“If You Build It They Will Come”…Or Will They?

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By Certified Church Consultant, Dan Abbatiello

For at least the last century, churches have used what missiologists have termed the “attractional church model.” This philosophy of ministry presumes that if sermons, worship music, presentations, programs, advertisement, and activities are planned, promoted, and conducted with excellence and in a culturally relevant and attractive manner, the unconverted will come to church, be converted and become followers of Jesus. Statistics demonstrate however, that what may have worked in past decades, is no longer effective. In northern New England (Maine, Vermont & New Hampshire) for example, on any given Sunday and only 10% of the population attend a church and only 2 to 3% attend a Bible-believing church. These facts demonstrate that the vast majority of the population is not being “attracted” to churches any longer.

The attractional model seems to resemble an American retail model. The efforts to grow the church mirrors the way retail outlets attract business. A big promotion is initiated around a holiday or special time of year with advertising campaigns to match. The church has acted similarly. Events are promoted with the expectation that people will come. However, a non-Christianized public is no longer conditioned to “come and buy” what the church is selling. As Linda Miller and Chad Hall noted, “As North America becomes a missional setting for ministry, the evangelism methods or our revivalist era grows more and more out of step.”

In some regions of our country where a remnant of a Christianized ethos remains, the attractional model may still seem effective. However, across the nation the Christianized culture is shrinking, and in some places like the Northeast and Northwest it is almost extinct.

Although an attractional model is not wrong in itself and we certainly do not want to be uninviting or unattractive there are some noteworthy questions we should ask. Are we at times promoting as if we are selling a product and thereby cheapening the gospel as something to be purchased? Since the attractional model seldom draws the unchurched are we inadvertently creating an atmosphere of competition between churches? Do we unintentionally place ourselves in a position to consistently try to out-do ourselves to attract more people? Do we risk violating biblical stewardship by spending time, energy, and money on that which is, at best minimally effective, and at worst counterproductive. Are we unwittingly supporting a consumer mentality?

If what I’ve said is even partially true, how must we now respond? We must cultivate a “missional model.” Alan Hirsch wrote, “To be missional means that we must live as a ‘sent’ people – people that go into their community and reach others for Christ. The church goes to the people not the other way around.” But what does a missional church look like? In my view this is the question that every Christian leader must address in relation to their individual context. How must a church in a non-Christian environment fulfill its mission?

Part of the answer is found by getting back to the basics. We must love God, love one another, and as we go, make disciples (Matthew 22:37-39; 28:18-20). We must reevaluate our praxis; are we truly fulfilling our mission or merely maintaining the status quo? Additionally, we should reexamine the terms church, gospel and pastoral. Adjusting our understanding here with help us more clearly see the nature of a missional church.

“The church is not a place or just an organization, but it is a community of Christ followers on mission. We are developing a band of missionaries who will change the world” (Darrell Guder). “We must see ourselves as creating communities of people who reflect the missionary nature of God” (Charles Van Engen). “God has called us to be an army not an audience” (John Wimber).

Secondly, we are proclaimers of the Gospel. We are Christ’s ambassadors proclaiming on His behalf the radical message of a new kingdom–a kingdom that releases captives, gives sight to the blind, and sets free the downtrodden.  We are a kingdom that removes people from darkness and brings them into God’s marvelous light (Luke 4:18; 2 Corinthians 5:17-21; 1 Peter 2:9-10).

Lastly, pastors must no longer see themselves as merely chaplains caring for the flock. Care for the flock is necessary, but our perspective must be broader. Pastors must see themselves as leaders on mission carrying the good news. In a missional church everyone needs to learn how to “think Christianly” about everything. Believers must learn how to live, work, recreate, be married, parent, etc., with Christian distinctiveness. In a missional church, Christians learn to demonstrate biblical love in “the public square” toward those with whom they differ greatly. Pastors must see themselves as trainers and equippers of the royal priesthood who will bring the liberating message of the kingdom with power to a lost, confused and dying world (Ephesians 4:11-12; 1Peter 2:9-10).

The three terms I’ve described above call for bold, proactive action. Waiting for “customers” to merely show up is ineffective. On the other hand, a missional model is dynamic. It calls every believer to live life on a mission bringing the power of the kingdom to the people around them.

It is abundantly clear that our culture has changed and if we are going to fulfill our mission, the church methodology must adapt to meet the needs of the culture. Making the shift from attractional to missional will mean taking a journey into some wild and untamed terrain. I challenge every pastor and Christian leader to be courageous, reevaluate, rethink and allow the Holy Spirit to birth a new vision in your heart.  We will then become the salt and light that we desire to be, poised and prepared to experience a move of the Spirit like no other in our history.

(Much of this article was adapted from an article written by Dr. Timothy Keller pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, NYC, NY)

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