My wife, parents, and I recently watched a stage production of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. As I watched it I couldn’t help but imagine what the ghosts of church past, present, and future might say to those of us who follow Jesus. I started with the the ghost of church past by looking at the earliest church (click here for that post) and then to the era begun by Constantine (click here for that post). Now we turn to the more recent past.
The Attractional Church Model
Basics — The wheel that was set in motion during Constantine’s time has continued to roll. And a fairly recent example of this has been the attractional church model. This model came into full bloom during the “Church-Growth Movement” which was spearheaded by Donald McGavaran, Peter Wagner, among many others. The basic idea here is that what I call the Field of Dreams tactic: “If we build it, they will come.” So the focus of churches became programs, worship, and preaching. The thought was that if we could make these things excellent, then people would come to our churches in droves. To some extent this worked. Some churches grew like crazy during this period, with Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church being a prime example. And many good things came out of this time. Millions came to know the Lord through this model, Christians learned a whole bunch, and a ton of money was raised for churches and missionaries.
How Leadership Worked –– Many of the churches that did and continue to fall into this category are led by a few pastors with one being the chief pastor. This chief pastor tended to be charismatic and focused on preaching and teaching. As some of these churches grew, more and more staff were hired to help shepherd the growing flock. This led to a silo effect in which various wings of the church were led by their own pastors who were in charge of their own budgets, programs, buildings, etc.
Problems — This model is affinity-based, meaning that church leaders promoted people being grouped together based on similarities. So many churches became increasingly homogenous, meaning that there was very little diversity. This model also depends on the culture outside of the church being similar enough to the culture inside the church that folks on the outside would turn to the church when they were seeking God. This was the case in the past but it’s not so much so now. And, most importantly, this model taught us to think of the church as the place where we invite people to come instead of being the church among those who do not yet know Jesus.
Place in Society — During the height of the attractional church model many church leaders were seen by politicians and other civic leaders as powerbrokers. Thus, a few of these church leaders and their churches began to wield incredible power in their communities, cities, states, and beyond. However, as the values of the wider culture and the attractional churches have departed from one another, these leaders and churches have seen their power wane to some degree.
Great Commission — For the most part this model followed suit with what had begun with Constantine’s legitimization of Christianity. As mentioned above, most of these leaders and churches wanted people to flood into their church buildings. The hope was that people would come to know Jesus through preaching and be discipled through education. Most of the talk around the “Great Commission” meant contributing to international mission work financially.
Thus, we see a few positives here and quite a few negatives. Hopefully this trip down memory lane will teach us a thing or two!
So, when you think of the attractional church model what comes to mind for you? Is my brief analysis fair?
(FYI — some of the content of this blog was inspired by Alan Hirsch’s book Forgotten Ways: Reactivating the Missional Church. I highly recommend it!)