The Attractional Nature of Worship Part III

The Attractional Movement: Next Steps

Worship Growth
It is important to stress the fact that most Christians want to worship well. There are sanctuaries, school auditoriums, warehouses, living rooms, open fields, and a myriad of other venues where Christians are faithfully coming together, week after week, to offer God something of themselves. I believe God greatly approves of this. The heart of the Father is blessed by the faithfulness of his children to come together to be with Him, but the heart of the Father is also continually wooing us to greater, more mature places in our understandings and practices of worship.
Much of the pain that was experienced during the conflicts over worship styles in recent decades has dealt primarily with one generation perceiving the message, “you’re doing it wrong” from another. If a group of believers are faithfully and honestly coming before God with halfway decent intentions, I don’t think they can get worship “wrong.” Yet, no matter our worship style, theological approach, or longevity of tradition, we can always grow in our approaches to worship. This doesn’t mean that we are always throwing away the old for the new, but there should be consistently something new, challenging, and stretching amidst our current worship approaches. With this in mind, we should be able to recognize that our current efforts in worship are most likely good and pleasing to God, but instead of being satisfied with stable sufficiency, we must recognize we have the honor and opportunity to ask, “What’s next?”

The Attractiveness of Worship
Should worship be attractive to those outside our congregations? I believe, to a large degree, it should be. The words of Jesus in John 12:32 cause me to wonder about this. “But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.” I know Jesus is referring to his death here (see the next verse), but I wonder if there more to this statement. Will the Holy Spirit draw unbelievers to the Lord as we lift him up? In worship, our goal should never be to impress people, but in generous hospitality, we should welcome newcomers into the weekly gathering of our incredible God and his awestruck people. The shift here for many of us is not so much in practice, but intention. Instead of a primary attentiveness to outsiders or new participants, we are primarily focused on interacting, abiding, and being with God. Our aims at hospitality are quite important, but they are secondary. This follows the basic pattern of the first and second greatest commandments (Matthew 22:38-39). When God is the primary goal and aim of worship, our relationship with God and outsiders should bear greater and greater fruit.
What many of us have found over the last few years is that the truly attractional aspect of worship is God himself. He is the one wooing, attracting, healing, speaking, helping, and doing a myriad of other things that will always outshine our ability to impress. If Jesus is uniquely present in our gatherings and He is truly the most attractive part of our worship, perhaps we should be spending more time focusing on Him and giving him space to be displayed. I believe God has been pleased with our heart for the lost and our desire to see people come to know Jesus, but some of our attention simply needs to be refined a bit. Part of this refining is experimenting with practices that cause us to be first God-focused and then people-focused. Refining our approaches to worship in this way, while not throwing away our concern for the outsider, will allow us to grow into this wonderful new season of spiritual maturation and relationship with Him.

Stepping Out
How do we get there? How do we begin to refine our current worship cultures? If I was to tell you I had six simple steps to increase your worship potency, I would be lying. Instead, I have a few hunches as to how to take those first initial steps down the path of Spirit-led transformation. First is prayer. If we are longing for something more substantial in our times of worship, we should ask. Second, intentional discipleship must play a key role. We need to learn, experience, and grow in our understanding of God, the Bible, and worship itself. We also need to make room. We have to be willing to give up some of our past worship habits in order to mature and grow. As well, we need to involve others. Engaging in holy conversation with those inside and outside our congregations is healthy. Corporate change seldom happens without some level of corporate discernment. Lastly, we have to be willing to fail. Excellence is a word used quite a bit when designing worship services. This is appropriate, but we have to be willing to take risks, and learn from those things that did not go well. It is possible to fail excellently as long as we grow and change from our experiences.

The Attractional Nature of Worship Part II

The Attractional Movement: The Questionable and the Evolving

The Questionable:

What is Worship?
It is clear that Jesus called his disciples to make disciples. Evangelism is a key part of this process and a central function in the mission of the Church. Much of the American Church was formed in the fires of great awakenings and revivals. We have seen God work mightily at many altars, changing lives and bringing the lost to salvation, but is this the primary function of worship? As wonderful as the invitation portion of any service is, the primary function of worship is for the cooperate body of believers to commune with God. Our moments of approaching the throne of God, as a cooperate body, should primarily be about interacting with him. As ethereal as this task may seem, it is immensely important. This is not to say that calls to salvation in our service are a bad thing, but I don’t believe that evangelism should overshadow the prime reason for our gathering. Many believers only experience this type of holy interaction and communion in deeply meaningful ways in retreat settings. This “retreat” type of worship, and more, should be our Sunday norm.

What is Evangelism?
Our evangelistic-focused services can also lead us to believe that the ideal or primary form of evangelism is offering someone an invitation to hear a “professional” Christian proclaim Christ. While this is certainly not a bad practice, it is not the ideal form of sharing the Gospel. A more ideal evangelism is every believer being equipped with an answer for the hope that they have. This looks like all Christians sharing the Good News and their personal encounters with the living God in their everyday environments. The norm should be an equipped church, saturated in God-centered worship, being lights in the world, and sharing the Gospel where they are.

What is a Disciple?
In high school, I was trained in a mid-twentieth century, evangelical method of sharing the Gospel. It was good, and people came to know Jesus because of it. The go-to scripture for encouraging us to evangelize our friends and neighbors was naturally the Great Commission. So, in my head, I always equated the Great Commission solely with our call to evangelize. This is not the totality of Jesus’ call. He tells his disciples to “make disciples.” There is more to this call than simply walking people through the front door of life with Jesus. We are called to walk with them much further.
In many churches working within an attractional model, more attention is given to attracting and assimilating outsiders into the culture of the Church, than doing the work of disciple making. An idea that was quite common in much of the Attractional Church was that once people find their place in a community, they will naturally grow. While some individuals can grow and thrive by simply being introduced to a church family, experience tells us most will not. (See Move by Greg Hawkins and Cally Parkinson). Some churches do have classes that, in a few weeks, introduce newcomers to faith basics and opportunities of service, but there is usually little beyond this. Unintentionally, cultural standards are created for discipleship that are very low.
In the life of any believer, the No. 1 catalyst for growth as a follower of Jesus is death. Paul’s call in Romans 12 to “offer ourselves as living sacrifices” and Jesus’ multiple calls for us to “pick up crosses and follow me” can sometimes seem incongruent with the highly performance-based, customer service-centered atmospheres created by some attractional churches. A clear invitation to come and die can be rather jarring to those we have worked so hard to make so comfortable. I am not saying we should make church intentionally uncomfortable for our guests and new Christians, but something we have been doing has been keeping many of our attenders in a perpetual state of spiritual adolescence.
The Evolving:

Some would look back at the Attractional Movement and call the whole thing a mistake. I disagree. I believe that it was an imperfect, yet important step in the maturation of our American worship culture. So do we now need to pull the choir robes out of storage and take down the projectors and lights? I really don’t think the tweaks and adjustments that need to be made in most attractional churches have to do with stuff or style. I think our re-examination of the attractional model should cause us to re-examine not only what we are doing, but more importantly the reasoning behind why we use certain approaches. The changes that may need to take place have more to do with approach, theology and rationale. As our mindsets about worship evolve, so will our practices.
I recently served on the pastoral staff of a wonderful church that had seen a lot of great fruit when it made the jump to an attractional style of ministry in the late ’90s. By the time I came on staff, we were basking in the afterglow of this movement’s excitement and energy. Shortly after this time, certain gimmicks became less effective and other parts of our worship approach seemed a bit uncomfortable. One summer, in order to combat our inevitable summer attendance slump, we decided to preach on John 21 and have a beach-themed series. We all dressed in Hawaiian shirts, and decided to decorate our main contemporary worship space like a giant beach. Our efforts were spectacular and we even made the cover of the religion section of the local newspaper. Yet, as one of my fellow pastors and I were shoveling several cubic yards of sand through the stage door, we looked at each other and almost asked at the same time, “Is this really what Jesus had in mind?” The scenery, shirts and theme were certainly not offensive to God, but we all came to a realization that perhaps something had gotten out of whack. At that moment, we could have flushed our whole way of doing church and tried to start over again. I think cooler heads prevailed and we decided to do two things instead. First, we would continue to worship and minster in excellence with the models and methods we currently had. Second, we would begin to intentionally seek God for what He was calling our congregation to look like in the next step of our maturation. As we learned and as he provided, we would make the necessary changes to our worship services, ministry approach and our overall church culture.
I do not believe most churches operating within an attractional model need to do a complete overhaul of their worship services, but there does need to be an openness to grow and evolve when it comes to our approaches to worship. Some of us have found incredible numerical success in this way of doing church, and to do something outside of this model is hard to fathom. God is calling us higher. In our methods of worship, evangelism and discipleship God is inviting us to places of greater depth and effectiveness. More importantly, He is calling us to a closer place with Him.

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.