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