An Attractive Church
Earlier this year there was an interesting little debate between the British theologian Alister McGrath and his Dutch colleague Bram van de Beek.
McGrath, a professor at Oxford University, said that mainline Protestant churches are not likely to survive much longer. They are too intellectual, he said. They do not cater to people’s spiritual desires. In today’s world the Anglican, Presbyterian, and Reformed churches are becoming more and more irrelevant.
McGrath does not imply that Christianity as such does not have a future anymore. Interestingly, he believes that atheism is dying as well (recently he published a book entitled The Twilight of Atheism). But as far as Christianity is concerned, McGrath believes that only those denominations will survive that allow people to experience the sacred and the spiritual. Such churches would be the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, and the Evangelical and Pentecostal churches. In other words, if Protestant churches want to survive, they are advised to become more evangelical.
Van de Beek, a dogmatics professor at the Free University of Amsterdam, reacted to the views of McGrath with an article in the Dutch magazine Wapenveld. He agrees with McGrath that the future of Protestantism is bleak. However, he disagrees when it comes to the explanation. According to the Dutch professor Protestantism is not in danger because it is not relevant enough, but because it is trying too hard to be relevant! Protestant churches generally feel that they should be active in the world. They are involved in welfare programs. They change their style of worship services so that people might feel at home more easily. They try to adapt to the current climate.
In van de Beek’s view the churches should stop trying to be attractive and stop trying to please the outside world. Instead, the churches should try to please the Lord Jesus Christ. After all, if the church is the bride of Christ, she should try to be attractive to Him and forget about everyone else.
Van de Beek believes that becoming more evangelical is no solution. In fact, he is convinced that Evangelicalism does not have a lasting future. In his opinion it is no more than a fly-by-night movement that is doomed to vanish when today’s culture is replaced by the next one. The evangelical movement is successful because it has adapted successfully to the mindset of today’s people (very individualistic: it is all about my experience, my faith, my activities). However, there is a reverse side: as soon as today’s culture is replaced by tomorrow’s, the evangelical movement will disappear as well.
Van de Beek calls on Protestant churches to remain faithful to key characteristics of the Protestant faith. In his view the churches should remain faithful to the Scriptures, to the confessions, to the use of the sacraments, and to the central role of the offices in the church of Christ. (As an aside, it is quite refreshing to hear these things coming from a Free University professor!)
Should the Church be Attractive?
As was to be expected, van de Beek’s statements caused quite a stir in Reformed circles in The Netherlands. The Nederlands Dagblad, a Dutch Christian newspaper, carried a series of letters to the editor. Van de Beek was criticized by many for his criticism of the evangelical movement.
It would be interesting to follow that discussion a bit longer, but let us rather turn our attention to the North American continent. In this part of the world there are similar discussions. We are told by many that the church in North America should re-invent itself. Many believe that the church is rooted in a culture of times gone by. Therefore, the church should not expect people of this time and age to come and join the church. Instead, the church should study contemporary culture and adapt accordingly. If the church is prepared to do so, the church will be attractive once again.
Whatever means are proposed, it seems that there is general agreement that the church should try to be attractive to outsiders. Some authors propose that the church should be “seeker sensitive”; others talk about building “contagious churches.” Seminars and conferences are organized where church leaders can learn how to make their church more attractive.
We do not intend to discuss these specific movements here, but it may be worthwhile to briefly discuss the basic question: should the church be attractive to outsiders or not? If we wish to see the church growing in numbers, should the church then somehow adapt to the changing situation and try to attract outsiders? Or should the church not worry about anything and just mind its own business?
The answer to this question depends on what is meant by being attractive. There are characteristics of the Christian church that will attract outsiders. If the church is what it should be (the temple of the Holy Spirit), there will be friendliness, peace, harmony, hospitality, etc. These things are attractive to anyone!
However, there are other characteristics of the Christian church that will not attract outsiders initially. The church is a strange phenomenon in this world and its message goes against the grain. In a certain sense, unbelievers should not feel at home in the church too quickly! Let me qualify that. Of course outsiders should feel welcome in the church. They should be received warmly. But at the same time they should feel that the church community is different. When the church worships and praises its God, non-believers should be able to feel that this is real worship – and it would not be a bad thing if they felt a bit out of place. If the minister starts preaching, they should be challenged and convicted in their hearts and minds (see John 16:8) – and it would not be a bad sign if there was some heartfelt resistance, initially.
The important question is why outsiders are attracted to the church, or even who is attracted to the church. If people are attracted because the church is no different from the world they live in, and they are able to feel at home right away, there is something wrong. But if outsiders are attracted because the church is different and because they can see that God is present among the believers, it is a different story.
The Real Attraction
It is striking to read about the effect that the church in Jerusalem had on outsiders. In Acts 5:13-14 it sounds almost contradictory:
No one else dared join them, even though they were highly regarded by the people. Nevertheless, more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number.
The church in Jerusalem was feared by many outsiders, apparently because the church was a dangerous place (Ananias and Sapphira had died there!). They could sense that God was among the believers, and therefore they did not dare to join. For the same reason, however, the church was highly respected, and more and more people joined.
This gives us an important clue to our question. If a church is faithful, and if God is present among the believers, many people will be too scared to join. Others, however, will come and attend, though they may enter with trepidation.
When Paul discusses worship issues with the church in Corinth, he refers to the possibility that outsiders may come in and attend the worship service. The desired effect is that the outsider “will be convinced by all that he is a sinner and will be judged by all, and the secrets of his heart will be laid bare. So he will fall down and worship God, exclaiming ‘God is really among you!’” (1 Corinthians 14:24-25)
I’m not sure whether this approach may be described as “seeker sensitive” or “attractive.” Clearly, many outsiders would not be attracted by the possibility of having the secrets of their heart being laid bare... but others will be attracted! If the gospel of forgiveness of sins is preached in the church, and if God is present among the believers, that will attract those who have been called by the Lord.
It is interesting to read the accounts in the book of Acts on how the church grew in numbers. Often Luke describes certain aspects of the life of the church, and he concludes by mentioning that the church grew in numbers.
In Acts 2:42-47, for example, we find a description of the life of the church in Jerusalem. The believers devoted themselves to teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and prayer, and they shared their possessions with the poor and praised God. That proved to be attractive: “The Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47).
In chapter 6 we read about the crisis that was caused by problems regarding the distribution of food among the widows in the church. When that problem had been solved under the guidance of the Spirit, peace and harmony were restored. That proved to be attractive: “The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly” (Acts 6:7).
In chapter 11 we read about the ministry of Barnabas, that he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith. That proved to be attractive: “A great number of people were brought to the Lord” (Acts 11:24).
In chapter 14 we read about the Paul’s ministry of proclaiming the gospel and that he was very effective in doing so. That proved to be fruitful: “A great number of Jews and Gentiles believed” (Acts 14:1).
In chapter 17 we read about the Bereans who examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul had said was true. That proved to be fruitful: “Many of the Jews believed, as did also a number of prominent Greek women and many Greek men” (Acts 17:12).
Should the church be attractive to outsiders? If God is among us, if the church is behaving like the bride of Christ, and if the church is a temple of the Holy Spirit, then the church will automatically be attractive to those whom God wants to add to the number of those that are saved.
However, if we are biting and devouring each other (Galatians 5:15), if the gospel has lost its power, if the Spirit is grieved among us, if the church is dead, then the church will automatically fail to attract those that have been elected.