Allan Hirsch is credited with coining the word “attractional” to describe the way evangelical cutting edge church has been done from the 1980’s until now. The Alliance in Canada has been into this model in a fairly big time way since the mid-eighties and only recently is beginning to experiment with other possibilities. The pure attractional model seeks to draw people into the church building so that they will have a specialized need met, and in the process of having a need met enter into meaningful human relationships, and then hopefully they will be pointed to Christ, enter into a saving relationship with him, and finally be integrated into the life of the congregation. Doing church like this is certainly superior to the forties through seventies model, which was to hold church services of various kinds, such as Sunday AM and PM services and Wednesday night prayer service, and assume that now and then someone would walk in with a need for God. The attractional model was a brave departure and is based on the words of Jesus who tells us to go out into the highways and by-ways and to compel people to come in, “come in” meaning “come into” the church building and then into the church’s life.
The attractional model began by capitalizing on what in business is called good-will, that is, a good reputation in the community as a place of peace and a place where help could be found. So, parents were willing to allow their teens to attend the youth meeting at the local Alliance Church, and they might even drop in and attend the Christmas musical.
Several problems have, however, emerged from the use of this model. First, its usage seems to relentlessly pull the church to shape its message so that those whom it wishes to attract are not pushed away too soon, that is, before they become Christians. I personally have felt this pressure, and I have defended Bill Hybels against the accusation that his message is watered down, but few anymore deny that the attractional model tempts church and preacher to conform to the world, at least a bit. Currently in my office we are taking a look at statistics regarding baptisms in various churches in the Alliance in Canada as one way of trying to take a snapshot of the relationship between people hearing enough biblical instruction to actually follow Christ in baptism and the style of outreach.
Another difficulty is that the washing away of good-will for the church in Canada has made the attractional model much less functional. The rise of militant atheism, the demise of the United Church, the tiresomeness of the religious right in the States, and probably most notably, the residential school scandal, have all contributed to high levels of distrust for churches resulting in ever higher levels of resistance to anything done by any brand of church resulting in fewer and fewer people being attracted to significant encounters with people or God within the four walls of the church. Its just gotten really hard to coax people to come to church for any reason whatsoever. Really hard.
Which leads to the last and saddest difficulty which has been present from the beginning of the rise of the attractional model, the fact that most of the attraction was to other Christians because it pandered to the baby boomer's predilection to shop church. The demand for choice is part and parcel of sociological post-modernism, and the lack of commitment to truth is part of philosophical post-modernism, and both of these created a climate where people who were raised as Baptists would leave the church of their heritage in a heartbeat once they figured out that the Pentecostal church had a better nursery. Thus we have the scene of large evangelical churches being large because their programs attracted Christians from smaller, not quite as up to the minute, evangelical churches in town.
So, when people like Allan Hirsch turn withering, sarcastic criticism on this model, we should not be surprised, but should be humbled, and we should be asking the Holy Spirit what needs to be done.
Having said all of that I will now say that I personally do not find the solutions that Allan Hirsch puts forward to be particularly compelling. For example, Allan promotes the house church movement as it occurred in China. From time to time house church movements are promoted for use in North America, and, from time to time some of them meet with modest success. However, it is my opinion (note – opinion, not fact based judgment) that societal conditions are radically different here than in China and that while house churches may be planted and continue to live, a movement of house churches is not likely to flourish in North America.
Yet more to come.