The Great (Irrelevant) Debate: Is your Church Missional or Attractional – Part 3

Be sure to read Part 1 and Part 2 if you haven’t already

Several years ago, I had the opportunity to sit in a seminar with Alan Hirsch. For a week he taught us a new way to think about church. But it was radical. He was basically predicting the end of the effectiveness of the attractional megachurch. Not everywhere, and not over night. But he was suggesting that as America becomes more divided into smaller and smaller subcultures, the attractional model of church will become less effective.

It was exactly what I had written about years earlier in Pop Goes the Church.  The essence of my book was about making your attractional services more missional. I risk ridicule by quoting myself, but in the book I wrote, “It’s not that people aren’t pursuing their faith. There is a growing percentage of people of faith in our communities who love God the best they know how—they just see the church as completely irrelevant. It does not even cross their minds to go to a church service to figure out the next spiritual step they should take.”

There was a survey that came out around the same time my book was published that backed this up. It was conducted by LifeWay Research, and the results were published in USA Today. The survey found that “… a growing number of Americans are recognizing a need to develop their inner life … but many don’t know where to begin, especially if they don’t consider themselves ‘religious.’ Even if they are religious, many haven’t found everything they’re seeking in weekly services.”  The article went on to report that 86 percent said they could have a “good relationship with God without belonging to a church.”

I don’t think the impact of that trend hit me hard until I was sitting in a room listening to Hirsch. That is when a fundamental shift happened in my thinking. It was the first time I really considered the impact of the shrinking 40 percent.

Let me explain.

The Shrinking 40 Percent

The American church is in decline in every poll I’ve seen. Yes, the number of large churches is increasing, but overall church attendance continues to go down. The way we do church is working with fewer people all the time. What does “the way we do church” mean? It means the model of Christendom that has been followed for the past 1700 years. Just about every person reading this is the product of the type of church that is, as a whole, becoming less and less effective.

I’m not talking styles of worship, high church or low church, contemporary or traditional, mainline or independent or protestant or catholic. I’m talking about all of those churches combined. Just about every church in America can be described by three words: “Come to us.” That is it. We put on amazing services and do everything we can to communicate truth to the people who make the effort to come to “the box” for worship. Some boxes are beautiful, and others are utilitarian. Some boxes are ornate with stained glass and a pipe organ, and others are located in an empty Walmart. But most of what we do is at, through and around “the box.” Many times, even the mercy and justice ministries we engage in outside the walls are done for the primary purpose of inviting people to “come to the box.”

There is a growing belief that this model of church still works for around 40 percent of our population. Does that mean 40 percent attend? Not at all. But there are probably around 40 percent of the population for whom the “come to us” model still works. We can put on great weekend services, and 40 percent of the people in our community are still attracted to, or at least not repelled by, that model.

Is that a scientific number? No. Is there any research to back up that number? No. But as I work with churches all across the country, it resonates as a believable statistic.

A few years ago, we did an informal survey in our church to see if this statistic was true in our community. To make it easy to consider, we put it this way: “If you were to invite 10 people to come to church with you, how many of them do you think would consider your invitation?” Over and over, they agree that it is probably no more than four people.

Maybe the number is much lower in the northeast or northwest. Maybe it’s higher in the Bible belt. But every pastor I have talked to agrees that the number, whatever it is, is shrinking. Whatever you decide the number is for your community, it is likely getting smaller every year.

The Growing 60 Percent

Everyone who is not in the shrinking 40 percent is part of the growing 60 percent. These are people who might believe in God (whatever that means for them), have a respect for Jesus and are on a spiritual journey, but they don’t consider the church (as we know it) as a resource to help them take steps. And it is likely they never will. They pursue their spirituality through culture, friendships, music, TV personalities, their own study of the Bible, self-help books and more. A study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life said, “… more than a quarter of Americans born after 1981 have no religious preference or affiliation. Fewer than 1 in 5 teens and 20-somethings frequent worship services. But the study also reveals that young adults pray as often as their elders did at that age and share an equally strong faith in God.” More and more young adults are pursuing their faith outside of the church.

We can argue on the percentage. You may not believe it is as high as 60 percent. But whatever the number, it is growing.

And this has profound implications for the way we do church. We will wrap this series up with next week’s final article.

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Tim StevensComment