Attractional vs. Missional: A Presentation by Alan Hirsch, Part 2

Now, what does this mean for the contemporary church? What does Alan Hirch’s teaching mean for a Church of Christ’s leadership? Well, let me suggest a handful of thoughts —

I’ve spoken to a surprising number of preachers who struggle with younger staff ministers who want to abandon the attractional model. The older staff members have led a church of 50 to grow to 500 using the attractional model, thousands of lives have been touched, missionaries have been sent, fantastic benevolence programs have been developed, converts have been baptized, and the congregation is indeed a city of lights built on a hill. They are astonished that their younger staff members look down on all that God has done in that place!

They have conversations filled with buzz words and precious little communication —

“What’s wrong with being ‘attractional’? Should we be unattractive? Isn’t Jesus attractive? Why wouldn’t we want to be attractive?”

“Are you saying that we aren’t ‘missional’? We’ve baptized hundreds, as have our missionaries. We’re making a difference. We have countless volunteers on fire for Jesus!”

Indeed. There is, in fact, nothing remotely wrong with being attractional (if done right) — and Hirsch would agree — except that it’s an incomplete strategy. But we need to have lots and lots of churches that do attractional and do it well. It’s not out of date, old-fashioned, or second-rate. You don’t have to be cutting edge to be righteous.

However, as Hirsch says, some churches need to do something else. But not all.  Some. Well, many. It’ll take a lot of churches trying something else because we aren’t all that sure what strategies even work outside the comfortable confines of the attractional model. We have to try lots of new things.

So how does the staff conflict get resolved? Well, it’s simple enough.

1. It’s not the place of each staff member and each ministry leader to set an independent vision for how that congregation will do mission. It’s the role of the elders, in a Church of Christ — and the wise eldership will make that decision in consultation and prayer with, among others, the ministerial staff. The vision should arise out of conversation and dialog, not fiat and certainly not rebellion or even a desire for ministerial autonomy.

You see, we’ve built a badly flawed model of ministry where each age-group minister is the pastor of a sub-congregation. Thus, the youth minister is the pastor of his youth group and can make nearly all decisions unilaterally. Most churches give their youth ministers great autonomy, with the result that he sets his own vision, which may have very little to do with the vision of the church as a whole. This is not good. (I’m convinced it’s one reason so many young people leave the church when they graduate high school: the youth minister has taught them to disrespect the Christianity of the adults.)

Now, we’ve come from a time when many churches had spiritually unhealthy elderships, and so age-group ministers often needed autonomy so they could pursue a healthier spirituality for their ministry. I understand.

But times have changed. The children who came up through those ministries are now elders and deacons, and it’s no longer time for ministers to live in spiritual and visionary isolation from their leaders. No, it’s time to sit down together, talk about mission, and fashion a strategy as one. Ministers need to abandon the false god of autonomy and independence and pursue submission and unity. But then, elders need to learn to work with the ministers and the rest of the church and not domineer.

2. Some churches will choose to remain attractional only, and if that is the choice, it’s a good, biblical, godly choice and the staff should support it with all their hearts. They should commit to be sure the church does attractional well, producing disciples and not consumers.

If they feel called to a different kind of ministry, then there are other churches that have the same calling, and it may be time to move on.

Don’t skip the conversation. Discuss the vision of the church, but if the elders decide they want to pursue an attractional model only, don’t operate in rebellion to the leadership. Don’t pout. Don’t be passive-aggressive. Be an adult and either support the vision of the church with all your might or find a job where you can.

3. Some churches will choose to be some of both — perhaps through church planting, perhaps through experimenting with alternative forms of mission through various local ministries. After all, a strong, attractional church can provide the financial and volunteer resources to experiment to see what other models work in a given a community to reach the other 60%.

Again, it’s essential that the leadership — the elders and staff — be on the same page and that the vision be effectively communicated to the congregation. Most members will not have read the books or been to the seminars. All they’ll know is that things are changing, and they won’t understand why. That’s bad.

Worse yet, if there’s a sense that those engaged in more traditional ministries are looked down on, as out of step and uncool, support for the new efforts will quickly die. And it’s not just a question of condescension; it’s about a failure to honor those to whom honor is due.

You see, the natural inclination is to honor those who try new things, who take risks for Jesus. And we should. But those who’ve poured their hearts into older, more traditional ministries for decades will feel unappreciated, even left behind, if they are not honored as well. Is this right? Well, if we love the people who’ve built the church to its current level, why would we not be concerned with their feelings?

As you can see, trying to be some of both is no easy task. After all, no one really knows how to reach the other 60%. We just know that we have to try something else. Therefore, we have to be prepared to experiment and to fail, to dust ourselves off, and to try again. Not all churches have the guts to do this. We aren’t known for our risk tolerance, you know.

4. But we should all want the attractional churches to support efforts to reach the other 60% somehow or other. If they aren’t willing to experiment within their own congregation, they can support non-traditional church plants and missions and other non-traditional efforts. After all, non-attractional efforts are going to need patient, prayerful support from an established church. Some in very poor areas may never be fully self-supporting. The older, traditional, attractional churches therefore have to provide a base of support and resources for experimental efforts.

And, as I can never skip an irony, if a new mission succeeds, it will be attractional, but in it’s own culture. If someone finds that a worship gathering in Starbucks is the way to reach a neighbor, then we praise Jesus and hope the efforts attracts many more converts. We pray those who attend will invite their friends. You see, the goal isn’t to no longer be attractional; the goal is to be attractional in a very different way in those cultures that don’t respond to the traditional ways.

Mission efforts in Western countries will often be efforts to appeal to the other 60% — which may be 98% in some countries. That means they’ll be experimental and may fail or may take a long time to mature.

You see, the way to reach the other 60% in your home town may well be to send missionaries across the street. It may well be that your church can’t reach into certain sub-communities in your hometown, but you may be able to raise up and support missionaries who create evangelistic outposts in your town, just as missionaries do in other nations.

And so the US churches can learn from the mission outposts in foreign lands and from domestic church plants. A method discovered in Minneapolis or Madrid may work in Tuscaloosa in some segment of the local population that a conventional attractional church can’t reach.

Successful outreaches into new cultures will energize and invigorate the older churches, just as foreign missions can do. Techniques perfected in an experimental church plant may work even better in some attractional churches than the traditional approaches. It’s the spirit of experimentation, empowered by the Spirit, that can drive growth in both the new and old ministries.

In short, this is a call to mutual respect, love, and forbearance. The old ways and the new, hip, experimental ways are not in opposition to each other. Both are good and both are needed. They just need to learn to get along. You see, the gospel requires it. And infighting, feelings of superiority, and condescension will ultimately defeat both kinds of efforts.

It’s together or not at all.

But — as we all already know — this doesn’t excuse a church being useless and ineffective because it won’t do what’s necessary to seek and save the lost. Some attractional churches don’t make disciples. Some only make consumers. But that’s not because they’re attractional. You can make the very same mistake in a Starbucks worship community. The problem isn’t being attractional; it’s failing to call people into lives of Christ-like service.

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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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3 Responses to Attractional vs. Missional: A Presentation by Alan Hirsch, Part 2

  1. Bill Perkins says:

    Great Material so far! We have chosen to be “Attractively Missional”. Still a work in progress.

  2. Emmett says:

    “The problem isn’t being attractional; it’s failing to call people into lives of Christ-like service.”

    The 11th tradition of Alcoholics Anonymous states, in part, that, “Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion;…”. I think that philosophy gets right to the heart of this matter – if we as individual Christians model a way of living that other people see as attractive, then they will be receptive to what we have to offer them. And if such is not the case, then no amount of promotion is going to put enough lipstick on that pig…

  3. Charles McLean says:

    One challenge is to realize that what is attractive to us may have within it cultural hurdles that make it unattractive to others. This even occurs within the church. Sunday service in one neighborhood is loud, interactive and lasts for three hours. Sunday service two miles away is quiet, contemplative, and has 300 year old music. And it never runs longer than 50 minutes. That makes neither right or wrong or better or worse. But if we require Great-aunt Agnes to stand and clap for a couple of hours with a band going at full volume, she may have a hard time with this. A Bach cantata and a dissertation on the work of Francis of Assisi may have my teens snoozing. And those barriers affect believers. How much more so with unbelievers?

    It requires some humility to believe people –especially unbelievers– when they tell us, by word or deed, that our offering to the community is not attractive. Instead of taking this as an attack on our church– or worse, as an attack on Jesus– we should give thanks, and pray. It’s like a stranger telling me that my fly is open. I can be offended, or I can be wise.

    A man once told me, “When three people have told you you’re dead, it’s time to lie down.” We must be able to internalize sometimes painful criticism from our community and grasp what it means. If it is the offense of the cross, well, we have no Plan B there. But if it is about HOW we touch our neighbors, then they are our guides, to some extent.

    A good doctor asks his patient, “Where does it hurt?” Then he LISTENS to the response and takes it very seriously. Even though Doc is the medical expert, he is not going to help his patient very much if he cannot hear his patient and learn from him much that he needs to know.

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