Speaking a Missional Gospel? (part 1)  

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The most visible manifestation of the North American church in recent history has generally adhered to an “attractional” model. Put simply, in this model, the church is in the business of organizing events and activities that are to be attended. This understanding of “church” is so commonly held, that it functions for many as a largely unquestioned presupposition about what the “church” is supposed to be, both historically and biblically. Additionally, congregations and church leaders who embrace this model may become what Brian McLaren refers to as the “purveyors of religious goods and services,”[1] as they attempt to use marketing principles to engage a culture that is increasingly consumeristic and entertainment-oriented. From the perspective of an attractional understanding of “church,” the “worship service” becomes the main focus, and the sermon acts as the clear centerpiece. The main thrust of evangelism tends to be encouraging members to invite their un-churched friends to this event that is designed to encourage conversion experiences.

While the attractional model relies heavily on the idea that conversions mainly take place in the context of worship events, interpersonal evangelism is encouraged (though possibly not expected). However, even this interpersonal evangelism tends to take the form of a micro-event where the Christian sits down with the non-Christian for a semi-formal gospel presentation. Additionally, the thrust of this presentation tends to be transactional (not to mention coercive), focusing on mental assent to certain propositions and steps/actions to take in order to avoid eternal punishment and thereby secure eternal bliss after death.

Though these assumptions about the attractional nature of the church and the transactional nature of the gospel are commonly held, they have also arguably led to a church that is unquestionably in decline[2]. Frost and Hirsch lament that,

“The church is in decline in almost every context in the First World. The Church is worse off precisely because of Christendom’s failure to evangelize its own context and establish gospel communities that transform the culture.”[3]

This situation has led many to reconsider their previously unquestioned assumptions about the shape and nature of church. Voices from Biblical Studies, Theology, and Missiology have begun to suggest that the church is essentially “missional” in nature, and that perhaps her forms were always meant to follow her function or, as Chris Wright eloquently states,

“Certainly, the mission of God is the prior reality out of which flows any mission that we get involved in…it is not so much the case that God has a mission for his church in the world, but that God has a church for his mission in the world. Mission was not made for the church; the church was made for mission—God’s mission.[4]

Thus, the church exists precisely for participation in God’s mission, and God’s mission is precisely to and for the world. Whereas an attractional understanding of church tended toward the idea that members were the primary beneficiaries, a missional understanding insists that the church exists for the benefit of non-adherents.[5] In a missional understanding, the church sees itself as existing “for the sake of the world”.[6]

A Missional understanding profoundly reframes what it means to be church, particularly for those steeped in the attractional model. At the risk of overstatement, an attractional understanding of church, and a transactional understanding of the gospel, centered church around speech, cognition, and a certain level of piety. A pendulum-swing-style overcompensation that rendered speech, cognition and morality/behavior as irrelevant would be huge mistake. However, it would also be a mistake to view “being missional” as a strategy for church growth or renewal. It is a reframing, a different understanding of church that is characterized by its external focus, its holistic engagement, and its view of mission as primary rather than secondary. In such a context, what is the role of proclamation? If the gospel is to be in any sense spoken, how is it to be done? Is there a place for the Biblical practice of preaching if an attractional model of church is abandoned? How is the gospel to be communicated interpersonally from a missional understanding? What is the Gospel if it is not primarily transactional?

(I will continue my thoughts on all of this in subsequent posts. I would love to hear your thoughts and reactions (particularly if you'd like to respond to the questions that conclude this post)

[1] McLaren, A new kind of Christian, 156.

[2] “American Religious Identification Survey 2008.”

[3] Frost and Hirsch, The Shaping of Things to Come, 12.

[4] Wright, The Mission of God, 62.

[5] McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy, 111.

[6] Barth and Michielin, A shorter commentary on Romans, 97.

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12 comments

Great post! I like how you used the term "mental assent". Unfortunately, that is what most people mean when they say "belief" and "faith". I'm glad you chose to differentiate rather than just using all those words interchangeably. I have to admit that the words "mission", "gospel", and "evangelism" still make me cringe, since they most often mean "mental assent" about one set of supernatural claims over another.

I also like how you directed the entire post back to the question of "What is the Gospel?", rather than simply suggesting another format for delivery.

My 2 cents.....

If Christianity consists (either partly or completely) of attempts to convince people about bronze age mental assertions about God, social norms, biology, and how the universe functions, then it will probably limit its growth to 3rd world nations. The trend will sadly continue.

This is why I find Bishop John Shelby Spong so helpful. In his book, "Christianity Must Change or Die", he points out why we need to decouple Christian faith from the archaic worldview of our religious architects and sacred authors. He goes one step further than the failed attempts of modern liberals who once thought we could keep on using the same ancient terms and symbolism, while hoping that people outside the church would be able to understand we meant them as metaphors. He is one of the authors who "saved my faith" by moving it away from "mental assent to certain propositions".

August 31, 2009 at 1:58 PM

It reminds me that the gospel is dynamic. It is not simply this one dimensional series of linear events that one must accept as true in order to obtain salvation. At the heart of the gospel is indeed this life, death, and resurrection of Christ, but wrapped around this center thread is redemption, reconciliation, healing, forgiveness, peace, remedy, compassion, recovery… When we encounter these things in their various forms we are indeed encountering the force of the gospel even if we do not mentally connect the dots. We so often fail to do the work of redemption, reconciliation, healing, and recovery in their various un-attractional church forms because we fear that if they are not directly connected to a gospel presentation that they are done in vain and only become temporary, worldly acts of humanism (as if that’s a bad thing). The gospel is free from the one dimensional pages of type and monologue orated in our shelters of religion. Whether we like it or not, it stills moves and this gospel is looking to do more than save you later. It is planning on redeeming life as we know it and therefore, moving us into life as we have never known it starting even now. It is more than just an event pointed to in scripture and referenced in sermons. It is alive and dynamic, showing up where you didn’t plant it. It is the force of recovery at work each day all around us with numerous faces and unpredictable disguises.

September 1, 2009 at 9:57 AM

I am one of those people who learn by modeling. I don't know a lot of people who are bringing in the sheaves. I have a friend that I am trying to influence for the Lord right now but it is a slow process without any pushy tactics. He has many wounds, is highly intelligent and many defense mechanisms, like most people in our complicated society. I am trusting the Holy Spirit but still feel inadequate. Dead people are difficult to move- definitely God's work!

September 1, 2009 at 10:15 AM

This is an excellent post, I look forward to Part 2.
As a person who came from a liturgical church, languished in secular humanism for much of my adult life, tried liberal protestantism and "attractional" evangelical church for a bit, and finally was baptised into an organic house church, I have had a personal life experience of some of what is being referenced here.

I think that it may not be clear to all that (par. 3 & 4) Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch are sold-out true-believers in the organic church movement, and are, in many ways, idealogues to many people (and especially pastors) who have totally rejected the traditional church model, and the more-recent "seeker-sensitive" church model. I met Alan and his very cool wife Debra at a national organic church conference in Long Beach a few years ago, they both impressed me very much. But I think that their characterization of the "attractional model" (or traditional liturgical model) of the church as being a CAUSE of the Church's decline in the First World is off-base, skewed to what they are trying to do and dream will happen in the future, and inconsiderate of the myriad of socio-cultural and philosophical changes which have happened in the past 50 years in most western countries. I think it is taking a fact, (the decline in church participation,) and ascribing an internal cause to it, making it our own fault; rather than recognizing that it is a result of the assent of individualism, alternative ideologies and religions, rebellion against tradition and very compelling humanistic worldviews which require far less sacrifice or discipline. To put it simply, we no longer, culturally, have to go to church or conform to its varied catechisms to be comfortable and respected by our peers.
I don't think that this is necessarily a bad thing, but I do think that it is eliminating the "nominal" from amongst our society. I grew up in a majority "nominal" christianity, one in which you simply did not speak out against the church, even if you, by the 1980's, could speak out against its specific views and teachings (how many Catholics do you know who are abhorred by us having nuclear weapons, drunkenness or birth control? that church teaches vociferously against those very things) Yet everyone I knew was baptised and confirmed. (cont.)

September 1, 2009 at 11:50 PM
This comment has been removed by the author.
September 1, 2009 at 11:50 PM

http://www.facingthechallenge.org/mikefrost.php

I agree with the idea of reframing, very much , especially as it relates to new expressions of church and/or traditional churches with bold inventive ideas which do not attract a huge following not being "failures." They are beautiful new expressions, which are closely tied to the earliest Church's expressions, of the "means to spread the Good News." My church IS that.

I also honestly believe that the "attractional" and "seeker-sensitive" may not be the Great Commission ideal, but I think, viewing it in a socio-historical context, that they may have staved off the "decline of the church" from being the "demise of the church." People like spectacle and intense experience, and if that got them to go back to church -- is that really so awful? I also think that all evangelism is, to a certain extent, a Witnessing of one person to another -- a "convincing." It worked on me, and I fought it the whole time, even as I knew I needed it.

"Mike L." ( to respond to a comment - I think that's ok?)

it is difficult for me to picture how those words could make you cringe, especially "gospel." I think that one of the most beautiful things about conversion to christianity is the "mental assent" to its worldview.

The "Surrender."

That idea, which was planted in me by u2 in 1984 in a song by the same name, but not realized until 2004, is what it means to me to be a christian; as is believing in this gospel set of supernatural claims over all others, and believing all contradictory ones to be false. I have experienced church life full of Good Works and devoid of the Gospel, as well as church life devoid of either, and I do not think it is the way to go for the Missio Dei.

Muslims have an interesting idea of this -- the Shahada -- "There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is His prophet" Once you do this "Surrender," even silently, you are a Muslim. I think that is cool.

But I don't believe the second half of that supernatural claim, I believe a different one, the Gospel, therefore I am not a Muslim, but rather a christian.

***********************************You may be more of a christian man than I, Mike, this is not an assault on your Relationship with Yahweh or Jesus. I am just reacting honestly to your words. Peace Be With You
(Shalom Aleichum, Salaam Aleikhum)

September 2, 2009 at 12:24 AM

Rob,

I think your comment really supports my tendency to cringe.

You said, "I think that one of the most beautiful things about conversion to christianity is the "mental assent" to its worldview."

To me that sounds like a textbook case of brainwashing. Conversion to a worldview? Yuck!. That is why I cringe. Missions and "spreading the gospel" have in many places just become a new form of brainwashing people with a particular set of superstitions and cultural norms. I think we need a post-colonial mindset rather than that ideological empire building mentality.

If following Christ really means, as you said, "believing in this gospel set of supernatural claims over all others, and believing all contradictory ones to be false", then I want no part of it. That is divisive, delusional, and dangerous (crusades, burning "witches", scarlet letters, suicide bombers, and don't forget friggin 9/11).

When or "if" Christianity ever comes to mean actually making God's will for justice and peace done on earth, then you can sign me up. I'm all for that!

September 3, 2009 at 10:24 AM

I should have added that I do think Christianity has at times (maybe even originally) meant, "making God's will for justice and peace done on earth". That is why I still with some hesitation use the term "christian".

September 3, 2009 at 12:34 PM

I would have to say that I believe that many of, if not most of, the Truth-claims of Jesus are supernatural, but of course I do not believe them to be delusional. I do believe them to be divisive and dangerous. (Like the Resurrection, the Day of Judgement, the power of Prayer over demons.... all very supernatural)
When Jesus said, of only loving those who love you, "even the pagans do that"; it was because He expected better of His followers, He expected that they would not be as Base as the prevalent pagan religious systems, which were acting, morally, on what we can now see as purely evolutionary ethics.

Christianity does not "consist of attempts to convince people of Bronze Age mental assertions about God, social norms, biology, (science), etc."

It's own assertions are not Bronze Age, and have little to say in the NT about biology or universal constants. It projects, through Paul, in the Epistles, a certain "need to fit in" in a way which would allow the Emergency of the Gospel to be transmitted. The Great Commission is a direct command, by God, to convince people about God. that is our Mission, as christians.

I have read Bishop Spong's book (s), i think that the fact that he was an overseer who was in charge of evangelizing the county just across the river from my own is scary. He is a very smart man, he raises a number of good criticisms of the modern church. but when he calls for an end to thinking about God as God, thinking biblically -- I think that he is outside of the Church of England, and outside of christianity, and well into Universalist New Age sadness.

I am, myself, very much post-colonial. I also have problems with numerous parts of the old testament, which is why I could never have been converted to Judaism. (I would personally just lose the Book of Joshua, except for the last sentence)

I am not a reactionary. but if the belief in the gospel over all other truth-claims is delusional and divisive, if missionaries are simply brainwashers (sometimes brains need a good washing! mine did.) if the idea that spreading the Good News (gospel) is bad... is Good.....

then I am bad....terrible.

September 4, 2009 at 2:59 AM

I am not about to become a suicide bomber because i believe in the message of Jesus, and do not believe in the message of Mohammed.

September 4, 2009 at 3:22 AM

Rob,

"many of, if not most of, the Truth-claims of Jesus are supernatural"

Could you provide your source for that claim? What percentage quantifies as "many of, if not most" and how did you calculate that? What qualifies as supernatural?

I'm a big fan of resurrection, judgment, and prayer over demonic forces. However, I don't see any of those as supernatural claims. They seem to be allegorical references to real physical earthly assertions about power and oppression. To insist they are "supernatural", seems to neuter them of all their world changing and life shaping power. I'm not ready to join either side of that modern battle (reductionism and literalism), both sides drawing from the view that it must all be about supernatural claims, one saying, "see it's silly" and the other saying, "but it really happened". What literalism doesn't seem to realize is that suggesting "it really happened" is exactly what makes it seem silly. Both sides steeped in modernism make the same mistake by misunderstanding the point of allegorical literary devices.

"but when he calls for an end to thinking about God as God, thinking biblically

What is "thinking about God as God"?

Do you really mean "thinking about God the way you've been trained to think about God"?

What is "thinking biblically"?

Do you really mean "thinking about the bible the way you've been trained to think about the bible"?

September 4, 2009 at 12:23 PM

Mike,
I'm not sure you and Rob are having exactly the debate you both think you are. Read Rob's guest post here: http://postrestorationist.blogspot.com/2009/07/robs-mission-of-god-statement.html for context. You two won't see eye-to-eye on some points, but I don't think it's exactly the disagreement that it seems.
AE

September 4, 2009 at 9:39 PM

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