I, along with a handful of others, am currently gearing up to plant a new church in Bangor – which is easily the biggest reason why my blog, and, really, all my writing pursuits, has been neglected lately. And though I am still trying to find the proper balance between my local pastoral/planting ministry and my writing ministry, I must say that I cannot remember a time in my ministry when I’ve been more excited. God is on the move!
As I’ve been preparing to launch a new church, I’ve been reading a lot of material and listening to a lot of podcasts on the “nuts and bolts” of planting particularly – but, really, ecclesiology (the study of the church) in general. It has been very informative and eye-opening!
One thing that has caught my attention, and has been very helpful in evaluating how we “do church,” is the basic distinction between “attractional” and “missional” models to church. Though they are, of course, generalizations, it’s interesting to use these two approaches as “filters” by which one can evaluate the way a particular church approaches evangelism and mission – both historically and presently.
There is plenty of material one can find that explains the differences between these two approaches, but the long-and-short of it is that “attractional” approaches essentially view the church as programs that one puts on in a building – and then people are invited to participate, whether actively or passively, in those programs. In short, “church” is defined, whether explicitly or not, as programs that take place in a building.
A “missional” approach, however, views the “church” not as a building or a program but a living, breathing, active people. Under this model, a person doesn’t go to church; the person is the church (or is a part of a body of people that constitutes the church). Thus, “church” takes place as much in the workplace, in the school, or in neighborhood as much as in a building that is referred to as “the church.” It is a living body of people who go to others to live and show the gospel, rather than a program that takes place at a specific time and at a specific place that people are invited to come witness.
Further, it seeks to understand the culture in which it resides so as to be able to express the gospel in ways that are relevant and make sense to that culture.
By and large, this second approach is very much in vogue today. Many evangelicals, and of course Adventists, are recognizing the merits of this approach as America becomes more secular and more people are less willing to set foot in a church building. Also, the traditional ways of expressing the gospel – of sitting through an hour-long worship service where a person speaks from up front – are becoming less and less relevant to many people.
Thus, “church,” or the way we’ve defined it to people, has become meaningless and unappealing. And many people reject “church” without realizing that they are simply rejecting a version of “church” that has been the de facto definition of “church,” despite its lack of biblical support.
What has been interesting to me, however, as I’ve been reading through a lot of material on “missional” approaches, is how a lot of it has been second nature to me. It’s almost like I’ve kept saying, “You’re just now figuring this out?” No offense! I don’t say this because I have access to some secret superior knowledge. It’s just been funny to me because the evangelical world seems to now only be discovering what Seventh-day Adventists have known all along. But it has come across as a revelation to them.
That’s because a century before evangelicals caught on, a little old lady wrote the book on “missional church.” Her name was Ellen White – and, in fact, she wrote many things in many books that were missional in nature, though perhaps her book Ministry of Healing is the most systematic explanation of this approach.
For example, here’s just a sampling of a few quotes from her which are missional to the core. This first one is the very first line in Ministry of Healing, and I love it!
Our Lord Jesus Christ came to this world as the unwearied servant of man’s necessity (p. 17)
Elsewhere, she explains:
While He ministered to the poor, Jesus studied also to find ways of reaching the rich. He sought the acquaintance of the wealthy and cultured Pharisee, the Jewish nobleman, and the Roman ruler. He accepted their invitations, attended their feasts, made Himself familiar with their interests and occupations, that He might gain access to their hearts, and reveal to them the imperishable riches (p. 25).
Though He was a Jew, Jesus mingled freely with the Samaritans, setting at nought the Pharisaic customs of His nation. In face of their prejudices He accepted the hospitality of this despised people. He slept with them under their roofs, ate with them at their tables,—partaking of the food prepared and served by their hands,—taught in their streets, and treated them with the utmost kindness and courtesy. And while He drew their hearts to Him by the tie of human sympathy, His divine grace brought to them the salvation which the Jews rejected. (p. 26)
The badge of Christianity is not an outward sign, not the wearing of a cross or a crown, but it is that which reveals the union of man with God. By the power of His grace manifested in the transformation of character the world is to be convinced that God has sent His Son as its Redeemer. No other influence that can surround the human soul has such power as the influence of an unselfish life. The strongest argument in favor of the gospel is a loving and lovable Christian. (p. 470).
In The Desire of Ages, she offers this very missional perspective:
[Christ’s] work began in consecrating the lowly trade of the craftsmen who toil for their daily bread. He was doing God’s service just as much when laboring at the carpenter’s bench as when working miracles for the multitude. (p. 74)
Then, there’s this bombshell:
When the practices of the people do not come in conflict with the law of God, you may conform to them. If the workers fail to do this, they will not only hinder their own work, but they will place stumbling blocks in the way of those for whom they labor, and hinder them from accepting the truth. (Review and Herald, April 6, 1911)
Lastly, there is this quote, again from Ministry of Healing, which is really the missional statement par excellence – and one that just about every Seventh-day Adventist will be familiar with.
Christ’s method alone will give true success in reaching the people. The Saviour mingled with men as one who desired their good. He showed His sympathy for them, ministered to their needs, and won their confidence. Then He bade them, “Follow Me.” (p. 143)
It’s hard to get any more “missional” than all these quotes – especially the last one! And this is just a small sampling! Ellen White was as missional as one can get – and we should be too.
Of course, one might legitimately wonder why, if Ellen White wrote it a hundred years ago, we would resort to reading current authors who may not hit the nail as squarely on the head as she does. It’s a legitimate question. However, I don’t think we should have an either/or attitude. I read Ellen White voraciously; in fact, I’m going through Ministry of Healing again right now – after just finishing Acts of the Apostles (as a side, if you want to see another strongly missional statement, just read the first paragraph in that book. She defines the purpose and mission of the church and nowhere does she say anything about buildings or programs. The church is, according to her, “God’s appointed agency for the salvation of men,” and “was organized for service.”).
But I also find that contemporary authors sometimes write many of the same things in very succinct and practical ways that are “how to” in nature. That can be very helpful – at least for me, since I tend not to be an “X’s and O’s” kind of guy.
So I’m most grateful for the writings of Ellen White – and I’m grateful for the contributions of contemporary authors as well, many of whom are outside my particular community of faith. Both have been a blessing.
To the reader, I would say this: don’t neglect Ellen White on these things. While many people today are saying many of the same things, there is a richness in her writings that is not present in today’s counterparts – chiefly because she was, in fact, inspired – and ingredients that you may not get elsewhere. But I would also say that there is also benefit in prayerfully considering the methods of contemporary authors – filtering out the wrong and irrelevant, of course – as they very practically explain approaches to the contemporary situation.