To speak or not to speak of Attractional Church, that is the question
Contexts are different around the world and even within one country … and furthermore they are changing rapidly. Not only that but how we understand language is different from place to place, even within a single language group like English … and now even in one place the meaning that we put on particular words is changing.
Faced with this problem, Mike Breen blogs about why he will no longer use the term Attractional Church… and Bob Hopkins, a close colleague but working on the other side of the “Pond”, responds with an explanation of why and how it will continue in his vocabulary!
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:
- “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’tagree with or criticizing those I would agree with just because of semantics.
- 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.
Why, for now and in my context, I shall continue to speak of Attractional Church… or rather more particularly, The Attractional Method.
Mike has raised some very important issues in his piece. And I am responding not at all in a sense of agreeing or disagreeing, much less with any suggestion of right or wrong, but hoping that it takes further Mike’s helpful introduction to issues of use of language in today’s complex social setting, and very challenging arena for the church to engage in mission.
We, like Mike, find the need to think very carefully if and how to use various words in common currency to communicate what we mean. This as Mike suggests, is because on the one hand their popular meaning is changing to the point that they become understood differently or even in the opposite sense (i.e. “Wicked”). Or on the other hand they mean different things to different people or groups. And so in today’s social reality of multi-layered networks… I have to say that for the time being and in my circles, I have decided to continue to use the term Attractional church – with qualifications.
And I need to specify my circles, since this makes so much difference. Although Mary and I have a lifelong call to church planting, for nearly ten years towards the end of the 90’s we had to avoid the term in many UK circles because however hard we tried to define it, it had in those contexts taken on a very different and negative meaning. And I guess that if I were in the USA today, a term that I shall use later like “Emerging Church”, I would often choose not to use since folk wouldn’t hear my meaning but mix it up with all sorts of church politics, parties and theologies.
So there are issues of context and issues of helpfulness of understanding that lead me to reflect on Mike’s reasoning why he has decided to let Attractional Church die, but for me to decide to choose the alternative route of being very careful to always spell out how I am using the term, in the hope that it can still be useful… and even get redeemed for clearer communication. Some of my reasons are about meaning and usage and some more about aspects of context.
I need to start by briefly explaining the two main differences behind my choice and Mike’s. First, Mike introduces his reasoning with the understanding that Attractional church is the opposite in a pairing contrasted to missional church. Now this is not how I choose to use it.
In sharp distinction, I use Attractional church as one approach, one method of mission contrasted to other missional approaches. The second difference is that Mike attaches Attractional church particularly to larger gatherings (over 75) and to worship services, whereas I can equally describe as Attractional, small groups of Christians whose main life is focussed on themselves and whose pattern of connection to people beyond themselves is primarily to invite non-Christians to join their group. And in this sense I should probably speak more of Attractional method rather than Attractional Church… although it may sometimes be appropriate to describe a church by their predominant missional method.
So as I unpack my choice more fully, here is my first reason for sticking with the term Attractional church, but carefully defining my meaning. My choice is to stick with the meaning that I took when first encountering the term Attractional church developed at length by Hirsch and Frost in “The Shape of Things to Come”. They contrasted Attractional Church with Emerging Church… using both terms to describe two different approaches to mission. Certainly in Chapter 2 Hirsch was very negative about the missional effectiveness of Attractional church which I shall take issue with later.
On the one end of the spectrum then (not two separate categories), churches relate to those beyond themselves (not-yet Christians) by inviting them to come to our gatherings. In some cases, even assuming no invitation is needed – they could come if they wanted. So in describing this as Attractional, I am choosing to identify an assumption about mission in which the predominant direction is inwards. A summarising word could be “COME”.
In contrast there are churches where the predominant direction is outward beyond themselves, engaging with the lives of not-yet Christians in all sorts of ways… a summary word could be “Go”.
Furthermore in contrasting Attractional to Emerging Hirsch and Frost went to great lengths to explain emerging church as a method of missional engagement which they preferred. They don’t merely describe this method as changing the direction from “Come” to “Go”. But in particular it involves Christians who Go immersing themselves in one of the many of today’s sub-cultures, and in that context allowing the elements of church to evolve… to emerge in culturally authentic ways, rather than imposing how we do church. And this principle would apply for any sized gathering.
Now to my second main reason, unlike Hirsch and Frost and like Mike, I am not predominantly negative about Attractional Church in the way that I mean it. And this is where context is all important. Hirsch and Frost and others speak about Post-Christendom and they tend to argue as this term would imply; that Christendom is dead and gone. But our perspective is different, we see Christendom on a journey of decay and loss off influence which is happening at different speeds and has reached different stages in different countries and regions. Thus there is still far more Christendom in Northern Ireland than Belgium, and some more in the USA than England.
And where there is more Christendom in the context there can be more opportunities for the Attractional approach to mission to be effective. And in the UK “Back to Church Sunday” is an annual event attracting over one hundred thousand non-attendees to give church a try – a good example of this method.
Also, Whilst Hirsch and Frost contrast Attractional with Emerging, I like to identify three stages across the continuum. As well as Attractional still having its place in western societies, many churches are adopting what I describe as Engaged church (or method). They change the predominant direction and Christians get stuck into all sorts of connections with the world beyond themselves… they GO! But having gone to where others are, if this results in a response to the Jesus they live and share, then the invitation is that they Come! Again in England’s partial Christendom this is working well and the national “Hope Initiative” (http://www.hopetogether.org.uk) is supporting churches and Christians on this journey of missional engagement.
So to conclude: I will continue to use Attractional to describe the particular ways that churches relate beyond themselves. In my circles I find it most useful to help churches identify the main dynamic and direction of flow in their understanding and practice of mission. And unlike Hirsch and Frost and perhaps like Mike, I see real positive missional possibilities for the Attractional dimensions of church, whilst warning that this cannot be the whole or even the predominant emphasis in our ever expanding mission field.
Whether in large gatherings, medium sized or small, there should be an attractive quality in our Christian community – and the more so as western societies experience weakening community. Jesus clearly indicated that the quality of our love for one another (John 15:17) and the depth of unity that characterises our relationship (John 17) should be powerfully missional, witnessing that we are his disciples and sent ones from him and our father. So we need to embrace this Attractional dynamic and find how to be most effectively missional which will vary in expression from large, medium and small gatherings.
And just to nail how I use the terms, even the Christians using the most radical incarnational Emerging Church mission method, once they have gone to a new culture and context and they bear fruit with new Christians being built into their fellowship, they should certainly want to develop Attractional pathways for other not-yet Christians to follow. So in fact as well as seeing this as a continuum, we can see it as a cyclical process of engaging, church emerging, which in turn will want to be attracting.
For more information on this please see my earlier article on models of church: Making sense of the emerging church