Missional Thoughts: Needing Something More

A while back I had a period in which I wasn’t on staff at a church.  It allowed my wife and I to visit other congregations.  One Sunday we had an incredible experience.  The church, which shall remain nameless, did everything perfectly.

  • The front door was held open for us by a gentleman with a kind smile.  I immediately felt welcomed.
  • The layout of the entry way was awesome.  Even though it was my first time at the church, and there were a ton of people coming in and out, the natural flow of traffic let me know exactly where to go.
  • The welcome desk was well labeled and prominent on the left hand side of the entry way.  It was staffed with friendly helpful people; and there were no lack of easy to approach greeters with clearly visible nametags standing around expectantly hoping someone would ask them a question.
  • Beyond the Welcome desk there was a room full of breakfast treats and the smell of coffee was in the air (a huge plus for me).
  • A greeter identified us as visitors and led us to the Children’s check in area.
  • The Children’s Sunday School Check-In Desk was also extremely easy to find.  Check in there was great.  One of the workers escorted us to the classrooms, explained to us the security procedures, and answered any and all the questions we could possibly have.
  • The worship service was impeccably pulled off.  The music was sincere, not showy in anyway.  There were multiple worship leaders, but it was extremely smooth and enjoyable.  The songs were relevant, fresh, and easy to pick up for someone who might not know them.  They did a great job of trying to help people engage Christ without terrifying those that might be new the the church experience.
  • The sermon was clear, relevant, and engaging.  The pastor’s points were well thought out and communicated.  My attention was held the entire time.  There were no unnecessary rabbit trails or rants.  It was challenging but not offensive, informative but not burdensome, fun but not ridiculous.  It was a good message.
  • After the service we went to get our kids and they were beaming.  Yes…that’s right…our kids loved Sunday School there.  Usually a new church experience will send them all into tears, but not this time.  They couldn’t stop sharing stories about how much fun they had.

This church is a well oiled machine.  They have it down.  They do all the things authors say you should do to create a wonderful church experience.  They pull off an excellent attractional worship service.  They totally set the bar super high.

As we drove home I asked Wendy what she thought.  Reflectively she said, “That would be a very comfortable place to fall into, but there has to be something more.”   I agreed, “Yeah.  That was amazing…but it is not going to turn the city upside down for Jesus.”

Now, please don’t think we are being judgmental or critical when we say “there must be something more.”  You must understand first, I think this church is incredible.  I have attended a lot of churches, and I’ve never been to one that pulled off an attractional worship service like they did.  Seriously, four snaps in a circle.  Super rock’in awesome cool.

Also, please understand that I am very much part of this church, and thus I am about to be commenting on myself as much as my experience this past Sunday.

I’m not a member or anything like that, but I celebrated as churches like this one over the years.  I applauded churches that risked everything, denied all contemporary wisdom, and fought the status-quo to become environments that were comfortable and inviting to outsiders.  I cheered as these churches put down the hymnals and put lyrics on easy to use screens; as they got rid of the traditional pews and went to more comfortable stadium seating.  I defended speakers that were struggling to give sermons in more “seeker friendly” ways.  I got fired up about worship music becoming more like the music my generation listened to.  I created environments that were fun, comfortable, and exciting, and then instructed the congregation to “bring their lost friends next week!”  I’ve built crazy sets for Sunday mornings, hung flyers on door knobs, cooked pancake breakfasts, pulled off insane visual illustrations, put on Easter pagents and Hell Houses, delivered invitations with soft music playing behind me, and on, and on, and on…you see…

When I speak about the attractional church I am not an outsider.  It is very much a part of me; a part of me that now groans and aches.

So back to “something more…”

My problem is two fold:

First, I believe that the church is the only organization that can bring healing to the pain of Baltimore.  Because it is the only group empowered by the Holy Spirit, it is the only group that can bring dead things to life.

Second, the things that used to work, the things that used to excite people about coming to church, the stuff that used to bring people to the healing power of Jesus, now seems to be the status quo and are no longer working.  The people in my community that are disconnected from God are not attracted to our worship services any more, no matter how relevant we make them.  (This is not just my personal experience.  There are tons of studies out there now showing that less and less people every year are attending church.)  They don’t care what the music is like.  They don’t care how relevant the message is. They don’t care if it is welcoming an inviting.

You see, the attractional based model assumes that there are groups of people out there that would attend a worship service if that worship service was simply welcoming and inviting.  One author I read recently called these groups of people “window shoppers.”  The goal of the attractional church has been to create a beautiful window that would draw people in…but these groups are quickly diminishing.  Sadly, I think these groups are no longer in the neighborhood, but are rather in other churches that can’t get their windows looking nice.

As Wendy and I worshiped in this incredible church last Sunday I looked out over the people and heard the Holy Spirit whisper in my ear (which is incredibly strange for me…not a usual occurance).  The sad and longing voice said, “I want to run wild here.  I want to do incredible things through these people, but they are not living dangerously.”

This I think is the major problem with the attractional church.  The primary activity of the body, the front door where people are introduced to the church, is focused on being comfortable and exciting.  It therefore, unintentionally, feeds the consumer attitude that is already present in our society.  People come, they sit, and they feed off the spiritual life of the few that are living on the edge.

Now, I don’t know yet how to fix this yet, but here are a few things I have come to believe firmly in the last year…

  • We have to stop making our front door (where people come to check us out) a worship service; we need to make it our lives.  People should not be encountering the Holy Spirit for the first time by watching believers worship.  They should be introduced to the Holy Spirit through the insane, crazy, wild, reckless, sacrifical love of Jesus that defines everything we do, every conversation we have, every moment of our existance.
  • We should not be know for our music, our teaching, our environments, or our kids programs.  We should be known for our humility, our brokenness, our passion for the poor, our acceptance of the outcast, our forgiving justice, our non-judgemental righteousness, and our generous giving of ourselves to others.
  • Our worship service should not be the first place we go, the place we show up to get charged up.  It should be the culmination of our week.  After living as Jesus in the battle field of life, our worship services should be where those of us who have Christ in common come to grieve and celebrate with one another the defeats and victories of the week.
  • We must stop making the tools the point.  We have to recapture what Jesus meant when He said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”  If we continue to make our worship service, our programs, our small groups, our activities, our spiritual disciplines the defining focus of what we do then we will follow the path of the phraisees and find ourselves crucifying the Son of God to hold onto our rituals and routines.

Let it be said that we carry in us the attitude of Jesus.  That we are people defined by our love for God and our love for others.  Let the world be amazed at how wildly we give of ourselves, at how recklessly we serve, at how humbly we live, and at how unsafely we love.  Let it be said that when you encounter one of us you never before felt so valued and cared for.  Let membership in our community not be defined by the where we are from 9:30 to Noon on a Sunday, but rather by our reputation in the community as people that live differently.

And let the cry of our lives be, “Jesus is Lord.  Tomorrow in eternity.”

This is my hope for the church.

Thanks for reading my rant.


About the Author: Jeff Elkins

Jeff and his wife Wendy live in the north east corner of Baltimore city with their four crazy children. They belong to a small group of believers called "The Thingy" who are trying to rethink what it means to be the church in Baltimore. Jeff is also currently serving at a traditional Southern Baptist church in north Baltimore working to help the beautiful family there be defined as a people who love like Jesus loves. He has a BA from Baylor University and an MDIV from Truett Seminary. Jeff and Wendy regularly blog at www.jeffandwendy.wordpress.com

  • http://www.churchthought.com Matt Steen

    I think that you have stated what I believe in all of this far better than I ever could have… thank you. I have come out of the mega-church and served in a medium sized church, both of the attractional variety and planted a more incarnational model of church (thought you may disagree with that last part… do you?) and am finding myself in an interesting situation in my latest context, a rather successful attractional multi-site church on Long Island where I am nothing more than a member.

    That said, riddle me this, Batman:

    Is there a middle way? Is there a way to take the best of the attractional church and meld it with the best of the incarnational mindset to form some sort of crazy hybrid? Let’s say I was asked to launch another campus of a multi-site attractional church… if, as I scouted out the area in which to plant I found neighborhoods that had glaring needs and set forth a strategy in which the campus would own those needs and work to care well for the neighborhoods by meeting those needs… and through this creating a process which modeled a more missional lifestyle that encouraged members to reproduce this kind of ministry on their block… would that work? Am I dreaming that this could be pulled off?

    What do you think?

    • Jeff Elkins

      (This is going to be long. If you want me to expand it into a post let me know.)

      So the problem is the “best of attractional” is also the worst of attractional. When I did the attractional model there were three things I loved about:

      1) Using a small number of specialized leaders the model provides a way to get people who would never cross the door way of a stereo typical traditional church into the door. An elite force of staff members can manage a larger force of volunteers who can create an attractive environment for literally thousands of worshipers to attend.

      2) The model allowed me to think, plan, act, and measure in terms of a crowd. Individuals are messy. Crowds are clean. Individuals are unpredictable. Crowds can be predicted. Ever try to measure an individual’s discipleship progress (without becoming legalistic)? Crowds are easy to quantitatively measure. We can watch the masses move through steps.

      3) Finally – because of #1 and #2 – momentum can be tangibly felt by the growth and movement of the body. When everything is clicking and more people are showing up each week you feel like you are about to conquer the world. There seems to be no end to what God can do. Especially now with the advancement in multi-site practice. It feels like the ball will never stop gaining speed as it heads down the hill.

      What is the downside?

      1) Because the model is dependent on such a small number of people, most members define their membership to the community by their attendance to program or through small service rolls. In essence, they are consumers in the system.

      2) Because we focus on the crowd we have little intimate contact with most of the members and depend upon trickle down discipleship – where we train people to lead programs trusting in the cookie cutter programs to shape the membership.

      3) Because of the first two downsides, service focused work in the community ends up being another program people attend and the elite leaders plan and run.

      4) The momentum, although exciting, doesn’t actually = God’s Kingdom transforming our world. Just because we can hold a fantastic pep rally doesn’t mean we will win the state championship game.

      Now, to complicate the problem of a hybrid, what I feel we have learned from the missional conversation though is…

      A) The future (and the present) demand a church in which every member sees himself/herself as a missionary to their community.

      B) Like McNeal said in Missional Renaissance, this means we must become a place that empowers and trains individuals.

      C) If they are to live as missionaries, we need our people to define their membership by their lifestyle (see Hirsch’s Forgotten Ways “Jesus is Lord” chapter) and not by their attendance to programs.

      In essence what we love about the attractional creates the opposite of what we are looking for in the missional.

      So your hybrid (your Both/And) ends up being one of two things:
      1) A bait and switch situation where you real them in with the attractional and then flip them into missionaries into their community. We know now from a few decades of this that a funnel is created in which a very small percentage makes the flip.

      2) Two models under one roof. Most of the people are their for the attractional stuff. Some are missionaries supported by the institution. My experience is that the missional crew starts asking why they need the attractional stuff – and after a while parachurch ministries that attractional churches support are born.

      I’m not saying a mash up isn’t possible. I’m just saying, be ready to loose some of the attractional stuff you love because discipleship isn’t comfortable, easy, or consumer oriented. It is hard work. Like the pearl of great price – awesome once you have it…but you have to sell the farm to buy it.

      One of the things we are working on at one of the churches I’m currently working with is “Can we keep the unity and emotional connection of large group worship and still focus on living as missionaries in the community?” Biggest hurdle at the moment = what in the world is a sermon for – because mentoring trains missionaries and worship creates what we are looking for in unity and celebration?

      • http://www.churchthought.com Matt Steen

        I think the question you are asking about keeping the unity and connection and focusing on living as missionaries in the community is really what I am getting at. As a big believer in the meta-church, which I can see being a missional strategy with a strain of the attractional in it (how’s that?) I think that it can be done… but it can only be done with great intentionality.

        So, as I think through all this I look at the tendency to throw the baby out with the bathwater… our generation seems to be good at completely disregarding the value of what the generations before have done (not saying you are doing this, but making a sweeping generalization) and as I look at some of the mega churches I ask myself what would happen if they were not there? The thing that comes back to me is that there would be no where for the pew sitter to go. Fowler’s third stage Christian would have no church home… the missional/incarnational church would expect so much of them that they would turn tail and run… the attractional church has been a comfortable home for them for quite a while. While I rail against the ineffectiveness of the American church and the amount of pew-sitters that we allow to sit there and do little… is it better for them to have nowhere to go, or to be camping in a pew on Sunday morning? If the attractional model becomes extinct… what happens for this group then?

        • Jeff Elkins

          You are hitting on part of the difficulty of discussing this. Just because I point out negative consequence of the attractional model and call for change doesn’t mean I think it is bad or that the leaders who run it are wrong. The truth is models never die…they just fade away. Attractional mega churches are here to stay. They aren’t going any where.

          For us who believe something new is needed I think we need to pursue innovation – not reform. If culture has/is really changing like we say it is then new models need to emerge.

          I got my start in professional ministry in a meta-church / cell church model and I’ve been closely connected with two more. With all three the history is similar. They start off meta, but because of our consumer / celebrity / “entertain me” culture slowly the large group gathering comes to dominate the church life and the cells become just another piece of the puzzle. The only way I’ve seen it work is if the church deliberately limits the large group gatherings to once a month – forcing life to be found in the cells.

          But still then – the model can be very program / attendance focused. Lifestyle focus is easier in a smaller group because discipleship is much more personal, but the membership to the group is still determined by attandance to a meeting.

          • http://www.churchthought.com Matt Steen

            So, I guess that any church that gets to a certain size can’t help but be attractional then? I don’t know that I like that answer, or buy it right now… Perhaps it is just my own history in the attractional church that is trying to make it work, but I have to think that there is a way to do incarnational stuff with size (and if so, imagine the power of a willow creek or similar doing incarnational ministry)…. give me some hope man! 😉

          • Jeff Elkins

            I wouldn’t say that “any church that gets to a certain size can’t help but be attractional.” I would say, any church that grows beyond a certain point by using a centralized gathering as its primary place of engagement and membership can’t help but become attractional and will always struggle with discipleship. I think we’ve seen plenty of models in history that are incarnational, lifestyle centric, that grew to huge sizes. The monastic movement comes to mind. Wasn’t that just another model of “doing church”? But they didn’t base the definition of church around a centralized gathering designed to grow.

  • Steve

    Thanks to Matt for drawing this conversation to my attention. And thanks to the author for putting into words what I have been pondering for a while. Very “Parable of the Sower” stuff. We need to be attracting people by what we do everyday, not just what we do on Sunday mornings. On the other hand, when a church is in decline, step one is to stop the decline. A bit of the attractional tactics can lift the spirits of the demoralized. Prohibit business discussions on Sundays. Make worship truly a time of refuge.Play some uplifting music and serve nice refreshments afterwards. No bait and switch, but if our job is to recruit fellow missionaries, we need to build from a foundation of goodwill.

    I look forward to future posts.

    • Jeff

      Hey Steve – I’m actually working with a traditional church that has been in decline for almost 20 years now in Baltimore. I completely get what you are saying and agree. I believe the reason making attractional changes to the service will start to create a difference is because the attractional model was simply a reform of the traditional model. It took the traditional model and made it more relevant, more professional, more…attractive. So implying attractional tactics are a great way to push the congregation to “best practice.” (Does that make sense?)

      One of the big struggles we have faced though is helping the congregation understand their own model…or even that they have a model. I would love to hear how you are dealing with that and where you are going with it. If you are in Baltimore shoot me an email – jffelkins@gmail.com Let’s get together for coffee or something and swap stories.

    • http://www.churchthought.com Matt Steen

      Thanks for stopping by Steve! Theresa and I miss you guys!