'Attractional' vs. 'Missional'?

October 14th, 2011
Catalyst 2011

Talk about spectacle.

13,000 people. Rock concert quality music. Gobo lighting. Standing room only seating for… a church conference? This, my friends, is a photo of Catalyst 2011 in Atlanta GA, a gathering of young church leaders hosted by North Point Community Church.

I’ve heard a lot of chatter in the last couple of years about the end of the “attractional church” and the rise of the “missional church”. This language reflects a move, primarily in the evangelical tradition, away from a philosophy of ministry centered on big-event worship experiences that include short set rock concert playlists and extended spoken word presentation of Christian living topics called a “message”. Missional church advocates make a call away from such “big box” community and non-denominational church events, characteristic of 1990s trends, and toward missional philosophies that emphasize “go and serve” over “come and see”. These missional philosophies call for social justice, an old-new concept (old to mainline traditions and new to evangelistic traditions), and question the worth of the megachurches that previous movements created.

There is a seeming contradiction in a voice that cries for smaller, more “authentic” missional churches and at the same time attends conferences with 13,000 other people. What is going on here?

I participated fully in what some call the “attractional church” movement of the 1990s. I even wrote a book about it, The Wired Church, the same year Tex Sample wrote another book using the same buzzword called The Spectacle of Worship in a Wired World. His title captures the trend well. I practiced the craft of designing worship with image, light and sound in a very un-United Methodist-like United Methodist congregation for several years. Yet I never agreed with the reductionist worship philosophy of music and message. I always saw what some have called the “tools” of media not as the latest wrappers for an unchanging “message” but as a fundamentally new way of communicating the story of Jesus.

Pay careful attention to the language here. The former mode thinks of worship as an opportunity to present the gospel, an evangelistic enterprise. Here, the goal as communicators in worship is to preach, or present, a message. Methods change but the dataset of the delivery, the basic message of sin and atonement, remains the same. From Billy Sunday on the radio to Robert Schuller on television to Billy Graham in stadiums, the call is always to adopt new delivery systems that keep up with ever changing cultural norms. This approach has value in its ability to shift methodologies quickly, but perhaps because of its very adaptability, it belies a depth of understanding of the symbiosis of communication and cargo.

The latter mode, of communicating the story of Jesus, implies an dialogic approach that sees the gospel as a person and not a message. Kerygma is the Greek word for the proclamation of Christ. We are called to do more than to place cerebral assent in a savior; we are called to follow a person, the risen Lord, with our whole lives. I think the distinction is important. The latter doesn’t see a “point” but rather sees a holistic life change. It understands the benefit of the power of the spectacle of worship for its ability to capture the presence of Christ as a narrative force that can overturn our lives. It’s art instead of data. It’s much richer and deeper than communicating a “message”, and it helps explain the seeming contradiction at Catalyst.

We rightly want to move past a passive experience of “attractional” worship (if you haven’t figured it out, I am not a fan of this pejorative label) and into a holistic experience of missional followership. We want to do more than believe a theology of atonement. We want to know Christ and the power of his suffering. Maybe the problem is in the very evangelistic approach, and its emphasis on changing techniques like interior decor. Techniques are surface level. They miss the power of story. Maybe we need to see what we do as kerygma, as Christ, rather than presentation of a set of data about Christ. Then we may come to realize that it’s a false dichotomy to position attractional and missional against one another. It’s a both/and, not an either/or, and the reason is that good experiences, good art, are the discovery of discipleship. They dig deep into our soul and turn us around in mission to others. A powerful “attractional” worship event serves to create followers of Christ and sends people back out in mission to others.

Len is Senior Leadership Editor for Abingdon Press. He blogs at LenWilson.us.

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