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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. 

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Dec 2013
POSTED BY Garet
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Church

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Engaging the Post-Christian Now

Last night while I was developing a four week Bible study series on engaging culture, I ran across a wonderful video of Alan Hirsch speaking at Q Austin about “Post-Christian Mission.” Check it out by clicking this image:

Hirsch

I’m glad Alan Hirsch has this kind of prophetic voice among Christian leaders. A couple of his books, particularly The Shaping of Things to Come and The Forgotten Ways, have indelibly shaped my missiology and ecclesiology. His talk at Q talks honestly about some important issues confronting church leaders. Though it was given about four years ago, it is bearing out in our contemporary culture.

Though there is much to talk about in this presentation, one of the central issues which he gets into  is the idea of the missiological distance of people within a post-Christian culture.

Hirsch, who is admittedly drawing influence from Ralph Winter’s piece Finishing the Task: The Unreached Peoples Challenge (go and download the PDF and read it), discussed five point of missiological distance. For a church starting at M0, each step represents at least one major cultural boundary between the church and that person. BTW, I’d say most Millennials are at least M2 to M3 from their local church.

Notice in the first graphic the reach of traditional church programming is limited to that first step. One point which Hirsch helpfully brings up, is that for many of our churches we still require people to come back to us. (Remember his point about attractional being extractional.) He has a good point here and it should provoke us leaders to consider what it is we are calling people to do in mission and in evangelism.

Now, I’m not entirely sold that the attractional model is either bad or ineffective. I’ll probably talk about that more later. Suffice to say, that while I don’t believe numbers define success, it does appear that the wave of church growth which is occurring in North America is primarily happening in larger, progressive methodology churches. That isn’t a bad thing because of the collective sending and missionary culture developed by most of those churches.

Key to this movement is how churches, of any size really, engage in and cast vision for an incarnational missionary culture among their people for those where we live, work, and play. By dedicating ourselves to this kind of incarnational missionary culture (probably best defined in the term missional) we can move more broadly across cultural distance and bring the Gospel to those who are far and allow them to remain far culturally without having to extract them. As a result they become the near cultural missionaries to their spheres of influence.

This kind of thinking is revolutionizing the church in the 21st century. It is also something we should be thankful for and ready to engage in. Though there are aspects of Hirsch’s work that I am reticent about, I think his work here should provoke us to think about how we can shift our culture to motivate people to be missionally minded.

If for no other reason than it appropriately integrates horizontal movement as a proper metric of spiritual maturity. More on all of this later.

So how are you engaging missional movements in your local church? How are you casting vision to your people and motivating them to capture great things for Christ? How are you seeing movement beyond the M1 culture in your area?

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