The Attractional Movement: The Questionable and the Evolving
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.
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.