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downloadTwo caveats, then the list you clicked through for:

Caveat #1. By attractional, I do not mean big or “contemporary.” This is something I go to great lengths to discuss in The Prodigal Church — “attractional” is not code for megachurch or contemporary church. There are healthy big churches and unhealthy small ones, healthy contemporary churches and unhealthy traditional ones. Attractional is not synonymous in my mind with the kind of attraction that a biblical church — centered on Christ, teeming with grace, on kingdom mission — (super)naturally is. By attractional, I am referring to the ministry paradigm that has embraced consumerism, pragmatism, and moralism as its operational values. I am not referring to a church worship style, but of course this philosophy of ministry has big implications for one’s aesthetics and expressions in the worship service and beyond.

Caveat #2. Leaving your church is no little thing, even if your church is legitimately unserious about discipleship or membership, even if your church isn’t gospel-centered or just isn’t as gospel-centered as you’d like it to be. Nobody should leave any church lightly, and it should never be a Christian’s first impulse or first resort. A covenant lightly instituted might still be heavily held. Nevertheless, there are a few circumstances that might warrant moving one’s fellowship, and that’s what this list is about.

So, when do you know it might be time to go? You should (probably) leave your church if:

1. It is rare to hear anything from the stage resembling the gospel.

Evaluating this absence takes a lot of discernment. It is not simply about preaching style — topical vs. expositional, or what-have-you — but about the dominant message being presented from the primary point of communication. Is the dominant takeaway from the weekly worship experience the good news of Christ’s sinless life, sacrifical death, and glorious resurrection? Is Christ made the hero of every text and topic? Is the functional subject of the church’s message Jesus or man? Is the primary aim of the church’s message God’s glory and Christ’s fame or self-actualization, self-esteem, and self-worth? Is the Bible preached as authoritative and sufficient or is it used for quotes? These are all important questions to consider. This isn’t the only thing to consider, but it’s likely the most important thing. (And obviously you should leave if not only is the gospel rare but also repudiated, if outright heresy is being taught in the church or if the most influential voices speaking into the lives of your teachers and leadership are themselves false teachers.)

2. There is no meaningful membership process or pastoral care.

I remember serving in an attractional church where I discovered an unmarried couple living together were allowed to volunteer as leaders in the student ministry. An elder at the same church charged with providing premarital counseling told some engaged friends of mine that the Bible says nothing about premarital sex. I suppose I don’t have to tell you that not only are these incidents problematic but that they are symptomatic of an essential dysfunction in the church — unqualified leaders, unaccountable members, and inch-deep discipleship. Ask these questions: Does your church have membership? If it does, does it function beyond assimilating volunteers into areas of service in the church? Is there a ministerial structure in place that oversees and cares for the needs of members, taking responsibility for their ongoing discipleship, and disciplining them when they engage in unrepentant sin? Do you have any kind of beyond-superficial relationship with any pastor or elder or anybody else in leadership responsible for your spiritual well-being?

3. There is no significant attention given to life or discipleship beyond the weekend worship service.

In many attractional churches, all the energy and thought is poured into the weekend “experience” and not much is afforded other areas of growth and development. Some of these churches actually acknowledge this and will sort of confess they will take responsibility for winning lost people and maybe other churches can specialize in growing them up. Sort of a “it’s a feature, not a bug” attitude. But a church that exists mainly as an evangelistic event is barely a church at all. We are not called simply to make converts but to make disciples. If your church puts very little energy toward helping Christians at all stages of spiritual life grow in Christlikeness, it’s possible you have outgrown them and need to covenant with a church that functions more like the multi-faceted body of Christ.

4. You’re not in a position of significant influence.

It is a noble idea to want to stay and influence an attractional church toward gospel-centrality, but I have to tell you quite frankly it is very unlikely to happen. It’s not impossible, but it is improbable. It’s especially improbable if you are not in any kind of leadership position. You may think yourself a missionary for the gospel in your church — these people do exist, as sad and necessary as that is — but it’s more likely you will be seen as a divisive and disgruntled person. The gospel is divisive, of course, but if you are not in a leadership position to cast vision or in a position approximate to the leaders who do, the discord you sow will undoubtedly not be worth it. Even if you are in a secondary leadership position, if you represent a minority viewpoint among other leaders or you are not regularly trusted by those in authority over you to help steer the ship, as it were, you will have to face the reality that you are in that position to support and facilitate the vision cast by somebody else. You have not been hired to set vision but to help implement it. If you find that you can’t “play ball,” you will probably need to begin planning your exit.

5. The teaching your children are receiving in the church is training them to become the consumeristic moralists the church is currently reaching.

This was a key turning point for my wife and me once upon a time. As unsettled and as constantly discouraged as we were by our church’s emphases, we at least had the discernment to know what was unbiblical and unhelpful. Our daughters, however, did not. And while the local church doesn’t hold the sole or even primary responsibility for discipling children, it is incredibly problematic if the kind of teaching/training they receive at church runs counter to the kind of teaching/training you want them to have. If your primary parental discipleship of your kids consists largely of trying to “undo” or protect against what they’re getting in Sunday School or children’s church or the Fantabulous KidZone, this might be a good prompt to reconsider which covenant community you want supporting your development of them as followers of Jesus.

I know lots of people struggle with these issues and with this decision, because I hear from so many of them. The fact that it produces such angst in them is a credit to their heart for their brothers and sisters and for the gospel itself. Those of you who read this post and immediately are angered or irritated that I’d encourage this kind of critical thinking about the attractional paradigm need to stop for a minute and consider how many mature Christians — not pharisees, not legalists, not traditionalists, but mature, Christ-loving, church-devoted brothers and sisters — are becoming disillusioned by the places that are effectively starving them out spiritually.

I don’t offer this list as a handy-dandy airtight decision maker for you, but as a guide to important questions that will help you get beneath the unsettled feeling you’re already dealing with. Nobody should ever leave any church flippantly or angrily or divisively. But there are times to go. I pray the Lord will give you wisdom and discernment and a spirit of gentleness — and of courage.


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Comments:


37 thoughts on “5 Reasons You Should (Probably) Leave Your Attractional Church”

  1. DL says:

    From the “Stage”? Can we please stop referring to the pulpit as a stage?

    Great article, just a quibble on the word usage.

    1. Jared C. Wilson says:

      DL, the wording is intentional to reflect the attractional church’s approach to worship as a production.

    2. James says:

      Jared is right. And mind you, Jesus never preached from a pulpit. No one did until, perhaps, the 3rd century.

  2. Bud Brown says:

    6. There is no meaningful participation in God’s mission

    Thank you for this careful, well-reasoned post. I give a hearty “Amen!” and commend you for your courage. I can imagine some of the slings and arrows that have been hurled in your direction.

    My value-add comment is this: Attractional churches (as you’ve correctly identified them) actually turn the “sending” and “going” impulse of God’s missional movement on its head. Instead of going, we invite them to come. Instead of crossing bridges, we invite them to climb over barriers. Instead of sending new believers to further frontiers, we extract them from their environment and coach them into insular lives that eventually are barren of any meaningful connection with unbelievers.

    1. Bumble says:

      Great additional point there!

  3. justin says:

    I liked this article. My wife and I are currently in prayer on our future at our current local church. I am being discipled by another church and most of my ministry is happening through this church. I don’t know what I’m trying to say but can you please pray for us. I’m a elder in our current church.

    1. Tony says:

      If you are an elder, why are you not being the change your church needs. Seems kindof backwards.

      1. cf says:

        tony, apparently you are unfamiliar with how the politics of church works. “Elder” doesn’t get you a platform, especially when you disagree with the leadership. In fact, it many times gets you fired!

        1. Andrew Chiu says:

          The relationship politically of an elder to a pastor is variable from one church to another. In the authoritarian executive model where the pastor is an autocrat not accountable to elected elders from the congregation, the ability of elders to influence the life of the congregation is limited. It is not the case in churches that still observe the quaint notion that the pastor serves at the pleasure of the congregations representatives in the body of elders or deacons. Such democratic republican models of governance are disappearing and along with it the idea that the members of the congregation are actually responsible for the conduct of the life of the church. Too many today are willing only to be comfortable Christians letting the pastor “do it all” then to complain that the results are not as they wish. We are the body of Christ; his hands, feet, eyes, all of it. The pastor is an important part to be sure but the pastor was never meant to be alone in responsibility and authority. See the model of the early church before Constantine hijacked it.

  4. Jordan rowland says:

    Good article Jared. A great way to give those who are “starving” some help to articulate reasons why. Oftentimes when I converse with friends who are tired in a sick church, they have a hard time pinning the problem on the lack of Gospel ministry, especially in preaching, and don’t know where to start, or where to begin looking for a new church body that is healthy. It’s easy to think some peripheral things are solely to blame, but your first point makes certain that the church loses her health (or never really had it) when she isn’t given a faithful, consistent look (a meal, really) at Christ, nor help during the week, in the word about him.

  5. JD says:

    Thanks for sharing. These are helpful points for those wondering if it is time to move on from their current church. As believers it is biblical to test what we hear and see at church against what God’s word says. In Acts 17:10-11 after hearing Paul and Silas the Bereans responded by “examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so”.

  6. John says:

    Thanks for addressing a topic that many are afraid to address. There is one point that I would like to make and it is this – the same article can be written for leaving a legalistic church. While there are many reasons for cutting ties with the “consumerist church” there are also reasons for cutting ties with the “police state church.” I’ve searched out both of these and I have to say that they both don’t get it (John 1:14; 17). The attractional model, as stated, “starves people spiritually.” But the legalistic church starves people of love and grace. This leads to a question: who should a Christian “covenant with” when these extremes are the only two options? Well, as you probably can tell, this is my personal dilemma. And following much prayer, I’ve decided to attend the consumerist church in the role that Jared Wilson describes in number 4 – the person who sees the attractional model and our small group as a mission field. But Wilson is prophetic in his analysis of this endeavor – I constantly look and feel divisive and disgruntled. I feel like a Christian on an island by myself. I have a heart for these people who are missing out on the wonder and glory and supremacy of the gospel of Jesus Christ. I don’t know what to do – please pray for me.

  7. Brent says:

    I like the heart of this article. I believe too many churches are moralistic, poor at making disciples, and consumeristic–feeding into american culture instead of challenging it. I wonder, however, if there are too many false dichotomies here. Do we need to choose between a church that is attractive (quality music, fun children’s programs, nice facility, etc) and a church that is “biblical.” Do we have to choose between “going out” and “inviting in?”

    1. Jared C. Wilson says:

      Brent, I don’t think it’s me who’s introduced the false dichotomies. I’ve nowhere said churches should have bad music, boring children’s programs, unkempt facilities, etc. That’s not the kind of alternative I’m suggesting. In Caveat #1 I also explain that this is not a post opposed to a church that is “attractive.”

  8. Hey Jared,

    Thanks for sharing. I read your book Gospel Wakefulness some years back, it was helpful. Quick question for you, I thought that you served as a pastor in New England and just saw that you are a director of content strategy at a seminary. Why the change out of the local church? Thanks,

    Mark

    1. Jared C. Wilson says:

      Mark, thanks for asking. I answer that question, briefly, in this announcement post from last year.

  9. Gary Westra says:

    When I saw the title for this blog, I was skeptical. I ended up being very pleased with the content. While I have a VERY high view of the Church, if your church is like what is described here, you should be prayerfully considering alternatives. I hope such churches are few and far between.

  10. Emerson says:

    Pastor Wilson,

    Thanks for the post. While it’s clear your desire is to avoid conflating attractional churches with mega-churches, it seems to me your second point about lacking meaningful church membership and pastoral care undercuts this distinction. Perhaps I am ignorant or have simply failed to encounter them, but I have never seen a mega-church that is able to practice these things, nor have I heard of effective models and approaches to healthy membership, care, and discipline in mega-churches.

    I’d love to hear of examples if you know of any, and I am sure all of us would benefit from someone explaining how these things can take place in a mega-church.

    Thanks,
    Emerson

    1. Susan says:

      Emerson,

      I am an active member at a church that most definitely falls into the category of a “mega-church”, but the problems you mentioned are not seen there. While it is true that the congregation as a whole is huge, members are strongly encouraged to join small groups that meet on a weekly basis to study the bible and experience the relational support that is missing in many churches. I would say that for those of us in one of these groups, we have a more intimate, in depth walk with God than many who go to smaller churches who are able to “fake it” because people only see them on Sunday morning for a brief period of time in a larger group setting. When people see you for several hours every week at your best and your worst, are there to keep you accountable in areas you struggle, celebrate with you in the good times, walk along side you when you need help, faking it no longer becomes an option. Those in the group that my husband and I attend every week are more than family because we share not a bond of blood, but the eternal bond of a mighty Savior. And we don’t simply socialize, we minister in our local community together and volunteer on Sunday mornings. While I am sure that there are mega-churches where the individual can get lost in the sea of people, there are ways to counter that issue. And the church where we are members is an example of that.

  11. GottaGo says:

    It’s like you’ve been reading my mind for the last year. These are the same things I have been struggling with for the better part of a year. Just this morning, in fact, I asked myself if my debating back and forth is turning into outright disobedience…am I ignoring the call to go? It’s just not an easy decision in spite of some of the realities that are so apparent, I don’t know how anybody settles for it.

  12. George says:

    Someone’s reading my mind here…

  13. Sam says:

    I have been struggling with this option myself and I have a small question, because I don’t exactly know where I’d line up in this if I did. I currently serve as an assistant youth leader in a (slight) position of authority but only as far as the students go. This is a staffed position for me. Recently I have noticed a bad trend with curriculum centered teaching for the youth that seems to lean more towards behavior modification. There are very good points in some but by and large, very moralistic with some verses to seemingly back them up. I’ve expressed the issue with the shallowness of this message with the leadership and they will not budge. I feel as though I have a gift and passion to teach the students, but no matter what, they seek to use purely curriculum that at times is purchased because it looked cool. I’ve had students come to me, from seniors in high school to 6th grade middle schoolers tell me they “aren’t being fed” or are “not learning anything but what I have been told for years”. Would this fall under the category? And what do you believe should be done about this?

  14. Jonathan says:

    Good thoughts Jared. What if a church doesn’t appear to have the “stage” or moralist/consumerist mindset but fails miserably on points #2 and #3?

  15. sonoftheFather says:

    Excellent article, thank you. Reading the comments here I can empathize with many who are struggling with decisions whether to stay or go… Tough situations to face.
    My own story is similar. I have challenged the leadership of 3 previous churches which ultimately resulted in me leaving when it was clear they would not yield to the challenge. I believe the problem centres around an unbiblical leadership structure where you have a person called a ‘Pastor’ at the head, who is generally Not pastorally gifted, and they seem to believe their position is unchallengeable. My belief of the Church is drawn from the pages of the Bible, most notably Ephesians 4, where it states that, “God Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and some teachers…” These of course should be supported with elders and deacons, and then of course every other body part should also play it’s part. There is no total position of CEO in a church, but I keep meeting people who act as though there were. The Church I am in currently is very ‘nice’, but does not challenge with the gospel really. The only positive signs are that I have spoken to two of the three elders privately and they have agreed with what I said. Just last week I met with one, and his comments were, “you speak words that will be hard for the Church to accept, but that doesn’t mean we should hear them”. I took great encouragement from that meeting, but I know the pastor is still the man with whom agreement is sorely needed. When I have tried to bring any kind of challenge in the past he has instantly thrown something back at me, I raise an issue over a scripture, he throws 2-3 back. I have explained that this never appears as humility (even if his point was to be right) because he never stops to weigh the words or seek the Lord. There have been some changes but the major work is still to be done.
    Anybody that has a heart to pray, please ask the Lord to soften the hearts of All involved to hear HIS word and submit to HIS will, and to be able to drop ego and insecurity for the sake of HIS kingdom! Thank you and God bless in your own situations.
    PS, I’m based in the UK.

  16. Gordo says:

    I’ve been thinking about this lately. Another point I’d add is “The church is fiscally irresponsible”. You did touch on this a little bit (i.e. “ministry paradigm that has embraced consumerism”) but I think it deserves its own “reason”. I’m the type of person that maximizes efficiency in my personal life, and lives frugally. I feel like this is what God wants from me, I have rejected consumerism, and even though I can afford nice new things, I don’t buy them (for example I drive a perfectly adequate, reliable car that I bought used, that now has very high mileage yet never breaks down because I take care of it).

    I see Godly churches that use resources wisely and they are having a big impact, carrying out the great commission, getting the gospel out, and helping people in a Christ centered way. Other churches seem to blow every penny of income (and often worse, going into debt) on things like expensive building/office leases, overpriced land, buildings or building upgrades, extra full time staff that either isn’t necessary or does things that a volunteer would do in most other churches, staff have expensive church paid cell phones/tablets/gadgets with expensive monthly recurring costs, etc. No funds are left over to support missions work or to really impact the community for Christ. When opportunities come up to cut expenses, they are ignored. Most churches like this eventually go bankrupt but can often scrape by for a very long time.

  17. Joseph Lee says:

    I read your article. Honestly speaking, I think your standards are way too high. I am just thankful my church is not pro-gay. My wife does not speak any English. It is not easy to find a Korean speaking church which preaches correct doctrine.

  18. Jadyn Brewer says:

    Hey, this is just a side note: but, it’s interesting hearing you refer to an “unmarried couple living together” as a really bad thing. I agree it’s not a great thing – but I am living together with my boyfriend not because we thought cohabitation is a good idea, but because I have no family that I could live with when I lost my job and none of my friends were ready to have me come live with them. My boyfriend and I have never had sex, and wouldn’t dare do so without being married. But we’re not ready to rush into a marriage just because I’ve ended up being his houseguest.
    If this in any way reflects on the fitness of the church that has graciously not treated us like lepers (him, for his kindness to me, and me, for my finding myself homeless apart from my boyfriend’s help) then I would say that it would have been awesome if people would have let me come live with them in our church. But since that didn’t happen, I’m glad they didn’t treat me like I’m living in immorality when I’m not, just because of the economic situation which forced me into living with my boyfriend.

  19. Robert says:

    Nice article. I don’t fully understand the purpose of requirement #2 and #4 from a biblical standpoint. How does

  20. Robert says:

    Nice article. I stumbled on this article on Facebook and found it to be interesting and made me ask a few questions to myself about the large church I attend. I have to say that I completely disagree with the idea that the church should be all of these things or you should leave. A believer should attend where they are called and if there are issues or missteps by leadership, the believer should not up and run. Instead, follow the scripture to call that person to a higher standard. Out job as a body is to bring one another up, churches included, not just point out faults and run. That’s the reason why so many people are hurt by the church now. Anyway, on to the actual article.

    I don’t understand the rationale of #2 and #4 from a biblical standpoint. What does membership have to do with being a strong church? How does one determine significant influence?

    Maybe I’m missing the point but isn’t the church a place where people come, not to be forced into membership but to hear the gospel and for the gospel to change their lives, not a place to attend a class that explains how they can become a member of an organization? Call me “seeker friendly” but a membership process doesn’t create stronger Christians. Intentional relationships do that. Throughout scripture we can see that believers should be held accountable, which I assume is the purpose of membership but that’s where relationship and discipleship come in for me.

    How does a person or a church determine influence and what that means? You can’t just have a church full of deacons and elders. Nor can you have a church with lackadaisical people running your children’s program. The body has multiple parts and each certainly serves a purpose yet each may not be the crux of everything. I think this part would best be communicated as “are you actively serving” in your church? Not necessarily a sign of a believer having influence but more an action the believer should be taking.

    Would love to hear some dialog on this topic. Thanks for sharing your thoughts in an open forum and being willing to converse and grow the body of believers.

    1. Jared C. Wilson says:

      “What does membership have to do with being a strong church?”

      Robert, just about everything. A church, biblically speaking, is not — as you suggest — just a place where you go and hear a nice talk about the gospel. It is a body of believers covenanted together. If we take seriously Jesus’ words in Matthew 18:15-20 and Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 12 (among many other passages), we will take church membership seriously. In addition, if you are truly interested in how membership is important to the strength of a church, and you’ve actually never heard a good argument as to how and why, I would recommend Jonathan Leeman’s little book on Church Membership: http://www.amazon.com/Church-Membership-Represents-Building-Churches/dp/1433532379.

      “How does one determine significant influence?”

      I just meant that if you realize your church is not preaching the gospel and is systemically unhealthy, you should consider leaving if you are not in any position to influence a redirection to health. I feel like I laid out what I meant by “position of influence” pretty well in that section — you’re an elder, you’re on staff, you’re in leadership and have some relational capital with those who set vision, etc.

      1. Robert says:

        Thank you for taking the time to reply and providing the resources regarding membership. I may have been speaking from personal bad experiences on those topics.

        Love the perspective and appreciate knowing there are people like yourself communicating boldly your convictions and heart for the church.

    2. Brian says:

      “What does membership have to do with being a strong church?”

      It doesn’t. In my opinion, the neo-cal fascination with membership(more specifically, membership covenants) has to do more with an emphasis on authority than on actual member care. Please be careful if you join a church that wants you to sign a covenant(i.e. contract). Make sure you know what exactly will be required of you. And, what exactly the leadership can demand of you.

      1. Jared C. Wilson says:

        Brian, this has been the opposite of my experience, and while only a fool would deny there are abuses of authority and authoritarian leadership in some “neo-cal” churches — as there all in all kinds of churches — you are right that clear communication of expectations, responsibilities, obligations, etc — on the part of both laity and leaders — is very important. This is one reason membership covenants are important, in my estimation — they (should) spell out what the relationship actually is, so nobody can later say, “Oh, I didn’t know if I started abusing my spouse I could get kicked out of the church” or “I didn’t know if I verbally abused my staff I could get fired as pastor.”

        1. Jared C. Wilson says:

          Oh, meant to elaborate on my first statement: The majority of churches I know and have experience with that have membership structures and membership covenants are good, faithful, generally healthy churches. Again, it’s foolish to deny sinful abuses in numerous churches, but defining the entire system by abuses of it is misguided. There are sinners doing sinful things in all churches.

  21. Charles says:

    Thank you for the article. I find myself being edified and even evaluating my own values as a pastor. My only concern is in point 4. I want to bring up the issue of motive. I understand this may not be what you intended but as a reader and a pastor this is what I perceived it to mean. For someone who thinks the church needs him to steer the church correctly is quite a selfish tone for any one person, including the pastor. Yes, I am combining leadership and influence as being nearly identical because I think that is what you mean. You don’t have to be in a staff position or a leadership position to invite people over to your house for bible-study, or to have over for dinner. Is desiring leadership a bad thing or good thing? If someone reads 1 Timothy 3:1, which is then followed by rigorous conditions, they would say desiring to be an elder is a good thing. But what is the motive that Jesus delights in? He corrected His disciples in Mark 9:34-35. So what if you’re not in leadership position. Serve for the purpose of seeking God’s honor regardless of how much “power” you have. The church will see it, identify it, and will put you in a position of influence.

    Let us for a moment reflect on this from a pastor’s perspective. Someone comes to you and disagrees with your understanding of a biblical definition of a church (vision). How can that be resolved? Here we have two men that I assume want to serve Christ to the best of their ability have differing views of what is a church. Should it not be correct that one whom the church believes God has equipped for the purpose of leading them to Christ have the say? Wouldn’t it be mature of the dissenting one to accept the church’s decision? Maybe someone should spend more time in getting to know the church and their leaders before going into a covenant with them.
    Again, I enjoyed your other points and found them to be edifying. My apologies if I have misunderstood your point 4.

    1. Charles says:

      As I reflect on my comments I feel disappointed in my tone. I don’t intend to be nagging or complaining. I know you are a respected member of the MBTS staff and students. You deserve more courtesy then what I gave.

  22. James says:

    This is wise. Also, I appreciate the heart behind it: never leave a church flippantly or divisively. Thank you, Jared.

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Jared C. Wilson


Jared C. Wilson is the Director of Content Strategy for Midwestern Seminary, managing editor of For The Church, and author of more than ten books, including Gospel Wakefulness, The Pastor’s Justification, and The Prodigal Church. You can follow him on Twitter.

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