The big buzz out there in the “church” conversation is the debate over attractional vs. missional church models. We know what attractional churches are because that’s what most of us have wanted our churches to be. The whole attractional thing probably started in the 1950s when the “greatest generation” was settling down, having babies (the baby boom), and filling up schools and church nurseries.
Churches began to offer a variety of programs to attract these young families. Children’s choir, children’s missions groups, women’s circles, men’s groups — all of these were the forerunners of today’s program church. Only today we have upped the ante by adding youth programs, family life centers, ski trips, senior adult bus tours, book clubs, how-to courses, and more. All of this attractional stuff has turned the church into a provider of religious goods and services to consumer attendees — at least that’s the criticism from the missional thinkers. And to some degree they have a point — the idea was to get people to “come to church.” The thinking was, “If we can get them here, then we can build relationships with them and incorporate them into our church family.” This ultimately gave rise to the church growth movement and its spawn of mega-churches.
The missional folks, on the other hand, are saying that the church is “sent” into the world. So, rather than trying to get the world to come to us at our church, our church should go into the world (the office, the store, the shop, the gym, etc) and be missional all the time, not just once a year. They have a valid point, too, and frankly I am doing a DMin in missional leadership at Fuller Seminary, so I am leaning in that direction. But, I also took DMin courses in church growth at Fuller in the late 1980s, so I am probably the only person in Fuller’s history to have taken both programs.
Theory aside, however, our task in the small church is a balancing act. Members expect that we will attract some folks to our churches. We may not ever be in the ‘100 Fastest-growing Churches’ category, but my members think we ought to have folks joining at least occasionally. But we are also trying on our missional hats by engaging our community outside the four walls of our church building, and a lot of those folks are not going to join our church — ever.
I don’t think there is anything wrong with offering programs to help people grow, have new experiences, meet new friends, and engage in ministry together. We still have Sunday School, a traditional 11 AM worship service, a women’s missions circle, a church picnic, VBS, and a lot of very traditional attractional programs like family film nights, family skate nights, and children’s choirs. Our folks expect those things, we do them well, and they serve a purpose.
But we are also trying to stretch our comfort zone some in missional ways. We partnered with artists and educators in our town to offer monthly ‘open mic’ nights for teens. This month over 115 teens either performed or cheered on those who did. Outreach did a story on this arts venture, and some others that we are doing, in the Nov/Dec ’06 issue. Then the story got picked up by our state Baptist paper and we made the front page there, too.
If you read those articles, it sounds like we’re the coolest, most creative church in Virginia. But really, we’re just like most small churches — we’re trying to do some things to make a difference in our community. Sometimes labels aren’t really helpful. We’re not trying to be attractional or missional — we’re just trying to do what God has called us to do. Obedient, I think, is the word for that.