those traditions. Feel free to correct me where you think I’ve gotten it wrong.

Take a minute and read about all 34 strength themes, then come back to this essay.

For brevity’s sake, let’s identify the top 3 from five major traditions.

(Note: Though I currently live in East Africa, my observations are most applicable in the North American setting which – as an American – is the context with which I am most familiar).

1) Roman Catholicism

a. command – For Roman Catholics, the Pope is the undisputed spiritual leader. Though advised by the Magesterium (collection of Cardinals), he can speak ex cathedra (from the Chair), making pronouncements that are binding upon the faithful. It makes for a unified and authoritative voice on matters of social ethics.

b. ideation – Across time, Roman Catholicism has been theologically creative. The doctrine of purgatory was innovative in its time, and the veneration of Mary and the saints has provided a conversation starter between Roman Catholic missionaries and those for whom ancestors are a large part of their religious worldview.

c. empathy – Hospitals and schools often sprout up wherever the Catholic message is preached. There’s a “can do” attitude apparent in various RC orders, from Jesuit priests (and their education emphasis) to the compassion of nuns as exemplified (for example) in Mother Teresa of Calcutta.

2) Episcopalians/Methodists

a. inclusiveness/includer – The Episcopal Church in the U.S.A. (ECUSA) prides itself on creating space for people that society has marginalized. Unlike many denominations, the ECUSA is happy to ordain women, as is the United Methodist Church.

b. harmony – Peace and reconciliation are important themes for both Episcopalians and United Methodists. For example, the UMC held a peace seminar in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in August 2015. Likewise, in 2013, the ECUSA participated in a World Council of Churches (WCC) conference in Busan, South Korea that emphasized the theme of justice, peace, and reconciliation.

c. positivity – Christians within this tradition often have a post-millenial view, believing that the church’s role is to help build the Kingdom of God while we await the return of Jesus Christ. There’s a strong belief that we can make the world a better place now, that the Gospel has marked social elements to it that are not incidental to the Christian message but are at its very core.

3) Wesleyan-Holiness churches and Baptists

a. belief – There is a strong emphasis upon truth as knowable and correct doctrine as important. In the case of the Church of the Nazarene, we explain the primary reason for her existence as the propagation of the doctrine of holiness of heart and life.

b. achiever – While other Christian traditions have also practiced cross-cultural missions, the Baptist and Wesleyan-Holiness grouping has excelled in mobilizing its rank-and-file to fulfill the Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20), seeing the command to evangelize the world as particularly urgent.

c. competition – A Southern Baptist pastor in the Midwestern (U.S.) town where I pastored once wrote a letter to the editor of the local newspaper. He began: “Southern Baptists have many failings. Correctly counting ourselves is not one of them.” Numbers count. This could be said of numerous churches in the Baptist and Wesleyan/Holiness orbit, always stretching to enter a new country or to contact an unreached people group. There is an underlying entrepreneurial spirit, a healthy sense of rivalry that can spur churches on to greater accomplishments than might have otherwise been attained.

4) Presbyterians and other Reformed churches

a. communication – Most Christian publishing houses in the U.S. were founded by believers who are theological descendants of John Calvin (1509-64). Calvinists produce quality literature and professors not only teach but publish, often prolifically.

b. discipline – Systematic theology is disciplined thinking about God and Reformed theologians are well-known for carefully structured belief systems. Rigorous thinking is often matched by rigorous ethical standards as evidenced in codes of conduct at colleges and universities sponsored by reformed denominations. (Note: This is not unique to educational institutions sponsored by reformed churches but also applies – for example – to Nazarene schools).

c. intellection – William Lane Craig (Talbot School of Theology/Biola) and James K.A. Smith (Calvin College) represent the strong philosophical tradition nested within the Reformed perspective. Craig has been active in the Christian apologetics movement.

5. Pentecostal/Charismatic churches

a. woo – Pentecostals and Charistmatics excel at drawing others to their variety of Christian faith. This is most obvious in their emphasis upon the more spectacular spiritual gifts (tongues/healing/prophecy) and the prosperity message.

b. maximizer – The emphasis upon being your “best you” (Joel Osteen) or to “unleash your inborn drive” (T.D. Jakes) are just two examples of how the optimism of grace can be repackaged in non-theological terms that have broad popular appeal.

c. futuristic – For all the ridicule he received at the time for his “prayer tower” on the campus of Oral Roberts University, no one could fault evangelist Oral Roberts for having a lack of vision. Pentecostalism is adept at imagining what could be and mobilizing people and resources to carry out ambitious plans.

While optimistic, StrengthFinder™ recognizes that each strength has a shadow side, a “basement” that must be avoided. Discipline can morph into legalism; healthy competition can lead to sectarianism. Ideation might breed inaction in the face of so many possible courses of action. A desire for harmony may result in papering over real differences that must be addressed and resolved.

What should we make of this tentative assessment?

I have long thought that denominations have personalities as much as individuals do. A better term would be ethos, defined by Merriam-Webster as “the distinguishing character, sentiment, moral nature, or guiding beliefs of a person, group, or institution.” Strengths speak to ethos, and as I travel around to congregations within the Nazarene denomination, I’ve amazed at the similarities between them, common characteristics that they share even though they might be in different states or even different countries.

A person who has taken the StrengthFinder™ test may not agree with my assessment of the strengths of the Christian traditions I’ve listed, or may see churches that I’ve left out – Mennonite, Lutheran, and Orthodox, for example. Yet hopefully this essay will be a conversation starter and a help in two ways:

1) It may assist lay individuals who are part of a specific tradition to see how their individual strengths can help make their own faith community stronger and more well-rounded.

2) It may serve as an impetus for clergy to evaluate what their denomination’s strengths are in order to maximize them but also to avoid the “shadow” side as they interact with those within their own church, other Christian traditions, or society at-large.

God has blessed the diversity of churches that bear the name “Christian” with incredible strengths. Let’s celebrate those strengths and encourage others to discover them, whether individually or corporately.

For discussion: What two other strengths would you add to each grouping? Why?


Greg is interested in many topics, including theology, philosophy, and science.

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