The Attractional Tipping Point—Part One: The Coming Collapse?

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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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