The attractional church problem is nothing new, and neither is the solution.
In The Gospel-Driven Church, and its predecessor, The Prodigal Church, Jared C. Wilson spends considerable time examining what he calls the “attractional church.” This moniker, Wilson argues, is more articulate than its other derivatives, for instance, the “emergent church” or the “seeker-sensitive church.” Identifying a particular church body as “attractional” brings a certain plight to the fore, namely, the matter of to what the church (and its leaders) are actually winning their churchgoers. “What you win people with is what you win them to,” Wilson affirms. “The best motives in the world cannot sanctify unbiblical methods.”1 With that, Wilson presses into dismantling the latent pragmatism within attractional churches that jeopardizes and impedes the message of grace.
There is a sense in which the rift between the “attractional” and “traditional” church models is, indeed, a contemporary conundrum. The torrid acceptance and ubiquity of social media coupled with the pervasive use of commercial jargon and metrics within the ecclesiastical setting has certainly aggravated the tension between what ought and ought not constitute the “true church.” But we are fooling ourselves if we think the schism between ecclesiological models is somehow a uniquely modern dilemma. In fact, in the 1912 work, The Preacher: His Life and Work, pastor and lecturer John Henry Jowett relays a bevy of incisive remarks against the notion of sensationalizing the church’s message. His words could be lifted from their historical milieu and inserted into a modern polemic without missing a beat. Jowett declares:
We are told that there is a tragic lapse of interest in the Church.
Real quick, doesn’t that sound like the modern revelation of “religious nones”? At times I think we sensationalize our times as if we are living in the most crucial moment in the history of Christianity — as if the establishment of the kingdom is riding on our shoulders. Thus, the influx of “religious nones” corroborate the notion that folks are leaving the church in droves, indicative of the church’s past failures and future uncertainties. This observation from a churchman in the early 1900s affirms something altogether different than what we would expect, namely, there have always been departures from the church. The mission and mandate of the church, therefore, is not to compromise its message or pander to its deserters in order to “win” them to Jesus Christ. Rather, the mission and mandate of the church (and its pastors) is to fervently and faithfully preach the glorious mystery of the cross. (1 Tm 3:14–16) Yes, notwithstanding how that message is perceived. “The church,” writes Wilson, “is not called to be successful by attaining certain numbers or meeting a preset standard of growth, but we are called to be faithful.”2 Okay, back to Jowett:
We are told that there is a tragic lapse of interest in the Church. The Church is now surrounded by a multiplicity of conflicting or competing interests. Modern life has put on brighter colours: it has become more garish, more arresting, more mesmeric. Society has become more enticing, and lures of pleasure abound on every side. And all this is making the Church seem very grey and sombre, and her slow, old-fashioned ways appear like a “one-horse shay” amid the bright, swift times of automobile and aeroplane! And therefore the Church must “hurry up” and make her services more pleasant and savoury. Her themes must be “up-to-date.” They must be “live” subjects for “live” men! They must be even a little sensational if they are to catch the interest of men who live in the thick of sensations from day to day.3
Again, these words come from the mind of a minister at the turn of the 20th century. We would hardly reckon that the churches of the early 1900s as being encumbered by “sensationalism” and afflicted with the notions of appealing to its congregants. And yet Jowett articulates quite clearly that the presence of the “attractional church problem” was an already extant nuisance which the faithful minister must resist. The primary method of resistance, then, being that which fills and spills out of the pulpit. “The pulpit is the prow of the church,” Jared C. Wilson maintains. “Where it goes, the church will go.”4 What the preacher prioritizes as the prevailing message of the pulpit is what will become the fundamental disposition of the church itself.
Accordingly, the faithful preacher’s fight manifests in the temptation to add a dash of the sensational in his presentation of the gospel. To compromise his commitment to proclaiming Christ crucified by making it more fashionable. To jettison his engagement with the Infinite by settling on entertaining and enticing his congregants with something “more garish, more arresting, more mesmeric.” In so doing, the preacher often looks for a more palatable or relatable message with which to give his congregants. But in the truncated sermonizing of spiritual “tips and tricks,” the gospel is lost. “Five steps to a better marriage” or “Six tips to be more giving” or any of the like do not constitute the gospel. “The gospel is not good advice,” writes Wilson in The Prodigal Church; “it is good news.”5 Some one-hundred years earlier, Jowett insisted on the same thing:
All this means that we must preach upon the great texts of the Scriptures, the fat texts, the tremendous passages whose vastnesses almost terrify us as we approach them. We may feel that we are but pigmies in the stupendous task, but in these matters it is often better to lose ourselves in the immeasurable than to always confine our little boat to the measurable creeks along the shore. Yes, we must grapple with the big things, the things about which our people will hear nowhere else; the deep, the abiding, the things that permanently matter. We are not appointed merely to give good advice, but to proclaim good news.6
The solution to the “attractional problem” is the same now as it ever has been: “Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; rebuke, correct, and encourage with great patience and teaching.” (2 Tm 4:2)
Jared C. Wilson, The Gospel-Driven Church: Uniting Church-Growth Dreams with the Metrics of Grace (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2019), 25.
John Henry Jowett, The Preacher: His Life and Work (New York: Hodder & Stoughton, 1912), 86–87.
Wilson, Gospel-Driven Church, 96.
Jared C. Wilson, The Prodigal Church: A Gentle Manifesto Against the Status Quo (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015), 81.