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Why I’m not using the word “Attractional” anymore

October 17, 2011

For years now, there have been ongoing discussions online, over coffee, at conferences, etc about the whole “Attractional vs. Missional” debate. Recently, the discussion has turned to questions about whether someone can be Attractional AND Missional. I’ve written a few blog posts on the subject, one of which you can find here.

However, as of today, I’ve decided that I’m done using the word “Attractional.” Why, you may ask?

The answer is fairly simple:

  1. “Attractional” has a slew of different meanings. The way I use it is different than the way others use it, making it seem like I’m either agreeing with people I wouldn’t agree with or criticizing those I would agree with just because of semantics.
  2. The lexicon is awash with diluted meanings. When I have a conversation about “Attractional” churches, I almost always have to have a pre-conversation that lasts for 10 minutes just so we can understand the terms of the conversation.

Sometimes we need to reclaim words, rescuing them and returning them towards their original meaning. Sometimes, we just need to stop using a word and let it die. “Attractional” is the latter. I think it needs to die.

This is what I believe:

  • I believe there is inherent value in gathering a large group of people (75+)  together to worship God, submit to the scriptures, tell stories of God moving in the community, share the Lord’s Supper, etc. We gather because, with one voice, we choose to worship our Risen Lord. We gather to be reminded that we are part of his story — his present and future Kingdom. And we gather so that we can scatter as missionaries to a world that is broken and in need.
  • I believe the value of worshipping God together as a community is enough on its’ own. If there was not one single person who wasn’t a Christian in attendance, it would be just as important for us as believers. Worshipping Jesus for the sake of Jesus must always be enough.
  • I believe that to sustain the scattered mission of the church outside of the large gathering there is the need for regular and rhythmic times of gathering together to remind us of the bigger story we are in, reinforcing why we live the missional life we do. I’m not saying it’s impossible to sustain Kingdom mission outside of it, but it’s very, very difficult. We gather, we scatter. We gather, we scatter.
  • I believe the worship gathering exists first and foremost for believers, for people who are intentionally growing in their relationship with Jesus. Yes, people who don’t know Jesus yet can come, but honestly, they aren’t our top priority in a worship service. Can they come to faith in a service? Yes. Should we provide opportunities for them to step more fully into a relationship with Jesus? Yes. Can a pre-Christian benefit from experiencing the worship of believers? Absolutely. But we need to understand that if the worship service is our primary place of mission we’ve already lost the battle. We may believe in the priesthood of all believers, but do we believe in the missionhood of all believers — outside the ‘gathering’?
  • I believe the worship gathering should always keep an eye on the shaping of the community for mission outside of the walls of the service. When they leave the gathering, believers should know they leave as missionaries and agents of the Kingdom. How is the church community shaping that reality for people?
  • I believe many who say they are advocates of the  “missional church” have thrown the baby out with the bathwater and have rejected, out of hand, larger gatherings. To an extent I understand this, but the reality is that many missional churches struggle to grow, stagnate and fizzle out. Why? Because scattering is unbelievably hard and gathering sustains. It reminds us who we are. It shows us we are part of a bigger story that is reinforced when, upon looking around, we see enough people to remind us we aren’t alone in this. We hear stories of victory and redemption. It nourishes our souls and allows the wounds of the missional frontier to receive some healing. It is not the only place care happens, but it is an important one.

Humans are creatures of overreaction. We jump ditch to ditch quite easily. Many saw the issues and the inertia involved in becoming a Sunday-centric, worship service oriented community (and rightly so!). But know this: The reason the worship service became the center of evangelism and mission is because we stopped making missional disciples who understood the nature and purpose of scattering. We’re bad at discipleship and so we’ve gotten ourselves into this predicament. Scattering is the cake and gathering is the icing in the life of the church. We’ve become a fat church from eating a lot of icing. But don’t throw out the icing! Cake just never tastes quite  as well without it.

This blog post is part of a 6 week series related to the release of my new, re-written edition of Building a Discipling Culture: How to release a missional movement by discipling people like Jesus did, which shows how we made disciples in a truly post-Christian context. If you’re interested in picking it up, click here.
27 Comments leave one →
  1. October 17, 2011 3:51 pm

    thanks for the article. we are a church that has been really trying to emphasize being a community on mission during the week. but that does not mean that corporate gathering with the entire church is not important, it is critical from my perspective. the problem has been in suburbia that we have placed nearly all our “eggs” in the sunday morning worship service. discipleship is equated with attendance on sunday. all of our money, time and energy goes into sunday. we unintentionally reinforce the idea that Christianity is all about 10:30-11:45 on sunday. so we have to fight with all our strength for community during the week.

    with that said, i still think it would be a tragedy to lose what hapens on sunday, gathered and scattered. it’s both.

  2. Nancy Carle permalink
    October 17, 2011 4:02 pm

    I really like your article. Just a question – how often do you think the larger church group needs to meet in order to sustain a missional community? I’ve been wondering about the feasibility of a cross between regular Sunday meetings (on a once a month basis) and missional communities that meet weekly in smaller groups. Just thoughts at the moment.

    • October 17, 2011 5:30 pm

      Honestly, Nancy, it depends on the people in the church, the leadership, denomination, difficulty of mission field, etc. There really isn’t a formula to it. That being said, I can’t imagine going longer than once a month for a gathering and imagine most people will need to start/and or stay at once a week. But again, the context and the Holy Spirit will dictate.

    • November 1, 2011 3:24 pm


      The frequency of corporate gatherings is something I’ve wondered about, as well. I think the root issue isn’t a pragmatic one; it’s an issue of obedience. I agree with Mike: we Christians miss God’s work when we look for formulas rather than listening to and obeying God right now. Just because he revealed himself in a corporate gathering a week ago doesn’t mean he wants to use that same gathering as a weekly default. I don’t think God has defaults. He wants to reveal himself in new ways all the time.

  3. Steve Biltawi permalink
    October 17, 2011 4:12 pm

    Thanks for that Mike 🙂 as a strong feeler I sometimes throw out the baby with the bath water ! Attractional is a dirty word for me but will try and hold the two in tension 🙂 Blessings

  4. October 17, 2011 4:22 pm

    Excellent post Mike! I agree you whole-heartedly. We must create space for various types and sizes of gatherings. For any gathering can become stagnant, even a “missional” gathering when perpetuation becomes the focus rather than the life and kingdome of Jesus. Thanks!

  5. October 17, 2011 4:46 pm

    Attractional has tended to mean: if we simply invite and attract people to “church” then we are doing evangelism but actually end up putting the emphasis on the pastor, the programs, the preaching, and the place (building). Thus the scattered missional, disciple-making sentness of a people is underdeveloped. Rather, the gathering for worship, community, instruction, and inspiration of believers is necessary for the scattering for cultural engagement and evangelism through the priesthood of all believers to unbelievers. Halter and Smay in AND, are helping to balance the modalic (gathered) with the sodalic (scattered). Both\and not either\or. Thoughts?

    • October 17, 2011 6:01 pm

      Roger, that sounds about right. I think what we’re trying to get at is PURPOSE. Primarily, why the does worship service exist? I’m arguing for an understanding that it is primarily for believers. I think many would suggest (or at least have in the past) that it is primarily for unbelievers. Now they may say differently, but you can tell what people are after by what they count. And to me, what they count suggests that they are primarily using the worship service for people who don’t know Jesus yet.

      • October 17, 2011 8:55 pm

        It’s purpose, I believe, is primarily for believers. Unbelievers may show up, but the purpose is for exaltation of God and edification of believers, and yet there is a missional expression that should attract or draw unbelievers through the worship and the word.

  6. John Roth permalink
    October 17, 2011 5:41 pm

    Amen! Balance in the triangle life begins with discipleship. Simple but hard. Good thoughts, thank you, Mike!

  7. October 17, 2011 5:41 pm

    Go Mike Go!

    Your message is powerful and right on! The difficulty is “traditional” church systems are not built to embrace it. The traditional system is not a bad thing…it is a system that focuses on Preaching.. Teaching..Pastoral Care..Administration. I have been doing it for 20 years and I know first hand it has little to do with evangelism.. or good discipleship making.

    I left my senior pastorate to make disciples. The “traditional” model has very different expectations.

    The the gather/scatter model with small cores of leaders the right way to go. I use a model slightly different model called “Be it..Share it.. Give it”…. Be It.. it is personal… meaning it is our story. Share it…it is relational… meaning we live it out with those we live,worship and play. Thirdly.. Give it…it is communal… meaning we give our love away to those who are still lost.

    The “attraction” model….did work…but the problem is it too end’s up being a hierarchical system. The right model” must put Jesus as the head, not minister or leader. (John 15) The model U are teaching is very relational and personal. I speak your language!

    It is a process that takes time, commitment and coaching.

    Keep on trucking Mike. Gee… you think we could have gotten this “model” a long time ago. Just look at John 1 “come and see”… John 4.. “come and see” the man who knows everything about me.” John 6.. Come and celebrate and eat from the Bread of Life.

    See you in Chicago

  8. October 17, 2011 6:48 pm

    Thanks mike. It’s so refreshing hearing this stuff. I think one of the major errors of the church in the last 5 years has been to make the worship gathering a primary place for mission. Obviously good things still happen but I’ve seen discipleship and passion for Jesus wane and mission itself become very narrow. Of the thousand people that attend my church we are hoping that a few bring their friends to the worship gathering and by default restrict any deep encounter believers might have with God on account of the non believer. I see so many bored out of thereminds in church and for years now I’ve been busting thinking wow 1000 disciples radically in love with Jesus can change a nation but here we are putting all our eggs in the church service basket.
    Discipleship is the hope of our nation (UK) the challenge of course is to do it.
    I’m very grateful for your thoughts and pray that you are able to influence significant leaders at this time.

  9. October 17, 2011 10:55 pm

    Brilliant as usual Mike!

    Seems like Jesus’ mutually reinforcing use of the verbs “Come” and “Go” communicate this balance/rhythm beautifully. I understand the “gathered” “scattered” language in light of the persecution that pushed the Jerusalem church out of it’s comfortable nest to expand the mission (Acts 8:1), but “scattered” doesn’t always communicate the Spirit-led intentionality of a dispersed missional movement. I like verbs like “deployed,” “dispersed,” or the always-familiar “sent.” I suppose a variety of terminology communicates that sometimes we go into the mission field willingly and other times we are pushed kicking and screaming! 🙂

    Thanks for continuing to challenge our thinking and hone our skills …

  10. October 18, 2011 12:02 am

    Mike, great blog (as always). I believe that I would fall into the category of ‘going ditch to ditch’. Went from really getting burned out and disillusioned with the ‘attractional’ idea, to swinging all the way to the other side, trying to plant missional communities without any sort of larger gathering as a part of our rhythm. We’ve really struggled with gaining traction with people and keeping any sort of continuity, and have ultimately decided that we aren’t going to move our vision forward without some sort of ‘gathering’ service. We are excited about heading in that direction and seeing where it takes us, hopefully finding an appropriate balance between the gathering and the scattering.

  11. Tim Bergren permalink
    October 18, 2011 3:09 am

    Mike, I really resonate with the idea of gathering in larger community to experience that we are a part of something “big”—that God’s kingdom is full of “citizens.” I love worship in smaller intimate settings where everyone can connect with each other and share what God has been doing in their life, but nothing speaks “movement” more than hearing a throng of gathered disciples raising their voice as one in unity and praise! Amen. Both/And…

    Any tie in to the semi-circle in terms of rhythm here? I’d have to think so…

  12. John T permalink
    October 18, 2011 12:25 pm

    Attractional was just a first person word or synonym for “seeker church”

  13. October 18, 2011 3:29 pm

    Hey Mike. We so appreciate your continious wrestling with all the tensions within church life. The missional church based in discipleship that you advocate is not in my opinion the best for long term change but also provides an evolotionary change model that can be followed by larger churches. The triangle of up, in and out is so simple but yet it provides a powerful road map for cultural change. In our experience the greatest change agent for us as a church has simply been the shift from producing up an in disciples to intentionally working on up in and out disciples. In this way we didn’t have to loose the good up of our sunday worship gatherings or the in of our small groups but we could add intentional out vehicles to draw us into better balance. Sure this meant that some up and in things became a lower priority and that out had to become a key motivation even during up and in times, but the evolutionary change has allowed people to grow and embrace change. I am excited to see how things are naturally changing because peoples objectives and desires has changed, and look forward to how things will continue to change. Thank you for very reasoned and wise approach.

  14. Gavin Ander permalink
    October 18, 2011 8:37 pm

    Without further qualifications of you comments Mike, you are very wrong.

  15. October 19, 2011 4:01 pm

    From my seat, the Sunday gathering is necessary as you suggest but not sufficient in and of itself to foster and nurture discipleship. Which begs the question, why do we put so much energy in over producing these larger gatherings? Generally over half a churches budget goes to sustaining the weekend service. We measure attendance as a validation for our hard work. Unfortunately we are what we measure. If attendance is our largest variable for discerning health; we may be “healthy” on the drawing a crowd front but I’d suggest we are measuring the wrong thing. Jesus didn’t call us to build or sustain personality/celebrity driven movements; he called us to life on life transformational living, which pushes the follower of Jesus into the streets. Discipleship is inherently relational and incarnational. Sitting in a large gathering while it has it’s value, isn’t a substitute for life on life/ story on story relationships. Often times these large gatherings get in the way of making disciples… we become reliant on the program and the church to do the work that God has called us as a community and individuals within that community to engage in.

    I’m left wondering how do we re-align our focus on what matters so we are about what matters when so much of what we do in the church is simply count butts in seats to validate our efforts? We need a new matrix or a new mindset… stop counting and start living. I see the need for a clearly defined view of what a disciple is… with that in mind we can actually start the hard work of helping each other in community to become followers of Jesus.

    • October 19, 2011 5:11 pm

      Great thoughts, Tyler. I think the worship service can and should SUPPORT and NURTURE what is happening outside of the service (discipleship and mission), but it is not a substitute for it. That means, as you said, we need to re-orientate the way we use our worship services to build the body.

  16. October 23, 2011 8:01 pm

    great article Mike. When we left our position at our former church, I think we swung too far to the opposite end of the spectrum and completely abandoned any attractional elements of church in hopes of being purely organic or missional. I’m finding now that those that truly want “organic church” are few and far between and most people are wanting structure and leadership…just done differently than they have experienced in the institutional church.

    We’re considering having our 1st ‘larger gathering’ in a few months and these thoughts are very helpful to me. Thanks!

  17. Grammar monkey permalink
    November 2, 2011 8:37 pm

    You forgot the main reason… Attractional isn’t actually a word… I think the adjective is attractive.

  18. February 15, 2012 3:27 pm

    I like Larry Osborne’s ‘come-and-see” vs “Attractional” distinction. the former makes all things ineligible for the non-christian, but the service is designed to help peopl grow in knowing Jesus, understand the Gospel and know the Bible. Attractional in this context would be spending the majority of your energy on getting new people there and designing the environment for them. Around here we say “believer driven, seeker intelligible.”


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