Exploring the Shift from Attractional Church to Missional Church

By The Rev. Eric Wolf

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“Alan Roxburgh and Scott Boren, missional church experts, say that 90% of the churches in North America are attractional churches. The vast majority of our churches are designed to get people to their campus so that these spiritual seekers can find what they are looking for, even though they don’t know they are looking for it”. — Shift by Mark Tidsworth (p91)

I’m willing to bet that the phrase “Attractional Church” — if you know what that means, doesn’t bring to mind a Lutheran congregation right off the bat; and if I were making a bet, I’d wager that those who recognize this term think “stealth-Baptist megachurch” more than anything else. Think of NewSpring or Mars Hill, the congregations that attract young adults and all the cool folks who don’t usually like to hang out with me. They’re the congregations who figure out how to leverage the formula of worship, plus fog machines, divided by fifty choruses of How Great is Our God, times a pastor in trendy glasses and flip flops on a stage preaching for forty-five minutes about how his iPhone told him something cool, equals 10,000 people per Sunday. You know, the ones that cause most of us equal parts jealousy and suspicion.

These megachurches become such attractive targets because they exemplify a problem with which nearly all American congregations struggle; the old “if you build it, they will come” model of ministry. Now hear me, buildings are useful. We build these places so we have a place to invite people to come to so that they can join in our ministry. The problem is that, as gratifying as it is to know that people want to come to join in our ministries and worship services, and as good as it feels for people to want to join in with what we’re doing, getting people to “be here” isn’t the primary mission of the Church.

The primary mission of the Church is to go out, build relationships, and teach people to be like Jesus. Matthew 28:19 gets all the popular attention, but Mark 16:15 is my favorite, “[Jesus] said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation”. Both versions say essentially the same thing, “go”. Neither of those great commissions is interested in getting people involved in what we’re doing, but both command us to join in with what God’s already hard at work doing, and the command of Jesus invites us to be a part of God’s coming kingdom, for which God calls us to lay the groundwork of making the reign of God as real here as it is in heaven.

In my sarcastic moments I think that the trouble with “go” is that “stay” is guaranteed to have air conditioning. Yeah, it’s snarky; but doesn’t that cut right to the quick of what we want in the Church?

We want people to join us, worship with us, participate in Sunday School, youth group, and senior Bible trivia bingo. We’re learning the hard lesson that the old assumption, “everyone’s waiting and hoping for the right incentive to try our church” just isn’t true. It isn’t that what we’re doing no longer has value, it’s that what we’re doing chiefly has value to us.
What we’re up against is that the things we do in our building make a lot of sense to insiders, but not to people who aren’t already a part of our community. Jesus said “go”, but we’ve built nice places to stay. We’re in South Carolina; air conditioning is nice.

We’ve all been trying harder, providing better quality programs, maintaining a nice building, and trying to sing songs with guitars in worship, but we still fail to see the increases for which we’d hoped. The problem is that we’re measuring people in the pews, which isn’t what Jesus commanded us to do.

Where are all the people?

They’re in the same place they were when Jesus was doing ministry, in the world. They’re at home with their families. They’re travelling to ballgames, working, going out with friends, seeking to make meaningful relationships and make sense of the world.

The people are in the same place they’ve always been, and Jesus saw it — they’re at “go”, not “stay”. Jesus went out and called Peter, James, and John while they were fishing. Jesus went out and met the man born blind where he was. Jesus went out and had a conversation with the Samaritan woman at the Well of Jacob. Jesus went out and fed 5,000 men plus women and children.

AND, Jesus was in the temple teaching and preaching, worshiping with his community most of the time when the Sabbath rolled around.

Being a missional Church, being missional congregations, being people on mission together means that we’re living every moment of our lives on mission for Jesus. Our life task and the task of our life together as the Church is to make what we pray on Sunday a reality, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. This isn’t something we can only do in our buildings. We must go.

The reason 90% of American congregations are in the attractional model is that it’s much easier to say “why doesn’t anyone come?” than it is to go out to where the people are and risk public rejection. It’s seductive because as painful as those private feelings of rejection can be that we complain about at countless meetings, the truth is that we’re accustomed to that pain. We’re not eager to find new ways to feel frustrated by the fact that people don’t want to do what we’re doing.

Whether we go or stay, right now we’re all feeling the pinch of existential angst, wondering what will happen to our congregations, our denomination, and the Church. Jesus never promises that this will be easy, in fact, Jesus promises that our faithfulness will lead us to bear the cross. Here we sit at the foot of the cross and we learn that the cost of discipleship is high, but on the other side of Good Friday is Easter Sunday.

Making the shift from Attractional Church to Missional Church isn’t an easy movement, but it’s who we’re called to be together.

What would it look like in your life, in your congregation, in your family, if we were all striving together to go out into the world with the good news that God’s kingdom is here already?

I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait to find out.


Originally printed in the May-June 2016 edition of the South Carolina Lutheran. Subscribe today for only $10 for six issues a year by calling the office at 803-765-0590.

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