The church has always struggled with this process of changing to keep up with God’s mission to redeem the world. Jesus’ own earthly nemesis were the Pharisees, bastion of religious institutionalism and self-preservation. The Pharisees were looking for an institutional savior to empower their institution. So they did everything in their power to protect Judaism from Jesus’ influence.
In the early centuries, church fathers chronicled the young Christian church in its struggle to balance mission to the outside world and ministry inside the church. In the Middle Ages, members of smaller parishes would go on pilgrimage to the cathedral, returning home to dream of how their parishes could be more like the cathedral with all its programs and events. (We see that today when Pastors return from a Mega-Church seminar with a notebook of ways to help their small church take on lots of new programs.) The Reformation churches fought that same battle a thousand years later. One after another, courageous pastors reformed their churches from institutionalism to disciplemaking, only to fight the club mentality in their own churches again 30 to 40 years later.
In America in the 1800s and 1900s, institutionalism in the church took an interesting new turn. From the 1880s to the 1990s, evangelistic crusades featuring preachers such as D. L. Moody, Charles Finney, Billy Sunday, and Billy Graham swept across the land, producing amazing numbers of converts. These evangelistic crusades were used mightily by God to win hearts to him.
But the crusades’ success led many churches to adopt the crusades’ pattern and theology for their worship services. Weekly worship became segmented into three parts: a song service to prepare hearts, an evangelistic gospel sermon, and the invitation to make a personal decision for Christ. The term “worship” was used commonly only to designate the music portion of the service. Decisions, rather than disciples, became the goal. Of course, the centerpiece of this worship theology is the evangelistic sermon. Consequently, the motivation for evangelical churches became getting the world to come to church so non-believers could hear the gospel preached and be won to Christ.
In the 1980s, another version of the attractional model came to the forefront of evangelical churches. It was called the seeker-sensitive model and grew out of Willow Creek Church in Chicago. Like the earlier crusade approach, seeker-sensitive worship says we should do everything we can to attract those seeking spiritual fulfillment who might be open to the gospel. Seeker-sensitive worship used pop-style songs performed by a talented band along with excellently produced drama to attract those without Christ to hear a gospel presentation by the lead pastor. The production value at Willow Creek was second to none, rivaling Broadway shows and popular television shows, as the church did everything possible to attract the outside world into the church. Concurrently, the megachurch movement of the 1980s and 1990s in American evangelical churches crystallized into huge church clubs with all of the amenities of the secular community offered inside: fitness clubs, cafes and coffee shops, concerts, focus groups, art and craft classes, and so forth.
You may ask, “What is wrong with that? Shouldn’t church be attractive?” Of course, church should be attractive. But, attractional thinking is built on the belief that our primary strategy to win the world should be getting people into church. First, worship was created by God for himself, so we dare not make it first about people. True worship is all about God, glorifying him in ways that ignite us to become his worshiping disciples on mission.
Second, the statistics of decline show us that we cannot win the world with nothing but an attractional approach. We are behind now and falling further behind every day by trying to get the world into church. Yes, there will always be a percentage of churches that show amazing numerical growth. While we affirm and celebrate their growth, we must acknowledge that this will not be the pattern for most churches, especially older churches. After a number of years, fast-growth churches often find themselves facing the same creeping institutionalism and decline as neighboring churches they once ran past. Sobering thoughts for all of us, aren’t they? — Mark Powers
PS – Check out the videos listed under Resources in the right hand column titled “Missional Church… Simple” and “Missional Community… Simple” to understand the difference between missional and attractional church.