Preaching in Britain Today: Believing or Belonging? (Part 3)

23 Jun


To become truly missional and incarnational, church leaders and pastors should perhaps begin to think about moving away from what is termed an “attractional model” of church growth. This model embraces this fundamental idea: “if you build it, they will come”—the notion that people will simply come to our church, for whatever reason.

That reason for attending, many church leaders believe, may be along the following lines: a sense of duty, church-going traditions from the past, non-believers who are seeking God, or perhaps someone out there is merely trying to recover a church experience that he or she may have once had in the past. To advance this model, it is believed, our job as a church is merely to keep the doors open each Sunday; people will simply show up, because the doors just happen to be open. No other strategy is needed; we’ve done our part, and surely God will bring them through the doors, as long as we inside remain faithful.

Looked at from a slightly different point of view, a further description of the attractional model is found in the book Mission-Shaped Church. The authors label it the “come to us” model, which “thinks in terms of Sunday, of corporate worship and holy buildings dependent on ordained leaders.”[1] This is church the way it’s been done for hundreds of years—but what we are seeing today is that there are far too many available distractions for people on any given Sunday. The reality is, however, that the thought of attending a local church, simply because the doors are open, in reality simply does not appeal to most people currently.

In order to combat this tendency, churches then feel that they have to “market their product” much like a business would seek to attract customers. This is typically accomplished by offering multiple ministries and relevant events to attract the crowds through their doors. The major problem is, of course, that it takes a tremendous amount of money and personnel resources to prop up a church of this nature.

What Does “Incarnational” Mean?

At the root of the entire issue of “attractional” churches is this: the flow of traffic is toward the church, and not the other way around. In other words, how good of a job are churches actually doing to reverse the trends described above? What if instead of trying to attract people, churches sought to direct the flow of traffic outwards–in other words, churches that were truly incarnational and missional.

Although space does not permit a fuller development of this notion here, I develop this in more detail in another post. Briefly, “incarnational modes” of church seek to follow the method modelled by Christ and his disciples. According to John 1.14, we read that God did not stay comfortably esconced in heaven, shouting down at humanity or zapping them whenever he wanted to communicate to people.

The “missionary God,” in other words, sent his son, Jesus, who entered the world and took on a specific cultural identity. Jesus therefore incarnated and accommodated himself to become human, for the specific aim of reaching out to humanity, and lived in both solidarity and in community with his followers. After his physical departure from earth, Jesus then sent the promised Holy Spirit to be the Comforter and Advocate–thus the conclusion: God is the one who initiates communication from himself toward humanity.

While indeed the message of Christ was largely aimed at a specific 1st-century Jewish culture, the good news of the gospel did not stay in that somewhat restricted context. This, coincidentally, is “good news” for anyone who is a Gentile! Mission-Shaped Church comments that “the early Christians did not remain culturally static, but quickly translated the gospel out of the original language and culture of Jesus, as the Church was planted into non-Jewish cultures.”[2]

Had the original Jewish Christ-followers insisted on such restrictive Old Testament laws like circumcision, or other dietary laws, the early Christian movement would have most likely remained strictly a “Jewish thing” and not have translated into the Gentile world as successfully as it did.

The point being made, therefore, is this: it is the task of congregational leaders and church members alike to analyze their church context in terms of its wider culture, and physical place. How can the gospel message of the good news be contextualized for your specific setting, place and space? No two settings are alike; therefore, the methods and strategies adopted must be a relevant “fit” for each particular context.

The difficult task faced by churches is this: how to discover new ways to break out of culturally static modes of “doing church” in the same old time-honoured ways, and instead learn how to translate the gospel to the surrounding culture in more relevant and culturally appropriate ways. Additionally, churches can re-examine their vision and mission: does your church take responsibility for the surrounding neighbourhood, or physical area, in which it is located? Or is it simply reliant on the “open-door policy” as a strategy of church growth, with little regard for missional ministries? What are the specific needs and challenges in your area that your church could address, all the while avoiding the charge of merely “doing it for potential converts?”

“Zombie Categories” and Preaching

One major way in which churches can begin to transition toward more incarnational modes of mission can be achieved by fostering an awareness of what are termed “zombie categories.” In his book Reconstructing Practical Theology, John Reader points to the work of contemporary sociologist Ulricht Becht, who coined the phrase. “Zombie categories,” explains Reader, are “a way of pointing to the continued employment of concepts that no longer do justice to the world we experience and yet are difficult to abandon because of tradition and also because they are not yet totally redundant.”[3]

One such zombie category involves ways in which churches have traditionally preached sermons. The preachers we looked at in my first post (Wesley, Spurgeon, etc.), used what are knowns as “direct forms of communication.” The goal of such a direct form of communication model was basically straightforward: to impart information from the Bible, as clearly as possible, directly into the minds of the listeners. Such a preaching style develops along the lines of logical argumentation and is typically formulated in terms of objective propositions, bullet-point outline formats using logical assertions. Direct forms of communication are implicitly confrontational in nature, as the listener of such sermons only has two choices: one, accept, or two, reject the interpretative conclusions already drawn by the preacher.

As an admittedly extreme example of direct communication, one could think of the classic evangelistic, or “hell-fire and brimstone” type of sermon. The goal of this genre is basically straightforward: firstly, confront the listener with the reality of his or her sin; secondly, then follows the certainty that they—a justly condemned sinner in the eyes of God—are bound for hell. Finally, just when the sinner has been thoroughly frightened with this seemingly inescapable reality, throw them a lifeline: the good news of salvation—the gospel.

New England preacher Jonathan Edwards had his famous ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God’ sermon in 1741; and lest we think that model went out with the Great Awakening, Charles Spurgeon around a century later delivered a sermon in 1856 called “Turn or Burn.” These so-called “terror sermons” did indeed motivate the listeners to repent (oftentimes in tears and torment), but one must ask how long-lasting was that motivation? Statistics show that following a revival, such as the Great Awakening, while church attendance spiked while the revival fever was hot, within a year or two, the overall numbers were reportedly lower than they were before the revival!


The problem we face in our current, increasingly pluralistic and postmodern world, is this: in our more democratic and dialogical world of today, direct forms of communication, together with monologic, one-way sermons, are far less likely to appeal to individuals who are not given the choice to think, decide and respond for themselves.

Moreover, considering the many problems associated with more traditional direct forms of preaching, one must ask if people truly have ownership over the conclusions already reached by the preacher. Thinking it through, the preacher does basically all the work for the hearer. He or she begins by explaining the text by means of logical argumentation, with no option for feedback or dialogue, and then concludes by applying the text to the lives of the listeners, what else is left but to agree—or disagree?

Frank Viola, in Reimagining Church, argues that such a communication model has a major flaw: it leaves the listeners in a state of spiritual infancy. They cannot grow, nor are they allowed to grow into maturity, since they are essentially spoon-fed by the preacher—the “expert” who alone has the necessary skills to “correctly divide the Word of truth.” And perhaps worse yet, many churches utilize the attractional model to “sell their product,” with professional worship musicians, stage lighting, all the latest hi-tech advances to make the service seem incredibly-well done. But the problem with this is, states Viola, is that it has created what he terms “entertainment” or “auditorium churches” that again, by creating such a stage show (like going to a concert or a performance to be entertained), also leaves them in a state of spiritual infancy.

In the next post, I’ll begin to examine critically the work of North American preacher, Fred B. Craddock, who proposed a counter-model of communication to the direct mode–what he called “indirect communication.” Perhaps there are ways forward, after all.

Read the final article in this series, Part 4.


[1] Cray, Mission-Shaped Church, 23.

[2] Ibid., 87.

[3] Reader, Reconstructing Practical Theology, 1.

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