02 April 2007

Glad you asked...

What should the church do in order to reach people in a postmodern culture?
by Phil Johnson

Over the past two years, I have published lots of critiques aimed at various trends made popular by the Emerging Church movement. I've often said that while I think Emerging Christians have correctly identified many problems in the evangelical movement, I'm convinced the solutions Emerging types usually suggest are totally wrongheaded and demonstrably rooted in the same faulty modernist thinking that led to the evangelical meltdown in the first place.

People occasionally ask me if I have any better suggestions for ministry in postmodern times.

As a matter of fact, I think I do. Here, adapted from my seminar on postmodernism at the recent Shepherds' Conference, is a short digest of my top five favorites:

et's acknowledge the scope of the problem the emerging church movement is trying to address. For the past hundred years or more, evangelicalism has been steadily growing more shallow and more worldly. Although the evangelical movement came into the 20th century with a roar, fighting to defend its core beliefs against modernism and liberal theology, by the end of the 20th century, the movement was dominated by people who never even mentioned those fundamental doctrines, certainly did not want to fight about them, and were enthralled instead with entertainment and public relations—and almost completely hostile to biblical preaching and doctrinally-oriented teaching.

Although evangelicalism won every skirmish against modernism in the twentieth century on the battlefields where evangelicals actually engaged the enemy, the movement gradually capitulated to modernist ideology and practice anyway, out of sheer cowardice and apathy. Meanwhile, evangelicals grew comfortable in a culture that was becoming more secular and more ungodly at an incredibly rapid rate. Sometime after 1975 or so, the evangelical movement managed to snatch a spectacular defeat from the jaws of victory in the century-long war against modernist compromise.

The believing remnant that still exists here and there in the mixed multitude of the Thoroughly Modern Evangelical Movement face a serious, two-pronged problem: an untaught church and an increasingly hostile world.

There's no easy way out of the mess. My strategy would begin with five vital steps: We need to—

  1. Remember why we're not modernists. The church needs to see the postmodern shift in light of our own recent history, and we should take some lessons from our experience with modernism about the best way to respond to postmodernism.

    I've suggested many times that when you really analyze postmodernism, it's not actually antithetical to modernism at all. It's just modernism 2.0. So don't buy the lie that if you reject postmodernism, you're in effect giving a nod of approval to modernism.

    How about let's forget trying to accommodate the fickle shifts of contemporary culture and worldly thinking altogether? Gimme that old-time religion.

  2. Recover the role of teaching in the church. The church desperately needs to get back to the Word of God and sound doctrine. Not only are lay people these days untaught; most pastors are grossly ignorant of basic theological principles which earlier generations would have considered essential, foundational truths. The church is filled with teachers who invent their own doctrine on the fly and see nothing wrong with the practice. No wonder the church as a whole today is ill-equipped to fend off even the rankest of heretics.

  3. Re-emphasize the certainty of revealed truth. The apostle Paul wrote, "If the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?" (1 Corinthians 14:8). The postmodern preference for ambiguity and uncertainty is seriously at odds with Scripture. It also runs contrary to every lesson church history teaches.

    Study any era of revival or the style of any great preacher and you will discover that boldness and clarity were their hallmarks—never qualities like vagueness, ambivalence, hesitation, wavering, apprehension, a cloudy message, fickle opinions, obsessive self-criticism, or any of the other qualities postmodernism falsely equates with "humility."

    It's one thing to understand postmodern sensitivities; it's something completely different to sympathize with postmodernism. I am convinced that the Emerging Church movement has shown entirely too much sympathy for postmodern skepticism.

  4. Reinstate holiness on our list of priorities. Sanctification is an idea that seems almost completely missing from the Emerging conversation. An almost pathological fear of "legalism" keeps emerging types from ever questioning whether any element of postmodern culture is compatible with Christlikeness or not. Taboos are the only remaining taboo nowadays.

    But when (for example) tattoos, cigars, beer, poker, and other stylish emblems of worldly culture are widely regarded as necessary elements for "relevant" men's ministry, I'd say the pendulum has swung too far against the dangers of "legalism." Does no one recall that loving this world and conforming to its tastes (and tasteless preferences) is also a dangerous sin?

  5. Regain our true missionary emphasis. "Missional living" as portrayed in many Emerging communities is not a legitimate substitute for real evangelism, where the gospel is proclaimed plainly and powerfully. As a matter of fact, our focus as evangelicals ought to be the gospel message itself—not merely a "methodology." You don't win people to Christ by osmosis, and you certainly don't win them to Christ merely by trying your best to fit into their culture.
    I'm starting to hate the word missional. Apart from the fact that it's useless jargon, I suspect it is often used to disguise a strategy that is actually anti-evangelistic, where the gospel never even enters the picture at all, much less becomes a focus of ministry. How different that is from Paul's strategy! (1 Corinthians 2:1-5).

    If we're really concerned about reaching postmoderns, we need to remember that our one legitimate message—the only story we are commissioned by Christ to take to every tribe and every culture—is the gospel.

    And that's not a message about how cool the church is.

Phil's signature


Matthew said...

Pithy and dead-on. I would like to think that we can all get behind propositions like these...

Norman said...

You write: There's no easy way out of the mess. My strategy would begin with five vital steps: We need to—

It's not exactly clear to me if you are already employing this strategy, or if it is something you need to start employing.

Assuming you are employing it: is it working? Are you (and your church)really and effectively reaching postmoderns?

If so, great. Keep up the good work.

If not, what are your thoughts about that? Why isn't it working?

I ask this question because I am immersed (sorry for the Baptist term) in ministry to postmodern culture in Holland/Amsterdam and I am not convinced, after reading your post, that your analysis of the problem(s) and your suggestions are necessarily better.
So I'm wondering how effective they really are.

S.G. said...

After the firing of our pastor and the inevitable "church split" we are in the process of becoming a teaching church and by necessity, a lot of extra-curricular programs have been cut.

I'm not sure we survive; it's kind of an experiment actually to once again stress the fundamentals; find a place for doctrine and encourage people to bring their bibles to church; they'll need them.

Hopefully we'll have our new pastor in place ( 1 1/2 years later) by June and we'll see what the Lord has in store.

I worry that the culture is not yet in enough pain to seriously begin looking for truth and abhorring entertainment in the church as a substitute.

I hope Phil is right.

Tom said...

Phil said:

"I'm starting to hate the word missional. Apart from the fact that it's useless jargon, I suspect it is often used to disguise a strategy that is actually anti-evangelistic, where the gospel never even enters the picture at all, much less becomes a focus of ministry.""

Wow, and I know you are not fond of "Confessions of a Reformissional Rev" but I can hardly think of a more evangelisticly engaged, church planting local body of Christ in the U.S. than Mars Hill. I appreciate the concern that there is a disconnect in the emergent church movement between problem discerning and problem solving but this just seems to be too much of a broad brush stroke hitting members of the emerging church in general in a very sadly mistaken manner.

Make a clear assesment - amen.

Deliberatly concentrate on teaching sound doctrine - you betcha!

Proclaim Truth as Truth - absolutely!

Re-emphasize the pursuit of holiness - without question!

Be offended and/or sickened by the word missional - not on your life!

FX Turk said...

I'm going to both stick up for Phil's "hate missional" statement here with one simple affirmation: the number of so-called "missional" churches which are headed (even in the vague world of "all things being equal") in the right theological direction is small at best. So when someone can say, (as "dad" did here, but this isn't personal) "well, Church X is a fine church and they're missional," that person is making a case on too-small a sample.

About 4 weeks ago, iMonk and I had a "conversation" about Dr. Ed Stetzer's paper on what "missional" means to the SBC, and the reason I bring it up is that I gave iMonk a challenge he didn;t respond to there: demonstrate that most -- even only 50.25% -- "missional" churches are doctrinally sound and theologically grounded. If I take a non-contentious stance and give you Tim Keller, Matt Chandler, Mark Driscoll and Darrin Patrick -- a total of 4 churches -- is that the extent of this "missional" movement?

That is to say, just because the movement has 4 good churches, should be ignore all the other problems the movement has?

See: I think the people who read my home blog know that I think one of the problems of the church today is that we are bunkerized against a culture in our own pathetic copy of that culture to which we have attached a plastic silver fish. And in that, the idea of a missional church -- one which is reaching out with a Gospel culture -- is a good idea.


It cannot be either/or. It cannot be "either" sound theology "or" missional living. It must be both.

Dr. Stetzer refered to the Letter to Diognetus in his paper to the SBC, but didn't really quote it -- as if everyone has read it. Listen: if you're a person who's upset by Phil's statements in this post, go and read it. You'll find something out: the foundation of missional living -- truly world-shaking, culture-crushing living as if every person is your mission field -- is only possible in the context of a rich, robust theology. Oh: and the willingness to die for those beliefs.

Phil's diagnosis is spot-on, and now we have to do something about it. Not "we" as in "the 3 or 4 pyros" but "we" as in "you, too".

Carla Rolfe said...

Thank you Phil - a clear, no-nonsense approach, in my opinion.

And for what it's worth, I've been tired of hearing the word missional for a long time. If you're a real Christian (the kind the Bible speaks of), you're already 'missional'. And if you're not missional (without having to whip the word out every 20 seconds to impress someone), maybe it's time to go back and re-read (from the Bible) what a Christian really lives like.

Just a thought.

Anonymous said...

Me three on the "missional" thing. I've hated the word since day one. There's certainly nothing wrong with a passion to serve the world around us, and we should do more of it. But, as Phil so rightly points out - it shouldn't be done in a way that ignores sharing the message. Do you quote Bible verses at those you're serving the second you meet them? Probably not, but the Gospel message is certainly to be a key part of your service - making sure that those you serve understand that the love of Jesus is what motivates us to serve, not just some guilt feeling that we happen to harbor.


Anonymous said...

Norman: Assuming you are employing it: is it working? Are you (and your church)really and effectively reaching postmoderns?

I can't speak for Phil or his church. Keeping in mind I am no scholar on either postmodernism or modernism, nor am I an expert in church planting, heres my answer to your question.

We must at all times be careful not to associate visible success with "effectiveness". As I am sure that postmoderns in Holland have unique challenges, there are as well unique challenges I where I am. I am "immersed" with a postmodern culture at Berea College in Kentucky. Postmodernism in not the reason for their lack of response. They do not respond because they are unregenerate. I have faith in the Lord though, because I too was once unregenerate.
Frankly, I have failed if measured by external measures. People I speak with on a daily basis aren't interested in Christ, His Gospel, the Scriptures, discipleship. None are interested in my church. Some have come to despise me, some avoid me. Some in fact put up with me, thinking me a mad man, as I explain the Gospel to them carefully over and over and over again. It seems nothing I say or do have any impact. It is in this moment I must be very careful.
The natural inclination of my heart is to “do” something in order to achieve the results I need. I mean, c’mon, we want to see faithful Disciples of Christ! Yet in this we see a very good lesson, indeed, one that is a hard lesson. I cannot manipulate a supernatural work of God. Not with any formula, any methodology, anything.
I lovingly and graciously share the redemptive work of Christ on the cross with as much faithfulness as I can to everyone I meet. I must be honest, straightforward, and resist the temptation to be liked, or successful. My success in evangelism is not measured solely by how many people respond, but how faithful I am to the Gospel. You see, Joel Olsteen is effective in reaching large amounts of people, but what Gospel is he preaching? How many of those millions will encounter the living Christ and be supernatural changed?
My methodology is rather simplistic. I never stop building relationships, ( and always building on Gospel truths with whomever I am meeting. We never create relationships for evangelism with actually giving the Gospel.) I seek to make myself available to the needs of the students whenever possible. Every conversation I gear into the gospel of Christ. Every discussion I gear into the Gospel of Christ. The number one thing is that I must be in prayer for these people. I must pray and supplicate God to do a supernatural work in their hearts. I must ask God for mercy. I must ask God to help me persevere in my faith so that I can create disciples who will do the same.
The hard thing for us to remember is this: God gets glory despite their response. God is glorified when we exalt Christ and testify the Word faithfully. The end goal is not the effectiveness, but the blazing Glory of God in Christ. I may never live to see results! I may never have any visible success. I am assured though that by being faithful to the text, God will be glorified.

P.S. I am a 28 year old student. I have a faithful wife of 5 years, and two wonderful children. I am a senior at Berea College. I am not a paid missionary. I do all my work in my free time with no recognition or money. I do it because I cannot contain such a work of Grace Christ has done for me, and is doing for me. I go to a supportive Church ( www.OpenDoor-Church.org). I believe it is normative for regenerate Christians to pursue God in Christ passionately and as a result engage the unregenerate to repent and pursue Christ.

I left out much that I wanted to say, even important details, but my main point is: We are utterly dependent on God to draw people to Him. People inherently do not seek Him. May God be praised in Christ!

Hayden said...


Amen! You stold my thunder! Pragmatism is definately not the answer.


I have attended Grace Community Church for over four years, and left to take a pastorate in Michigan. Let me give a word of personal testimony. YES, preaching the word "works". (For an excellent sermon on this topic got to www.tms.edu, go to chapel sermons, listen to Arturo Azurida's sermon) GCC, which is where Phil ministers at, is a great church. I have seen, with my very eyes, Phil preach doctrine to students, and guess what, they loved it!!!! (Look at some of the ministries to youth they have; conferences like RESOLVED are amazing!)

I git a little wrankled when I hear that I must "change my method" to suit the times. Being a youth pastor, I see this type of pragmatism all of the time and have noticed when it is utilized it often produces immature Christians. Our youth ministry is just starting to come around after many years of "do what the kids want" type of menatlity.


Thanks for the strong shot in the arm. It can feel like I'm a "lone ranger" in Michigan. Things are definately different after leaving the confines of Grace Chruch and Grace School. Keep up the great posts!!!

James Scott Bell said...

Phil, absolutely right on. Thank you.

Glenn said...


Well said~

In trying to reach the "masses", don't read as if I mean we should not try to reach the masses, we have essentially brought the culture we are to redeem into the church. Now we have:

1. "Relevant" preaching that is relevant to everything but man's true condition.

2. Paper thin music that is repititious beyond belief. But WOW it rocks! -btw, the younger generation, generally, actually sees this for what it is and dislikes it.

3. Adult classes on everything from church growth to raising children to "spiritual disciplines" to, finally, my personal favorite, "A Purpose Driven Life". What's missing? Classes to teach Doctrine (the dreaded "D" Word.

4. The embracing and seeking of emotional experiences

My point is this, we have become no different then the culture we are surrounded by and church has become something we do instead of being a Christian as defining who we are. For example, latest figures show that christian high-school girls that have signed a sheet of paper proclaiming their intent to remain pure are actually more likely to be sexually active.

Let me finish with this.

Mark my words, the shallowness of our religion and the way we practice and pursue it is going to result in the loss of the next generation who see it for what it is.

Seth McBee said...

centurion and Phil...

I am up here in Seattle near Mars Hill and Driscoll. I also have been listening to Matt Chandler via MP3...

I do not agree with their entire approach, but I don't think we could say that their theology is not strongly preached and "missionalized" (like that word? I think I made it up)

Anyway...I am a conservative Christian and they do challenge me in making sure my life is not a Sunday life but a life that is continually preaching the good news...

Question...do you respect these guys, or do you lump these guys in with the entire emerging movement? By the way...if you read "Listening to the Beliefs of the Emerging Church" you will notice that Driscoll is far from the other contributors...

Here is my review of the book...


FX Turk said...


If you draw a center line on the theological spectrum, there's no question that Mark Driscoll is to the right of the line and most of the 'emergents' are to the left of the line. None.

The question is if we can judge all "missional" churches by the things Mark Driscoll (your example; I gave 3 others) does -right-, or if most missional churches (and by "most" I mean "more than 2/3rds") have latched on to the things Mars Hill does which are superficial and trendy rather than the things which they do which are eternal and weighty.

See: I think even a solid, grounded, robust church is going to do somethings which, on occation, are trendy. All hymns in the history of the church have been composed in genres which are reflective of the popular music trends of the day -- but the ones which survive and come to us are the ones which place the eternal value of Gospel through Scripture in the center of the work.

So in that, there are things we can and should do which communicate to people who live and breath in a culture that looks like 2007 -- but we should not be trying to pander to culture. We should be seeking to overturn culture and subvert culture so that it does not sit on the throne of Christ.

There is another issue which I was kicking around with the deacons at my church who are trying to recruit me to become a Baptist deacon: the question of grace vs. holiness.

The question really comes down to this:

"All things are lawful," but not all things are helpful. "All things are lawful," but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor.

You know: Paul really draws a very fine line in 1Cor about what we must do in this life as believers. On the one hand, he says we have liberty and rights in Christ -- and on the other he says that we ought to be sacrificing those rights for the sake of delivering the Gospel to men.

Think about that: we become all things to all people in service to them, not so that we will become more like them.

And the specific example Paul works out to the end is sacrifices to idols: on the one hand, he says, be a good guest and don't ask too many questions, but on the other don't take meat you know has been offered to an idol: don't become an idolater under the cover of "all things to all people".

That's a -huge- warning. It takes all legalism and all libertinism together and trashes it.

Maybe we ought to study that a little more closely before we start talking about what "missional" means.

lawrence said...

Hey mr. johnson,

thanks a lot for the post. It was very good and encouraging. My question, as a college student bombarded by postmodern ideology every day, what's your advice on how to talk, one on one, with a true (or fake, depending on how you look at it) postmodernists? I mean, your five steps are good and true and all as something we should believe, but what about actual conversations when all the person does is say "dude, that's cool for you. If church is good for you, then church is good for you. You believe in God? Sweet. If he exists for you, then more power to you."

How do you respond to that?

Sled Dog said...

Dan Kimball, in his book, "THEY LIKE JESUS, BUT NOT THE CHURCH" gave this definition of "missional":

• Being missional means that the church sees ITSELF as BEING missionaries, rather than just having a missions department, and that we see OURSELVES as missionaries right where we live
• Being missional means we see ourselves as REPRESENTATIVES of Jesus “sent” into our communities, and that the church aligns itself with the mission of God
• Being missional means we see the church not as a place we go on Sundays, but as something we are throughout the week
• Being missional means we understand that we don’t “bring Jesus” to people
• Being missional means we are very much in the world and engaged in culture but not conforming to the world
• Being missional means we serve our communities, and that we build relationships with them, rather than seeing them as evangelistic targets

In my ministry, I find the above to be worthy goals, along with a minsitry that is gospel-centric. The problems is that Christianity has created a subculture that often keeps us from connecting with a lost world.

Right after Easter our church will offer a six-week course on doctrine basics. We're not afraid of the Gospel, but we are afraid that in proportion to our upward and inward focus, but are lacking on the outward dimension.

Seth McBee said...

cent...that makes sense. I do see Driscoll making the Gospel the central issue, but there are some culturally based ministries at Mars Hill that I find odd...

I do agree with you that the four you mentioned are the minority and not the norm of the emerging movement. I think though that the conservative circles (including myself) have tried too hard to separate themselves from the world in that we now hardly ever engage anyone, apart from at work, with a different worldview. We won't go to the suffering, the prisons, the homeless, those dying at the bars, but we, instead, focus on "what will people think if I am seen with a drunkard?" Instead of following Christ's example of going to the tax collector to tell them of the Gospel. This doesn't mean we go and participate in "collecting taxes" but we should still go and share meals with them and preach to them the cross centered gospel of our Lord.

Seth McBee said...

sled dog...

what does Kimball mean when he says, "we don't bring Jesus to people"

I find Kimball, after reading the book, Listening to the Beliefs of Emerging Churches, as one who is too soft on Scripture and does not allow it to do the work God intends.

Sled Dog said...

Hey Seth,

We don't simply come a dump "Jesus information" on people, but we demonstrate Christ in our lives as well. Also, Kimball makes a point that we must realize that God is already at work at hearts, and we are coming alongside Him in his work. Personally, I think we ought to pray more about God's preparing individuals for harvest. Jesus came to seek and save the lost, and he hasn't stopped yet...

Phil Johnson said...

Norman: "Assuming you are employing it: is it working? Are you (and your church)really and effectively reaching postmoderns?"

Well, yes. We baptize on average 2-5 converts every Sunday evening.

But even if it weren't "working" to any great degree, every idea in my strategy (particularly points 2-5) is based on some biblical mandate or another. Jeremiah in the OT didn't seem to have gained a single convert after a lifetime of ministry. I'm glad he was faithful to what God commanded him to do anyway.

Pragmatism--the kind of pragmatism reflected in your question--is a huge part of the problem. Bad theology is another huge part of the problem. Selah.

Seth: "I don't think we could say that [Mark Driscoll's] theology is not strongly preached and 'missionalized'"

I didn't say that about Driscoll in particular. In fact, I've said repeatedly that I appreciate Driscoll's courage and clarity on many important theological issues. My remarks about the sort of "missional" approach that excludes the gospel were aimed at certain Emerging writers and public figures who don't actually even seem to like the gospel message.

But for the sake of argument, let's once more formally and explicitly exempt Driscoll from that criticism and from every other criticism I have ever made of the missional/emerging movement—except the one that most clearly applies to him.

See number 4 on my list.

Seth McBee said...

sled dog...I agree with Kimball's point in theory as not only giving them the Gospel but also showing them in our lives...but from what I have read of Kimball's he seems to put the showing above the Word. I think Kimball would dismiss Philip's evangelism to the Eunuch in Acts 8 if it weren't in the Bible. Notice that Philip revealed Christ through only the Scriptures...

I think our main issues today is not our culture, but we are unwilling to run to the Eunuch to tell them the good news...we expect the Eunuch to just one day show up on Sunday morning.

Seth McBee said...

Phil...thanks for the clarification...and for the record your "number 4" was the part that I see in Mars Hill that I don't fully agree with...

Solameanie said...

Amen to what Phil posted here, and let me go one or two beyond. And forgive me for being crabby, but it's Monday morning and I haven't had enough coffee yet.

I am getting tired of coined phrases like "missional" or any other popularized term out there that people come up with to sell a lot of books. Aside from the fact that it all depends on how "missional" is defined, why not just do the "wow, I could have had a V-8" thing and do what Scripture says. It's really simple.

1. Proclaim the Gospel.

2. Teach the Word.

3. The Holy Spirit draws people to Himself and people get saved.

4. Game, set, match.

I realize Zondervan won't sell as many books that way, but as wise King Solomon said in Ecclesiastes . . . "But beyond this, my son, be warned: the writing of many books is endless, and excessive devotion to books is wearying to the body."

Sled Dog said...


I can't speak for Dan Kimball, but I would say that their is probably failure on both sides of the fence. I have no problem say much of what we call the post-modern church movement is seeking to fulfill the statement that says, "Share the Gospel at all times; if necessary use Words." The message of the gospel is not abstract, but clear in what it is and what if offers.

On the other side of the coin, though, many modern churches talk a lot about evangelism and doctrine, but in my IMHO, are seriously lacking at the living out of the Gospel. I'm grateful for the book of Galatians that makes clear the Gospel is not to be added to. But I'm also thankful for the book of James that reveals that faith does produce a Gospel-driven life, which manifests itself in action.

Nutriaboy said...

Good post Pyrophil :)

Postmodernism, evangelism, church duty, missions, and epistemology woven into apologetics are all compass points that we've been dealing with in hyper-gear in our post-Katrina landscape.

Catapulted into the communities of three parishes we've learned much and have much to learn.

1. Come to a place where thousands need water, food, and basic living conditions and you see the bankruptcy of a postmodern framework as the helpless scream for hope not existential soup.
We should indeed remember why we are not modernists.

2. We've hosted well over sixty different congregations in our small facility and the complete lack of teaching in those churches is very apparent. I regularly receive emails and comments by those who have long been parched while on the other hand many like their ADD attendance record and complain when class or service extends beyond an hour. Shame on us... but GLORY to God.

3. truth with a small 't' rules the day. Big 'T' is arrogant and 'opinionated'. Funny that the only ones who say that are the ones who disagree with you and who are the most biblically ignorant. But I'm glad that ignorance can be fixed.
Theopneustos has taken a back seat for far too long.

4. Understanding the difference between cultural and worldly is extremely helpful in this regard, but there is no question about the pursuit of holiness being a priority. Not all cultural practices are redeemable, but our conformity is non-negotiable.

5. I've seen what 'living out the gospel' looks like as thousands of non-proclaiming volunteers have visited our area. The Mormons, the Roman Catholics, and the Buddhists all live out the same 'good life' example when they are gutting and feeding and rebuilding homes. What separates them from us is our message. Let your good works be the conduit for the declaration of the Gospel. Don't fall for a gagged cowardice, it is not proclaiming. Faith comes by HEARING the Word.

I pray we would all embrace the simplicity of Christ and find an avenue whereby we can speak the Gospel to the lost and perishing. They are all around us daily. Preach on. Love Christ. Live like you mean it.

FX Turk said...


Bingo. We have been living in a bunker because we thought that we were living on the Late Great Planet Earth, and in the meantime we have been wondering why all those people out there aren't trying to get into the bunker.

Sled Dog:

I'm a little stumped that if that's what missional means, it's plainly obvious that there is, in the best case, no mention for the propositional aspects of the Gospel. Why argue with your critics when the definition put forward -by you- says exactly what they say about you?

Mx5 said...

Phil - Well said (written).

You said: The believing remnant that still exists here and there in the mixed multitude of the Thoroughly Modern Evangelical Movement face a serious, two-pronged problem: an untaught church and an increasingly hostile world.

I agree wholeheartedly. In my little section of the world (MN) I have been shocked at how many people even in our own small church are untaught. Tall order for my pastor hubby and the elders, but whatcha gonna do? Teach, preach, reprove, exhort... the church (as a whole) seems weak because IMO they've been either hiding the Sword or using it as a display piece.

Again, well said, Phil. May God continue to bless you and your church.

Sled Dog said...

Being missional simply means that we think like missionaries. Theygo to a foreign land, learn the language, and seek to become more integrated in the culture.

Our post-modern culture has become a foreign land. So we must go, learn the language, integrate into the culture.

I'm not in favor of promoting naval-gazing emergent church stuff. But guys like Kimball and Driscoll are seeking to connect with areas of culture that most churches are unwilling to touch with a ten-foot pole.

It's not about ignoring the Gospel message.

FX Turk said...


You have to get at the basic presuppositions of this person in a tangible way -- because while they are dismissing the Gospel with that sort of nonsense, you know they are not refuting it. They are choosing a path which doesn't follow.

Here's my suggestion: don't start with church or baptism because those are consequences, not premises. Start with a premise -- like "God exists". The truth is that God exists, and as the Creator and Sustainer, God is able to be known for who He really is.

God is able to be known -- and all the other facts of the Gospel rain down like Niagara Falls from that statement of truth. Real post-moderns are decimated by that; the phony ones don't even know what to say to that.

But here's the thing: let's think about the greatest act of evangelism we know about -- the day of Pentecost. 3000 were brought into the church that day, amen? But that's 3000 among how many that were in Jerusalem? 10,000? 50,000? 100,000?

Evangelism has both the long and the short view in mind -- and it takes place both in word/proclamation and then in action. More were turned to the Way (as Paul called it) because the church was showing what it was also telling. It has to be both.

There are plenty of small churches, if you ask me, that have fine doctrine -- very nice, on the mantle. They polish it every week. Very clean. But they are dying becuase they never demonstrate it. There are plenty of magnificant large churches which couldn't find doctrine with rescue dogs and a GPS -- because it seems it was never in the place, and they have a very nice mall in which their club meets.

Both of these things are wrong. Both are dying from a lack of evangelical zeal. One is dying visibly; and the other is dying eternally.

Let's stop being wrong. Let's get ourselves together to face a post-Christian world and demonstrate that Jesus is still Lord and Christ.

Sled Dog said...


Great response to Lawrence.

Know what you belive.
Live what you believe.
Bring both faith and practice to life.

Modernism is often times strong in doctrine, weak in love. Post-modernism is likewise often strong in love, but weak in doctrine.

We ought to pursue both full force.

Sled Dog said...

It would probably more accurate to insert EVANGELICALS for moderns, and EMERGENTS for post-moderns...

SB said...

Add another 79 "missional" churches that are doctrinally sound and theologically grounded--we may not be at 50.25% but maybe it's not 1 Kings 19:14 but rather 19:18

79 more missional churches

As for hating the word missional-I don't know how Brian McLaren(or Leslie Newbigin for that matter) uses the word (I think McLaren takes out the sharing of the substitutionary sacrifice part and interposes in it's place the spreading of the kingdom of God in true Fosdickian social gospel fashion--
the entrance into the Kingdom of God requires the taking off of our garment and the putting on of the Bridegroom's wedding garment--substitution is at the heart of the gospel and undergirds every aspect of the Cross) but the rest of us use the term missional as the engaging of the mission of God.

Being missional is seeing The Great Commission as integral to every part of church life --i.e. preaching the gospel in word and in deed at all times at all places and in all programs of the local church body(see Tim Keller/Dan Kimball/Driscoll/Chandler/Patrick and the 78 other pastors).

Sled Dog said...


The names of some of those missional churches are interesting! Obvious references to current culture:

Rivendell Church (LOTR)
Elevation (U2)

lawrence said...

thanks that helps a lot. I'll try that next time and see what happens :-).

J Crew said...

This is something good to think about and dead on. Nice work Phil. We at the Fellowship thank you

Tom said...

Cigars and beer. Spurgeon and Luther.

Not to mention Calvin, C.S. Lewis, most all of the Puritans, Paul, Timothy, Jesus, Disciples, and literally millions of believers both OT and NT down through the ages have enjoyed alcoholic beverages. Indeed on the day of atonement one was commanded to: "spend the money for whatever you desire--oxen or sheep or wine or strong drink, whatever your appetite craves. And you shall eat there before the LORD your God and rejoice, you and your household."
Deu 14:26

To make tobbacco and/or especially alcohol an issue is quite disingenuous. Holiness/sanctification is a far deeper issue than: "submit[ting] to regulations--
"Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch" (referring to things that all perish as they are used)--according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh." Col 2:21-23

Glenn said...

Dad - at first I had the same reaction, but in context of Phil's post, I had second thoughts. His context was:

"But when (for example) tattoos, cigars, beer, poker, and other stylish emblems of worldly culture are widely regarded as necessary elements for "relevant" men's ministry"

And as I read this, and I hope Phil agrees with me, the key here is ... necessart for "relevant" men's ministry.

While I enjoy the occassional cigar, beer...scotch....I would certainly be worried if my church thought it necessary to have such elements in place during a men's ministry function in order for men to attend. I'd be worried about both the church and the men!

And no, I also don't neccessarily see an issue if your having a ministry meeting at someones house and somebody is drinking a beer. However, It should not be advertised as a reason to attend.

HeavyDluxe said...

Well said, Phil.

It's a shame that the word missional has been claimed by people who are all over the map doctrinally.

I've heard Stetzer and Ravi Zacharias both refer to the idea of 'learning the questions the people are actually asking' as being at the heart of being missional... Of course, Ravi called that 'finding the existential trauma' or something like that.

It strikes me that's really the bottom line. We need to get to know people, be respectful, and understand how they tick. The answer to every longing is the Gospel. We just need to be prepared to answer the questions. Someone here in an Ivy-league college town is asking very different questions that steel workers in Pittsburgh.

We need to know what people are thinking, be able to identify, and properly apply the Gospel to the situation. I don't have to look just like them or sounds just like them...

John Haller said...


Since I live in Ohio, I'm only able to attend Grace Community a few times a year when I am in California. Both my wife and I observed a few weeks ago when we were there that in terms of racial mix, GCC was the most diverse church we have ever attended. We attended another one of those well-known (and larger) megachurches just for comparison sakes on the same trip and it was pretty homogeneous. Not the case with GCC.

To an outsider, it looks like they are reaching their community.

farmboy said...

b"Being missional is seeing The Great Commission as integral to every part of church life --i.e. preaching the gospel in word and in deed at all times at all places and in all programs of the local church body..."

To the extent that the above is an accurate definition of what it means to be "missional", what's so new about being such?

Going and making disciples of all nations (next door and/or around the world)?

Baptizing these disciples in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit?

Teaching these disciples to obey all that Jesus commanded?

Sounds down right biblical: The notion that right practice flows from right teaching and that the content of right teaching is found in Scripture. Oh that this was an accurate depiction of present day evangelicalism.

Unknown said...

I ask this question out of a true desire to understand where you are coming from.

Do you think that people living out the gospel will embody a specific type of culture? If so, what would that culture look like (broad strokes)?

Is the task of Christians to bring about said culture in society? Is this a corporate sanctification so to speak?

INMO, the answers to these type of questions will help all of us understand a bit more the different assumptions from which we speak, and hopefully aid us in not talking past each other.

I look forward to what you or Cent might have to say.

Phil Johnson said...

Cultural Savage: "Do you think that people living out the gospel will embody a specific type of culture? If so, what would that culture look like (broad strokes)?

"Is the task of Christians to bring about said culture in society? Is this a corporate sanctification so to speak?"

If I'm correctly understanding what you have in mind when you use the word "culture," my answer to your first question would be no, and that, in turn, makes the answers to the rest of your questions obvious.

Now, I'm assuming when you say "culture" you're talking about the stylistic features of popular society--because that's what most people who talk about "culture" nowadays are really referring to.

If we wanted to press our point here, we might stress that in many ways the stylistic and generational emblems of popular tastelessness are really antithetical to actual culture. The word culture itself originally referred to things that foster the cultivation, refinement, and elevation of the mind, manners, and personal tastes; so true "culture" is not really about tattoos, piercings, hip hop, and such. But we'll waive that point for the moment.

The more immediate point is that Christianity is inherently "relevant" in any "culture" (even granting your use of the word), but it leaves no culture unchanged or unchallenged. It doesn't confront cultures on merely stylistic grounds, of course, but it confronts them by holding up a standard of perfect righteousness that does indeed frequently rebuke or challenge the way people live their lives and the way they prioritize their values.

Moreover, embracing the emblems of lowbrow society has never (until now) been regarded as a fitting way for the church to become culturally "relevant."

To address the question I think you are asking in your second question, then: What practical effect might we expect Christianity to have on any society? My answer would be that I believe (and both Scripture and history support this) that Christianity ought have an ennobling and civilizing effect on societies, as the fruits of righteousness are disseminated into whatever community Christian truth penetrates. I wouldn't see this as a kind of "corporate sanctification," as much as the corporate blessing that results when lots of individuals in a community begin to experience personal sanctification.

But if the chief effect of our "contextualization" is merely that the church becomes indistinguishable from the world and looks really kool to the youngsters, something is seriously wrong.

And I don't think this is as murky an issue as some of the Emergent literature seems to suggest. James 4:4 seems clear enough to me: "Adulterers and adulteresses! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God."

FX Turk said...

Scott Burness:

You just disqualified yourself as a reasonable person. In your list of 79 churches is Chris Seay's church.

I will be more than happy to tell you why Chris Seay is not doctrinally sound if you can tell me what he thinks of the traditional Baptist understanding of the book of Romans.

Sled Dog said...

As far as cultural integration, I'm not talking about tattoos and whatever else keeps coming up.

I'm talking about getting into the lives of the lost and demonstrating love. Being in the world, though not of it. Daring to connect with the lives of sinners that the church typically steers clear of. The lost need the gospel!

I've been with many evangelicals leaders who seem much better at making the church a fortress for the saved, rather than equipping them to be the lights we are called to be.

Wasn't the point of Jesus parable of the caring Samaritan? The religious leaders jumped to the other side of the street so as not to become involved.

I can't imagine that there is disagreement about infiltrating the world for Christ. Please tell me we are talking past one another, and not disagreeing that to reach we must go. Thank God Jesus ventured into Samaria to have that divine appointment at the well. He knew that if you want to reach Samaritans, you've got to go to Samaria...

Savage Baptist said...

I've had enough correspondence with some of the folks at "Rivendell Fellowship" to know that characterizing them as a "theologically sound" church, even by SBC standards, is--to put it mildly--kind of subject to dissent.

I wonder how many other of those 79 churches are likewise mischaracterized as "theologically sound"?

Jamie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
SB said...

sorry guys I'll take Rivendell and Ecclesia off my list please let me know if you find any more out of the 79

Jamie said...

Phil, aren't each of these steps the points of emphasis of the true fundamentalists? I would suggest that your very valid observations have been the core of fundamentalism, beginning with the Torreys and Machens of the earlier 20th century, that true fundamentalists hold to even this day.

Sled Dog said...

We are to be in the world but not of it. Integrated but not conformed. Does this mean we take part in every activity the world offers. Absolutely not. But we have, IMHO, become too detached from the folks who need to know Jesus. Many Christians have created a sub-culture in which they avoid contact with the lost and dying.

The ultimate integration: God sending his Son to the world. And upon his arrival, Jesus became highly connected with the lost, so much so the religious leaders accused him of dining with sinners.

Phil Johnson said...

Jamie: "aren't each of these steps the points of emphasis of the true fundamentalists?"

Yup. The fundamentalists didn't get everything wrong. Machen said some things in his day that are still powerful and true and would be helpful correctives to post-evangelicalism's dalliances with postmodern ideas. Read Christianity and Liberalism as a reply to Rob Bell, and it works perfectly.

Give the implications of that point some thought.

The fundamentalist movement was eventually ruined by anti-intellectualism, overweening separatism, and a contentious attitude over secondary and tertiary issues that caused many fundamentalists to forget what the truly essential doctrinal issues of Christianity are. But the original idea of fundamentalism was a really good idea, and we could use a healthy revival of it today.

That's exactly what I'm saying in this and other threads where I occasionally take a whack at the false notion that a good pomo can also be a good Christian. In case anyone missed that point, thanks for giving me an opportunity to make it explicit.

Savage Baptist said...

Don't go removing Rivendell from your list solely on my say-so. I think I have ample reason for holding my opinion. I am dead certain that they would disagree. You might disagree, too.

Phil Johnson said...

Sled Dog: ". Many Christians have created a sub-culture in which they avoid contact with the lost and dying."

That's true. It's one of the points I'm affirming when I say I agree with the Emerging critique of evangelicalism's failure.

But the point I'm making here is that the strategy most emerging-style ministry is attempting to use to "connect" with the lost and dying is totally wrongheaded, ultimately counterproductive, and unnecessarily worldly.

Will you admit that that is true also?

Kent Brandenburg said...

Postmodernism = (2 Tim. 3:2-4) "Lovers of their own selves" and "lovers of pleasure", (Jude 1:4) "turning the grace of our God into lasciviousness"

Phil, you write:

"The fundamentalist movement was eventually ruined by anti-intellectualism, overweening separatism, and a contentious attitude over secondary and tertiary issues that caused many fundamentalists to forget what the truly essential doctrinal issues of Christianity are. But the original idea of fundamentalism was a really good idea, and we could use a healthy revival of it today."

I noticed your use of the bold and italic for "movement," differentiating a fundamentalist by dictionary definition from the movement. By definition a fundamentalist strictly adheres to a standard. You understand that separation is a doctrine in Scripture, difficult to parse with a platonic view of the church, however.

I don't see the "secondary doctrine" teaching in Scripture---it seems to be invented, read into (eisegesis) passages, coming out of an evangelical desire for "unity" (an unscriptural sort). The emergents have broadened the unity to a state of discomfort for evangelicals like yourself, taking your "secondary doctrine" teaching to its logical conclusion. The verses supporting personal separation from the world are taken from deep in the vault, dusted off, and now put into use, only not in an "overweening" way (i.e. according to superior intellect) in your case based on your own opinion.

Israel was to stay separate from the pagan cultures around. God expects churches likewise not to conform to the zeitgeist. Separation is all over Scripture. Salvation itself in essence is separation---2 Cor. 6:14-18---only the separatists does He call His sons and daughters. What did the water save Noah and his family from in 1 Peter 3? How do we persuade anyone to do that when it is only a "secondary issue"? You seem to be lying in a bed that you've made yourself.

I mean this in a compassionate way, Phil. It may come across as "contentious," but what you say to the emergents seems contentious to them.

Phil Johnson said...

Kent: "I don't see the 'secondary doctrine' teaching in Scripture---it seems to be invented, read into (eisegesis) passages, coming out of an evangelical desire for 'unity' (an unscriptural sort)."

Well, since that discussion would de-rail the actual subject of this thread, let's postpone it. But I'll tell you what: I will make a post on that topic soon, just for you.

If I'm going to do that, however, you're going to need to bring your A-game.

Unknown said...

"5. the behaviors and beliefs characteristic of a particular social, ethnic, or age group: the youth culture; the drug culture.
6.Anthropology. the sum total of ways of living built up by a group of human beings and transmitted from one generation to another."

This is what I have in mind when I speak of culture. Perhaps society is a better word for me to use.

You said:
But if the chief effect of our "contextualization" is merely that the church becomes indistinguishable from the world and looks really kool to the youngsters, something is seriously wrong.

Would you also say that the inverse is true? If the church becomes indistinguishable from the world and looks attractive to the elders of a society, something is seriously wrong?

Unknown said...

Is it possible for Phil to be wrong? I do not think so. I am 19 and saved right out of the seeker-sensitive movement and just before the emergent church movement. Youth Group was an essential part of my spiritual life, but as I grew in my faith, I saw of a less use for it. The truth of the matter, Christians would rather live in their own clicks and sub-movements than take the time to study the sacred Scriptures. Youth Groups, for the most part, do not encourage personal growth, rather they encourage a dependency on one man. That is why I think there is a ring of truth in calling many evangelical churches cults. People who blindly follow one man: whatever it be Rick Warren, Joel Osteen, or John MacArthur commit a great sin by ignoring the command to seek the scriptures. Sure, it is ok to have HELP, but not to cheat. My pastor Curt Daniel (who Phil knows) has helped me greatly get off the youth group dependency which too many Christians are dependent on. We cannot deny the truths of scripture and the call to submit to the Scripture.

Phil Johnson said...

Cultural Savage: "Would you also say that the inverse is true? If the church becomes indistinguishable from the world and looks attractive to the elders of a society, something is seriously wrong?"

I would absolutely say that. In fact, if you can show me a single website promoting that point of view, one best-selling book telling "How To Do It"; or one influential church actively following and promoting such a philosophy, I'll be the first one to pan it in a scathing review.

Unknown said...

I agree that the god of youth is worshiped among the attractional modeled churches.

I am wondering what you would say is a Christian society or culture?
Or, to put it another way, what does friendship with the world look like if there is no inherently Christian society (or culture)?


If there is no inherently Christian society (or culture), than shouldn't believers be attractive to the non-believers within their own society (or culture) both by remaining part of that society (or culture) and by speaking the hope that is the good news of Jesus (gospel) into that culture without calling people out of that culture?
(I am fully aware that there are unrighteous things within every society that we are called away from, but is that a calling out of a specific society?)

farmboy said...

"If there is no inherently Christian society (or culture), than shouldn't believers be attractive to the non-believers within their own society (or culture) both by remaining part of that society (or culture) and by speaking the hope that is the good news of Jesus (gospel) into that culture without calling people out of that culture?"

What does it mean for a believer to be attractive to nonbelivers? Is that equivalent to being a good neighbor, to being kind and considerate? If so, there are many Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses and Scoutmasters who will be equally good neighbors.

As for attractive believers remaining part of society, short of a monastic-like existence, is there any choice but to remain part of society? The routine activites of day-to-day life necessarily immerse one in society. It is in these routine activites that nonbelievers discover that believers are good neighbors who are generally kind and considerate, moreso than the garden-variety member of society.

However, when these attractive believers that are part of society go on to share the hope that is the good news of Jesus (gospel), doesn't Scripture teach that much of the previously attributed attractiveness will disappear? The message that nonbelivers are lost in their sin, are God's enemies, are without hope in and of their own efforts, have the responsibility to repent and believe, and are dependent on Christ's atoning work on the cross if they are to be reconciled with God the Father isn't an attractive message. Doesn't Scripture teach that this message will be considered foolish to the wise and a stumbling block to the proud? Doesn't Scripture teach that - short of the Holy Spirit's regenerating work in the heart of a nonbeliver - this message will be universally rejected?

Yes, Christians are called to live God honoring lives within the culture where God places them. Christians are also called to proclaim the gospel within that same culture. Taken as a whole, however, many nonbelivers might find a nominally Christian Scoutmaster more attractive than a biblically faithful Christian.

Sled Dog said...


Sure, there are wacky emergent churches.

I just bit on your disdain for the word missional. As I understand it, it is a powerful description of what the church should live.

UPWARD in worship
INWARD in growth
OUTWARD in mission

Seth McBee said...

should we also not take note of Hudson Taylor as he integrated himself into Chinese culture to spread the Gospel?

Unless one believes that the U.S. isn't a mission field...

Sled Dog said...

Hudson Taylor...hero of the missional!

Phil, I hear you. I'm not into "cool" church. As a youth pastor I decided to stop taking my kids to a certain camp because the emphasis was, IMHO, too much on being cool and short on really connecting kids with the Lord. Decided to take them to a smaller, less funded camp. Much more impact for Christ.

It's all about the heart.

Phil Johnson said...

Cultural Savage: "I am wondering what you would say is a Christian society or culture?"

The millennial kingdom under Christ's rule.

"Or, to put it another way, what does friendship with the world look like if there is no inherently Christian society (or culture)?"

The contemporary evangelical movement.

"shouldn't believers be attractive to the non-believers within their own society (or culture) both by remaining part of that society (or culture) and by speaking the hope that is the good news of Jesus (gospel) into that culture without calling people out of that culture?"

Earning the world's approbation is not a proper goal for the church; nor was it ever Christ's goal. It's unrealistic to think we could win the world through "attraction." The gospel is a stumbling block and a rock of offense. It confronts sin and breaks the sinner before it can possibly be "attractive."

Jesus Himself said, "If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, 'A servant is not greater than his master.' If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you. If they kept My word, they will keep yours also" (John 15:18-20).

Unknown said...


Great post. Thanks.

If I might make one comment, I would say that Christ's parable on the treasure hidden in a field (Matt. 13:44) is most applicable.

What does the man do when he finds the treasure? Goes and 'from joy' sells all that he has to buy the field.

The man didn't buy the field because he could have a *beer there* or because his friends liked the field!! The man HAD TO HAVE THE TREASURE to the exclusion OF EVERYTHING 'CULTURAL'! A powerfully preached Biblical gospel will rip open the culture because the GOSPEL is a glorious, freeing, powerful message to lost and dying sinners that decimates cultural lines and frees us from the shackles of cultural relevancy.

"The truth WILL set you free"

We should fear a man who comes to us tying the gospel to ANYTHING else (most especially culture).


PS. A beer and cigars for everyone!

Unknown said...

Amen. Loved it, especially because I come across stuff like this on college campus ALL THE TIME.

John Haller said...

Is it too late to say that "relational" is getting as annoying as "missional"?

Anonymous said...


Good points. I have wrestled with the use of the word "missional" at times because I have noticed theologically reputable people use it. But there has still been a reluctance on my part to embrace it. Particulary when I am articulating to my church what we are to be about. If this word is defined differently by others, then I am concerned that I would be endorsing practices that are off the reservation (so to speak).

The word "Gospel" has been redefined by many, but it seems to be making a comeback. Maybe the word "missional" could be reclaimed to define a lifestyle of holy living amongst a fallen world. I'm sure there are well-meaning people who use it for the right reasons, but there doesn't seem to be enough spiritually mature taking ownership of the word for it to be safe to articulate what we would want it to mean.

Janna Rust said...

I LOVE those five steps. They will definitely take awhile to take effect given the mess the church is in, but getting back to basics is the only solution. Basic discipleship with holy living. Say on.

Coram Deo said...

In reviewing this post I had a truly frightening thought flash across my mind. Two words: "Emergin' Spurgeon"...

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein would have nothing on such a postmodern "Calvi-stein"!

Coram Deo said...

Assuming you are employing it: is it working?

First allow me to apologize in advance, because this comment is going to come across as rather harsh, but what kind of question is this: "Is it working?" IS IT WORKING?!?

What Phil advocated in his post was simply a distilled "go unto the world" preparation and application.

I ask you, have we as Christians slipped so far upon the Great Downgrade as to ask ourselves if preaching the Gospel is "working"?!? Are we actually to believe that such an offensive and absurd question is worthy to be considered as a matter of serious reflection?!?


How long, oh Lord?

northWord said...

I am the least to answer/comment on this great question - but would just like to say that I loved Steven's first comment in here, very well said. I'd give it the Golden Nugget award of the meta commentary I've read this week.

northWord said...

edit/ insert "so far" before the "this week".

Iwriteyouread said...

Although you make a few very good points... don't you think that this approach would be a mistake? I mean, attacking a "movement" with yet another "movement" would be kind of a bad idea. One of the major problems of the Church is that everyone thinks in the format of, "we must find the next movement." And even if they work for a short time, sooner or later they fizzle out. So really organizing steps to react toward the postmodern emergent church crap would defeat the purpose!

Mr GTO said...

Phil you maybe interested in the following;

Coffeehouses pack 'em in

By KEVIN WACK, Staff Writer
Portland Press Herald / Maine Sunday Telegram
Saturday, May 5, 2007

John Ewing/Staff Photographer
Guitarist Gary Richardson was one of the evening's performers at the Open Hearts Coffee House at Clark Memorial Methodist Church in Portland on Saturday night. The coffeehouse events are aimed at providing a less formal atmosphere than church services for people to gather and hear a religious message.
There was no booze or cigarette smoke, but otherwise the church hall at Clark Memorial United Methodist Church might have been mistaken for a rock 'n' roll club last Saturday night.
A bluesy lead singer commanded the stage, standing alongside a guitarist, bassist and drummer. Their plugged-in sound reverberated through the room and out onto one of Portland's quiet residential streets.
It was opening night at Open Hearts Coffee House, the newest addition to southern Maine's burgeoning Christian coffeehouse scene. Informal gathering places like this one -- held once a month in churches of various denominations -- are filling a niche as people seek informal ways to express their faith.
"I think you can worship God and be with friends and have a really great time," said Dolly Bonneson, 47, of Casco, over the music. "It doesn't have to be the old traditional way."
As the church's pastor, the Rev. Kate Nicol, surveyed the crowd of at least 50 people, she saw a younger audience than she does on Sundays.
"I think this is pretty amazing," she said.
Open Hearts is one of at least four Christian coffee shops that have opened in southern Maine churches in the past couple of years. They call themselves coffeehouses and work to duplicate the atmosphere of cafes in order to appeal to people who might be turned off by the idea of going to church.
The first of the four was Holy Grounds Coffee House, which operates on the third Saturday of each month at Church of the Holy Spirit on Congress Street in Portland.
Deborah King, who started Holy Grounds, said the place has an atmosphere that's a cross between Starbucks and Panera Bread. Built in the church's first-floor fellowship hall, it features a fireplace and a coffee bar. Most of the visiting musicians play acoustic sets, which fits with the relaxed, welcoming environment.
King, 53, said the audience has confounded her expectations since the coffeehouse opened two years ago.
"We thought the ministry was just going to be for young people," she said. "Well, mega-shocker for us. It's a completely diverse crowd."
Jen Brown, 26, who recently started Agape House at Seacoast Chapel in Saco, has had a similar experience. She said the monthly gatherings draw everyone from teenagers to retirees.
"And everyone seems to enjoy it," she said. "Each person leaves with something different."
Still, the organizers of Christian coffeehouses in southern Maine are making an effort to connect with young people. They all have Myspace pages, the coin of the realm for teens and twentysomethings, and offer an alternative to a night of bar-hopping.
"In the long run, it's so much better to go to a coffeehouse than it is to go drinking," Brown said.
Evidently, a lot of folks agree. There was no advertising prior to the first show at Agape Coffee House, yet 50 people still showed up, Brown said. At Holy Grounds, organizers have had to turn people away at the door, according to King.
Nor has there been any trouble booking performers, most of whom play music with religious or spiritual themes. Organizers of Christian coffeehouses in southern Maine said they could book acts for many months in advance if they chose to do so.
Brown believes that the scene's popularity has to do with people's desire to make connections with others.
"Every time we have it, God definitely shows up," she said.
Staff Writer Kevin Wack can be contacted at 791-6365 or at:

Visit the Myspace pages of Christian coffeehouses for schedules and other information:
Agape House, 228 Buxton Road, Saco, www.myspace.com/agapehouse5
Holy Grounds Coffee House, 1047 Congress St., Portland, http://www.myspace.com/holygroundsportland
Koinonia Kafe, 110 Old Orchard Road, Saco, http://www.myspace.com/koinoniakafe
Open Hearts Coffee House, 15 Pleasant Ave., Portland, http://www.myspace.com/openheartscoffeehouse

Mt. Sterling, KY