Monday, July 13, 2009

Allan Hirsch and the Attractional Church Model

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.


Joel said...

For what reason(s), do you think that house churches will not flourish in North America?

Ben said...

Insightful post. You said "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."

Are you saying that Jesus had church buildings/gatherings somehow (by implication?) in mind in this parable spoken to the laywers and pharisees? Are they not being "compelled" into the Kingdom?

Joel said...

Ben, good point. Obviously Jesus was not referring to people coming in to a church a building. Churches in buildings did not really exist until many centuries later.

So, I reiterate you question . . . what was the attractional model based on?

Franklin Pyles said...

First on the "compel them to come in" part. Of course this does not work as a theological foundation, but congregations had just been sitting around. In Screwtape Letters C.S. Lewis has Screwtape encourage the young Christian to think of his local church as a club. Of course this was not 100%, so lets always keep that in mind also. The Alliance, along with others, planted churches and at times brought in evangelists etc. My point however is that there was a change, and the change was that the church would become interested in reaching out to those around it, that they would seek ways to present Christ. So, you might say we moved from revivals (which were effective in their day) to Evangelism Explosion, etc. This is what I think happened, and it took energy and planning and money and prayer to make it happen.

About house churches. Well here is my take, and again here I don't have emprical data so of course all of this can be disputed. Also, remember that did not say house churches won't work, I am just saying that I don't think they will become the predominate model, a true movement if you will. So, here is why I think that.
1. The privacy issue. People do not open their homes like they once did. So this slows down the small group scene as well as the house church scene. 2. People also desire large group experiences -- so the ones who combine the house with monthly large groups seem to me to have some potential from this standpoint. 3. The issue of family has not, again in my opinion, been adequately addressed. Children's programing, youth programing. This is a big issue with people. So, something that I think might emerge is networking among cell churches to provide for these needs, much like homeschoolers began to network for field trips, sports etc. 4. House churches will tend to either get shallow in their teaching or be dominated by one person or be dependent on a central outside resource. The latter is preferable if that outside resource is a solid person who can give solid teaching. But, what I am saying here is that North American expectations are high in the area of teaching. So, that so far is my thinking. I am not saying these factors cannot be overcome, but I am saying that so far I see them as inhibitors.

SJS said...

Thank-you for your thoughts and comments on this post. I am a member of an Alliance Church which embraces a variety of Church models. It seems that since we are so multi-generational we keep adding new models as time goes by. We have some traditional features, some attractional features, some post-modern features, etc. It seems that each generation is "schooled" in a certain we just keep adding on! This is not necessarily a bad thing, as we certainly have something for everyone. Yet, I am not so sure this is a truly successful model since it creates a lot of niches rather than unity.

I must say in regard to the attractional model and house church question -- there are definite things that parents want for their children (at least the parents I have encountered). Many of them want their children to have high quality care and programming that is often more available in larger Church settings. For example, the Church I attend allows my children the opportunity to participate in large-scale dramatic and musical productions, as well as offers leadership training opportunities which would not be available in smaller house church settings. I am not saying that some house churches could not provide these services, but they would not have the support base (funds, audience, etc) that larger churches would.

Overall, I believe Jesus did give instruction both to "come" (Matt. 11:28),and "go" (Matt. 28:19).

Ultimately, there are good features in many of the Church models we have had in the past... somethings worked well and other things not so well. This is not new. We reform, and continue to reform. And in the process our prayer must be that each generation will continue to look to Christ as head, foundation, hope, and salvation.

Alan Hirsch said...

good post. But you are mistaken that I believe that house churches are the sole answer. i think missional-incarnational churches are the answer and that can (indeed must) take many forms, including organic churches.

Unknown said...

I accept this correction and I won't make this limiting comment again.