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The Attractional Basis of Neo-Reformed Church Plants YES OR NO?: or Don’t Try This at Home if You Live in the Secularized North

In a recent post on this blog I made the statement:

“I have no doubt that the success of many of the New Reformed Missional churches in the cities is the result of the influx of twenty-something populations into the cities in the past fifteen-twenty years with little or no place to go to church.” Collin Hansen – author, editor at CT, and a contributor to the Gospel Coalition – asks 2 questions in response “Could you point me to research that led you to conclude (this?)  Then he also added “I would also be interested to know more about your observation that Redeemer City to City and Acts 29 “depend largely on existing Christianized populations.”

On Collin’s questions – I don’t have statistical research that is irrefutable eh? (Is there such a thing?). I think we could get such statistics if mega churches and some of the more notable Neo-Reformed church plants (Mars Hill, Redeemer) would simply survey their regular attenders and ask their congregants the question “prior to this church, did you come from a previous church or Christian upbringing?” Again and again, every growing mega church I know has simply ignored, pushed to the side or outright refused to survey their burgeoning congregation by asking this question? And yet, I have NO PROBLEM with re-invigorating dormant Christians. I simply want it recognized that attractional strategies are a poor way to engage those truly outside the Christian faith with the gospel. They are not missional in that sense. They often get caught up in competition for existing Christians.

So, In response to Collin’s legitimate questions, I think I can answer his two questions with something better than statistics – the logic of the way the New Reformed church plants carry out their strategies. I offer these two insights:

1.) On Redeemer and Acts 29 and other Neo-Reformed Church Planting Strategies being dependent upon Christianized populations.

The Neo-Reformed church planting strategies, as represented in Mark Driscoll’s Confessions of a Reformissionary, Tim Keller’s Redeemer’s Church planting manual, as well as Ed Stetzer’s manifold publications are attractionally driven. They depend heavily on the “draw” of a charismatic male preacher. They all speak about the importance of the opening service. They speak about the importance of preaching being a culturally relevant communication. Preaching is the main thing. Preaching is the draw. All of this assumes people outside of the gospel will want to come to a place in order to hear a sermon preached. It depends upon a cultural orbit where people outside of Christ would naturally go to church to hear a sermon in order to come to Christ. THIS DYNAMIC IS CHRISTENDOM. Don’t get me wrong – I UNEQUIVOCABBLY BELIEVE PREACHING IS CENTRAL TO THE FORMATION OF GOD’S PEOPLE IN THE WORLD. It just is not the foundation of church planting in mission – which is engaging a community with the gospel. It is not the basis upon which a Missional church plant begins because by definition such a Neo-Reformed  church plant seeks from the outset to draw in Christians or the Christianized into this place to hear a sermon.  Missional church plants on the other hand seek to engage those outside the Christian faith with the gospel.  Conclusion? These church planting strategies are dependent upon Christianized populations. Yes?

I say this not to disparage the many good works for Christ among my Neo-Reformed brothers (and sisters- wink wink). I applaud pastor Driscoll, Keller, Stetzer and all the others for their great work! There are many out there who are still culturally conditioned by Christendom. And there will always also be the occasional person totally outside Christ who likewise gets caught under these influences who will come to Christ. Praise be to God! Yet, I argue that there can be little doubt, that in post Christendom, those who number among the growing populations of the secularized, have little or no intention of ever going to go hear a sermon when they seek God. When they seek God they will go other places first (Oprah, a discussion group, a book club, the pub). Granted there will be exceptions, but as a strategy for mission, it relies on an orbit of a Christianized culture. To me this is irrefutable.  What say you?

I think everything what I have said here is evident in places like Mark Driscoll’s Confessions book, Redeemer’s Church Planting Manual, or Ed Stetzer’s most recent set of posts on church planting. To offer just a few examples of literally hundreds:

a.)Almost the entire structure of Mark Driscoll’s church plant of Mars Hill in Seattle is attractional based on his accounts in Confessions of a Reformission Rev.. From the way they did a “launch” to the intense drive on measuring the attendance of the Sunday gatherings. It is common throughout the book for pastor Driscoll to talk about things like how they “survived the horrendous hip-hop and expanded to two Sunday services in time for the fall push, which is when we have our biggest attendance increase” (p. 93). This kind of emphasis is ubiquitous in the book. Attractional is adopted under the argument for being “attractive” (p.31). It is really disconcerting that pastor Mark does not recognize that the “3000” who were saved (Acts 2) on Pentecost were not gathered as a mega church (p.94). They were gathered from all over the Middle East at the Pentecost festival and were part of the Jewish dispersion. Upon being saved, THEY WERE DISPERSED back into their locales to form communities back home.

b.)Tim Keller’s Redeemer church planting manual has also many revelations about how deep the attractional strategy is here.  In Redeemer’s manual, there are tremendous efforts to detail how the services at Redeemer were crafted to draw non-Christians into the services. Likewise, conversions are recounted of non-Christians (and we must discern carefully what this might mean). And yet we see again the assumption that must be talked about over and over to get at the issue I am targeting here. We are depending on attracting “non-Christians” to come to a gathering for the teaching of the Bible. Can we at least admit that the average secularized non-Christian does not naturally seek to attend a church service whose main purpose is “to teach” from the Bible even if that teaching and worship always “assumes the presence of non-Christians in it even before we knew if any were there (p.13).”

Tim Keller is one of the most culturally savvy, gospel centered, “restoration of the city” oriented pastors I know. Can I say this clearly I LOVE TIM KELLER! I cast no aspersion WHATSOEVER on the impact of his/Redeemer’s ministry. I’m just saying, it is attractionally driven and depends upon Christendom habits, habits that are in decline in many parts of our culture. I don’t know if his strategy is reproducible in the years to come. Eventually as what is left of the Christianized foundation of city culture diminishes, such church planting strategies will turn into competition for the Christianized peoples as opposed to mission.  Redeemer is to be commended for not advertising where Tim Keller is preaching (of the many sites Redeemer has in NYC) because they recognize that attendance would go way up where he preaches, and way down every where else. Nonetheless, this reveals the attractional foundations that lie at the base of Redeemer’s beginnings.

c.)In Ed Stetzer’s recent post about his own church planting venture and his research, he reveals his proclivity toward attractional church planting. Again, Ed has taught me a lot. And I agree with a lot of what he puts out there. But read these words from his post here: “

“Think about the person who shows up on launch Sunday due to a postcard in the mail the week before. Your hope is that your first attendants will be made up of seekers and people open to the first-time consideration of the gospel. And, that means people who are asking questions and starting their spiritual journey- they are often not ready to be spiritual leaders since they are just considering things of faith. … This Sunday we had our first preview service at Grace Church, where I am serving as lead pastor … And, as in the couple hundred people we had come Sunday, we know it to be true that we often encounter a fair number of new, seeking, and sometimes hurting on that first Sunday.”

This is worthy labor for Christ! Yet the idea of having 200 people on an opening service reveals how much this approach assumes people want to come to an opening launch of a worship service. The idea of this happening even with flyers, advertising, a famous rock star musician, IS SIMPLY NOT REALITY FOR THOSE OF US MINISTERING INS SECULARIZED CULTURES. Granted, Ed is working with a church plant in Nashville, the bastion of Christendom in United States. His approach makes sense there. I applaud his work. All I’m saying is, please don’t try this at home! If home for you is post Christendom secularized cities.

2.)  On Collin’s second part of his question, regarding my contention that the success of many of the New Reformed Missional churches in the cities is the result of the influx of twenty-something populations into the cities.

I think it is irrefutable that masses of white (a lot of them evangelical) populations moved out of the American city in droves to the suburbs in 1960′s to 80’s. Starting in the nineties this reversed itself. There was a huge migration back into the city by yuppie, white twenty something populations. That wave hit peak in early nineties to 2000 (this wave was symbolically represented by the popular TV show Friends – a bunch of white twenty something’s who lived in the city). I was part of that wave and attended (and was a leader) in Park Community Church in Chicago in its early years. I often attended and knew people who went to Redeemer Presbyterian in Manhattan (where I often worked). These massive populations entered a city where the previous white evangelical churches had long since left, closed, or became minority churches. These new professionalized populations had no place to go to church. Maybe only 5% of these new professionalized city immigrants were Christians, but that still was a huge number and I firmly believe that places like Park Community Church and Redeemer became feeding grounds for these highly educated young professionalized Christian peoples.

I have NO DOUBT the ministries in question are vibrant and real. The question is, as these Christianized peoples find their churches, and there is less of that “market” left to be re-churched, what will become of mission to the secularized peoples. Shall we continue to plant churches on the Redeemer or Acts 29 model and fight over the Christianized?

In conclusion,

I applaud the work of the Neo-Reformed church planting movements. The work accomplished for Christ on many levels is irrefutable. Praise God! Seriously and sincerely! In this post, I am merely trying to point out that this strategy’s effectiveness is inherently built on attractional premises, which will become increasingly more difficult and competitive amidst the secularized cultures of the West. The remnant of Christianized populations will run out unless they are mobilized for mission among the lost cultures. For these challenges we need a new vision for church-planting. I’ve sketched in brief my ideas on this in this post?  I think we need a discussion.

Am I valid in saying that Neo-Reformed church planting – in that it emphasizes the singularity of the culturally relevant preaching service as the means to form a gathering – attractional? Dependent upon culturally Christianized populations? And therefore less than missional in its vision for reaching a secularized post-Christendom culture? YES OR NO? and why? Blessings

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David Fitch is a bi-vocational pastor at Life on the Vine and the B.R. Lindner Chair of Evangelical Theology at Northern Seminary.