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.
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.