The Danger of Attractionalism

Attractionalism is the belief that creating an appealing church service and programs will attract unbelievers to come to church.

I begin here with an important distinction: Attractionalism is not the same thing as being attractive or seeking to attract people to Christ. Some members of “attractional” churches are adopting missional behaviors and practices. However, the majority of members in these churches have abandoned personal responsibility for showing and sharing the truth of the gospel. Instead, they expect the church services and the paid professionals to accomplish the evangelistic ministry of the church. This abdication of personal responsibility to join Jesus in His mission, coupled with churches that design church services to attract unbelievers to church, are significant obstacles to missional activity.

Many churches in America have adopted an approach to church services that seeks to remove any and all barriers that keep unbelievers from coming on Sunday. Yet in the first century, the “fellowship meetings of the Christians were not at all meant to be attractive for outsiders, because they were not designed for them.” (Simson, Houses the Change the World, p 45)

This strategy of designing worship services for unbelievers has been described in Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Church. In Part Four: Bringing In a Crowd, Warren explains how to design seeker-sensitive services, select your music, and preach to the unchurched. Since Jesus attracted enormous crowds (multitudes), it is suggested that a Christlike ministry will attract crowds. All you have to do is to minister the way that Jesus did.

Certainly, if Christians loved unbelievers like Jesus did and started meeting genuine needs in the community beyond the walls of the church (physical, emotional, relational, and financial), then many more churches would be truly missional. I agree with Warren that it is both right and necessary to emphasize the need for churches/Christians to meet genuine needs.

Look behind the hype of every growing church and you will find a common denominator: They have figured out a way to meet the real needs of people. A church will never grow beyond its capacity to meet needs. If your church is genuinely meting needs, then attendance will be the least of your problems—you’ll have to lock the doors to keep people out. (p 221)

However, many Christian leaders think this “attraction evangelism” is in conflict with Jesus command to “Go therefore and make disciples” (Matt 28:19). The argument is stated in Invading Secular Space by Robinson and Smith: “The world is asked to come and see, rather than the church going, living, and telling in and through all of its normal daily activities and relationships. What had been designed by God, and empowered by the Spirit to be in the world, becomes locked away in place and programme.” (p 99)

While Warren argues that “both ‘Go and tell’ and ‘Come and see’ are found in the New Testament” (p 235), Frost and Hirsch insist that “the Come-To-Us stance taken by the attractional church is unbiblical. It’s not found in the Gospels or the Epistles. Jesus, Paul, the disciples, the early church leaders all had a Go-To-Them mentality.” (The Shaping of Things to Come, p 19)

The issue is not that unbelievers should never come to a worship service. Paul instructed the church in Corinth to be aware that unbelievers may enter when the church is assembled together (1 Cor 14:23–24). It is often natural for Christians to invite their unbelieving friends to attend with them. Certainly many Christians in America first heard the message of the gospel in a church service. The issue is, as Ed Stetzer states, “attraction is not enough.” (Planting Missional Churches, p 17)

In American Christianity, there is a growing tendency among churches to believe that if they change the worship service to be more appealing or attractive to the unchurched, then unbelievers will start coming to church. Making changes because you believe it will get unbelievers to go to church is attractionalism and it is an obstacle to missional activity.

Under the banner of reaching the unchurched, we spend much time thinking up ways to make this sacred hour on Sundays relevant to them so that they will want to come Do we really think that they will actually be impressed by our performance and that this will lead them to want to be among the church? Is making them churched a sufficient objective? (Cole, Organic Church, p xxiv-xxv)

Attractionalism is dangerous for several reasons. First, it falsely assumes that non-Christians are simply turned off to church; that people do not come because church is boring or irrelevant. If we can convince them that our church is not like the church they do not want to go to, then we might just convince them to come.

Frost and Hirsch observe:

By anticipating that if they get their internal features right, people will flock to the services, the church betrays its belief in attractionalism. It’s like the Kevin Costner character in the film Field of Dreams being told by a disembodied voice, “If you build it, they will come.” How much of the traditional church’s energy goes into adjusting their programs and their public meetings to cater to an unseen constituency? If we get our seating, our parking, our children’s program, our preaching, and our music right, they will come. This assumes that we have a place in our society and that people don’t join our churches because, though they want to be Christians, they’re unhappy with the product. (p 19)

When I started Lake Hills Church in Castaic, California, we went door to door and asked the question, “Why do you think most people don’t go to church?” We thought this question was a clever way of asking, “Why don’t you go to church?

We compiled a list of answers and concluded that we could reach the people in our community and get them to go to church if we started a church that removed these barriers. Our focus was to create an environment that would welcome unchurched people and hopefully provide a place where they would meet Jesus and choose to follow Him.

We mailed several flyers to the community with this underlying message: come to our church because we’re not like the church you don’t want to go to.” We saw ourselves as a church for unchurched people. We consciously made decisions to change the way we did church, believing it would enable more people to enter the kingdom. And to some extent, it worked. Unchurched people came and some became followers of Jesus. But I wonder if we created the wrong expectation that church is all about you.

The more we attracted people, the more we needed to keep doing the things that attracted them. Our energies were consumed with preparing an attractional event on Sunday, which left less time and energy to devote to disciplemaking. Neil Cole observers, “Do we really think that our great programs will impress the non-Christians in our community to such an extent that they will say, ‘Hey, that’s a nice sign. And check out the parking lot. Wow, I want to be a Christian, too.’” (p 95)

Here is the reality: your neighbor or boss is not likely to get excited about coming to your church because you have a great worship band with beautiful back-up singers and video announcements and practical teaching and excellent children’s programs and an offering box in the back instead of an offering plate that is passed down the aisle. And the checker at the grocery store is not going to suddenly want to come to your church when you tell her you have rugs and candles and dim lighting and stations for journaling and reflection and prayer.

There is nothing wrong with changing the way you “do church.” Quite frankly, many changes are necessary. The problem is when someone thinks that changing the worship service will actually make going to church more compelling or attractive to non-believers. Designing worship services to appeal to spiritual seekers misses the entire point of the Great Commission. Jesus did not send His followers to invite everyone to a church service to hear about the cross and the resurrection. He sent them to go and proclaim the good news of the cross and the resurrection.

I am not against Christians inviting their friends to church. I have invited my friends to come to our church to see what it is about. I have encouraged believers to bring friends with them. I have attempted to warmly welcome visitors and to explain the Bible, the gospel, and what it means to follow Jesus. It would be rude to be unfriendly or to assume that what we do makes sense to unbelievers. Much about the way we do church needs to be explained to unbelievers when they come.

However, changing the way we do church to attract non-Christians is a slippery slope. How far will you go to accommodate non-believers? How many barriers are you willing to remove? Will you choose not to confront sin in order to get them to come back? I was amazed when one large church in Southern California changed the words to the song Amazing Grace, removing the word “wretch” from the third line. Many churches have compromised the truth in order to attract people to their church. They have paid too great a cost

People don’t need to go to church to find Jesus, grace, forgiveness and transformation. They need to repent after embracing the gospel of the cross.

Changing the way you do church will not necessarily get people to come. The mission of the church is not to get more people to go to church; the mission is to “go and make disciples.” Let’s learn to incarnationally display the gospel to those around us. That’s attractive!

See also: Further Dangers of Attractionalism


Dave DeVries

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Dr. Dave DeVries is a coach, trainer, author and founder of Missional Challenge. He is passionate about coaching and training church planters and missional leaders. With 30+ years of church planting and leadership development experience, Dave brings his passion and encouragement to those he trains and coaches.
8 replies
  1. John
    John says:

    Truly, there are dangers to attractional style churches. But these dangers exist within all church modes and methods. Just because a church is attractional, does not automatically mean that is is not making disciples. While you won’t say that, that is what is implied. I agree one hundred percent that attraction is not enough. However, being attractional, does not mean that is the only means a church uses. There is a difference between attractionlism and using an attractional method for reaching people. If that is all they do, I agree, it is foolish idea.

    I find it interesting that pastors all over the world prepare their churches to be the best, and most attractive places possible. They all hope for many to come and hear the truth of God’s word. These pastors even pray for God to send them large crowds. They pray that God will bring hundreds to salvation through revival. Yet, when it happens to someone else, that first thought is, “they must be watering down the gospel” in order to reach large crowds.

    What does “go and make disciples” mean except to, go and engage your culture and community with the gospel. We can be literal if we like, but the attractional style churches are form of “going” into our community and culture with the gospel. As I said on another blog. it should be a both/and not an either/or issue. “All things to all men in order to win some.

    Don’t misunderstand me, I think the church is woefully short of doing the right things, but this is not a methodology issue. It’s a ecclesiological, theological, and orhtodoxy issue.

  2. DaveDV
    DaveDV says:

    I agree – attractional churches can be disciplemaking churches! The danger of attractionalism is that churches become dependent on the “come to us” approach and evangelism becomes about inviting someone to church.

    I don’t believe that churches ought to exclusively embrace a “come and see” church model or a “go and tell” church model. A healthy church is most likely a dynamic combination of both. However, the decreasing presence of churches which are training believers to embody the mission and message of Jesus everywhere requires a dramatic shift in strategies and structures!

    The church is God’s missionary people – sent with the gospel of the cross, together in community, to those in the culture around them.

  3. keith
    keith says:

    Great post. Good to have you visit and comment on my blog post on the Circus of Attractional Church as well.

    I believe God has used Attractional Church and will continue to, bringing people to Himself (he also used a donkey).

    I am sure that there are some good attractional churches out there – I just haven’t seen them personally. Instead, I have seen churches lose sight of the Gospel and clear commands of Scripture to equip and send as their vision has become blurred by numbers, and programs, and what might work to get people in and keep them. That sickens me. It also sickens me that some churches avoid talk of sin, make the gospel a choice to be made between heaven or hell, and spend valuable sermon time talking ‘self-help’ garbage and ‘feel good’ crap.

    I am also sickened by the use of Jesus and the multitudes as a way to justify attractional/seeker churches. When the crowds gathered what did Jesus tell them? You have to die to self. Be prepared to suffer. They really loved it when he said you had to eat his flesh and drink his blood! How many attractional churches truly teach suffering for the sake of the Gospel and the good of others? How many attractional churches teach their people to sacrifice for the good of others, you know stop driving a BMW when a Dodge will do? When the multitudes came, Jesus ran them off with the truth. In the end, the multitude was 120 waiting in a room for the Holy Spirit.

    Dave, you said that you thought a lot of pastor would find my post offensive – I think you are right. But I find a lot of pastors offensive myself!

    Sorry – I’m off my soap box now! Your post was great – glad to know you are out there.

  4. John
    John says:

    Self-righteousness still rules among Christ’s believers. It never ceases to amaze me how many Christians generalize all churches into a category according to size. The unspoken rule is “If they are large and growing, they must be compromising the word.”
    God calls us to make proper judgment John 7:24. Is it proper to take a general dislike of large church events, methodologies and strategies and assume that every church is the same? God did not ordain or put his stamp of approval on any methodology.

    It amazes me the reactionary, knee jerk tendency of some to get out of balance and swing the pendulum from one side to the other. Balance is the key.

    While some churches, using an attractional methodology are way off track, not all fit in that category. I have not seen that balance mentioned. What I hear from most, who have a great disdain for attractional methodologies, is that all churches of this methodology are bad.

    The arrogance of proclaiming one methodology over another stifles me. Why do Christian brothers and sisters get off on these tangents and fight the wrong fight?

  5. keith
    keith says:

    The real issues are not LARGE or SMALL, ATTRACTIONAL or MISSIONAL – It is more a matter of MOTIVATION and DESIRES as well as a biblical ecclesiology.

    I for one do not buy into nor sell the notion that if a church is large or growing it is compromising the word – no biblical basis for that. I also believe the Bible gives great freedom in the forms of church – but not so much so in the functions.

    John, if your post above was a response to my comments, I admit fully that there probably are some good attractional churches out there (as I mentioned) – I just haven’t seen one (me personally, with my own eyes and personal knowledge). Missional – Attractional – Large – Small – I rejoice where Christ is lifted up and the Gospel is proclaimed.

    God Bless

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