February 2, 2024

We Need More Repellently Attractional Churches

Attractional in 2017?: Not sure this aged all that well.

Is the Attractional Church Model Really Dead?

There’s been something of a conversation about the impending demise of the “attractional church” model in evangelicalism, sparked by the impending visit of Carey Nieuwhof to Australia’s shores.

As reported by Perth’s very own Backyard Missionary (and good friend of this blog – and this blogger – ) Hamo, Nieuwhof made the statement recently on the Exponential Australia podcast in light of the seismic changes we are facing culturally and individually in the West.

As Hamo notes:

He describes the attractional struggle well – bigger and better each week is hard to sustain for a short time let alone many years. Motorbikes on stage, monster giveaways, pumped up advertising and more smoke machine haze has a shelf life. He cites Craig Groeschel (a high profile large church pastor) who says one of the things they are focusing on is ‘de-cooling’ the church. A verbatim quote: ‘I don’t wanna be cool any more. I want to be authentic.‘ FWIW I think that’s a tragic quote… (Also FWIW I have been in large churches where authenticity is clearly evident and in smaller churches who are really just trying harder to increase their cool factor.)

Hamo nails that. I wonder too whether that’s simply an American thing. If the purpose of the attractional church in America was to reconnect the vast number of Boomer and X-Gen de-churched, then it didn’t translate all that much to Australia to be honest.

I still remember sitting listening to a WillowCreek leader telling us how to reconnect with the de-churched in order to rescue our ailing and failing boring old churches, and wondering where these thousands of “I used to go, but it got boring” types were in hard secular Australia.

At this point I’d want to make the observation that just as with “cool” the church is chasing the culture in the use of the term “authentic” as well. So it’s worth watching this space. If “authenticity” is liked to expressive individualism and my way of being myself with no holds barred, then we could simply be sitting on a different motorbike (most likely a Vespa).

Here’s Hamo again:

So what do you do if you are a church that has been all about attracting people in? What if that is not the answer you hoped it was?Firstly you breathe deeply and relax. The heat is off to produce a mega-event again this Sunday. Simple is ok. Sloppy is different. Lazy is never commendable. But for smaller churches light on for resources this takes the heat right off.

“Smaller churches light on resources”. In other words pretty much every Aussie church, and plenty in the US and UK too. And the resource that most churches are light on at the moment is human resource. In recent years I’ve been saying we need to have more “white space” in church, but as every multi-media person knows, silence is the enemy of entertainment.

Though it’s worth taking hold of Hamo’s words in the first quote: big, well run churches are not the enemy of “authentic” per se. So much of this is down to the people who lead the church, the culture that comes from the top down. Say all you like about every-member-ministry and lay leadership, but in the end it is usually those who are paid staff or who spend significant chunks of time leading at board and executive level who shape the church culture. The Bible has a lot to say about leaders.

Yet for most of us, as we watch the post-Christian secular frame unfurl – and then unravel – the heat is off. And, like it or not, as people in modern life, we are stretched beyond what we ever have been. It’s not the money to run big attractional that is most taxing, it’s the sheer time. And in all of that use of time there’s an implicit – and often explicit – idea that getting people in the door is the best use of your ministry time as a Christian. There’s a growing sense that the role of the gathered people of God is to equip the saints for the works of service among each other and to help them stay true to Jesus in a bright, shiny, yet godless world.

For Whom Was Church Ever Attractional?

Which brings me back to the de-churched and never churched types. If you think that the way back for the church is “Make Church Cool Again” in some sort of MAGA-style reminiscence, then we’ve now got generations on our hands for whom it was never cool in the first place, and most likely never experienced in the first place. There’s nothing to reminisce about.

And what we have found too is that the cool “bait and switch” is getting called out earlier and earlier. Before he was known for Mars Hill podcast fame, Mike Cosper of Harbor Media produced what I think was the most riveting and enlightening (and challenging) pilot episode of a failed-to-launch podcast called “The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea“. I still refer to it.

It’s the story of a hip, urban, musically gifted, missionally-focussed church, Sojourn in Louisville Kentucky, that seemed to all intents and purposes cool (in a non-motorbike and smoke machine way) and authentic! I’ve written about it here, but if you can find the episode from 2016, – it’s no longer on the Harbor site, but you can download and have a listen yourself here.

So a cool and authentic church that ran a music venue for non-Christian bands as an outreach to the wider community that attracted plenty of national attention, and not a little media interest. And it was that interest that brought about the downfall of their attempts to reach non-Christians in the music scene with the gospel.

In retrospect it was a fairly obvious ploy: friendly journalist from a secular paper jumps on the literal bandwagon to see how this whole things works, especially when it’s being led by a church committed to orthodox teaching around sexuality. And hey, it seemed like that journo might be their first convert, so excited and interactive are they about the church’s plans to buy shops and coffee houses in the town and invest in the neighbourhood.

Except that’s not exactly how things happened. The ensuing stitch-up – in which the cool authenticity of the church was exposed as a front for the same old “fundamentalist bigotry and homophobia” of evangelical churches across the country – came as a huge shock to the church once the journo had left town and filed their report. You can guess how this played out on social media.

And that was nearly a decade ago. Yet here we are still coming to the conclusion that the attractional church is dead. Perhaps one of the reasons that the attractional church is nearly dead is that the Boomers are nearly dead! Or at least retired. The whole model hitched its wagon to the Boomers, and even those of the older X-Generation (in their mid fifties now) who did take it on always felt like they were more at home in Boomer-land to me, you know, the ones who think that Frank Ocean is probably Billy Ocean’s son.

So we walk a fine line between cool and authentic. And I for one am not willing to swap out one term loaded with secular meaning for another one. If the Good Church Titanic wants to sink itself on that particular iceberg, I ain’t paying my passage.

Repellently Attractional?

But as intimated by the title of this blog post, perhaps the way forward is to maintain what the church has always been to a hostile culture: repellently attractive. I know that sounds something of a paradox, but paradoxes have a way of working. And it’s not without biblical precedent.

Have a look at this passage from Acts 5:

 The apostles performed many signs and wonders among the people. And all the believers used to meet together in Solomon’s Colonnade. No one else dared join them, even though they were highly regarded by the people. Nevertheless, more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number.

Now relax! I’m not gonna go all signs and wonders on you and say that the real way to get people back into church is to dial up the signs and wonders thing. In many ways that too was a product of the Boomer led church scene. And it also failed to see that the biblical problem with the desire for signs and wonders is that they are a poor substitute for saving faith (Luke 11 and Jesus’ story about the sign of Jonah anyone?).

It’s this bit I want to focus on:

No one else dared join them, even though they were highly regarded by the people.

Now bear in mind, this passage comes straight off the back of the story of Ananias and Sapphira, who lied to God and dropped dead at the feet of the apostles, scaring the lining out of a whole lot of believers, and probably getting more than a few to confess their own hidden sins in the process.

But do you see the paradox? No one dared join them, yet they were held in high favour. They were, in a sense “repellently attractive”

Everyone could see that to join the people of the Jesus community would demand a level of buy-in that was far higher than many were likely to give. The Jews would walk past the believers on their way to the temple courts, and see the church at Solomon’s Colonnade and be impressed, but kinda nervous at the same time. This is no light thing! There was no sense that to join the people of Jesus was a seamless “Hey I was just walking through the mall and suddenly it morphed into a church, and mind your head honey, there’s a motorcycle about to do a jump over you.”

So how did this high bar strategy go? Great, as it happens. And that’s the paradox:

Nevertheless, more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number.

The early church defied the categories of the day. The early church existed in Jerusalem, the city of God’s temple and a sacrificial system that would have been all that the Jews knew, but still more and more men and women believed in the Lord and joined the church. There was a plausibility to the church that overrode their seeming numerical disadvantage and theological-outsider status. They were, after all, aligned with a man who every person in Jerusalem had known was crucified.

You see, if we land on authenticity as our platform, then we have to admit that the word has been hijacked already. We already know that the claim to be behaving “authentically” or the declaration that this or that action that we may take is an expression of our “authentic selves”, seals us off from critique.

What happens when your authenticity comes up against someone else’s? I guess I know that the term, in the way Nieuwhof is using it refers to the stripped back way of doing things, and a sense of openness and honesty. But in line with Hamo’s concerns noted above about the decooling efforts of the church (I don’t wanna be cool any more. I want to be authentic), that would seem to be the usual day-late-dollar-short move the church always seems to make in regards to the culture.

Attracted to What?

You see, if your version of your most authentic self has you crafting a career and lifestyle and financial security that comes up against a church that teaches that being rich towards God is your goal and that while money is useful, it is the love of money that is a root of all kinds of evil, is going to repel you.

If your version of your most authentic self is your sexual identity and liberty to do what you want with your body, then a church that teaches that says you are not your own, but were bought with a price and you should glorify God with your body, is going to repel you.

And if your version of your most authentic self is cobbling together a spiritual framework that gives you the liberty to interpret the Bible the way that best fits you, then a church that teaches in line with the faith once for all delivered to the saints and which will call heresy heresy, is going to repel you.

And if your version of your most authentic self says that the point of the church is to provide me with the spiritual goods and services I need, and the less people I need to be involved with, or seek to serve, the better, then a church that teaches that you are part of a body in which each member seeks the good of the whole body, is going to repel you.

And if your version of your most authentic self is self-righteous justification, a slightly condescending overtone to everyone who doesn’t land where you land on everything, or – worse – involves an unrighteous and haughty spirit towards those who have wronged you, then the church that takes seriously in an interventionist way ‘forgive us our sins as we forgive others” will repel you.

But, in my experience, those are the only types of churches that seem to be standing up in the face of the cultural onslaught at the moment. Sure nobody dares join them, especially when they get the “The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” experience. But here’s what I’ve noticed: Quietly, just quietly mind you, there’s a growing sense among a whole bunch of non-Christian people that the followers of Jesus they know live the kind of attractive lives that they would like.

“Sure,” they say “the church is full of bigotry and hypocrisy and hurts people all the time, but not you. Not you. There’s something about the way you behave that is, how can I put it, repellently attractive?”

The types of churches that bow to the authenticity program of the cultural moment may get a sugar rush growth for a short time, and will certainly get favourable media coverage. Well the ones that bow to the around the colourful flags fluttering outside their buildings will get great media coverage and will be contrasted favourably with all of those reactionary bigoted types on the wrong side of history – like Sojourn Church in Louisville.

But frankly they’re not the future. You only have to look to the past to see that. It’s never a case of no one daring to join them, it’s always a case of “Who would bother?”

No one will dare join the equivalent of the repellently attractive Jesus community meeting in Solomon’s Colonnade, gathering as it does within living memory of the death and resurrection of Jesus, but also the death and damnation of Ananias and Sapphira.

Until they do.

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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