Missional versus attractional: An argument the church cannot afford

When it comes to saving souls, there should be no debate about the method to be used—read on!

Jesse Wilson, DMin,is an associate professor in the School of Religion at Oakwood University, Huntsville, Alabama, United States.

For years a religious battle has raged that you probably were not even aware of. It is a controversy over the most effective way to expand the kingdom of God. Two scenes will help illustrate some of the issues involved.

Scene one: I am listening to Reggie McNeal, church planter and author of Missional Renaissance and The Present Future, and he is in rare form. Railing against the shortcomings of the traditional church, his PowerPoint presentation is an all-out assault against the “attractional” church, offering the “missional” church instead. His beam-ing devotees consider his arguments beyond dispute.

Fast-forward a few months, and it is scene two: I am in the Gwinnett Center just outside of Atlanta, Georgia, United States, and 13,000 people have jammed the place for the Catalyst Conference hosted by Andy Stanley and the North Point Church. I listen to powerful messages from Francis Chan, Matt Chandler, Christine Caine, and a host of others. Stanley’s remarks and passages from his latest book, Deep and Wide, particularly intrigue me. Itseems that a significant percentage of his membership had no church history or religious involvement prior to joining North Point. The congregation has taken an aggressive and unconventional approach that has been reaching Anglo youth and young adults in large numbers. What interests me even more is Stanley’s contention that his local church is “unapologetically attractional.”1 The Catalyst Conference itself is proof of that.

In one corner I find Reggie McNeal, Alan Roxburgh, and the heavyweight supporters of the missional church. In another corner are Andy Stanley and the prominent advocates of the attractional church. How do we make sense of these conflicting characteristics, claims, and models for the church as a whole? While it is an extremely important discussion, if it in any way hinders approaches that are legitimately expanding the kingdom, it is an argument we cannot afford. Winning arguments is a lot easier than winning people.

Missional church

The missional church is an idea whose time has come. Actually, it is an approach to doing church whose time has never really left. Although some disagree over the actual definition of “missional,” or missionary, church, few argue with the following three core characteristics of the missional church as expressed by the Missional Church Network.2

1. Missional church is about the missionary status of God and His church.If a single word seems to sum up God’s activity on earth, it is that of “sending.” One of the greatest contributions of the missional imagination is a clear understanding of the very nature of God as it relates to His “evangelistic pursuits.” Actually, the missional church is not about the church itself as much as it is about God. Alan Roxburgh and M. Scott Boren effectively lay out this premise in their book Introducing the Missional Church.3 The missional church assumes that God is already actively at work in the world to redeem and restore fallen humanity. The role of the church is to determine how to become part of that divine agenda.

2. Missional church is about incarnational ministry. Missional churches see themselves as reflecting the ministry of Jesus by becoming part of the life and culture of the community. Just as Jesus came into the world as one of the world, the missional church wants to enter the community as part of the community. The idea is to engage non-believers in a way that both is authentic and identifies where God is already at work. Supporters of the missional imagination see this as the “go and be” approach as opposed to the “ come and see” concept of kingdom building. 

3. Missional church is about actively participating in the missio dei, or mission of God. God’s mission on earth is toredeem lost humanity to Himself. The church’s responsibility is to participate in that mission, first by observing God’s movements in the community. Jesus said in John 6:44, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draw him, and I will raise him on the last day” (NABRE). The passage implies that God is at work in the lives of nonbelievers before we reach them with a handbill or Bible study. This idea of actively participating in the missio dei illustrates the difference between a church with a missions program and that of a missional church.

These are just three of a number of compelling characteristics of missional churches. The attractional church also has its characteristics and exponents.

Attractional church

1.  Attractional church hungers for lost people. Some have been skepticalof the seeker-sensitive church model and believe that the attractional approach gives too much attention to so-called “lost people.” Maybe we ought to be glad when any group focuses on nonbelieving people, loved by God. It pushes us to be outwardly focused. Chuck Lawless maintains that, “Too many churches are neither attractional nor missional because they have little commitment to reaching the unchurched anyway. An attractional approach is at least an intentional start.”4

2.  Attractional church believes in worship excellence. Some may be putoff by what they consider to be external cosmetics and “rock-concert” aesthetics, but no one will doubt its striving for excellence. I think we’ve all seen services with last-minute coordination, devoid of preparation, quality, and even logic. Few believe that such worship services can be pleasing to God. Attractional approaches believe that God works through excellence, and when that unchurched person enters our facility, sometimes after much hesitation and often with much trepidation, the message of the gospel and the claims of the gospel must be presented in the best and clearest ways possible. As Len Wilson says, “A powerful ‘attractional’ worship event serves to create followers of Christ and sends people back out in mission to others.”5

3.  Attractional church creates a loving community. The attractionalchurch prioritizes warm and welcoming relationships. This is true in the church sanctuary, but it is present in the church lobby, and it may even be found in the church parking lot. It’s less a case of finance and more a matter of intent.

Lawless states, “There’s something awfully attractive about people who are generous with their time, energy, and resources, particularly for people beyond their huddle.”6

What is the problem?

Since it is absolutely clear that the missional imagination is on solid ground theologically, biblically, and methodologically, where could it possibly come under fire? From my observations, the critics of the missional church movement have consistently identified two potential problem areas.

Potential problem one: Lack of respect for other ministry models. The absence of humility and objectivity displayed by a number of the missional movement “missionaries” disturbs some. The call to missional ministry is a fundamental summons to every follower of Christ, regardless of ministry models. It takes all kinds of churches and ministries to reach all kinds of people. When those in the missional movement describe the challenge of doing meaningful ministry in attractional churches, I know what they mean! I have pastored attractional churches, and many of my friends belong to them. But attractional churches, at their best, still have missional elements at their core. Regarding themselves as churches both gathered and scattered, they see themselves oriented as “come and see,” “come and be,” and “go and tell.” Thus, attractional churches can also be missional.

Potential problem two: The lack of missional fruit from the missional model. The missional church criticizes the attractional church for measuring success with numbers such as those of souls and goals. But the missional church doesn’t seem to allow itself to be measured. How is one to evaluate success when it comes to the missional church? Could the lack of fruit be worthy when fruitfulness seemed important to Jesus and His early church? What is the fruit of the missional church?

Dan Kimball is the author of The Emerging Church: Vintage Christianity for New Generations, Off Road Disciplines: Spiritual Adventures of Missional Leaders, and a number of other volumespopular with the missional crowd. He ignited a firestorm when he published an article in Leadership Journal ques-tioning the claims of the missional movement that he champions. Here are a few of his observations:

•  “I have a suspicion that the missional movement has not yet proven itself beyond the level of theory.”

•  “Some say that creating better programs, preaching, and worship services so people ‘come to us’ isn’t going to cut it anymore. But here’s my dilemma—I see no evidence to verify this claim.”

•  “Given their unproven track records, these missional churches should be slow to criticize attractional churches that are making a measureable impact.”7

I consider this good advice, but I’m surprised that it comes from a missional supporter. The missional church’s passion for incarnational, missio dei–driven, missional outreach also appears in many attractional churches but is expressed in different ways—not perfect ones, perhaps, but different.

And that raises another important issue. It is obvious that we live in a consumer, media-driven Western culture, one that we could label “attractional.” No wonder attractional approaches to outreach are still very effective in reaching millions. Is the missional model simply countercultural? Or is the attractional church in an attractional culture particularly able to lead an overstimulated generation to more substantive and spiritual answers?

The search for common ground

Effective attractional and missional churches have much in common.8 In Colossians 4, the apostle Paul champions three characteristics that both church types effectively illustrate.

Pray for unbelievers. Paul wrote in Colossians 4:2 that our prayers should be steadfast, watchful, and thankful. He then requested prayer for an open door to share Christ. Though he was then in jail, that didn’t cancel his mission to expand God’s kingdom. Even under the most challenging circumstances, we can advance it through the power of prayer.

Prayer must be the cornerstone for all outreach. We must make it our practice to pray for people and with people if we want what we do to be successful. Prayer not only connects us to divine power and wisdom, it is one of the most effective ways to engage nonbelievers because of their openness to prayer. Many people may reject a Bible study, but few of them will refuse your offer to pray.9

Live with unbelievers. Paul prayedthat Christians would conduct themselves wisely toward outsiders, making the best use of every opportunity (Col. 4:5). That combines the incarnational approach of the missional church with the evangelistic urgency of the attractional church. I like the combination!

The apostle charged his readers to be wise in their conduct and contact with unbelievers. Our call is to be salt and light without losing our distinctive witness. Sowing is an “inside job.”10 Most of the biblical heroes that we sing and preach about were “insiders.” They lived and worked in the midst of a particular culture and thus made a tremendous dif-ference for the kingdom. Nehemiah was an insider, as were Esther and Daniel. Most of our church members are insiders who spend the major part of their day in some work-related activity—going to work, working, returning from work, planning for work, and so on.

We need to be more intentional about training them to function in the world—where they work—instead of just in the church! Since they spend the lion’s share of their time in the marketplace and not at church, why does so much of the church’s training focus on their church responsibilities? Many churches offer choir training once a week but may prepare members for the marketplace only once in a lifetime!

Speak to unbelievers. In Colossians 4:6, Paul wrote about the importance of our words as we live a missional life.

Words can be misleading, meaningless, menacing, or mistimed.11 What we say and how we say it are equally important. The power of our persona lnarratives—our stories—could be the best way to speak to unbelievers. As we walk intentionally among unbelievers, nothing is more compelling than our personal reflections, testimonies, or experiences in God’s kingdom.

 A better cause

The missional-attractional debate is helpful to the extent that it spurs us to more effective approaches and ideas for expanding God’s kingdom. But why settle for making a point when God calls us to make a difference? For example, if my son or daughter is lost, I do not care whether their initial entry point to the kingdom is the front door of an attractional church or the side door of a Starbucks. I want someone to tell them about Jesus!

We can debate the effectiveness of various attractional and missional approaches, but not their orthodoxy. That being the case, lost souls are too important for us to be wasting valuable time. It is an argument that we cannot afford—and even less so, our lost family and friends.

1  Andy Stanley, Deep and Wide: Creating Churches Unchurched People Love to Attend (Grand Rapids, MI:Zondervan, 2012), 16.

2  Missional Church Network, missionalchurchnetwork.com.

3  Alan J. Roxburgh and and M. Scott Boren, Introducing the Missional Church: What It Is, Why It Matters, How to Become One (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2009).

4  Chuck Lawless, “7 Things we can learn from attractional churches.” chucklawless.com/2017/01/7 -things-we-can-learn-from-attractional-churches/

5  Len Wilson, “The demise of the attractional church is greatly exaggerated.” lenwilson.us/demise -attractional-church/ 

6 Lawless.

7  Dan Kimball, “Missional Misgivings,” Leadership Journal, Fall 2008, accessed April 24, 2013 at christianitytoday.com/le/2008/fall/14.112.html.

8  See, for example, Eddie Cole, “Missional or attractional? The value of embracing a both/and mentality.” Christianity Today, August 2017. christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2017/august /missional-or-attractional-value-of-embracing -bothand-mental.html

9  See Kevin G. Harney, Organic Outreach for Ordinary People: Sharing the Good News Naturally (GrandRapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009).

10 Tim Downs, Finding Common Ground: How to Communicate With Those Outside the Christian Community—While We Still Can (Chicago, IL: MoodyPress, 1999), 82.

11 William Carr Peel and Walter L. Larimore, Going Public With Your Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003),100, 101


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Jesse Wilson, DMin,is an associate professor in the School of Religion at Oakwood University, Huntsville, Alabama, United States.

August 2018

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