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You’re So Depraved, You Probably Think This Church Is About You: How Total Depravity Upends Attractionalism

I don’t mean to deny the comprehensive nature of Christ’s work—he does indeed restore the broken, love the unlovely, and give hope to the hopeless; yes, and amen!—but precisely none of that is accessible apart from Christ absorbing God’s wrath for sinners.

2. A belief in total depravity ought to upend the tenets of attractionalism.

Again, it would be helpful to define our terms, especially since I’ve somewhat tipped my hand by attaching the spooky suffix “-ism” to the relatively nonthreatening adjective “attractional.” What are the “tenets” of this so-called ideology?

A few come to mind:

  • Churches committed to attractionalism tend to not push people away. The goal is to keep the fence around the church low, to keep the door to the church open and unlocked, so that all people can come in to enjoy the fellowship of the church without the requirements of membership.
  • Churches committed to attractionalism seek to curry favor among outsiders by highlighting how similar their members are to the world, whereas the Bible ties the church’s attractiveness to its distinctness from the world (Mt. 5:16, 1 Pet. 2:12). This commitment to similarity is why so much modern worship music resembles a run-of-the-mill arena show. It’s why so many churches do sermon series on movies or parenting or marriage or money management—such interests are universal. It’s why a cottage industry of programs often flourish in attractional churches, turning them into a kind a religious service provider, built to meet certain needs of prospective members in the surrounding community. Such programs—food pantries, recovery groups for addicts, small groups for divorcees, ESL classes—are certainly not “bad” in a vacuum, but when tethered to an attractional philosophy of ministry that sloppifies the line between the church and the world, they obscure the primary purpose of the church and in the process tend to do more spiritual harm than material good.
  • Churches committed to attractionalism feature preaching that tends to focus on the benefits of the gospel—happiness, improved marriages and parenting, a clean conscience, peace of mind, etc.—at the expense of clear teaching on the gospel itself. If you go to a church for a month, and you never once hear the pastor talk about sin, the wrath of God, and Christ’s substitutionary death, then you’re likely sitting in a church swayed by the commitments of attractionalism. If you hear the pastor call people to “trust in Jesus” but never to “repent of sin,” then you’re likely sitting in a church swayed by the tenets of attractionalism.

Attractionalism is bad. Attracting unbelievers is good.

Every church should want to attract unbelievers. In fact, 1 Corinthians 11–14 assumes their presence in our gatherings. Every time a church gathers, unbelievers should not only be welcomed but directly addressed; it should be a “safe place” for them, where their lifestyles will be challenged, not disrespected, where they’ll face confrontation, not prejudice.

Every church should desire to be attractive to the unsaved. We seek to be attractive by planning our gatherings with a concern for clarity and intelligibility (1 Cor. 11–14). We seek to be attractive by preaching sermons that offer connections to their worldview (Acts 17). We seek to be attractive by being hospitable (Heb. 13:2) and meeting needs (Matt. 25:35). We seek to be attractive by being men of sincerity, commissioned by God to speak of Christ with confidence that the knowledge of him will be a fragrance of life to some, and death to others (2 Cor. 2:14–17).

But attractionalism takes these fairly obvious and benign desires and turns them into the raison d’être of the local church. Attractionalism shrinks the commands of Scripture. Attractionalism inverts the Great Commission, turning it into a command to get people to come to us—and then lops off the parts that require patience and longsuffering. Attractionalism indulgently prioritizes one biblical command—evangelism—at the expense of others—meaningful church membership and discipline.

But how is it that total depravity upends these tenets of attractionalism? Simply put, because “no one understands; no one seeks for God” (Rom. 3:11). Again, man’s biggest problem isn’t boredom, but rebellion; it isn’t their family’s relational strife, but their own spiritual tyranny; it isn’t financial mismanagement, but spiritual bankruptcy; it isn’t their addiction to drugs, but their abnegation of God.

Attractionalism buries the lede. To be sure, it does so with the best of intentions, under a calendar full of kindness. But a pastor swept away by its assumptions is like a doctor who approaches an open-heart surgery with a plastic spork. No matter how well trained he’s been, no matter how deeply he wants this person’s suffering to end, his tools and strategies simply aren’t good enough to fix the problem.

*****

3. A belief in total depravity ought to confound the well-meaning practices of attractional churches.

Do you remember that time I cried watching church online? Well, what made me cry is an example of what I’m referring to when I say “the well-meaning practices of attractional churches.” The moment was moving; it crescendoed perfectly with the theme of the sermon, using flesh-and-blood illustrations to drive the point home.

As each family crossed the stage, it was as if the preacher said, See! It can be done! See! It can be done. See! It can be done.

Now, I hesitate to be a naysayer about publicly and even riotously celebrating the work of God in the lives of his people.

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alexduke@churchleaders.com'
Alex Duke lives in Louisville, Kentucky with his wife Melanie. He is a student at Southern Seminary and a member of Hunsinger Lane Baptist Church. You can follow him on Twitter at @evanalexduke.