The Binary That Turned My World Upside Down

We feel constrained to enter into others’ lives to bless and serve them, whether or not they ever join our team.

Shawn Brace

Sometimes you hear a concept or see an image that completely turns your world upside down. Such was the case with a graphic I saw back in 2016 that compared two ways of “doing” church. 

Most of Christendom does it the first way, which some have called the “attractional” model. In this understanding , church is essentially a program or event we put on in a building, and then we try to attract people to that place for the program or event. Picture in your mind a church building with arrows pointing into the building, with all of church life revolving around the programming that takes place there—and most people serving as spectators while others deliver ministry to them. 

The second way, which some refer to as the “missional” model, views church not as a program or a building, but as a people. It’s God’s family, sent out into the world to live out the gospel in everyday life. In that sense, church happens whenever and wherever God’s people are—and their main objective is not to figure out ways to get others to come back to a specific building to attend a specific program, but to enter into life with those people, serving and blessing them as the hands and feet of Jesus. In this model, picture a group of people with arrows pointing out into the world. 

This distinction, of course, is a bit simplistic, and some have noted that this attractional/missional binary is sort of a false dichotomy. I certainly get that. But the first time I heard about this binary and saw a specific graphic illustrating it, it was a lightbulb moment for me—one of the most significant crossroads of my life. It completely altered my trajectory— both personally and professionally.

My wife, children, and I started spending lots of time with people outside the four walls of our church building, sharing life with those who either didn’t know Jesus or didn’t know our particular understanding of Him. We began having our neighbors over for dinner and attending parties with new non-religious friends. In this we were simply following the method of Jesus, who was often accused of being a “glutton and a drunkard” (Matt. 11:19, NIV) because of the company He kept. 

We were, in short, taking seriously the claim of Ellen White, who declared that “Christ’s method alone” of mingling with others and winning their confidence would bring “true success” in reaching people.

The upshot is that the past six years have easily been the best six years of my life. Our church has also caught the vision; and although we haven’t grown by the thousands, there’s a palpable difference within our church family, both in numbers and in spirit. Either way, we feel constrained to enter into others’ lives to bless and serve them, whether or not they ever join our team. 

So my invitation to you is to capture the vision—to see the binary. God wants us—all of us—to be salt, sent out into the world to serve and bless it, bringing church to others regardless of whether they ever show up to our building on Sabbath morning. 

* Ellen G. White, The Ministry of Healing (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1905), p. 143. 

Shawn Brace is a pastor and author in Bangor, Maine, whose most recent book, The Table I Long For (Signs Publishing), details his and his church’s recent journey into a mission-centered life. He is also a DPhil student at the University of Oxford, researching nineteenth-century American Christianity. 

Shawn Brace