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The Attractional Nature of Worship Part I

The Attractional Movement: Hold on to the Good

In the mid-1990s, a number of innovative churches changed the way many American Christians experienced weekly worship. Churches such as Willow Creek Church in Barrington, Illinois, and Saddleback Church in Southern California, began to design worship services especially targeted at non-churchgoing individuals and families. Through high production values, contemporary music, creative dramas, poignant media presentation, targeted preaching, thorough “assimilation” strategies, and a non-intimidating environment for visitors, these churches saw great swells of participation. Visitors flocked to be a part of a worship experience that was a radical departure from the highly religious and culturally inaccessible faith institutions of their youth.
For some time now, the newness of this type of service has waned and many are evaluating the pros and cons of this particular leap in our American worship culture. I believe it is imperative for us to resist the temptation to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. In the spirit of being on the cutting edge, or simply because of a contrarian nature, many in the Church have the tendency to be wholly against the thing that was once popular, in favor of what is around the corner. If we fail to intentionally discern what is fruitful, not fruitful, and what is simply immature in any season, our human idealism can rob us of unseen wisdom, grace and understanding.
It is also important to acknowledge that many of the less-than-perfect aspects of this movement did not originate with the pioneers of this approach to worship, but with those who tried their best to emulate the innovators. Many pastors and leaders were so hungry for revitalization in their congregations that they tried to recreate exactly what they saw in these early adopting fellowships. I have even heard stories of conference goers taking measuring tapes to Willow Creek to measure the stage in order to make an exact replica at their home churches. This type of cultural mimeographing doesn’t normally work. In the words of a leader of a similar movement, “Be yourselves! If you try to copy exactly what we are doing, you will do the things we do well, half as well, and the things we do bad, twice as bad.” Most of the pioneers in this movement have been faithful to grow and progress as they evaluate the fruit of their congregations. Many of the excesses of this movement are not coming from congregations with an evolving dynamic approach to worship and ministry, but those who are working from an unevolved, static model.

The Good
There are a number of wonderful things that came from this movement that were both fruitful and desperately needed in much of the American Church.

Evangelism: The primary motivation for making worship “attractional” was evangelistic in nature. The idea being, that the enjoyable environment created by an attractive worship experience would be the bait that positioned non-churchgoing people to hear the life-giving message of salvation through Jesus. Christ. Many people heard the message of the Gospel at these churches and embraced Jesus. Undoubtedly, this is a good thing!

Music: This move also encouraged many traditional churches to explore and experiment with songs and instrumentations that were radically different from their norm. As in generations past, the Church began to sing in the musical vernacular of the people. This movement gave many churches permission to expand their musical culture beyond the boundaries of what was once considered appropriate and find new ways to glorify God through musical expression. While some may question the theological content and style of contemporary worship music, a broader musical pallet to worship a creative God is a fitting and good thing. This freedom to expand our worship pallets relates not only to music, but to all sorts of art forms that are now finding a more established place in our cooperate times of worship.

Hospitality: Almost any group of people bound by a common identity have the potential to become insular. The Attractional Worship Movement caused many of us to think beyond ourselves. It called us to put ourselves in the place of strangers who were entering our doors and communities for the first time. I believe many churches are now more aware of their use of insider language and other elements of their culture that are unnecessarily foreign to the outside world. Many communities are simply more sensitive to outsiders (churched and unchurched) and are doing things that make connecting with their congregation easier.

These are just a few of the fruitful aspects of the Attractional Worship Movement. We will examine some of the questionable elements of this approach to worship in the next part of this series.

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The Holy Spirit and Discipleship

The Holy Spirit and Discipleship

There is a large part of the discipleship process we cannot do. Whether we are looking for growth in our own walk with Jesus, mentoring young believers, or designing discipleship programs for our churches, there is only so much we can make happen on our own. I have led a number of discipleship gatherings where the people involved were gaining knowledge and getting to know each other, but little other fruit was appearing from our time together. I strived and tried, but no matter what I did, we seemed to be traveling in circles that did not lead to real growth or change. These experiences helped me to realize that the main player in the discipleship process is not my effort. It is the Holy Spirit. We play a part in the call to make disciples, but the lion’s share of the transformative work has to be Him.

I can remember being terrified the first time someone asked me to mentor them. It was at a point in my walk where much of my life was being refined. I was so consumed with my own weakness that I thought, “What could I offer this guy?” That season of brokenness was actually a great blessing. I felt like I had little to offer on my own, and I was amazed by the lessons this young man learned that I never taught, the conviction that I did not initiate, and the godly decisions that I did not influence. My words and example did play a part, but I was well aware that I was not alone in this process. True heart change and transformative revelation comes from the one who made us and knows us best. Many in ministry believe this on a theological level, but the practical aspects of this reality can elude our practices.
If we fully believe that we are dependent on the Holy Spirit for transformation in our churches and ourselves, it only makes sense that we ask. Many times, because we have struggled with seeing growth and transformation in our midst, we assume that God got the message. We put our shoulders to the plow without the intentional act of making a simple request. It is true that God knows our needs and our desire before we do. He is also far more interested in disciple making than we are, but sometimes we simply “have not, because we ask not” (James 4:2). Part of the practice of dependence on the Holy Spirit is asking. We don’t ask because God is unaware, we ask because God desires for his people to play a part in almost every aspect of his work. It also helps to remind us that the transforming force in our midst is Him and not us. Intercession has always been a hallmark of the move of the Spirit and discipleship experiences are no different.
Once we have asked, it is good to create expectation in our hearts. We need to expect that God is going to do more in our discipleship settings than we can ask or imagine. We also need to prepare with this expectation in mind. In most forms of disciple making, some preparation is required. In that preparation we need to create space for him to work. We need to expect and trust that he is going to do what he loves to do in lives of the people we are serving. As this expectation grows, it will need to be coupled with faith. This may even look like planning and preparing in such a way that, if the Spirit does not actively stir our gatherings, we have little to fall back on. This can be a good but difficult process that requires us to die to all of our desires to entertain and impress others.

From Scripture and experience, I believe the transformative work of the spirit is catalyzed by one thing…the sacrificial offering of a crucified life. The Spirit responds as we begin to imitate Jesus, and give up everything to him. Just as Elijah built a pyre on Mt. Carmel, Solomon commanded the temple sacrifices, and Jesus laid down his life for our sakes, fire from heaven falls on those things totally given over to God. Paul’s admonition to “offer our bodies as living sacrifices” (Romans 12:1) is key. The Spirit is active at all points of our maturation, but the transformative work of God seems to be fueled by our total surrender to the work and will of our Heavenly Father.
These practices of asking, expecting, and dying reminds us that the people in our care do not belong to us. We may have the paternal passions of Paul or an appropriate sense of pastoral responsibility, but these men and women ultimately belong to someone who loves and cares for them more than we ever could. This approach to disciple making leads growing believers away from a dependence on us, and onto the truth that the same spirit that rose Jesus from the dead is alive and well in them (Romans 8:11).