Exciting. Big. Energetic. Practical. Passionate. Positive. Encouraging. These words are often found in the slogans and values of exciting and attractional churches.
What is an attractional church? How do you know if you are a part of an attractional church? Austin Fischer is a teaching pastor at Vista Community Church in Temple, Texas who recently wrote an article for Christianity Today examining the attractional church model through the lens of one of its most “successful” practitioners, Andy Stanley.
The model, espoused by Stanley and implemented throughout evangelical America, recognizes that people typically approach life as consumers in a marketplace and relates to them as such in order to bolster the church’s reach. Fischer explains it like this:
When we talk about leveraging “consumer instincts” in the way we practice church, we are taking the ideology of the market and the narrative of acquisitive freedom as the highest good and baptizing them. We are telling our people that their wants and felt needs need no further justification and need not be questioned. What is most important is not that they become like Jesus (unless of course they feel like it), but that they are free (and comfortable) to become whatever they want to become.
Stanley’s own explanation goes like this:
We are unapologetically attractional. In our search for common ground with unchurched people, we’ve discovered that, like us, they are consumers. So we leverage their consumer instincts.
In my own experience, churches don’t necessarily think of what they are doing in these terms, but the logic of the marketplace still unconsciously pervades the strategy of church leaders. They are more prone to think about what people want from a church and then establish programs, “worship” experiences, and studies that meet those desires as a hook or door to introduce them to the gospel.
- People want to be encouraged and supported because they feel so busy and stressed, so let’s have a bible study on joy and hope!
- People want to feel like God is really working in their life, so let’s put on a powerful performance with lots of people and energy so everyone gets the sense that they are a part of something bigger than themselves.
- People want convenience because of their busy schedules, so let’s provide multiple services in multiple locations that allow flexibility in participation.
- People want easy relational connections because they’re lonely, so let’s organize our fellowships by life stage so that people can become friends with others without the barriers of age and marital status complicating the situation.
You can see the logic here. You can also see the earnest desire to reach and serve more people.
But long ago, I started to suspect that this model is not only ineffective at producing mature disciples but that it severely distorts the witness of the church by clouding the message of the gospel. The form, structure, and logic of the church life and ministry are just as formational as the content of the message being preached. In other words, a pastor or teacher can be explaining the gospel, inviting people to receive Jesus, and preaching biblical texts with relatively faithful exposition while at the same time undermining the process of discipleship by drawing people into a church life that does not comport with the the gospel and the life of discipleship. Perhaps the article says it best:
Kent Carlson and Mike Lueken pastored a church that also believed we could and should exploit consumerism. But through a long and arduous process of examination, they changed their mind. They came to believe that the way we practice church forms us in ways that rival, and at times, preempt the things we say. We can tell people to practice self-denial, but when everything we do caters to their felt needs as consumers (from their placement in small groups, to their participation, or lack thereof, in worship), our practice contradicts the teaching. It’s no wonder so many well-meaning church goers find the call to a cruciform life utterly incoherent.
I encourage you to read the article and to consider both your church’s model and the logic of your own involvement with your church whether as a leader, member, or attender. If you really want to dig into the issue, pick up Selling Out the Church by Philip D. Kenneson and James L. Street.
I’d love to hear feedback in the comments. I think this is one of the most pressing issues in the American church.