Beyond Cruise-Ship Evangelism

February 17th, 2011

Strategic planning and programming during the height of the 1980s and ‘90s church growth era were driven by an “attractional” model of evangelism. The mantra was “build it and they will come.” We built quality programming for every age and life stage. It was well targeted to meet the needs of the young baby boomers and their growing families. The church mastered slick marketing campaigns that scratched the itches of the “me generation.” We built buildings that resembled the shopping malls they frequented and pioneered contemporary worship styles that rivaled the bars from their college days. The mega-church became the idolized model of success and numbers in the pews the measure of effectiveness. But somehow in the cycles of programming, capital campaigns, concerts, and Bible studies we forgot an important truth: curious crowds don’t equate with committed disciples.

Many of us in our well-intentioned efforts had done well in attracting crowds who were bringing Jesus into their soft-secular worldviews instead of being transformed into his. We thought it was working yet all the while the church as a whole continued to decline at escalating rates. And many who had come into the church continued to worship at the altar of self-indulgence, materialism, and indifference.

The church must make a major paradigm shift from attraction evangelism to mission evangelism. In simplest terms, this is what Jesus meant when he said that all people would see that we were his disciples through the demonstration of our sacrificial love.

Attraction evangelism parallels the marketing strategy of a vacation cruise line. A cruise is a hedonistic experience of extravagance and excess. Okay, so maybe I have never been on one, but my parents have gone on thirteen cruises in the last ten years.  I feel vicariously bloated every time my dad talks about the buffets.

Have you ever been on a cruise? A cruise ship is a self-contained fortress of programming for every age and interest. The experience is intensely planned and organized. It has a hierarchical structure that is staff-driven (captain and crew). The staff serves the vacationers, the vacationers only concentrate on their own enjoyment, and no one is worried about what’s going on outside that ship. Sound familiar?

Mission evangelism, on the other hand, parallels the priorities and focus of a mission outpost in a challenging place of great human need. Unlike the self-contained programming model that has been practiced by many growing churches in the past, the mission model is dependent on networking. The missional church is actively creating partnerships with social agencies, public schools, government and non-government organizations, as well as other faith groups.

Mission evangelism is experimental and flexible. Like Lewis and Clark mapping an uncharted route to the West, missional churches plan and resource as they go, and those who participate vision and seek those new horizons alongside their leaders. Catholic theologian Hans Kung put it this way: “A Church which pitches its tents without constantly looking out for new horizons, which does not continually strike camp, is being untrue to its calling….[We must] play down our longing for certainty, accept what is risky, and live by improvisation and experiment.”[i]

The attraction model is deficient and inefficient in its overdependence on professional staff. The mission model is unlimited in the scope of outreach based on the commitment and passion of the unpaid servant. (I prefer to use the term servant instead of volunteer because volunteers serve at their own convenience while the servant serves at the discretion of the one who calls.) The rehabilitation work that continues to go on along the Gulf coast is a powerful example of the unrealized potential of the unpaid servant. Over 90% of all of the work being done in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans is being done by faith-based organizations.

The mission model is unlimited in the scope of outreach based on the commitment and passion of the unpaid servant. The missional leader’s job is to inspire, equip, and enable that passion to be used for God’s kingdom.


Excerpted from Mike Slaughter's Change the World: Recovering the Message and Mission of Jesus.

[i] The Church as the People of God as quoted in Alan Hirsch’s, The Forgotten Ways, p.15).

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