Yesterday I outlined some thoughts on the prospect of an institutional collapse of the attractional* church movement. The summarized reasons are as follows:
1. The younger generation is less interested in the attractional product. 2. The movement trains its congregants out of the need for itself. 3. Maturing believers outgrow the movement’s churches. 4. The movement is losing its core customer base due to wider cultural changes.
Properly nuanced, those major thoughts (and a few minor ones unmentioned) have informed my musings about the potential of an attractional tipping point. But it could be I have no idea what I’m talking about; thus today’s self-rejoinder.
Reasons Why the Attractional Church May Be Just Fine for Quite Some Time
A couple of years ago I was having lunch with a couple of ministry colleagues from Nashville. I outlined my working theory about the coming collapse of the attractional church. What is found in Part 1 is a basic summation of my argument. At the time, I even mentioned a particular leader in the attractional world as an example of a surface-level teacher setting himself up for failure. This fellow did fail, morally disqualifying himself from ministry and getting fired. And while his church suffers some obvious ramifications from that, this “fall from grace” didn’t seem to cause much self-reflection in the tribe where he carried a lot of weight. They just kept on keepin’ on, like it didn’t happen. Several high-profile falls have occurred in the last two years in the attractional world. Still they seem un-bothered.
My friends looked at me like I wasn’t on to something. Their responses, and a few from some others I’ve asked over the last few years, are synthesized below. Here are some reasons why we may not be close to an attractional tipping point at all:
1. Undiscipled Chickens Don’t Care Where They Roost
This week Jonathan Merritt posted his latest screed against evangelicalism’s audacious orthodoxy, calling evangelical would-be gatekeepers “cowardly” (his word) for calling out false teachers (my words) for their “different understanding of same-sex relationships” (his words). Tucked into that piece was this nifty passage:
And for those conservative Christians who believe Jen [Hatmaker] is an outlier, allow me to burst your bubble. Hatmaker is not alone in her views on same-sex relationships. Many evangelicals agree with her. No, I’m not referring to Matthew Vines or David Gushee or Julie Rogers or any other evangelical who is vocal about their affirming position. I’m talking about many who secretly agree with Hatmaker but are too afraid to say so.I have talked to dozens and dozens of evangelical leaders over the past few years who confidentially confess that they’ve changed their minds on these issues too. They include pastors of some of America’s largest evangelical churches, preachers with internationally broadcast television ministries, bestselling Christian authors, popular bloggers, and leaders of large faith-based organizations. They can’t afford to have their speaking schedules dry up or to lose their jobs, so they avoid the issue, or worse, they outright lie about what they actually believe.
Will the bubble burst? I would think so.
Back when I was talking to my Nashville friends, I brought this subject to the fore. We have all seen how the standard tack of those pushing for the normalization of same-sex marriage and the sanctification of homosexual behavior has changed from “It’s not going to affect you” to “You will be made to care.” At some point, I argued, all of these fence-sitting attractional leaders aren’t going to be allowed to remain silent. Someone will want to be hired, someone will want to be married, someone will ask an interview question, someone will want to teach or preach or lead a ministry. Attractional leaders by and large have built their platforms on not rocking the boat, and remaining as implicit as they can on all kinds of divisive issues. This has led of course to a notable silence on subjects where the Bible is loud.
If Merritt is right that there are “dozens and dozens” of these high-profile leaders who affirm what the Bible denies—and I have no reason to think he isn’t—but are too used to spending the money and the good will of their audience to admit it, how much longer can they (or their audience) bear the silence? I mean, setting aside for the moment the duplicity in coddling the folks who prefer to live as hypocrites while calling those who are up-front about their convictions “cowards,” there is embedded here a tenuous scaffolding of conviction. Aren’t things that aren’t firm destined to collapse?
I said to my friends, “Don’t you think once these guys begin to”—pardon the term —”out themselves as affirming of same-sex marriage” (for instance) “or in denial of biblical inspiration (or whatever), that their empires will fall?”
“Not necessarily,” my friends said. Why? Because most of the people who’ve been discipled under their ministries have not been taught the Bible thoroughly or convictionally. They’ve been un-discipled, in other words. They don’t know any different. They’ve grown up largely under what Christian Smith calls “moralistic therapeutic deism,” so unbiblical teaching wouldn’t necessarily register as unbiblical. In fact, it would probably sound very much in the spirit of moralistic therapeutic deism. I think this explains the appeal of the so-called “progressive Christian” movement to so many in my generation. We have grown up in the attractional world, getting bits and slices of self-oriented biblical teaching for decades. Then the intellectual and creative thought-leaders come around, and we can’t discern where they’re heterodox. It sounds like biblical maturity.
We were never properly grounded, so we are easily led astray. Further, we’ve been accustomed to siding with the crowd and discipled according to a Christianity that apes the culture, so when preachers and teachers come along who are marrying Christianity with the culture’s views on sexuality, the fingers feel good on our ears.
I suppose if one of the attractional megachurch guys came out tomorrow as fully affirming of same-sex marriage, there’d be some backlash, even among his admirers. Some folks would feel betrayed, bamboozled, and they would splinter off. But I bet there’d be an awful lot of support from within the tribe, both from major leaders who don’t really care about those things and also from his own congregants who don’t really know about them. This new teaching will be seen as the way of grace, while the traditional teaching will be seen as the stuff of legalism. The attractional church has not built its customer base on robust biblical teaching in the first place.
2. Traditions Die Hard, Especially in More Bible Belt-y Places
Even my theory that the Bible Belt is heading toward the ruins of post-Christendom falls under scrutiny. Some of the more recent statistical data have shown that churchgoing trends aren’t really all that dire, especially in places where they’ve traditionally been strong all along. I would have assumed that the Bible Belt would go the way of the Northeast and the Northwest, as older generations die out and younger generations less interested in the faith emerge. But traditions die hard.
I found this even to be true during my time in Vermont, the least religious state in the entire nation. There are folks who would never darken the door of my church building who nevertheless had a sentimental affection for the church building itself. Many a Southern church planter has come to New England—rural New England, in particular—assuming that what the “seekers” want is some hip new version of the faith in a modern aesthetic, only to discover it’s the customers down South who like new styles. Your building type or music style isn’t really what’s keeping New Englanders away from your church plant. It’s actually the message (usually). New Englanders generally don’t care too much about biblical Christianity, but they have no aversions generally to church architecture and traditions. These things are part of their cultural bedrock.
I suppose Bible Belt Christianity could be much the same. I do think it will get less and less gospel-explicit, becoming evangelical largely in name only (if that), but I would not be surprised if the gatherings continue unabated for quite some time, fully produced and wholesomely inspirational. It is hard to eradicate tradition from a culture, and the attractional church scene has become as much a part of the Bible Belt culture (not just in the South but in more regional “Bible Belts” around the nation) as the fundamentalist church scene was 50 years ago.
3. Americans Like Shows
You can find traces of the attractional influence all over the world, especially in the West, but in America it rules the day, because Americans are different. We like big, we like loud, and we like showy. We are an entertainment-addicted people, and so long as there is an appetite for spiritual things in us, we will prefer our spirituality mixed with spectacle. In my prognostication about the end of the attractional church, I have likely underestimated Americans’ love for productions. In fact, while I’ve wondered if the more concert-like churches become, the more likely they are to fall, the exact opposite may well be the case. The number of megachurches is in fact increasing. Not all megachurches are attractional in methodology, but most of them are.
This is where I could insert a lot of examination of the effect of media on American values and aptitude, quote Marshall McLuhan, and so on Instead, I’ll just say that we have become a nation of spectators, and all the indicators in the evangelical world are that the church has embraced—not challenged or subverted—the culture’s trajectory in these matters. Spectator Christianity is big business and probably will be for a long time.
4. Vague Spirituality Never Goes Out of Style
Take a look at the most consumed religious books, music, television programs, and sermon podcasts. Are they the most theologically sound and biblically robust? No. This tells us something. It tells us that the largest percentage of Christian consumers of spiritual content prefer the kinds of things the attractional church is known for—individualistic, inspirational, “Bible-based” teaching. This roach never dies. You turn the light on, it scurries. A culturally nuclear cataclysm, the likes of which we are seeing in the United States’ shifting moral values over the last few years, can’t even kill it. Bland, maudlin, syrupy vague spirituality we will always have with us. It will outlive us all.
No, the attractional church has a lot going for it, consumeristically and culturally speaking. The less clear and the less convictional it gets, in fact, the wider its apparent reach. As the world becomes less Christian, we may in fact see an increase in those “spiritual but not religious” respondents. This paradigm is well-suited for many of them. “Spiritual but not religious” is sort of the attractional model’s raison d’etre. In this mode, come whatever cultural shifts, it may not lose many people at all, nor cultural influence, at least in its immediate local context, but perhaps not even in the wider and increasingly more tribal—world of the religious marketplace (publishing, conferences, web, social media).
What it will cease to be is evangelical in any meaningful sense of the word. And collapse or not, a prophetic reformation and a spiritual revival are still sorely needed.
You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt should lose its taste, how can it be made salty? It’s no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet. — Matthew 5:13
So there you have it. Attractional Tipping Point? Yes? No? Maybe? Tell me what you think in the comments.
— * Please see the first post for a short definition of what I mean by “attractional church.”