The Great (Irrelevant) Debate: Is your Church Missional or Attractional – Part 1


I’ve been in ministry for more than 33 years now, and I’ve seen lots of fads come and go. Every few years, we’ve been told there is a new model or philosophy or way of thinking that we should build our church around. A few examples:

·       Bus Ministry (oh yeah, I’m really that old)

·       Small groups

·       Meta-Model

·       Purpose-Driven

·       Next generation or Gen X ministry

·       Post-Modern or Post-Christian

·       Emergent or Emerging

·       Seeker-sensitive or Seeker-driven

·       Third Place

·       Gospel-centric

·       Multi-site

·       Micro-Church

Each new model tells us why the way we are doing church isn’t working or isn’t good enough. We are told how all the previous model were fads and the newest one is going to replace all of them. We are told we need to change everything, go back to the drawing board and do something different—because everything we’ve done in the past was misguided, ineffective and possibly even sinful.

A recent example? Missional. These days, it seems like every conference, leader, blog and interview is talking about how missional is the bomb and attractional is yesterday.

Do you ever hear leaders talk about missional-this or missional-that and want to say “Missional Schmissional”? I know I do. I hear a supposed missional expert make over-stated points about how most churches these days are inward focused and consumer-centric and they don’t care whether people around them are going to hell, and then they say, “Oh by the way, that’s called ‘Attractional’ which is synonymous with evil.” And then they tell you, “Missional is the answer!”, and I want to say, “Missional schmissional.”

The exaggerated, over-stated arguments cause me at times to want to throw out the entire conversation. I have a very good friend who I’ve known for decades who recently read a popular missional book. His eyes were opened to the evils of the institutional church (insert sarcasm here). He learned how church buildings, pastors and worship leaders are all unbiblical. So my friend left his church. He’s not doing “house church,” nor is he doing “missional life” with anyone—he’s just done with church. I walked away from my friend and wanted to say, “Missional schmissional.”

I have a friend at a church that was growing by leaps and bounds in the 1990s. In a fairly small community, they had as many as 3,500 people attending every weekend, and they hosted conferences and told people how to grow their church. But then, they stopped growing. For a while they were silent. They stopped doing conferences; they just kind of fell off the radar. Before long, however, they began writing books and hosting conferences and telling people they changed their mind. “Church growth is actually bad!” they proclaimed. It was like they could no longer produce the results by which they measured success, so they just moved the target. They started saying, “Oh, it’s not the quantity. It’s the quality.” They started saying, “It’s all about missional impact, and that’s really hard to track, so just trust us, we are successful at this.” When I heard that, I wanted to say, “Missional schmissional.”

Several years ago, I attended a conference that was all about the emerging church, with many speakers using the words “missional” and “emerging” interchangeably. At the conference, I saw some people dancing in the aisles, others running rakes through sand and still others drawing pictures on canvas during the message. Some people in the audience would just stand up and start talking to the crowd. I got weirded out! And I wanted to say, “If this is missional, then missional schmissional.”

I hear the over-generalizations about attractional and I think, “I’ve never seen that church.” I don’t know of one pastor anywhere who doesn’t care about the people in his or her community. It seems every attractional church pastor is painted as selfish, consumer-focused and interested only in money and big buildings. “They all care more about numbers than people,” we are told. I don’t know of a pastor like that. I don’t know of a church that doesn’t want people to live missionally in their everyday lives. I don’t know of a church that is just about the weekend experience and does nothing else to serve people. So when I hear the attractional church or pastor described that way and missional as the answer, I want to say, “Missional schmissional.”

Alan Hirsch is one of the leading voices on the missional movement. He has the same concern I do. In an interview with Christianity Today, he said, “It has become increasingly difficult to open a ministry book or attend a church conference and not be accosted by the word missional. A quick search on Google uncovers the presence of “missional communities,” “missional leaders,” “missional worship,” even “missional seating,” and “missional coffee.” Today, everyone wants to be missional.”

The first time I recall seeing the words “missional” and “attractional” used together was in 2005 when Tony Morgan and I wrote a book called Simply Strategic Growth. Leonard Sweet, an author, professor and strategic thinker, was nice enough to offer an endorsement for the back cover. He wrote: “Don’t let the attractional language fool you. This book is really about ‘missional’ Christianity and meeting the culture where it’s at, not where you wish it were.” I remember talking to Tony and saying, “What the heck does that mean?”

I didn’t know it at the time, but the “attractional” label was beginning to surface to describe the “come and see” model of ministry. And often, it was being used as a term of derision to describe the model of church to which I had given my life! Once I figured that out, I didn’t like it one bit. I didn’t like the implication that there was something wrong with creating a weekend church service that was so compelling and so relevant that people invited their friends to come with them! I didn’t like it when people suggested that it was futile to talk about topics that were so close to people’s hearts that it was easy for them to walk into a church to get help with their marriage or money or loneliness. And by doing so, we’d have an opportunity to introduce them to Jesus.

Hearing a growing voice of Christian leaders label my church as attractional and simultaneously call it ineffective, unbiblical or both kind of felt like someone had just said my wife is ugly. And I didn’t like that one bit.

Anyone have a similar feeling? I’d love to see your thoughts in the comments.

Next week in Part 2 I’ll talk about how tired I have become of the attractional church movement.

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Tim Stevens3 Comments