There’s been a lot of talk over the past several years about attractional and incarnational ministries. I’ve decided to add my thoughts in a four-part series. When I first began writing the other day, I intended to say something like this: “While I myself prefer an incarnational approach to ministry, I don’t feel an attractional approach is necessarily a poor one — it might even be a good idea for different congregations to differ on strategy, in order to complement one another.” But after examining scripture further and rethinking some things, I have to be honest: I personally don’t see attractional ministry demonstrated in the Bible, nor do I think it’s a very good idea. I am by no means authoritative on the subject, and I welcome discussion and disagreement on these thoughts. Because I, like all of you, want our churches to do what’s best for Christ’s mission, the kingdom of God, and our world as a whole.
Mission is not an activity
of the church;
it is the reason the church exists.
It is probably best to define the terms before going any farther. I have attempted to be objective in my definitions, though I willingly admit my biases:
- Attractional Ministry = proclaiming the gospel primarily through methods of attracting people to our programs; these programs usually take place on “our soil,” and these churches are sometimes designated as “seeker-sensitive.” Most church evangelism programs with which we are familiar are attractional in nature, and at least begin or end with an invitation to participate with us were we are: VBS, “trunk-or-treat,” hosting coffee shops, bowling nights, church potlucks, Super Bowl parties, soup kitchens, and any evangelism which requires inviting others to our services or place of worship. This form of ministry can be thought of as “come to us.”
- Incarnational Ministry = proclaiming the gospel primarily through methods of living Christ into our communities; we would struggle to call these “programs,” and they usually take place on “non-Christian soil” in secular environs. It’s difficult for us to picture this type of ministry, because even when we begin to think along these lines, we often revert back in the end to “…and then invite them to church.” This approach to ministry requires that we spend time with non-Christians where they are. It may involve playing in sports leagues, being involved in PTA, going out with coworkers in the evening, playing poker with some guys on Tuesday nights, or any number of “regular people” activities. But we don’t view these activities as forming relationships in order to invite others to church; instead we view these activities as a way in which we demonstrate, and invite others into, a life with Christ. Church comes later. This form of ministry can be thought of as “we’re among you.”
It’s important to note in the definitions the words “proclaiming the gospel primarily through.” I am not suggesting VBS and “trunk-or-treat” are not great programs and activities for our children. I believe churches should have events and programs in which they come together to encourage one another and have fun. These activities can be very beneficial, and I believe Christ-centered communities of faith will spend lots of time together. I also am convinced there are good programs designed to serve and help others in our communities. A soup kitchen, for instance, is a wonderful opportunity to share God’s love with others by meeting their needs — even if it is held in our own building; and some may turn to God as a result of this service. But this discussion concerns the primary means through which we share the gospel.* If our motivation for the soup kitchen is evangelism, then I would call that an attractional approach. [I might suggest it’s a “better” attractional approach than many others -- but there are still some inherent problems.] Is our Friday night coffee shop an attempt at evangelism or a time of Christian fellowship? What was our motivation in building a cafe in our building? To bring non-Christians to us, or to have a safe place for our teens to gather after football games?
* I don’t like separating out purposes and objectives in the Christian life, categorizing some activities as service and others as evangelism, and then being forced to distinguish between the two. [Just as I don't like distinguishing between "our soil" and "non-Christian soil," but that's how it's viewed by many Christians and non-Christians alike.] I believe life in the kingdom is life in the kingdom, and a transformed and obedient life is going to be involved in lots of overlapping areas. I don’t believe we can in reality separate evangelism and service, fellowship and teaching. But our churches currently function in what we might call “highly intentional and purpose-driven” programs, so I am adopting some of this language in order to be expedient (and lazy).
I should insert here my strong conviction that the church is the means for continuing the mission of Christ in the world. And that church is not in itself the goal or a goal; the body of Christ already has its mission laid out before it, and this mission is the very reason the church exists. A church should not be formed, and afterwards ask of themselves, “What is our mission in the community?” A thorough study of God, Christ, and mission must come before our study of church (thanks Frost and Hirsch): Theology to Christology and missiology, and only then ecclesiology. Churches are wrong when they view mission as merely an activity of the church. The body of Christ is to continue his mission in the world, and that necessitates communities of faith made up of Spirit-filled and gifted disciples, building one another up for their mission in the world. Mission is not an activity of the church; it is the reason the church exists. These ideas are core to my thinking on these issues — so if we disagree here, it is likely to only get worse….
Church is not the goal,
or even a goal.
A Few Important Texts
- “I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth,” Isaiah 49:6. Even as God gathered Israel together to himself, their mission was to be outside themselves. Then the nations would come to God.
- Ex 19:3-6 and Deut 4:5-8 show Israel as mediators between God and the world, and his representatives in the world. I understand how one could view this as attractional, though I believe it is better interpreted as one nation living God into the world, in plain view of other nations.
- “The word became flesh and made his dwelling among us,” Jn 1:14. Jesus was incarnational in his ministry, coming to live among us, and like us. (see also Phil 2:5-11)
- “As the father sent me, I am sending you,” Jn 20:21. The apostles were sent just as Jesus had been.
- Jesus’ prayer for his disciples in John 17 seems to involve much language of incarnational ministry in continuing his purposes in the world.
- Paul seems to lean towards an incarnational approach in 1 Cor 9:19-23.
Part mbili (“two” in Swahili)