Attractional Churches Create Barriers to Ministry

Tuesday is generally devoted to preaching related issues and the 21st century context. But I want to let the Monday discussion run a bit longer.

On Monday I said that John MacArthur and Joel Osteen pastored the same kind of church. In fact, I hinted that just about every church in North America seems to be built on the same principle in terms of the way it structures ministry. They are all ATTRACTIONAL in style.

Some churches are attractional intentionally and are completely pragmatic. If it will draw people to the church building and into an environment where “church and Jesus” stuff can be talked about, it is fair game and useful. Advertising, marketing and creative use of technology are very big in these churches, generally.

Some churches are attractional by default. They have inherited a form that basically required people in the culture to come to them for the gospel and ministry and they essentially wait for people to come in to serve them the gospel. Quality and friendliness are very big in these churches, generally.

All churches in this attractional continuum encourage their people to evangelize and serve the community but the end result, generally, is that evangelism and service to the community devolves to inviting people to the hours and meetings of the congregation where outsiders can receive the ministry of the church.

Contention: This attractional style has the unintended consequence of creating barriers to being truly missional. It doesn’t mean they can’t be missional, it just means that the form of ministry has created some barriers (some of them large) that inhibit the congregation from perceiving and acting more fully on their part in expanding and preaching the reign of God (the Kingdom).

Let’s explore some of those barriers.

A couple of cautions first:

  • Let’s keep the rhetoric to a minimum. No diatribes against the established church and no hagiographic advocacy of so-called “organic” structures.
  • Let’s follow the love principle of believing the best even in those with whom we disagree.
  • Let’s keep our responses short (anything over 250 words I will edit).
  • Let’s comment on one another’s contributions to the discussion.

Here’s the question:  What are some of the unintended barriers that ATTRACTIONAL MODEL churches create that actually inhibit them from making disciples?

20 thoughts on “Attractional Churches Create Barriers to Ministry

  1. What changed first? Did churches become attractional and thus inhibit their congregations from being more missional or did people become reluctant to be seen as “intolerant”, judgmental, etc and thus became less missional so that churches adapted their structure so that somebody was doing something to reach the lost. I hope I didn’t just hagiograph some organic structure…whatever that is.”)


    1. The issue is centuries old, and probably started near the time after Constantine as the church became dominant in society. Actually, the trend toward ministry being done by a few as opposed to the whole of the body started well before that and can be seen in some of early church writings in the late second century.

      The issues you bring up are more last 100 years or so.

      Think of hagiographic as painting a halo over one model or another and only seeing its good side and never considering possible negatives. (I thought I might have been a bit pedantic using that word. Opps, I did it again!) ; )


  2. While the bible does say in Isaiah 53:2 that Jesus had “no beauty or majesty to attract us to Him” we also know that he attracted huge crowds. However, Jesus didn’t say come to the Temple to hear me preach. Jesus went to where the people were. He engaged the tax collectors, prostitutes, demoniacs, unbelievers where they lived. One of the biggest barriers that attractional churches create is expecting the lost to come to them/us on their/our turf, which we try to make very attractive.

    A lot of people just won’t go to the church building. There is a huge gap or barrier between where they live and the building. As disciples we need to be engaging people where they live every day and be salt, light and leaven right there. We need to become a part of their daily lives like Jesus did. We need to “Go” and mentally and physically leave our “church building” or personal comfort zones and be Jesus where ever we go.

    However, do we personally need to stop worshipping in the our local church building where the assembly of the just gather so that we can “Go” or do we need both to be effective disciples? Didn’t Jesus worship in the Temple and also engage people where they lived? Or possibly, each person is unique in how they become the effective disciple God has planned them to be. I can’t imagine Jesus wants us to remove all the existing churches from our culture, which may be an essential part of God’s plan to keep us from self-destructing.


    1. Paul, we also know that by the end of his ministry the crowds for the most part had dispersed and the core group of followers was down to about 120 in the upper room. There were others, I’m sure, but the crowds began to dissipate as the teaching got clearer and the demands of discipleship became higher.

      But I completely agree–Jesus went out to the people he wanted to reach. We tend to wait for them to come to us.

      No, I don’t think we have to stop worshiping in our local church gatherings be they buildings, schools, houses or sidewalks. But what we must learn is how to get out of our worshiping communities and into the communities within which we live. We need to get out and serve and love and preach the gospel to those around us.

      Thanks for some good thoughts brother. I appreciate you.


  3. What message does the attractional medium unknowingly or knowingly communicate?

    Some unspoken messages that hinder Kingdom empowerment of everyday people:
    1. Sit down [shut up] and learn from the experts (contra the priesthood of all believers theology we cherish and “one another” N.T. practices we hold up).
    2. Ministry = service in THIS venue (what you see in front of you and advertised in the bulletin).
    3. Teaching needs to be this polished and up to this standard of speaking ability and training level.
    4. Worship is a time and space event… involving music … and in a holy time and holy place with holy people running it.
    5. There is a sacred space and time where ministry, worship and community happen; and the rest of my life is secular … thereby more degrees removed from my spirituality.

    Will stop there for brevity’s sake. But all these things hinder Kingdom mission!


    1. George, I am familiar with some of Hirsch but I honestly have never finished a book that he has written. I have Forgotten Ways, and need to get it down and read it. Here’s my quandary though. Most of the people who come out of the Frost/Hirsch, Viola/Dale/Cole camps seem almost anarchist in tone.

      Frankly, this doesn’t persuade and is rather a put-off. I’m not saying Frost/Hirsch, Viola/Dale/ and Cole are that, (although Viola comes pretty close at times), but most of their disciples come off that way.

      I prefer the tone and calmer spirit of Timmis in Multiplying Churches or the more recent work that he wrote with Tim Chester, Total Church: A Radical Reshaping around Gospel and Community.


      1. Marty, I think the world of you, but I’m afraid I have to part ways with you here. I think it unfair and reductionistic to group these people together or even dismiss their works simply based on your gut reaction to alleged disciples of these people. I don’t like most Calvinists (though I myself am a four pointer), but it would be premature to dismiss Calvin on that basis; right?

        I think there is a pretty big difference between Viola and the others you have mentioned. Viola is a deconstructionist hammer [and provocateur] and has played that role well… at times to great irritation, but still I’m thankful that he’s come out with some of his stuff for the sake of perspective. The others are reconstructionists who offer an alternative vision — instead of just saying that the current system is broken. The Dales and Neil Cole are working with Megachurches interested in starting simple/organic churches in the midst of their framework. They have even held a few strategic meetings together and even a conference together from this cooperative effort (Verge was one of them). I don’t think this is the behavior of an anything resembling an anarchist who is mad at the establishment and wants NOTHING to replace the broken something. I actually think you would like them if you met them, Marty.

        I’m sorry you have not had good experiences with people who have been influenced by their works (which would include me). Aren’t we all guilty of seeing through the glass dimly and being too passionate about our beliefs? Many of us are still in the awkward phase of deconstruction and will say overzealous things. But many of us have also stumbled upon something good too that is worth hearing — even if it sounds too radical. I would hope you would still make a place at the table for all spectrum of people b/c I believe we all want the same thing though we may see differently on the subject. And I believe God uses all kinds of writers to direct people on different points in the journey.

        I will also say this, Marty, for perspective’s sake. Some of the most influential people in church history were accused of being something akin to anarchists and some even had overzealous personalities. All the early apostles and later Reformers were in the first camp, but I’m thinking of Martin Luther as one who met both criteria. I wouldn’t want to have been friends with him from what I’ve read about him, but I sure do thank him for being courageous to speak the truth however unpopular it was. While we wish their personalities were less rough (Augustine’s too), aren’t we celebrating them for the gifts they’ve given the church? As Gamaliel once said in Acts, I think time will tell what’s of God and what isn’t.

        Love you, and thank you for your investment in my life at TEDS and after.


  4. Mike,

    Thanks for the push back brother. I think you misunderstood a little bit of my drift though. I take responsibility for that. I must not have been clear.

    I wasn’t accusing Cole et al of an anarchist bent. In fact, I sympathize with much of what they write and I have introduced many to his books (were you one?). Actually, what I would plead for is more respect from both camps.

    Maybe it is the circles I run in at the seminary and conferences but a lot of the the people who are highest on Hirsch et al, are so anti-established church that, I stand by what I said, they feel more angry than passionate to me and that doesn’t move the conversation forward. Too much heat and not enough charity.

    Hope that helps. Praying for your ministry. Count it a privilege to know you and to have played a part in your life. Tell Leslie I said hello.


  5. Marty, thanks for the clarification. And for the record, you were indeed the one who recommended Organic Church to me four years ago to date … as well as The Shaping of Things to Come. And you recommended the Organic paradigm for where our church plant was. So I hold you responsible for my shift that took me out of pastoral ministry altogether! LOL!

    I am in full agreement with you that there should be more charity and respect — especially since, no matter how we divide the lines, we are still part of the universal (“catholic”) Church. Are there lots of people who are angry in the simple church movement? Yes. Especially among those who are not missional. They are in house churches to get away from the traditional churches that hurt them. But these are not the people reading Hirsch et al!

    The vast number of people I rub shoulders with though who are part of the organic missional crowd are not angry like I’m hearing you describe. The ones who I tend to see as angry are the ones who are in transition. And I guess from my vantage point, I’m ok with the presence of some anger. I think anger is part of the deconstruction and dying process — which, in my humble opinion, is a necessary part of the detoxing and creative process of a whole new way of being and living outside of Christendom. While anger in general is hard to control and often leads to bad things, I think it’s a sign of health … and progress. I believe it is to be preferred over apathy since anger means there’s wrestling and discontent going on instead of passivity and acceptance. But just my personal opinion.

    Keep posting stuff, brother! Blessings on you.


  6. Attractional model (and it’s attendant characteristics) deficiencies –
    1) Lack of relational commitment – in order to learn and show love you have to have relational conflict and then work through forgiveness, reconciliation and learning to work together. You have to be with a group closely enough and long enough to have to work through sin issues. Superficial groups can’t get this done.
    2) Bilge water (old time sailor’s term) is thicker than blood. Meaning, shared hard times are more effective at binding people together relationally than familial relationships. I would say that if a missional group included, within the context of their verbal witness, shared service and suffering the people would love more.
    3) Distance from God’s personal work in other’s lives. When God rescues someone you know or you witness their faith it makes God’s saving power more concrete in your thinking.
    4) The gospel, properly understood, attracts really broken people. They won’t open up unless they know and trust others. They trust when they see people work through the stuff above.
    I don’t know if this is focused enough but I am willing to clarify if necessary.


    1. Doug, welcome to the conversation brother. Some good observations here. And you are absolutely right, good soil for the gospel is the broken lives of sin. As proverbs says, “The way of the wicked is hard.”


  7. i could talk for hours, but i’ll limit myself to three barriers to disciple-making.

    – attractional “systems” of evangelism tend to convert the lost to a prescribed idealogy, rather than to Christ himself. holding a certain doctrine becomes more important than being an obedient disciple.

    – there’s a sort of “bait-and-switch” going on with attractional ministry. forgive me for copying and pasting from a previous post of mine, but… ‘We invite others to a Starbucks look-alike coffee shop where a Coldplay-like band is followed by a tousled-hair Gap model talking about how much God is like (insert trendy book or movie title here). Then a year later, we wonder why our churches aren’t embracing Jesus’ words about dying to self and even being persecuted for following him.’ we offer acceptance and “being cool” instead of suffering and death to self.

    – attractional ministry often requires that you pull people out of their own culture. this prevents them from taking the gospel back to their family and (used-to-be) friends. it also hinders their ability to live the gospel out in a way that is appropriate in their culture. this is one reason attractional models of ministry aren’t easy to duplicate and/or reproduce.


    1. Brett, welcome to the conversation. I was just at your website, (don’t know how I got there), and thought “this is a young leader I would love to meet someday.” Will pray today for your ministry there in Tanzania.

      I take it that “systems” in your first comment is in quotes because generally, the Attractional model is not intentionally designed but more adopted as the norm in our culture.


      1. wow, that’s a nice thing to think about me. thanks. perhaps we will meet one day. you won’t be in africa anytime soon, will you? thank you much for your prayers; they are valued above gold.

        you’re spot on with my quotation marks. somehow, the attractional model has become the default setting for church, evangelism, and missions. and now those of us who believe the Bible teaches an incarnational approach are asked to prove “our side.” why should the burden of proof rest on us?

        churches today (in the states, and most other places as well) are simply going to be attractional in nature — and in all their tendencies — until another option is considered. attractional has somehow gotten in the very dna of Christianity, to the point that it is the assumption and the rule.

        that being said, i do agree that it’s technically a system. perhaps i try to say too much with a pair of quotation marks…


  8. Because they have a come-and-see mindset, attractional churches–like malls–must create structures that both satisfy the consumer and keep the consumer coming back for more. This saps discipleship in Christ of it’s naturally outward focus. At their best, attractional churches can excel at inculcating piety in a disciple, but they cannot groom disciples for mission because such grooming would assume that the church has an outwardly-focused posture from the get-go.

    To replace attractional DNA with missional DNA, churches must entrust both disciples and all ministry to the Holy Spirit. Acts 6:1-7 is illustrative of this kind of radical trust. We learn from the passage that to be a widow-minister, one had to be full of the Spirit, wise, and of good repute. This tells us that

    (a) The whole church had an eye for what it was to be Spirit-filled, wise, and of good repute. Lesson: The church must discern, envision, and model what Spirit-indwelt disciples look like morally AND ministerially.

    (b) The whole church demanded that folks be in tune with the Spirit to participate in God’s ministry. Lesson: The ministry is only as Spirit-led as the ministers.

    (c) Lesson from the first two points: The whole church had a culture of radical, uncompromising trust in the Holy Spirit.

    (d) Because they entrusted people and the ministry to the Spirit, all ministries became training grounds for future ministry (i.e., contra ministerial equilibrium and atrophy). In this way all “outreach” crackles with evangelistic, kingdom-expanding potential. This explains why two guys who started as widow-ministers end up with evangelistic, miracle-working ministries that pushed the church out to uncharted territory and thusly changed the DNA of the church!


  9. I realize that in my last post I kinda veered from the discipleship focus! Sorry. Essentially, if we believe from Scripture that fully-orbed disciples are agents of kingdom-expansion in and through Christ, then our discipleship and church structures cannot be inward-focused. So church leaders must model evangelism, leadership, and piety for disciples in order to hit this fully-orbed target. But the disciples we turn out are only as fully-orbed as we are! So if they don’t evangelize, it’s because we the mentors don’t model AND teach evangelism. Though we know little of Stephen and Philip, we’ve got to assume that they knew what being Spirit-filled and faithful looked like because Peter, John, and many others were modeling this in their ministries (as Acts 2-5 shows).

    Also, the fact that the entire church knew what being Spirit-filled, wise, and of good repute looks like says much about the apostolic modeling that was happening. This clues us into the fact that the apostolic example heavily influenced by individuals AND structures in the church. It is fascinating to think that apostolic dynamism in evangelism and kingdom expansion set the pace serving food to widows! What if such leadership set the pace for our deacon ministries? Such is the miracle of faithful modeling.

    Such modeling and trust in the Spirit gives disciples the freedom and flexibility to go beyond church structures by either

    (a) broadening said structures or
    (b) graduating beyond them to more expansive ministry.

    Many churches only have a vision for discipleship that is contained within existing structures. So when the Spirit’s work in someone’s life necessitates structural expansion or ministry graduation, churches don’t know what to do. This is one not-so-well-documented reason that cynicism sets into the hearts of many church-goers.


  10. Myron, welcome to the conversation brother. How’s the pretty little girl of yours? Trust she is letting you and the Misses get some sleep.

    Good comments. I like the richness of your meditation on the implications of the book of Acts. I think you are right. Missional DNA is Holy Spirit infused. Attractional DNA is human spirit infused.

    Those eaves dropping on this response should not jump to the conclusion that Attractional cannot be infused with the Holy Spirit however. I am talking about the tendencies of the two models.


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