The Apostle Paul and the Attractional Model of Church Growth

One of the continuing controversies within church ministry circles concerns whether we opt for an attractional model or an incarnational model for church method. Helpfully, many are going for the middle “AND” route that points out how both are good models than can blend together.

Yet too often in these conversations these principles and models are discussed with allusions and indirect references to the biblical text without Corinthactually concerning ourselves with the text.

Proponents of the incarnational model often point out that the methods and systems of the attractional model are not featured in the Bible (God hadn’t invented the electric guitar yet) and thus justify their approach as the “organic” or __(insert buzzword)    biblical model. So what might be some biblical arguments for an attractional model?

Having some time to read this past week, I came across a couple of points about the nature of Paul’s “church growth method” as it related to his work in various communities. Most of these insights, below, will be coming from reflections drawn out of Robert Gehring’s excellent House Church and Mission: The Importance of Household Structures in Early ChristianityThis text is a recent research work that helpfully explores the centrality and design of early houses churches within the first Christian communities and how they related to each other and promulgated the growth of Christianity as whole.

At one point in the text, Gehring notes (pg 203,) a bit off-hand, that Paul had an intention method of evangelization where he specifically “targeted” (Gehring doesn’t use this word) several well to-do members of society in Corinth. Leveraging insights from such passages as

It boils down to the point that Paul had a specific church growth method as he went into towns and cities to plant, water, and grow churches in those communities. Specifically here he cites 1 Corinthians 1:14-16 where Paul points out that he baptized Crispus, Gaius, and Stephanus in the name of Jesus Christ. Later, in 1 Corintihans 16:15-17, Paul names several key leaders in the house church structure of Corinth including Stephanus. Gehring’s point is that Paul had a specific missionary target in seeking out individuals such as Stephanus who would have been wealthy citizens of Corinth. Since the primary gathering spaces for the earliest Christian communities were households, no Christian structures are known for another one hundred and fifty years, having willing converts with adequate space to hold gatherings would have been vital to the growth of churches in various communities.

As a result we can say the earliest church growth model Paul uses incorporates aspects of an attractional model. Paul had a target audience.

Now, before we press this point too far, Paul is not setting up shop in these towns to reach Saddleback Sam or Willow Creek Wendy. Instead, part of Paul’s missionary strategy would have been to seek out specific key individuals to help in growing the church. It is a form of church growth strategy, but this has limitations.

House Church in JerusalemOther examples in the Pauline literature are likely available, though limited. Corinthians, perhaps because of Paul’s deep concern for the spiritual and ethical sustainability of this key Peloponnesian city received specific attention that isn’t found in the remaining Pauline Hauptbriefen. So what do we make of this?

Well, I do think Gehring has made a good point so long as we don’t push it beyond its reasonable limits. Paul’s missionary strategy as an entry point certainly appears to have a strategic focus. He would first go to the local synagogue and then the town’s agora (or marketplace.) Since the house church structure of the earliest Christian communities was necessary for the survival of the local churches being started by the Apostles around the world, having adequate space to meet would be important. Paul’s aim was certainly to reach as many people from as many diverse socio-political backgrounds with the Gospel. However, there does seem to be a particular point here that Paul kept in focus finding at least one leader with suitable accommodations to house the church.

As Larry Hurtado has recently pointed out, the earliest Christian communities weren’t made up of poor, illiterate, commoners but there was a blend of socio-economic backgrounds. This certainly led to some troubles, as it does today. Church is that uncommon cultural commons where rich, middle class, and poor all meet and share space and faith in common.

While I do think Gehring’s points about the use of house churches across the earliest Christian communities goes a bit too far, he is right in pointing out that where they were used there needed to be accommodating individuals who could house these gatherings. Once the Christians were removed from the local synagogues and the Temple due to their heretical beliefs (to Judaism) and their constant proselytizing (among other issues) they would have needed other structures. Houses were the most common and those who held gatherings had unique leadership roles (cf. Philemon.) Edward Adams has recently put out an intriguing text that offers a more generous view in The Earliest Christian Meeting Places:  Almost Exclusively Houses?

Now, before we get too far afield, Paul’s model of church growth does appear to have a specific attractional quality to it. He sought out specific individuals to help build the church.

As Paul went out and about his missionary efforts, finding these individuals not only provided structural support for the church in a local community it also allowed an influential family to bring in other Christians. (Even today wealth equals influence.) So, while we can’t go too far in pushing this point, we can note how Paul’s church growth model had an attractional element to it. Perhaps this adds to our understanding of the “AND” position on church growth models. 

Dec 2013



Multi-Site Churches as Futuristic Bus Ministries

Multi-site churches are all the rage in evangelical Christianity right now.

A multi-site church is one corporate body of believers that meets in more than one location. Over the last 30 years the movement has gone from 10 churches in the United States to over 5,000 churches who have multiple campuses.

There’s a lot to say about multi-site churches, and I hope to pull together a series of posts on them. For the record, the church where I serve has a second campus that is part of our ministry. But recently I was talking with another pastor about this movement and some of the similarities it has across church history. Multi-site isn’t so much a new concept as it is more a new way of seeing a historical concept.

One of the things that my fellow minister said, that really got me thinking, was that this movement really isn’t that much different in terms of scope than the Bus Ministries of the 60s, 70s, and 80s. 

Essentially, during this era the churches that “really got it” and were seeing growth were also doing some kind of bus ministry. If you’re unfamiliar, a bus ministry is where a local church purchases surplus (or recently retired) school buses and sends them into neighborhoods and apartment communities to pick up kids and teens, and some adults, to bring them to church. For churches that really utilized this ministry during this period they would send bus teams (driving the school buses) into those communities on Saturdays to connect with the kids and teens.

Bus ministries exploded and some of the largest churches in America had vibrant bus ministries. Annual Bus Ministry Conventions would draw in many leaders and volunteers to talk about strategy, planning, and even how to finance this ministry. Consultants would go out to churches to talk it up. Churches all across America used bus ministries and lots of growth came out of it. Now, the buses sit idle in some parking lots or are used for overflow parking (unless they’ve been moved to a new place of worship…in the junkyard.)

As my ministry friend talked about I noticed some common features with the multi-site movement. I don’t think these are bad things, but I think it offers perspective.

The multi-site movement is here to stay…for a while. The movement is growing rather fast and many large churches are pushing it as the model for their growth. For the record, I think there is a lot of upside to multi-site church growth. So my point isn’t to denigrate the movement.

It is, though, to point out that church growth movements have come and gone over the last several hundred years. Before the bus ministries of the 60s, 70s, and 80s there was the Sunday School and revivalist movements. Just a frame of reference as we continue to move forward.

What should provoke us is the constant question of whether we’re seeing this ministry movement bring true spiritual growth through lives being changed and people coming to Jesus Christ. That is the ultimate measure of any movement.

So what do you think? Is this a fair characterization?

Aug 2013