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Can a church be Missional AND Attractional?

December 9, 2010

Recently JR Rozko put up a review of our newest book, Launching Missional Communities, on his blog. I’ve met JR before, and while I wouldn’t say I know him well at all, I definitely love the way he processes and he has a great blog which you can read here. It is thoughtful, provocative and is asking all the right kind of questions.

His review of Alex and I’s book (you can read the review here), was overwhelmingly positive. I thought he summed up well what we were trying to do in the book:

  • Discipleship, leadership and mission are the driving themes of both the book and the entire philosophy of missional communities.  To get the point of the book, you have to understand that from the author’s perspective, the task of the church is discipleship – period – the end.  Any they are right.  You also have to embrace the idea that the replication of leaders is imperative to the larger task of discipleship.  If you don’t equip and empower leaders, you can kiss your changes of exponential discipleship bye-bye.  Again, I’m totally with em here.  Finally, mission is the context in which leaders are equipped and disciples are formed.  Amen!  If you can embrace and own these three things, then you’ll love this book and what it offers.

This is exactly what we’re trying to do in this book. Show how discipleship, leadership and mission can all come together in a practical way in Missional Communities…and give a resource to people to help teach them their biggest question: How do we do this?

As positive as JR’s review was, he did have one critique, and I thought it would be beneficial to open it up for a little discussion. Not in an antagonistic way, but as something that’s worth discussing. It revolved around the use and exploration of doing Missional AND Attractional in one church. In the end, I think JR and I would come down on the same page. Here was his one quibble, which he expressed on two fronts, analogical and theological:

  • In the book, I used the example of the coming together of the Roman model and Celtic model and how this was used to great effect to evangelize the whole of Europe. His comment: The analogical problem here is that what is generally meant today by attractional and missional does not at all correspond to the realities and circumstances in which these models of churches existed.
  • Second, he quotes this from LMC: We just need to understand what Attractional does well and do it. We need to understand what Missional does well and do it. His response to thisImpossible – attractional and missional churches are such because they have divergent understandings of basic Christian doctrines.  What we need is a theologically robust understanding the relationship between the the Missio Dei, the gospel of the Kingdom of God, and the Church.  This will lead us not to the ‘best’ of these two models, but to a cohesive vision of a missional ecclesiology.  This is the great error of ‘AND’ thinking; you never get to core issues because you spend all your time trying to artificially hold incompatible things together. The saddest part of this is that the underlying genius of the book actually does this work.  It undercuts the errant theology and philosophy driving attractional churches.  I just wish they had been more direct in stating it.

This was JR’s critique of the book.

As I’ve thought about this for the past few days, the predominant thing that comes to mind is that we probably could have done a better job fleshing out this concept and in the 2nd edition of the book, we definitely will. The problem is the way that I use the word “Attractional” and the way that most everyone else does can be different at times, which can lead to this kind of confusion. My guess is we will look at using a different word in the future.

Here is what we were trying to get at: There is something inherently attractive about a group of people coming together to worship their Father and King once they’ve been actively engaged in the mission field. In other words, the gathered church, coming in from being scattered, is unbelievably attractive.

Why?

Because it is the power of the reconciled community.

When a scattered church gathers, when we tell stories of mission to each other, engage in the sacred act of communion, worship as hundreds and thousands of people, hear from the scriptures and respond, look around and see every tribe and tongue and we do all of this in the presence of the Holy Spirit…this is wildly attractive to a great number of people (not everyone, but a lot).

This act of gathering the scattered church, I think, is something akin to what Newbiggin talks about when saying the church community should be a SIGN and a FORETASTE of the Kingdom that will be brought to fulfillment. It points to a future reality and provides a taste of that reality. (And as Newbiggin says, is an INSTRUMENT when it is scattered and in the mission field).

The church that I led in Sheffield was this kind of a church and I’m starting to see it in the churches we are working with in the United States. When Sheffield’s scattered church gathered together, in one room, there were rich, poor, old, young, former prostitutes, former drug addicts, former felons, former snobs, the homeless, former Hindu, former Muslims, people from Africa, Europe, America, Asia…all under one roof worshiping the same God. Thousands of people. I can’t begin to describe what worship is like in that context. (In fact, I bet JR could give us some insight as he just recently returned from the Lausanne Conference in South Africa where he experienced a similar thing).

To certain kinds of people, this is wildly attractive, in the same way that Jesus was so wildly attractive that large crowds often gathered to him.

I think this is the biggest difference between what I’m talking about with Attractional (and may stop using all together) and many other people: Why do we primarily gather and what is the byproduct?

My primary reason in gathering of all of our scattered Missional Communities is to worship God. I believe we are powerfully formed when we gather in the public space, in a large group, and orient our hearts and minds toward our Savior and King. My primary reason isn’t to disciple people in this setting (though they are spiritually formed) and I’m not trying to see how many people we can get in the seats.

The community was scattered out on the mission field. And now we are gathered together, locking shields together, resting in the embrace and arms of our Father, responding to his Spirit that works within us.

That is my primary reason for gathering people.

Now there is a byproduct: Often, because this reconciled community of people (the body of Jesus) and the Spirit of Jesus in that place are so wildly attractive, people come to know him. They decide to become disciples of Jesus. That happened often in Sheffield. But it wasn’t the primary objective of gathering. We weren’t measuring the “success” of the service in decisions made. We weren’t measuring success by how many people were in the seats. Our way of being the church always found far more people in Missional Communities than in our worship service. The worship service was not used as a direct attempt to “grow” the church. But it almost always did grow.

Success was worshiping God! Success was listening to what God was saying to us as a gathered community and responding to it.

What is unhelpful is many people use the word “Attractional” differently. And it comes down to the primary reason for gathering and the byproduct of gathering. In the way many people seem to use it, the primary reason to gather is to increase the number of people in the church and see as many decisions for Christ as possible. Recently, we heard a pastor say to the people in the worship service, “If you’re a Christian, this service isn’t for you. If you weren’t a Christian last week, it was for you. But it no longer is. This exists for people who aren’t Christians.”

In this way, “Attractional” as it is often expressed exists to gather as many people as possible and get them saved. The byproduct is worshiping God.

Now I think many would disagree with this. They would say, “It’s both. We want people to become Christians AND we want people to worship. They are of equal importance.” The problem is that their behavior doesn’t reinforce this idea. The success of worship is almost always evaluated on: 1) How many people are attending? 2) How many people made decisions?

“Success” isn’t based on simply coming together and worshiping. For me, success is simply being obedient…God has asked us to gather and worship him, we did, thus, we were “successful.”

In sum, what I am trying to say is that when the scattered church gathers, it is massively attractive and it isn’t unusual to see people come to faith or attendance increasing. But it’s attractive because of the work happening outside the Sunday gathering that is then being brought into the service. I’m simply recognizing there is inherent value in gathering all of our scattered parts together, that we are spiritually formed in such an experience in both a positive and powerful way. I’m acknowledging that to be true. There are many within the missional/organic stream of thinking who deny the need or goodness to gathering large groups of people together to worship. It is this point that I feel needs addressing with the word “AND.” We need the scattered AND the gathered church, but I might use those terms slightly differently than others.

I don’t fall into the camp that has abandoned large worship gatherings, which to me, feels a bit reactive. If that’s all you’re doing and maybe some small groups, you’re just not going to make disciples, which is the task Jesus has given us. But if the worship service is an environment for a scattered church of Missional Communities to gather, it is not only helpful but, I believe, necessary.

This is quite possibly the longest post I have ever written!! 😉 But I think this is great discussion to have. And I’m glad JR pointed this out in his review because I think we could have done a bit better job clarifying how we are using the terms and our thoughts behind it.

Look forward to more discussion on this.

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24 Comments leave one →
  1. Jonathan permalink
    December 9, 2010 8:37 pm

    I have frequently encountered people who believe that “attractional” means “attractive”. I certainly don’t use it that way, but for that reason I have started using “extractional” instead. Otherwise, much of the conversation is spent countering the straw man that when I say the church should not be attractional I mean it should repel people.

    Attractional and missional are completely different mindsets in my opinion:

    Attractional attempts to get non-believers to come to the church, both physically (come into our church building) and culturally (adapt to the Christian subculture). It usually ends up extracting people from their previous contexts.

    Missional attempts to send believers out into the midst of non-believers, onto their turf and into their cultural context. It (hopefully) results in non-believers joining the Church, but it doesn’t ask them to leave their context to do so.

    When the focus is attractional, even missional impulses tend to end up with getting people into the building: go into the neighborhood and serve someone or get involved in their life, so that we can then invite them to the church building.

  2. December 9, 2010 9:18 pm

    JR has challenged my use of the term “attractional” as well (on my blog).

    I think the word is a bit of a cipher, and it ultimately unhelpful. I like Jonathan’s use of “extractional,” and I would agree that dropping the term “attractional” in future editions of the book will be helpful for clarification.

  3. December 10, 2010 1:34 am

    Mike, I think this is the best way of explaining it. If I were to summarize what you said, I would say it likethis. If you lead with mission, attractional finds its proper role and definition. If you lead with attractional, mission may never make it into the picture. It really is a question of which one ends up framing the other.

  4. Aaron Pelly permalink
    December 10, 2010 7:34 am

    Mike, thanks for your thoughts. First time reader here – someone else linked to your post.

    I do think the differing definitions of attractional are causing some confusion. Having been introduced to the terms by Alan Hirsch, I think of them as describing the primary way a church seeks to share the gospel.

    A “missional church” emphasizes taking Jesus to the lost. People will naturally be attracted to the life the church lives together and end up believing, but like you say, it’s more of a byproduct than an intentional effort to get them to come.

    An “attractional church” focuses mainly on winning people to Christ by winning them to that particular church first. Church members will share the gospel with friends and neighbors and the church will be involved in the community some through various outreach events, but those things are not its primary modus operandi.

    For this definition of attractional, I think Jonathan’s suggestion of extractional is gold, and more descriptive of the problems inherent in the model. I also like what Alan Hirsch called it – “outreach and in-drag.”

    For what you’re describing, I think your use of the word attractive describes what you mean better and also helps avoid confusion.

  5. Graham Hobbs permalink
    December 10, 2010 11:55 am

    Church can and should be both because Jesus was. E.g. he was missional in going looking for the blind man thrown out of the synagogue but he was attractional when blind Bratimeus pushed aside every obstacle to get to Jesus. The two terms should not be held mutually exclusive or we divide Christians as we did in the past e.g. into Calvinist/Armenian or Reformed/Charismatic or pre/post millenialist. This could end up as the latest version. Graham

  6. Jonathan permalink
    December 10, 2010 5:00 pm

    BTW, I can’t take credit for the word “extractional”. I don’t remember who I heard it from, but it was probably Michael Frost.

  7. Kathryn England permalink
    December 15, 2010 11:56 am

    I am SOOOO passionate about this and you are SOOOO right!!! We mustn’t be reactive, as you said at the end. If we’re not happy about gathering to worship God we’re probably not going to be that bothered about mission either.

    It’s what you said about the reconciled community that is so important and we must embrace that and not throw it away. I can’t wait to get leading a missional AND attractional church.

  8. December 15, 2010 5:52 pm

    My issue with the whole attractional/missional debate is exactly the point JR is making here. It comes down to theology and probably more importantly ecclesiology. This is about how we view what the church is and how the church is to be. Most attractional church models are essentially mini Billy Graham crusades. The pastor’s are highly evangelistic and need a venue to preach the Gospel to people. So the church, the people function in a way to support that aim, people invite their friends, make the place feel warm and inviting and try to make it as cool as possible, this is why discipleship is never front and center, because most highly attractional models are built around the speaking of the one dude, everything is built around that. This creates many of the false perceptions we have about what church is. Attractional models say come to church, in other words come to a building and an event and as a result most people view the church as a place and an event. The true images of church as a body very rarely come into play because church in this system is primarily about a few doing stuff up front for everyone else to experience. Discipleship is an afterthought at best. Of course Jesus was attractional but not in the way most people use the word today in America. Attractional models will persist because that’s how you gained the crowds in the first place. I think there is a shift beginning to take place I would just love to see more pastors and leaders take greater steps and greater risks in moving away from this largely shallow model.

    I’ve sat under Mike’s teaching long enough to know what he means when he uses this word and maybe part of what needs to happen is to redeem the word attractional, which is I believe part of what 3dm is trying to do. We should be attractional in that people are drawn to us because of how we live and treat each other and because of Jesus living in us. But this only happens if there is a group of people actually being the body and is there is real-deal discipleship taking place and if the church actually goes to people outside the Christian bubbles we create.

    So I see JR’s point on this issue, but I know what Mike and Alex mean when they talk about being missional and attractional and it is not what most in America think about when the word is used.

    This is such an important topic. It is ecclesiology 101 and if we get that wrong then everything gets skewed.

  9. Jonathan permalink
    December 15, 2010 9:18 pm

    The more comments I read here, the more I think this is mainly an argument over terminology.

    If “attractional” means “attractive”, then I think churches should be attractional.
    If “attractional” means “gathering to worship God”, then I think churches should be attractional.
    If “attractional” means “requiring non-believers to come to us”, then I don’t think churches should be attractional.

    I am even more convinced than before that “attractional” is a word to avoid, since it definitely appears to generate more confusion than clarity.

  10. December 16, 2010 9:49 pm

    Mike I like your suggestion in “Clusters” that an engaged church is attractive. Maybe “engaged” is more helpful, but I still use “attractive” to replace “attractional” myself.

  11. December 20, 2010 7:13 pm

    Mike, you and I have already conversed about this, but I wanted to thank you publicly for your response and thoughts here. Indeed, we are thinking along the same theological lines here and working toward the same sort of vision.

    I appreciate the comments above as well and have just published another post, not as a direct follow-up, but along these lines nevertheless (http://j.mp/gavUET).

    Looking forward to further dialogue.

  12. Dave Hammond permalink
    December 21, 2010 4:03 pm

    Phil Potter (a mate of yours I think) in Liverpool talked about River and Lake church to describe the interplay of missional and attractional, but what is the danger of picking up consumers and allowing them to stay so in a missional church with the a regular attractional gathering?

    I share your passion for those vibrant moments of heaven in large gatherings, but I fear facilitating an undermining of missional discipleship as the overwhelming church culture is attractional and that culture can easily overtake/undermine. Our response has been to keep our monthly celebrations as un-slick and un-polished as possible, whilst making sure we honour God. This is much easier for us in an inner-city context than it would be in the excellence culture of suburbia.

    I also wonder if having an attractional gathering decreases the ease of multiplication. The old cathedral hub of the Roman church laid the foundation for attractional to squash Celtic/missional church in English history. We now see a little of this interplay in the large evangelical/charismatic churches in the UK with smaller copies.

    I worry that attractional is what the church becomes when we become flabby and complacent after whole generations have seen revival through being missional. When excellence and competition overcome kingdom innovation. But maybe I’m throwing the baby out with the bath water…

  13. Scott Marshall permalink
    February 24, 2011 10:42 pm

    Is the purpose of the church doxological or missiological? If its doxological, then the attractive thing in a worship service is the presence and power of the risen Jesus–not our creative, glittering marketing of Jesus to him interesting and relevant to the non/de/un-churched. It seems our starting point is theissue. If we think (as the attractional church, in its pejorative sense, does) that the purpose of the church is missiological, then it seems we fall prey to feeling we must create the glittering image of Jesus.

  14. April 14, 2011 6:28 pm

    Great post! I am reading Mark right now and I am thinking that Jesus is attractional. Jesus is meeting people’s physical needs and their spiritual needs. We have to admit that many people probably were coming to him to be healed or witness a miracle. I lead a missional church and am probably one of those people who have over-reacted to the attractional church. I think we need to find ways to attract people to our communities. We do not necessarily need to attract them on Sunday to corporate worship but we should strive to catch men.
    Thanks for your post it is causing me to think deeply about this topic.

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