Attractional vs. Missional: Data

mcchurchI apologize for the meandering way these posts are proceeding, but I’m trying to be true to the nature of the conversation going on in evangelical circles. And as my own thinking is evolving, it would hardly make sense to give a nice, linear, simple presentation — as my thinking isn’t that way at all.

This series actually goes back to the “Which Gospel?” series from earlier this year, which I never quite finished. There are all these great ideas and theologies being tossed around in the literature. How does a church leader decide on a strategy that won’t be disproven by the time he gets his congregation on board?

Well, the first guidepost, of course, is faithfulness to Jesus and his word. But then, none of us is going to intentionally violate the scriptures. The problem is it’s just hard to see how to apply the scriptures to today’s problems. In hindsight, we’ll likely think we know the answer — that is, what the answer was. But knowing what strategies and methods will work today is not so easy.

Which brings us to data. We are fortunate to live in the information age, when data is pretty easy to come by. Recently, “Out of Ur” looked at what data is available with regard to the missional vs. attractional debate in response to a challenge by Scot McKnight.

There are no stats about “attractional” or “missional” churches but there are some statistics about the number of people “converting” through megachurches. First, note that only 21.5 percent of Americans do not claim a Christian affiliation, according to the 2004 GSS; (20.8 according to the 2005 Baylor Religion Survey). Far less would claim that they had never before attended a church. Therefore, it is difficult to find true “new converts.” Most are “switchers.” See American Piety 2005

And so, while missional thought leaders such as Alan Hirsch are certainly right that the number of utterly unchurch people is growing, they still reflect only 21.5% of our population. That is, of course, over 60 million people! So we need to have churches and church plants that are intentionally seeking to convert this growing population segment. But it would be foolish to abandon the 80% that have some church heritage. Hence, the attractional model will be viable for a very long time. Plainly, this is a both-and situation, not an either-or choice.

Second, Thumma and Travis, authors of Beyond Megachurch Myths, point out that about half of the megachurches they surveyed in 2005 claimed that more than 20 percent of their new members are new converts. 

However, their research also suggests (on incomplete data) that 90% of the conversions are people who grew up in Christian households or otherwise had some Christian background. Only a small percentage of the conversions are of people with no prior Christian experience.

Stanley Presser and Mark Chaves write in “Is Religious Service Attendance Declining?”:

“Yet, existing evidence does not definitively establish whether attendance at religious services declined in American society from the 1950s to the present. We examine the trend in religious service attendance between 1990 and 2006. Evidence from several sources converges on the same answer: weekly attendance at religious services has been stable since 1990. However one reads the evidence about trends between World War II and 1990, the recent past has been a time of stability.”

Rodney Stark says, “Church attendance has held rock steady, except for the entirely understandable decline in Catholic attendance” after Vatican II relaxed its rules about attending Mass.

Of course, this “rock steady” attendance rate was in the teeth of rapid population growth. You’d think that if we’d just convert our own kids and provide churches for the immigrants who come here with a faith already we’d keep up with the overall growth of the population — but we don’t. As a percentage of the whole, church attendance is in decline, although it’s constant in number of people.

Olson explains that while church attendance numbers have stayed about the same from 1990 to 2004, the U.S. population has grown by 18.1%—more than 48 million people. “So even though the number of attendees is the same, our churches are not keeping up with population growth,” he says.

If this is so, then the reason so many churches are closing is because their children or members are transferring to growing churches — being mainly the megachurches and other “community” churches. 

Conclusions —

American Protestant churches — and Churches of Christ in particular — aren’t growing fast enough to keep up with the population growth. Indeed, on the whole, neither is growing at all.

The growth that is occurring is largely in large churches and church plants — many of which are growing quite well. Some plants are very missional, some more attractional. Both kinds can grow if well led. And both kinds produce genuine conversions. 

In every town, there are people who need Jesus who will be most easily converted through the attractional model — and there will be people who will be more likely converted through the missional model. We need both kinds of churches.

But we really need for attractional churches to mature in the mission. And we need large churches to plant and support church plants of both kinds. And we need to escape a consumerist mentality in all our churches. Jesus didn’t die to create consumer-driven churches.

In other words, churches can be attractive in a good way or a bad way. The bad way is to appeal to our selfishness or consumerism. A church has to serve not only our felt needs but our real needs — and one need is for us to be turned into servant-disciples, people who serve others just like Jesus served others.  And a church that fails at this task isn’t really much of a church at all.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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