Choosing a Church: Two Models

Recognizing the Theological Orientation of a Local Church

by   |     |   shorn@bju.edu   |  

In 1 Corinthians 2, Paul describes his ministry with the Corinthian believers—he had ministered, not with grand displays or words of wisdom, but through the power of the Spirit. And the reason for this is found in verse 5: “So that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.” God intends for the church to be a place where believers can grow and be established in their faith.

Because of the emphasis the Bible places on the local church, it is vital for college students to consider this matter personally. When you leave your parents’ home and establish your own home, you will have to decide what role the church is going to play in your life. And that decision will affect the lives of your children. So how do you choose a church that will help you and your family honor God and live how he has called you to live?

Frankly, in a cultural context like ours, there is a huge number of church options available to us. In most of the major cities in our country, there are often scores of Protestant churches to choose from—differing in size, approaches to worship, programs and theological emphases. So how do we make this choice? The following is designed to be a biblical framework for choosing a church where you can worship accurately and authentically, grow spiritually, and serve effectively as a faithful member of that local expression of God’s Church.

Setting the Stage: Doxological or Attractional Approach to Corporate Worship

Church historians, theologians and evangelical authors and leaders agree that two distinct church models exist in the current evangelical context in the United States. Most churches will fit in one model or the other. This distinction is rooted in two different foundations, shaped by two different philosophies of ministry, and evidenced in two very different purposes for gathered worship.

There are different ways to describe these two models—none of them are perfect. I have chosen to describe these two models as “doxological” and “attractional” based on the intentional, permeating design of their weekly corporate worship service.

Defining our Terms—the Purpose of Corporate Worship

Doxological model (DM) churches believe that the primary purpose of weekly corporate worship is for believers to worship God accurately, authentically and acceptably in accordance with the mandates and expectations of Scripture. Therefore, corporate worship is not focused on or designed primarily for lost people who might be in attendance. Rather, it is for believers who gather to worship God through acceptable praise, adoration, prayer and giving and to receive edification, exhortation and encouragement from the careful preaching of God’s Word.

Attractional model (AM) churches believe the primary purpose of weekly corporate worship is to attract lost people, disengaged Christians or the unchurched to come to Jesus, accept the Gospel and reconnect with the church. Many churches in this model believe the primary focus of the worship service is evangelistic and, as a result, work hard to intentionally downplay things that lost people might find offensive or that would be impediments to their accepting the Gospel.

AM churches often strive to create an experience that will make them attractive to a skeptical or secularized audience, and, in many cases, theology is light, commitment is low, and a consumer mentality predominates. Jesus is a useful friend to have—“Just give me three dollars’ worth of God.”

AM churches abound and are often called “seeker-sensitive churches.” The primary poster model of this approach is a church in the suburbs of Chicago called Willow Creek Church.

Some Important Caveats

  1. All churches should strive to attract people to a proper view of God—as revealed by Scripture—and a right relationship with God through a right response to the Gospel as taught in Scripture. In other words, every church should strive to be attractive and winsome in its ministry and worship culture. When we talk about doxological or attractional model churches, we are describing an overarching approach that is intentionally designed into the corporate worship of that ministry.
  2. All churches are called to proclaim the Gospel, and in a doxological model, there are specific times and services set apart for the clear and compelling presentation of the Gospel.
  3. I am not speaking to the motives or the character of those who lead, serve or attend the churches of either model.
  4. Simply having one marker in a particular category does not necessarily mean the church has embraced that model. The more markers a church has on one side or the other will help you locate where that church is in terms of following a doxological or attractional model.
  5. This framework is applicable in the specific cultural context where we are currently called to live out our faith as the local expression of God’s church. We are living in a period of time where the cultural context in which we live is rapidly changing as the church becomes much more multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-generational.
  6. The labels “traditional” and “contemporary” are not synonymous with doxological and attractional. Some “traditional style” churches can actually be following an attractional model, and some “contemporary” churches are very intentional about embracing a doxological model.

The Framework

This framework consists of eight important theological markers, which are arranged in a weighted order of priority (top to bottom). A composite weighting of all the markers will give you a pretty good idea of what model the church has embraced.

Marker 1: Authority of Scripture

DM Churches — Clear and bold commitment to the authority, inspiration and inerrancy of the entire Bible. Insist that the Bible sets the boundaries for all of life and is accurate when it speaks to history (creation) and authoritative when it speaks to the moral and ethical norms of life (gender, sexuality and marriage).

AM Churches — A consumer-friendly approach to the Bible with secondary commitments to its intended message and authority. The Bible is a sacred book, parts of which are designed to help fix what is wrong in life, improve our relationships, and lead us to be better people. Intentionally downplay, deny or remove the parts of the Bible that are perceived to be obstacles to modern, enlightened seekers (creation, miracles, the OT historical record) or that would offend the moral sensibilities and sensitivities of an enlightened culture (biblical moral mandates that run counter to what is acceptable in modern culture and morality).

Marker 2: Approach to Preaching

DM Churches — Commitment to the accurate and authoritative exposition of God’s Word that calls God’s people into conformity to God’s stated will.

AM Churches — Primarily designed to help the listener improve their life, resolve problems and better enjoy relationships. Often avoid controversy and strive to present a message that is positive, comfortable and non-confrontational. An example of this type of approach is the well-known preacher, Joel Osteen.

Marker 3: Fidelity to Biblical Teaching on Salvation

DM Churches — Emphasize clarity and biblical fidelity regarding the Gospel in salvation and evangelism. Salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. Stress repentance from sin—avoid the error of “easy believism.” Desire and expect God to save men from their sin through the power of the Gospel—there is a healthy gospel fervency.

AM Churches — Some AM churches obscure the content of the Gospel, downplay the offensive parts of the Gospel, or minimize the biblical requirement of repentance from sin.

Marker 4: Biblical Sanctification

DM churches — Stress a strong and clear commitment to the spiritual growth and progressive sanctification of its members (discipleship). This growth takes place: by means of the Word; in the power of the Spirit; enabled by grace; toward holiness and away from worldliness (Titus 2:8-11).

AM churches — Often fail to insist on the growth and progressive sanctification of its members by failing to confront sin, tolerating or ignoring known sin in the lives of unrepentant members, or downplaying the means of corporate/personal sanctification taught in Scripture (prayer, preaching, worship, Lord’s table, church discipline, and discipleship.).

Marker 5: Bold Insistence on Biblical Moral and Ethical Mandates

DM churches — Clear proclamation and uncompromising insistence that its members conform to the moral and ethical mandates clearly taught in Scripture.

AM churches — Downplay or rarely address the moral or ethical mandates that run counter to the current issues of their day. For example, many AM churches lack scriptural clarity and boldness about homosexuality, gender identity, and marriage and human sexuality. Toleration or equivocation in any of these areas is an almost sure marker that the church has adopted an attractional model of ministry.

Marker 6: Expectations for Membership

DM churches — Biblical expectations for church membership—a person must be regenerate and biblically baptized, must be striving to obey God’s Word and ought to be displaying the marks of progressive sanctification. DM churches are committed to the intentional, loving practice of church discipline aimed at the restoration of the willfully disobedient believer.

AM churches — Minimal expectations for membership. Some AM churches even incorporate people who do not have a clear or credible profession of faith into membership and allow them to serve in different ministries.  Church discipline rarely happens, and often the consequences or conditions for restoration to ministry (even for sinning leaders) are minimal and ineffectual.

Marker 7: Qualifications for Spiritual Leadership

DM churches — Work hard to recognize and appoint biblically qualified people to serve and lead in the different ministry venues of the church. Qualified people demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit (i.e., meekness and gentleness) and meet the specific qualifications for the offices of deacon and elder.

AM churches — Often allow people who do not meet the biblical qualifications for spiritual leadership to serve in leadership offices and/or to lead in public worship. Some AM churches approach church leadership in much the same way they would approach corporate leadership—appointing leaders who have particular skills but who do not meet the spiritual requirements/expectations set by God’s Word.

Marker 8: Reverent Worship

DM churches — Corporate worship is thoughtfully designed to glorify God; worship is distinctly Christian and not worldly, with hymns and spiritual songs that are theologically accurate and distinctly sacred and not secular.

AM churches — Focus on creating an experience that is comfortable for the consumer in an atmosphere that often mimics the secular culture and minimizes the biblical components of worship (Scripture reading, prayer, expository preaching, tithing and the ordinances).

Conclusion

Hopefully, by using a framework like this, you can effectively analyze where a church stands on these central issues. Some churches will be more challenging to map out than others. But as you go through these markers, you will be able to determine whether a church is predominantly doxological or attractional. And the purpose of all this is choosing a church intentionally, thoughtfully, and in ways that are faithful to what Scripture teaches.

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Sam Horn (BA, ’86; MA, ’88; PhD, ’95 from BJU) joined the executive team at Bob Jones University in January of 2015.

Sam has served in both academic and pastoral roles throughout his ministry. Sam desires to use his experience in pastoral ministry, teaching, and academic administration to recruit and train students for all disciplines and to embrace the mission of advancing the Gospel and serving the Church effectively.