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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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What Happened to the Apostles?

One of the vexing issues left when you read the post-Pentecost accounts in Acts and other New Testament literature is that most of the 12 Apostles disappear. Though some major figures continue, the rest of the twelve are outside the view of the New Testament.

As I was doing some more (as if it ends) dissertation reading in Streeter’s  The Primitive ChurchI noticed that he points out a third century pseudipigraphal document, The Acts of Thomas, that makes a curious note concerning what happened to the 12 Apostles following Pentecost. Here’s the passage from the Acts of Thomas:

1 At that time all we the apostles were at Jerusalem, Simon who is called Peter and Andrew his brother, James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, Philip and Bartholomew, Thomas and Matthew the tax collector, James the son of Alphaeus and Simon the Cananean, and Judas the brother of James: and we divided the regions of the world, that every one of us should go to the region that fell to him and to the nation to which the Lord sent him.  2 According to the lot, therefore, India fell to Judas Thomas, which is also the twin: but he would not go, saying that by reason of the weakness of the flesh he could not travel, and: I am a Hebrew; how can I go among the Indians and preach the truth?

Streeter, after appropriately noting the specious nature of the reference, does make a note about how it is helpful in framing a possible picture of the dispersion that existed following Pentecost. The 12 Apostles, representative of the 12 tribes of Old Testament Israel, went into dispersion to accomplish the Great Commission and charge in Acts 1:8.

The idea that the Apostles remained consolidated in Jerusalem for the next several years is certainly reasonable. Acts 9, perhaps occurring within two years of the resurrection, details Saul’s conversion and entrance into ministry (before being sent off in Acts 9:30.) The dispersion of the earliest Christians into regions beyond Jerusalem and Judea becomes more clear as it seems Saul, who later became Paul, had someone to go to in this distant place.

In the rest of the New Testament, there is a growing sense that the earliest Christian communities are indeed growing outside of Jerusalem as the Apostles, or at least early adherents, are moving away to capture the commission of Christ. While they seem to be around for the Jerusalem in Acts 15:6-21, though it isn’t immediately obvious if this means the original 12 Apostles, there is also the issue that Paul had to, at point after his return from ministry abroad, submitted himself to a council of Apostles per Galatians 1:11-24.

Perhaps here we consider that the Apostles referenced is not always synonymous with the original twelve but that an Apostolic Council, or a collegium of Apostles, would meet regularly to consider new leaders and aid in the direction of the earliest communities. This seems a reasonable point given that Acts 15 mentions the idea of Apostles and elders in some kind of council.

As a result, it would not have been natural for the New Testament to continue to include specific references to the 12 Apostles if they weren’t in view of the authors. For instance, if Thomas did go to India (and was often referred to as Jesus since he was Jesus’ identical twin…or not) it would be outside the normal development of texts primarily written about events in Judea to include him in their narrative. Perhaps, if for no other reason, the exclusion of the Apostles from the rest of the New Testament is a helpful authenticating device to show the truthfulness of the New Testament documents. While many Gnostic and pseudepigraphal texts attempt to draw the Apostles back into the ministry of the early church, the truthful New Testament texts represent an authentic picture.

Other texts indicate that the Apostles did indeed seek out regions for their ministry in the earliest days of Christianity. This would certainly account for the spread of Christianity across the Mediterranean region, Africa and Asia. While the Acts of Thomas is not a definitive text for what actually occurred, it likely has some data to provide for shaping the earliest Christian developments.

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