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collin-armstrong-189527Is there a tipping point coming in the attractional church movement?

I don’t know. I used to think so. Now I’m inclined to think not. I ask just about everybody I meet who I think may have some insight into this question. Some say yes, some say no. I keep asking, because--again--I don’t know.

What follows will be the first of a two-part exploration of my primary thoughts on this question. In this installment, I want to outline some reasons why we may be seeing a systemic collapse of the attractional church movement before long. (Trigger warning: chickens.)

First, though, what do I mean by the attractional church?

Attractional Is a Paradigm, Not a Style Per Se

Some assume I simply mean contemporary or non-traditional or that I mean non-denominational or even megachurches. I don’t. There are traditional and non-traditional attractional churches, and denominational and non-denominational attractional churches, and small, normative, and mega-sized attractional churches. By attractional I mean a church that conducts its worship and ministry according to the desires and values of potential consumers, leading to a dominant ethos of pragmatism in the church.

Yes, the most common perception of the attractional church is the seeker-driven megachurch, the one where the pastor rides his Harley up to the stage on Easter Sunday after the “worship” band has played “Highway to Hell.” But there are plenty of smaller churches using pragmatic and consumeristic methodology--mainly to get bigger--and there are plenty of churches with traditional styles (music, clothing, buildings), both big and small, that employ the attractional model, because traditional is “what works” in their contexts. There are several distinguishing hallmarks of the attractional model, and if anyone is interested in exploring them more in detail, I recommend checking out my book The Prodigal Church.

Why the Attractional Church May Collapse (Relatively) Soon

So how is the attractional enterprise going? It would seem, from all their own indications, pretty well. Ten years ago, Willow Creek, the first majorly influential seeker church, released the results of their REVEAL survey, in which they had bravely and thoroughly sought to answer the question, “Is what we’re doing working?” Their aim: to turn irreligious people into fully devoted followers of Christ. “Make disciples,” in other words. Their conclusion, after REVEAL? It’s not working. Bill Hybels himself said, “We made a mistake.”

Of course, later he backtracked a bit, mainly because when you suggest to thousands of people that they’ve wasted their last decade on something they thought was The Answer, you tend to create some significant crises of identity. In short, back then, I thought this revelation would have sent shock waves through the attractional world. When the leading example admits the program isn’t doing what they thought it was doing, I would’ve assumed it would cause a top-down reassessment of convictions, values, methods, and so on. Instead, most churches simply put their fingers in their ears, put their heads down, and carried on. And why wouldn’t they? The auditoriums weren’t shrinking. What other evidence do you need that it’s working?

But can this swelling be sustained? For a long time, I’ve thought not. Here’s why:

1. The Younger Generation Is Too Old for the Games

We’ve been tracking this trend since the days of the emergent conversation. From Gen-Y on down, generally speaking, those interested in local expressions of Christianity community (what the rest of us call “church”) are less and less interested in programmatic, consumeristic approaches to spirituality like those found in attractional churches. This is somewhat counterintuitive, because the younger generations are also the ones most readily embracing technology and innovation, and the like. But when you merge these things with spirituality, their guards tend to go up. They can smell the insincerity in produced authenticity. And they are the quickest to find the pop-song covers, movie-clip illustrations, and cheeky sermon series titles incredibly cheesy.

A lot of us have seen the typical event-driven attractional programming as essentially the graduated manifestation of the youth group culture of the ’70s and ’80s. “Not your grandfather’s church!” the promotional mailers used to day. Except now it is our grandfather’s church. Lame. Us Gen-Xer’s tried to merge it with an older aesthetic, applying the attractional ethos to an historical pathos and we gave you--voila!--the emerging church, which of course emerged into thin air. The younger generations are much smarter than we are.

When you couple the general temperament of the Millennials and younger with their growing affection for vintage, retro, analog, organic, artisanal, what-have-you, you find a cultural aversion to packaged, programmatic Christianity. As this movement and its pastors get older--how many times can we do the “God at the Movies” thing, by the way, and still call ourselves innovative?--they may be aging themselves out of the increasingly necessary customer base.

2. The Undiscipled Chickens Are Going Home to Roost

This has been a leading theory of mine for some time. The less gospel the attractional church offers, the less convictionally biblical it becomes, the less compelling it will be both to prospective irreligious consumers and to current religious customers. (More on that latter point below.) But the former problem would be a parallel trend to what is happening in the mainline churches. In other words, these churches may be full of people now, but over time, as they are more fully “discipled” in the vein of therapeutic moralism--a kind of Bible-lite inspirational self-help--the less need they have for the church itself. I mean, if I’m okay, and you’re okay, why do I need to go to church? I can get inspirational pick-me-ups at home. Rob Bell is even on Oprah now, and you can get all the major attractional guys on your phone. Might as well sleep in Sundays.

The attractional church has spent decades discipling its customers toward a more self-involved, individualized faith. They should not be surprised when this self-involved individualism gets fully embraced and people “peace out” showing up to church on the weekend.

Similarly, the rate of biblical illiteracy has increased incredibly among evangelicals. You cannot convince me that the way the Bible has been preached and taught in this dominant form of evangelicalism over the last 30 years has nothing to do with this trend. We have major church leaders on major stages of influence undermining the sufficiency and potency of Scripture. The pulpit coffee tables in these churches are places from which congregants can get spritzed with a few Bible verses. Consequently, evangelicalism faces the problem of widespread ignorance about what the Bible teaches on almost every biblical subject of import to our cultural moment today, everything from the nature of the church itself to authority and governance, from the basic understanding of the gospel to the traditional church teaching on sexuality. In short, evangelicalism has inadvertently discipled people away from evangelicalism.

3. The Discipled Chickens Are Finding Other Coops

Much hand-wringing has been conducted over the young adult dropout rate. I don’t really wish to add to that, but it’s still a problem, especially in churches that don’t effectively disciple their congregations. What typically happens in these churches is that the back door is as wide open as the front, and even if the church has been successful in bringing in and winning converts--though much of the emerging data on the movement is that they are most successful not in converting the unsaved but attracting the already-saved from other churches--these converts hit a discipleship ceiling. Some of the leaders even say as much. “This church is not for you,” they will say to the Christians in their congregations, which has to be kind of jarring if you happened to get saved in that church.

The turnover rate in attractional churches is pretty high, especially in the “contemporary”-styled versions, at some estimations averaging about seven years before folks move on. I stuck it out about ten years myself, mainly because I thought I could be a positive influence for change. (I discovered it doesn’t really work that way.) In any event, as true believers mature, they get tired of feeling spiritually plateaued in the attractional church and move on. And when your primary base are largely new or otherwise immature believers, it gets harder and harder to sustain forward movement.

4. The Ideal Attractional Consumer Is Becoming Less Religious

This is a larger cultural point. As America becomes less religious, the number of people even interested in any kind of Christianity is decreasing. This is especially true of the attractional church’s ideal target--middle- to upper-middle-class white suburbanites. Even in the Bible Belt, as cultural Christianity dribbles away, so too does the potential customer base for this region’s attractional churches. You would think that as irreligious people become even more irreligious, the churches aimed at reaching irreligious people by appealing to their “felt needs” will continue becoming more and more irreligious themselves, which historically and statistically we see is a recipe for decline.

In fact, the churches most growing in the least religious regions of our nation are the more traditionally evangelical congregations. Is there any reason to think the Bible Belt won’t eventually resemble the post-Christian mission fields of the Northeast/New England and the Pacific Northwest?

Well, maybe there are.

In Part 2 of this post, I hedge my bets on this theoretical collapse and offer some “not so fast” reasons why the attractional church may be just fine for the foreseeable future.

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15 thoughts on “The Attractional Tipping Point—Part One: The Coming Collapse?”

  1. Peter Chun says:

    “the one where the pastor rides his Harley up to the stage on Easter Sunday after the “worship” band has played “Highway to Hell.” This is just incredible!!! Super cool imagery!!!

    1. Andrew Chandler says:

      It’s a true story. I can’t remember which church it was, but I actually saw the performance of Highway to Hell. This is documented in the Youtube documentary “Church of the Tares” –

      1. Peter Chun says:

        Thanks for the link… I just watched some of it, and it’s already super depressing… I pray that all believers will stop “looking for answers” in people and institutions, and just be faithful to the Word… Thank God for Bible teachers like John McArthur, R.C. Sproul, Alistaire Begg, and the like…

  2. Craig Hamer says:

    I think the thing that you have failed to understand about the “attractional churches” is you look at them through the more rigid, traditional lens. Meaning they are committed to the orthodoxy of their practice. Therefore, as things shift around them, they will not be able to handle this and therefore collapse. If I have learned anything about these churches is that they are far more flexible, adaptive and pragmatic than critics give them credit for. Most of these churches are less like churches and more like long term evangelistic crusades. There is a good chance they will adapt fast and more effectively and continue to see some level of effectiveness in the ministry they are aiming to do. Now, is this ministry what you and I think they should do, thats probably another whole discussion. Before anyone says I am a attractional mega church pastor, I am not. I pastor a small church of of about 60 people from almost 20 nations in Eastern Europe, but having rubbed shoulders with leaders from many attractional mega churches, I burned my wide brush a long time ago. I recommend rather than just writing about this one type of church, how about how with the missional incarnation, the traditional or any other type of church will handle these shifts because this would be far more effective to the readers of this blog because attractional church people don’t hang out at the TGC blog.

    1. Jared C. Wilson says:

      Craig, you’re right — they don’t. Which is why I write books and publish short articles more widely.

      I do agree that generally speaking attractional guys work more adaptationally, but the fundamental paradigm has been roughly the same. That’s what I’m aiming at, not necessarily different styles or variations.

  3. Greg says:

    Peter… If only this were a made up example it might be cool, but sadly it really has happened.

    I really would like to stop being a Monk and come back to church, so I find some comfort in it posting, but I suspect Part 2 is going to be a bit more realistic.

    1. Peter Chun says:

      You’re right, Greg! I thought it was super cool, something that Jared made up!!! I was so impressed that he has such vivid imagination! Now, I’m totally depressed (not really, may be super deflated…) to know that it’s something that actually happened! Don’t worry, brother Jared, I’m still a big fan of your writing! :-)

  4. Jeff says:

    Hey brother thanks for the article. I have been at a mega church for the past ten years and our top two books are the bible and deep and wide. I resonate with much of what you said in your article and have stayed two-three years too long thinking I could be that same “agent of change”.

    The problem is that they don’t care to change nor think there is any need to change (at least not what I would suggest). When your god is pragmatism there is no biblical argument in the world that would convince you that you might actually be doing church wrong. And not just wrong, but harmfully to those who have become convinced they are Christians because you told them so. I think the damage being done is devastating and the spiritual shallowness will be felt for generations.

    I would also agree with your assessment that I don’t think they are “reaching the unchurched”. If course many people have been saved in megachurches that have no church background, but I don’t think you can effectively reach the unchurched by being ‘gospel light’.

    I am optimistic about the way forward, because I truly believe this mega movement is attractive primarily to the people who are 40+. My generation (gen X) does not care about smoke machines and would actually prefer depth to music and not emotional manipulation. We appreciate the historic creeds and desire expositional preaching. We know that there is more to church than “a great experience”. If I want a great experience, in the traditional megachurch understanding, I will go to a movie or a concert or something far more exciting. I attend church to connect with the eternal God who split the red sea and raised our Savior to life. Give me more Christ and less lights. Give me more bible and less catchy one liners(ironic if you think about my last sentence). Let me connect with the history of this incredible faith and the rich heritage of hymns that have been passed through the centuries. Stop giving me the latest hillsong or bethel song and stop making me feel like Jesus wants to cuddle up next to me on my couch.

    Help me to remember this:
    “Man of sorrows!” what a name for the son of God who came ruined sinners to reclaim! Hallelujah, what a Savior! Bearing shame and scoffing rude, In my place condemned He stood, Seal’d my pardon with his blood; Hallelujah, what a Savior! Guilty, vile, and helpless we, Spotless Lamb of God was He; Full atonement! can it be? Hallelujah, what a Savior! Lifted up was He to die, “It is finished,” was His cry; Now in heav’n exalted high, Hallelujah, what a Savior! When He comes, our glorious King, All his ransomed home to bring, Then anew this song we’ll sing, Hallelujah, what a Savior!

    I am optimistic brother and appreciate the voice you have been for my generation about this topic. Keep pressing on.

  5. Fin says:

    I like to think you used the chicken analogy because of Spurgeon’s “counting of unhatched chicks” quote… Am I right?

    1. Jared C. Wilson says:

      Sure, we’ll go with that. ;-)

  6. Andrew Chandler says:

    Interesting article. My main gripe with all of these churches that try to be “cool” is that I see no discipleship, and a real lack of reverence for God and value for scripture and spiritual maturity.

  7. Philip J HOLLIDAY says:

    But are the Reformed reaching the unchurched, or are they just recycling folks from these other churches.

  8. Douglas says:

    “Yes, the most common perception of the attractional church is the seeker-driven megachurch, the one where the pastor rides his Harley up to the stage on Easter Sunday after the “worship” band has played “Highway to Hell.”” – sure to attract a hoards of demons, devils and hells angels heading for the lake of fire

  9. Renee' Trimble says:

    Wow! Such insight. I have witnessed this for years. I am a woman believer. Not a Pastor. Yes, an elder.

    It is always difficult for us to hear words that threaten our work, life and livelihood. Please hear the simple words I say.

    Point me to Jesus. He is the only way. It is not about church. It is my relationship with the creator of the universe, Jesus and the Holy Spirit.
    Teach the words, ways and works of Jesus. He is the best example. Teach us to live like him. It is truly this simple. Jesus created a movement that changed the world. What better example do we need?

    In Christ we live!

  10. Ricardo says:

    We need to come back to the simple christianity.

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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, director of The Pastoral Training Center at Liberty Baptist 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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