The church planting world is full of publications that propose and defend various models of ecclesiology and methods of ministry. While the discussions are complex, the three basic categories that are dissected are the attractional, institutional, and missional models.
The attractional model sees the church as directly engaging the culture (usually pop culture). It emerges from a pietist and evangelical background that places great emphasis on evangelism, the call to salvation, and practical Christian living. While not absent of doctrine, attractionalists prefer to remain neutral on many issues or to err on the side of a popular theological stream (dispensationalism, Baptist with a charismatic twist, Reformedish). While not identical to the seeker-sensitive movement of the 80s and 90s, attractionalists place great emphasis on technology, organization, excellence in presentation, and Sunday worship. Most of these churches employ community small groups, though some still are ‘programmed’ out.
Institutional churches come in many forms. Usually, the denominational or theological tradition is maximized. So, for Reformed churches, the “mission of the church are the marks of the church” (Michael Horton) in that the ordinary means of grace are distributed through corporate worship under the oversight of ordained officers summarizes the church’s ministry. While Bible studies, basic mercy ministry, and one-on-one discipleship might exist in this church, there is little emphasis on contextualization, neighborhood ministry, and the ‘equipping the saints for ministry’ (Eph 4:12).
Missional (sometimes called, organic) churches tend to decentralize church, emphasizing the communal and ‘one anothering’ ecclesiology of Scripture. The emphasis often falls on neighborhood ministry, contextualizing or incarnating gospel truths to outsiders, deed ministry, etc. This model doesn’t mind questioning the traditions of denominations or Christendom.
So, which model is biblical? Which model best reflects the ecclesiology of the Old and New Testaments? My own reading of these books, articles, lectures and my experience in co-planting a church has convinced me that none of these models offer the full biblical picture of the church. At best, each offer valid insights and perspective as to what the church is and should be.
Indeed, as attractionalists point out, Jesus wasn’t afraid to draw crowds and keep their attention in order to effectively communicate his message (Matt 14:13-14). The parable of the sower and the seed demonstrates that context matters (Matt 13:1-23) and that the preparation of the heart to receive the Word is important.
The institutional model takes the Bible seriously when it comes to the officers of the church (1 Tim 3) as well the courts of the church (Acts 15). Indeed, the preached Word, sacraments, and prayer are the simple, ordinary (though not only) means whereby God makes his grace efficacious. To neglect what the Bible says about preaching, elders, and corporate worship is to the church’s detriment.
The missional model takes seriously the scriptural teaching of contextualization and ‘being sent’ (John 17:18; Rom 10:14-15). The emphasis on neighborhood and deed ministry takes the second greatest commandment seriously (‘Love thy neighbor’). In addition, the missional model emphasizes the biblical notion multiplying disciples who do the work of ministry (Eph 4:12).
So, each model has something to offer us as they each embrace a valid perspective from Scripture concerning ecclesiology. Thus, a church that emphasizes one model over the others will be imbalanced at best.
My own church emphasizes the missional perspective, but our Presbyterian and Reformed tradition gives us a good dose of institutionalism. Yet, we aren’t totally immune from attractional aspects as the Senior Pastor and I work hard to understand our people, be relevant in our preaching, and make hundreds of tiny decisions that make our Sunday gatherings more welcoming (‘attractive’) to members and visitors. (In other words, it is easier for a couple to be attentive and receive God’s Word if they know that our childcare is competent.)
Yet, it isn’t enough to say “embrace all models equally.” There are blindspots and bright spots in each model. I would even say that some models shine brighter than others. There is also the issue of one’s ministry gifts, local context, denominational/network affiliation, etc.
So, what is the solution? I contend that we strive to be, as Dr. Bob Cara puts it, “as balanced as the Bible is balanced.” Then, take that balance and ‘re-balance’ it according to your calling, gifts, and context. Pray for the Spirit to give understanding of His Word, as well as the imagination to faithfully and creatively apply His Word.
This means that churches striving to be as balanced as the Bible is balanced will still look and do ministry differently. These churches will come in all shapes and sizes, articulating different theological visions. This will even be the case in the same denomination! Patient dialogue is necessary if we are to be the church and aid one another in balancing one another according to Scripture.