I read an article yesterday that several of my Christian friends posted on Facebook entitled “The Attractional Church’s Growing Irrelevance.” You can read it here. I felt deeply moved to respond.
// To give a quick context to the following post, I need to make you aware (if you’re not aware already) that when it comes to evangelistic churches, there are two primary models: Attractional (draws in attendance, think more like your typical larger church) and Missional (seeks out attendance, think more like a church plant). The big *thing* these days in the deeper parts of the Christian bubble, it seems, is a huge push for missional churches and an attack on the attractional. The way I see it, are pros and cons to both models, but, as you will read here, both serve important purposes, and neither should be discounted. //
The author of the article, Jared Wilson, is a writer who also works at Midwestern Seminary. In the article, Mr. Wilson expresses several concerns with “seeker-church[es]” that he describes as “attractional” in nature. These concerns are mostly centered around what he views as a decreased relevance to the young (as in young-adult-age, many-years-a-believer) Christian community. Trust me when I say that I understand the mentality he is likely coming from. I attend a Christian University where it sometimes seems like my peers are almost in silent competition with each other over who can dig deeper into theology or who go on the most mission trips (I’m exaggerating, but by comparison to a secular society, you get my point). It’s easy to be so wrapped in the Christian bubble that we don’t see the other side. I’ve been there. However, Mr. Wilson uses his concern to tear down this particular church model as a whole. He marks the whole structure as irrelevant over one point. Here’s why his sweeping generalizations are wrong.
- The church weekend exists in different forms to achieve different purposes.
When many of us think of church, we think of weekend services. We think worship and a message. There are many churches that will offer services several hours long of deeply intellectual and profound Biblical exposition, and those churches serve a purpose to their congregation, which is most likely made up of seasoned Christians. But why do we seem to think that if a church doesn’t offer this kind of depth on a weekend, it isn’t just as purposeful and important in the Kingdom of God? I’ve become pretty well-acquainted with a megachurch that exists primarily in the midwest over the last year. I’ve witnessed firsthand the differences in their styles of teaching and outreach. I come from a very different church background and had many reservations when I first encountered this megachurch because, to be honest, I felt that by focusing primarily on the non-believer and the brand new Christian they were catering to one crowd while alienating another. I thought that this was wrong, but then I realized- that’s exactly what the deeply intellectual church type I mentioned earlier does, but in reverse. I’ve come to realize that there just isn’t a one-size-fits-all as far as the weekend goes for any particular church. I’ve watched churches try and fail to cater to everyone by offering different styles of services, but that is beating around the bush. The point is, some churches structure their weekends primarily around reaching the unchurched, and there is nothing wrong with that, just as there is nothing wrong with some churches structuring their weekends in a way that primarily serves the seasoned Christian. If you are looking for a certain level of depth from a pastor’s weekend teaching but don’t feel you are finding it at one church, there are other churches that may be a better fit. And there is nothing wrong with either church just because one suits you better than the other.
- The Church is not limited to the weekend.
In Mr. Wilson’s article, it seems to me that he views the weekend as the primary source of growth and spiritual “meat” for Christians. But while it is true that corporate worship and fellowship gatherings of the Church body are an important aspect of our spiritual lives as Christians, we cannot, in full awareness, expect that weekend church attendance alone be enough to sustain and develop our relationship with God. We need to actively be seeking after Him. We are responsible for our own spiritual growth, and need to dedicate ourselves to reading His word and fellowshipping in small groups and Bible studies to really unpack and digest the Word in ways that resonate and stick with us. In today’s busy, busy culture, we’re often guilty of not finding time to dedicate to these things, but this is our own fault. We cannot blame the church for not conveniently providing what we have failed to prioritize on our own.
- Missions are not the only way – nor are they always the best way – to reach the unchurched.
Another thing that struck me while reading Mr. Wilson’s article was his frequent mention of missions. If you’ve been in the church a while, you’ll recognize the term “missions” as Christian-ese for local/national/global evangelism. The Great Commission that Jesus left with his disciples as he ascended to Heaven was to go and “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I [Jesus] have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20, ESV). Evangelism is obviously very important. Mr. Wilson seems to imply, however, that churches must send out missionaries globally in order to be valid in their evangelistic work. This may be a slight exaggeration on my part, but even if his concern is with local missions, let me offer the following thoughts. My issue with the notion that a church that doesn’t send out teams of people to scour neighborhoods or knock on doors isn’t evangelizing is this: today’s non-Christian culture in America will not respond favorably to that kind of treatment. Sure, there can be some success with such tactics, but when I think of how I would respond to someone knocking on my door or sending me mailers or using other typical evangelistic methods to tell me about Jesus if I were a unchurched, unsaved person, I know whole-heartedly that I’d be annoyed, primarily, and then I’d think, “who do these people think they are?” This is a mentality that the “attractional” megachurch model has a unique ability to access. By creating a comfortable, crowded-but-not-cramped atmosphere and incorporating secular elements such as cover songs or movie-themed special events, the so-called “attractional” church creates an inviting atmosphere and establishes a common ground with someone who has not had previous experience in a church. Then, by preaching messages based on biblical truth in an easily digestible form, the unchurched person or new Christian is more readily able to access the Gospel in a way that makes sense to them. As I talked about in point number 1, the church exists in many forms for many different purposes. Some evangelize globally. Others focus on evangelizing locally in ways that the culture will respond to. Neither way is wrong or less valid than the other. Both achieve the same goal: going and making disciples of all nations, teaching them to observe God’s commandments.
- Numbers themselves are not the goal, but the numbers also don’t lie.
We all know that what puts the “mega” in “megachurch” is the number of members that church has. (Somewhere along the way, it was decided that if a church is big, it must have flawed theology. It surely couldn’t be serving up the truth, because people don’t like truth. Right? If you are a Christian and this is what you think, let me offer these thoughts: What makes us any different from them? We’re just humans. The truth hurts us, too. But Christ reached us through it all. So why doubt he’d do the same to them? But I digress, as this isn’t the point I’m trying to make here.)
In his article, Mr. Wilson makes references to the large size of the “attractional” church, stating “Yes, it’s grown big. But growing big and growing up aren’t the same thing.” He’s right, in a way. But when growing up by his definition means offering more theological depth spiritual “meat,” let me refer you to all my prior points, as this has already been addressed.
So why does a megachurch grow? It grows due to a combination of the things I’ve already mentioned. Unchurched or hardly-churched people come into a comfortable, familiar-feeling environment. They begin to grow spiritually. They like it, they bring their friends. They stay and grow in community through small groups. More friends join. More people hear about the church and try it out. The cycle repeats, and the church grows quickly. Now as far as baptisms and conversions go, Mr. Wilson claims that it’s traditional churches and new church plants that are primarily seeing new professions of faith and baptizing believers. I’m sure there are numbers of such events in these churches. But remember the megachurch I mentioned in the midwest? They’ve seen thousands upon thousands upon thousands of people come to Christ and be baptized just in the past few years. I don’t think anyone can discount those numbers. They don’t lie. And I’m so excited to meet all of those brothers and sisters before the Throne someday.
Mr. Wilson’s article includes several snarky comments about music style, generational nostalgia and other such irrelevant things that I don’t care to comment on, as I’ve already addressed what I believe are the primary issues behind his argument.
Ultimately, what I want you, my fellow Christians, to take away from all this is that in this complex world we live in, there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to the little-c church establishment. The capital-C Church serves one purpose, to reach the world for Christ, and there are several different approaches the little-c church must take to fulfill that purpose. Every one of those approaches is relevant. Every one of those churches matters. And it doesn’t serve the Kingdom to tear down our own.