Why the church must be attractional: an Anabaptist critique of the emerging missional church via Milbank

A few weeks ago, Hamo wrote an interesting post called ‘Why the missional incarnational church is screwed’. He quoted at length from the postliberal theologian John Milbank:

The church cannot be found amongst the merely like-minded, who associate in order to share a particular taste, hobby or perversion. It can only be found where many different peoples possessing many different gifts collaborate in order to produce a divine–human community in one specific location.

St Paul wrote to Galatia and Corinth, not to regiments or to weaving-clubs for widows. He insisted on a unity that emerges from the harmonious blending of differences. Hence the idea that the church should ‘plant’ itself in various sordid and airless interstices of our contemporary world, instead of calling people to ‘come to church’, is wrongheaded, because the refusal to come out of oneself and go to church is simply the refusal of church per se.

One can’t set up a church in a cafe amongst a gang of youths who like skateboarding because all this does is promote skateboarding and dysfunctional escapist maleness, along with that type of private but extra-ecclesial security that is offered by the notion of ‘being saved’.”

– From ‘Stale Expressions: the Management-Shaped Church’, Studies in Christian Ethics, April 2008 by John Milbank.

It would be wrong to focus on Milbank’s defence of the parish and how admittedly un-diverse many parishes are, rather than his critique of emerging-missional ecclesiology. I’m no great fan of the parish, but it’s these words and talking to Ian Packer while he was over that have helped consolidate my points of difference with EMC ecclesiology. As much as great things are happening with the EMC, I think it would be a mistake for me to lose the distinctive Anabaptist ecclesiology that I had clear in my head for a while and which Milbank has helped me begin to recover.

I need to re-articulate the fundamental point of disagreement between an anabaptist ecclesiology and the agenda laid out by Frost and Hirsch in The Shaping of Things to Come.

As much as EMC criticisms of church culture are valid, an anabaptist ecclesiology maintains that the church must be attractional. We mustn’t think the two choices are between ‘mega-church attractional beasts’ and ‘incarnational missional communities’. There is a third way…

The church is a counter-cultural community, a city on a hill embodying the gospel, a people called to be now what the world is called to be ultimately. It calls people into a new humanity living in the kingdom of God. It calls people to be baptised into this new humanity where their primary identity is no longer their subculture – whether that be skater, biker, twentysomething, mortgage belter, activist, gay, professional or artist (or Jew, Greek, slave, master, male, female) – but where their identity is in Christ.

The diversity of the church is part of the good news! It announces to the world that the old barriers have been broken down, the emnity between peoples has been overcome. Baptising subcultures as ‘churches’ misses this good news. It may even risk retaining an individualistic evangelical idea of what the good news is: ‘personal salvation’.

Where can this church be found?

It’s hard to find, and that’s why we need to articulate the hope, pray for it, and do what we can in the power of the Spirit to practice it.

For me, right now, it is found in Network Vineyard Church. Maybe part of my call is to help the church, right where I am, discover its call to diversity and to the body-life of the kingdom. I want people to know that when they break out of their comfort zone and reach across culture in church, they are partaking in the good news. It starts in small ways. It starts with who you talk to in the coffee break. It leads to you becoming family with people you wouldn’t otherwise associate with: different classes, different races, different outlooks.

11 thoughts on “Why the church must be attractional: an Anabaptist critique of the emerging missional church via Milbank

  1. Ah… Nathan…

    Wait just a minute 🙂

    I realise it may sound like playing with words (but then that’s what blogs are for) however I would distinguish between an ‘attractive’ church and an ‘attractional’ one.

    I think church should always be ‘attractive’ – a beautiful community of people who woo others to Jesus by their lives.

    But when I/we use ‘attractional’ it refers more to the things we do specifically to get people to come to our services. Attractional has a marketing flavour.

    I am wondering what you mean by calling people out of the world, because I am guessing you don’t mean for the church and world to be separate?

    I believe our challenge is to live deeply embedded in the world, but to humbly live an alternative life. Our own community ‘Upstream’ is named after that dream – to live in the flow of society, but to swim against its (negative) currents and show a better way.

    I don’t think you do justice to the incarnational expression of church by suggesting it is incompatible with anabaptist thinking. No doubt we would diverge on points, but I reckon we’re pretty close!

  2. Hey Hamo, thanks for your wise comments! I agree that there is so much common ground. This is me just recovering a point where I have traditionally differed.

    I like your distinction between ‘attractional’ and ‘attractive’. I need to look more into the connotations of ‘attractional’.

    I think the model of what you are doing with Upstream is excellent, and the way you are doing church is how I’d like to do it.

    I need to work out how ‘incarnational’ fits in what I’ve written above. I haven’t thought through that side.

  3. PS: Church and world as separate? Well, yes and no. The church is a sign of God’s grace and love in the world, and must be at the coal face helping redeem broken people and broken structures. But I also do believe in the church being distinctive, salty, and counter-cultural. (As I’m sure you do.) The church is a new and strange world!

    I haven’t resolved these tensions yet. I probably have a stronger impulse toward the church being distinctive to the ‘world’ than many in EMC circles.

    I don’t have answers at the moment, as strong a response as Milbank’s words did bring out in me. I’m just thinking aloud. Hope I haven’t offended; I certainly see EMC as an important dialogue partner for Anabaptism and as a mission and church partner too.

  4. One of my favourite quotes from Bonhoeffer: “the church is at its most false when it seeks to preserve a separation from the world”

    I think the church must be distinctive, but perhaps the ‘distinctives’ need to be better defined. The ‘wowser’ image has hurt us badly and we really need to shake that.

    I’d hope we were known in the world as the ones who love boldly and give generously, who forgive graciously etc etc.

    Everything that depicts the kingdom in its fullness would be my dream for the church.

    Good conversation 🙂

  5. I agree about the wowser image hurting us. That’s not the gospel. We have to be distinctive for the right reasons. Being a place where diverse people groups are reconciled to each other in a new humanity is distinctive for the right reasons!

    I don’t know what to make of the Bonhoeffer quote. If he means we have to be involved in the world’s problems, I agree entirely, and he gave us an amazing example.

    But I would not want to take his words to mean that the church and the world should be indistinct. We are baptised into a new world, a new humanity.

  6. Hi Nathan

    I remember a conversation with Andrew Menzies, a Baptist pastor in Camberwell, where he made the distinction between ‘attractive’ and ‘attractional’ and I heartily endorse that. ‘Attractive’ suggests there is something inherently winsome and exemplary going on in the Christian community as it is noth gathered and scattered.

    Part of what needs to be recovered by some who are involved in the necessary conversation the ’emerging’ and ‘missional’ church advocates is a sense of the gathered community as part of the goal of Christian mission–sign and foretaste, and not just an agent. All the excited talk about ‘context’ and ‘being missional’ etc etc can simply become a new form of jargon which lacks theological depth. And without a genuine grasp of the biblical story about God’s desire to dwell among an authentic human community characterised by shalom, this talk and the conception of the church becomes merely instrumental to ‘same ol’, same ol” evangelism… though perhaps with a labyrinth and candles and wine nearby…

    If we’re going to train leaders who can rise above all this, ethics, ecclesiology and eschatology have to be at the forefront of missional thinking. If we don’t put the hard theological work in, I fear much or all of this ’emerging’ conversation will go to waste…

  7. Do you think part of the problem has to do with the church growth roots of some EMC? That EMC might be seen as a post-church growth movement?

    I very much like your description of the gathered community as part of the goal of Christian mission. I see EMC practictioners for whom this is a goal too!

  8. Part of my sermon on Sunday night involved me saying that the church is the primary unit of christian life – not the individual in their relationship with God.

    I see this as critical to us actually making a dent in this world, so I would certainly affirm the place of the community – and rigorous community at that.

    But we do ask a lot of people in this!

    What I was also saying was that our current western way of life simply mitigates against creating the kind of community that really does result in healthy discipleship and mission.

    We have created quite a monster.

    I think Bonhoeffer is simply saying that any church that is not immersed in the world as salt/light has completely missed the whole idea.

  9. I pass the Torch to you:
    DICTATED FROM “I AM” November 15, 2004

    You are a prophet. Teach others whether they listen or not: Tell.

    “The most important thing for people of our time to know is simply this: “I AM”. “Those who have been made known of my existence & do not believe, are not in touch.”

    “I have not given you this world to misuse. Neither have I given you this world to misuse others. Additionally, it is not for people to make sweeping judgements upon others. It is enough to teach people that “I AM”. I AM has given the 10 Commandments, these are the fundamental building blocks of humanity that are sanctioned by I AM. If THEIRS is a grey area, an area of dispute – this is not for man to decide but willbe the realm of I AM in each & every moment; movement thought & deed. Some confusion has come into the world due to the tampering of I AM’s Word. Know this: Thou shalt not kill. If a baby be born do not slay it. In all other cases connect with I AM. I AM will judge. It is up to individuals to connect with I AM. Teach. That is the extent of your reach. You will do kind acts towards others in the name of I AM. You will not sanction breaking of the 10 Commandments; neither will you interpret grey areas. If a commandment be broken, I AM is most displeased – in concrete ways with no dispute > protect yourself from these people who are sore in God’s eyes. Protect yourselves, yes.

    Do not be the ones to dispose of choices. These choices exist. You ought not make laws to limit those choices. In these cases, mind your own business. My own flock finds its way. Do protect yourselves from illicit behavior. However, if there be population in need of a loving hand, yes. You will give them that loving hand in the name of your God; for I AM sees & knows what you are about in deed as well as in heart.

    About supporting personal responsibility in the needy > Does a man making $700,000 of your currency have more ability & personal responsibility, more respect in Truth? More then the man who needs welfare, healthcare, shelter & aid? No. I AM does not deal in your currency. DO not place your values on me in my own name! A government of caring for the physically disenfranchised s a respectable endeavor in the eye of I AM Greed is not. Judgment is not > Only protect yourselves from those who make evil upon your own selves, those who would murder or maim with intent, or taint you. Remind them I shall judge the quick & the dead.” Davidic Royal House of Vere: Biblical House and Pillar of Truth.

    Wars happen. Protect yourselves. Wars do not please God’s sight. I AM will rejoice when all creatures existing > Lions & lambs alike lie side by side in safe-keeping. Patience, kind acts, safety: Above all remember that I AM.

    “I am humble & no-one to say something”, I told Him back. He said to tell. The Holy Spirit doth move me.

    THE LORD HAD GONE UP THE MOUNTAIN TO RETRIEVE THE COMMANDMENTS MADE FRESH FOR OUR DAY; WHEN HE RETURNED HE HAS FOUND > Great sin. People sleeping around immorally, putting away their wives, ignoring the widows or single Moms struggling; and worshipping where there are alters with statues. HE IS BACK.

    The Donation of Constantine was the document used to give man the right to make laws and to govern himself; and it is proved faked: withdrawn; nullified. God giveth and God taketh away. However; Divine Law, His Will, is eternally constant. Hear His Voice and Know Him who is Sent:


    The Illuminated Ones, El Elyon, then came to me in 2005 and they said I was given in marriage to a Great King sent; and so I yell to you from rooftops > Please help me celebrate our wedding.

    His Spirit of Truth is the Seat of this Soul.

    The Prince of Truth brought war and the Prince of Truth brought lies; because no-one would believe:
    He is The King of Hearts.

    See also the Pslam wherein David feigned mental illness before Abimelech.

    God said “Remind them all of Moses, first-born must marry first.”

    From she who sings the Song of Songs for our day.

    (IVPalm)AHA :. made by God in USA;

  10. Thanks for drawing my attention to Milbank’s rather curmudgeonly rant. It’s nearly a year ago since your post but this debate about what constitutes a Christian church has been heating up. I agree that Anabaptism offers a third way – between a simplistic either/or approach to push and pull. For Milbank to dismiss network churches as inhabiting ‘sordid and airless interstices’ is jaded and ignorant. I am also amazed that Milbank characterises Galatians and the Corinthian Epistles as directed to Galatia and Corinth when they were actually written to the church in those places. Other Epistles were written from prison – which is just about as ‘sordid and airless’ as it’s possible to get.

    There remains an issue with diversity and incarnating church in networks. Perhaps a way forward is suggested by the relationship between itinerant and local expressions of church in the New Testament. Jesus’ on-the-road disciples were dependent on those household-based followers like Mary and Martha. The travelling disciples could have been a rather narrow community but shared hospitality linked them to the wider church. I believe that hospitality and similar bridges offer a way of ensuring that ‘network church’ will not become ‘narrow church’.

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