The Protestant church landscape is comprised of various models or approaches, each with its own method of appealing to outsiders. While reading a blog from a respected pastor in Washington D.C., Mark Dever of Capitol Hill Baptist Church, I came across his analysis and have supplemented it with my own additions and observations. In each model you will find true believers committed to the Bible and trying their best to live out the faith. Yet, we are called to examine everything carefully. In critiquing any approach, I’m not questioning any one’s motive or salvation.
The first model Dever calls Traditional. Here the appeal is made with church programs and door-to-door evangelism. Often rooted in revivalism history, these churches and denominations will usually conclude sermons by inviting people to come down front to the altar. The message is Jesus longs for a personal relationship with you, so invite Jesus into your heart. Sinners are encouraged to pray “The Sinner’s Prayer” and then maybe raise their hand and walk the aisle. Here you find a commendable passion for the simple gospel message to be proclaimed and souls to be saved. Often the primary bent of the Traditional church is evangelism and most traditional pastors see this as their primary calling.
As we seek discernment, we must ask, are there practices here and phrases invoked not found in the Bible? Some may be surprised to learn that the Bible never says “ask Jesus into your heart” nor does it suggest that a sinner under conviction needs to come forward in a church service to be saved or converted. I would even question “altar” terminology to describe a piece of church furniture or a location in the room. If there remains an altar, I believe it’s the human heart. Certainly people may do the requested acts and be converted (because they repent and believe), but there is no formula for a Holy Spirit wrought revival or single conversion. At the Gentile Pentecost in Acts 11, the Holy Spirit fell on the people as Peter was preaching! Apparently, they were converted on the spot!
Another observation. Believer’s baptism is the ordinance Jesus has given the church to make a profession of faith public. I sometimes wonder if the call to come down front has taken the place of baptism or is seen as a supplement or prelude to it. In our church we have the person being baptized give their public profession of faith and testimony themselves so all can hear what God has done.
Also, keep in mind that the altar call and invitation system so many of us are familiar with is a recent convention, relatively speaking, having started most likely during the Second Great Awakening of the 1850’s and in the revival meetings of lawyer turned preacher Charles Finney. That’s a lot of church history and conversions before this approach ever came along.
Seeker Sensitive Church
Next up is the Seeker Sensitive church or movement, a brand made famous by the likes of Robert Schuller, Bill Hybels, and Rick Warren, with many disciples behind them. I’m not sure if it has peaked and is now waning or not, but certainly many of the largest churches in the U.S. fit under this category.
Here the general idea is to build everything around the “seeker” or non-Christian guest, especially on Sunday mornings. From parking lot attendants to Starbucks in the lobby to concert-like worship, seeker churches invest great resources of time, energy, and money to appeal to and accommodate unbelievers. Churchy cultural barriers like crosses, pews, organs, hymnals, or Scripture banners are removed, for fear these things might offend. Sermons tend to be short, highly polished, and usually more entertaining than theological. Dramatic skits illustrate that day’s theme. There is liberal use of multimedia presentations. Their primary appeal is to felt needs as a way to get people in the door to then address real needs. The message is along the lines of: Jesus promises purpose, fulfillment, and better relationships, so come to Jesus. (Is that why He died on the Cross?) Instead of seeking the original meaning of the Scriptures first, the messages usually trend toward topics like, “How to Have a Better Marriage” or “Three Easy Steps to Happiness” or “Raising Kids without Losing Your Mind”. Great marital sex is also a frequent hot topic. To preach such sermons, passages are often taken out of context to fit the topic or imposed outline.
I think the Lord has used both of these models to introduce many to Jesus. But is there growth of the individual? Is there discipleship and increasing conformity to Christ? Is there a desire to plumb the depths of the gospel and are the sheep being fed or simply told week after week what they already know? These are some of the main challenges in a traditional and seeker approach.
Number three on the list is the Missional church where mission isn’t just an activity or arm of the church, it defines the church. It is the church. So let’s move to the inner city and get involved with the arts, schools, and soup kitchens. Buzz phrases include “be incarnate in the culture” or “transform the culture” or “be Jesus to the culture”. Church members are called to serve the kingdom of God and bring healing to the city as people do life together. Often there is a lot of social gospel in these places, with sometimes more emphasis on social than gospel and more emphasis on the kingdom than the church. The great danger in social gospel circles, in any mercy ministry really, is making dependents, not disciples.
Here are some safeguards for the missional church. Be clear and intentional with the spoken message of salvation from sin as every person’s greatest need beyond all physical needs. Make the local church the focus, not the nebulous kingdom of God. And ask often, “Can this person I’m trying to help do this for himself?” A handout is not always help.
Signs and Wonder Church
The fourth model I call the Signs and Wonders church. In a category of its own, the appeal is high adrenaline worship with lots of physical motion, an occasional word of prophecy, or someone (or everyone) speaks in tongues. The outreach appeal here is the miraculous and exciting. God is expected or commanded to work miracles of healings, release from oppression, exorcisms of demons, and the like. The presentation of Christianity in these circles is often a weekly stirring of the emotions by leaders (some would say emotions are whipped into a frenzy) as the worshippers chase yet another emotional high and extra-biblical revelations from God. Unbelievers or unchurched are invited to experience the moving of God in dramatic and life-changing ways, as if this is normal, day to day Christianity. Often, depending on the leadership, worship might trend toward the outlandish or even absurd (recall the barking and laughing revivals several years back).
The grave danger is of course when the miracle doesn’t come or the pursued feeling isn’t achieved or the prayer isn’t answered or the behavior is downright bizarre, dangerous, and damaging (like snake handling services in eastern Kentucky… how many of them have to die from snake bites before someone questions the flawed interpretation of Scripture?). Many dear souls have been burned over and burned out in such environments.
All four models likely begin with a secondary question – how do we reach the world? Great question, but believe it or not, it’s not the primary question. The primary question is, “How do we worship God?” This is the main question because God is primary, not man. In other words all of the previous models can be easily pulled in a man-centered direction.
Perhaps there’s another approach. Pastor Dever calls it the “Godward” church. He describes it this way. “A bunch of people get together in a room. Someone stands up, opens a Bible, and says, “This is what God says.” He explains it. The church sings, prays, shares the bread and cup, and goes home.”
That’s it? That doesn’t sound very market savvy or missional. How could that be effective? But hold on a minute. There’s more here than meets the eye. Those words from the Bible, they come with power, the Holy Spirit, and with full conviction (I Thess. 1:5) backed by a life of integrity in the preachers (v.6). Consciences are pierced by the gospel and lives are changed, slowly but surely. Idolaters turn to God and begin serving Him instead of self as they wait for His Son from heaven to rescue them from coming wrath (vv.9-10). People go home delighting in God by hating their personal sin, loving each other, and seeking their neighbors with the love of Jesus.
When the Holy Spirit visits personal evangelism and church preaching, there is conviction of sin and fear of coming judgment so that sinners are converted and stay that way!
Are there lessons to be learned from all these models? Surely each one makes a positive contribution in some way. But at the end of the day, “faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of Christ (i.e., the gospel)” not gimmicks, games, or food drives. At the end of the day, we exist to worship Him “in spirit and in truth.”
Unless otherwise noted, all posts are written by Pastor Chris McKnight