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The Attractional Church’s Growing Irrelevance

The Attractional Church's Growing Irrelevance

Say not, “Why were the former days better than these?”
Ecclesiastes 7:10a

From my vantage point in the evangelical landscape, I am incredibly optimistic about the future of the church. I know we have lots of cause for concern about “the culture,” and I know the church tasked with proclaiming the kingdom in it seems pretty shaky right now. But I when I take a sober look at the young Christians (the Millennials!) training for gospel ministry and thinking hard about mission, I like where their head’s at. The rest of us, on the other hand…

I find it incredibly interesting, sort of amusing and more than a bit sad that the attractional church—what we used to call the “seeker church”—hasn’t seemed to grow up at all. Yes, it’s grown big. But growing big and growing up aren’t the same thing. I was thinking about this recently after a few people posted a video of one of the landmark attractional churches featuring a ’90s boy band throwback segment in their worship service. I’m sure it was a lot of fun. I’m also sure it was especially fun for those whose heyday was the ’90s. It’s the same fun that was had by the worship team in my ’90s attractional youth group who were constantly reworking rock hits from the ’70s to make them more Jesusy (“Peaceful, Easy Feelin” anybody? How about a little “Talkin’ about my Jesus—he’s some kind of wonderful”?).

And it occurs to me that, exceptions being granted, the attractional church is specifically designed for what was said to “work” 20 years ago. What used to be cutting edge, relevant and innovative is now standard fare. I mean, how many years can you keep recycling the At The Movies summer series and still call yourselves “innovative”? Or Winning at Work? Or Dare to Be a Daniel? How many pop song parodies can you generate and still call yourselves relevant? The truth is, the attractional church is perfectly contextualized…for the ’90s. With its Top 40 covers, Branson-quality “praise teams,” silly videos and youth-groupy vibe, it’s now officially retro-relevant.

When you step into one of these places after years away detoxing, it’s like stepping into a time warp. The sensation is similar to when in the ’80s and ’90s we’d go back home to grandma’s church, which seemed frozen in the ’60s or ’70s. The attractional church is the happy-fun place where the post-Christian era never dawned.

Meanwhile, the young adult dropout rate is still somewhere near 70 percent. This hasn’t changed.

Meanwhile, no matter how much the decision scoreboard tallies each week, the attractional church is still mostly just shuffling around bored and de-churched suburbanites.

The Uncle Rico set loves the attractional church. I remember when our attractional churches would advertise with the slogan “Not your grandfather’s church.” Or “Church but different.” Well, now the attractional church is our grandfather’s church. Now it’s church replicated, McChurch franchised. And while the younger generation is looking for meat, the religious resource center down on the corner is still serving rounds of Zima. And it may not be shrinking any time soon, because there’s few things Gen-Xers and Baby Boomers love more than nostalgia.

There’s something serious to be considered here. I’m not just trying to make fun. Time and relevance have passed the dominant attractional paradigm by. The sheer mega-ness of these religious big box stores is misleading. Because the research is showing they aren’t making disciples. And as the spread of secularization increases in America, the irrelevance of the “relevant church” will only increase, as well. These days you can get fluff anywhere. You can get entertainment anywhere. You can get inspirational pick-me-ups anywhere.

The attractional church is still answering questions most 21st-century lost folks aren’t even asking. The attractional church is still assuming lost people have some working knowledge of the Bible and its stories. The attractional church still thinks lost people are impressed that a group of Christians will sing a Taylor Swift song at church. The attractional church thinks their decades-old bait is still good for the switch. The attractional church still thinks it’s cool, mainly because it’s full of aging Gen-Xers and Baby Boomers who know it’s cooler than the traditional church they left decades ago.

Meanwhile, it’s the traditionalist churches that are attracting young people. (Man, youth is wasted on the young, right?) It’s the young church-planting movements that are baptizing previously unchurched people and replicating themselves and making kingdom inroads in the culture. It’s the Bible-fixated churches sending people into the furthest reaches of the earth.

I hope my generation and my father’s generation will allow themselves to be led. Our time is, thankfully, passing away. These crazy evangelical kids who love Jesus, love his gospel and center on it stubbornly, love his sufficient Word and preach it faithfully, love the lost and go seek them rather than expecting them to come seek us—they’re our strategic hope. Maybe it’s time to take the self-diminishing risks necessary to question your system, your strategy, your models and listen to the wisdom of your kids. As even one of your own prophets has said:

Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is rapidly agin’
Please get out of the new one
If you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’

This testimony is true.

I’d cue up Whitney Houston’s lines about the children being our future, but that would just date me and contravene my whole point. Instead, let me simply reiterate that the growing gospel-centrality of the evangelical Millennials is the best “model” for the church in the 21st century, mainly because it prioritizes the timeless gospel and makes contextualization obey it, rather than, as is the attractional church’s tendency, making the gospel obey the contextualization. I look around at all these seminary students I have the great privilege of serving, and as I travel around and meet young Christians all over the country, I am incredibly encouraged. In terms of theology, ecclesiology and missiology, they are light-years ahead of where my generation was at their age.

So it’s time to grow up and pass the baton. Size and the whiff of success are no justification for missional irrelevance.

Or, we can do what we’ve always done, I guess, which is just turn the music up to drown out the reality.

Better was a poor and wise youth than an old and foolish king who no longer knew how to take advice.
Ecclesiastes 4:13