By Rick Grover
Versus is such a compelling word. It immediately communicates conflict, and it ushers concerned parties to set up camp on which side of vs. they believe to be correct. With a basic understanding of missional as to go and be the church and attractional as to come and see the church1, I’ve been on both sides of the vs.
I prefer to see it as faith development. When my family and I moved to New Orleans to plant a church, we did so with great clarity on what kind of church we believed God was calling us to plant.
Part of that clarity could be defined as positive: what the church should be, look like, and do. And part of that clarity could be defined as negative: we knew from whence we had come, and we definitely wanted the church we planted to be different! Just like in marriage, we can easily become fixated on the things we would like to fix more than the things we appreciate about our current church culture and context.
Confusion and Clarity
I grew up on the attractional side of the vs. I served as an associate pastor of a megachurch during the peak of the “seeker-driven philosophy,” and I did everything I could to help our church be attractive to people who needed to be introduced to Jesus Christ. But I got too caught up in the mega status of it all, and eventually I wanted something I perceived to be more pure, simple, and, that’s right, missional.
And then I read Alan Hirsch’s writings.2 He put words to my feelings that something just isn’t right about the Evangelical-Western-suburban-middle-class-white church. We were too program-driven. Too preoccupied with “nickels and noses.” Too fixated on parking spaces vs. auditorium seat ratios. And we were not concerned enough with living authentic, transparent lives as followers of Jesus in community. We were not concerned enough with serving the poor and reaching across racial and socioeconomic lines. And I believe Hirsch’s critique, along with those by many others like him,3 have merit.
So our church plant leaders and I went on a quest for the “holy grail.” We believed the solution to the glaring problems of the attractional model must be in the structure or form of how we “do church.”
Buildings are bad—they are too “Constantinian.” So we explored the house church movement.
Having a paid leadership is bad—that’s too “Roman.” So we explored getting “real jobs” and all of us simply using our gifts and serving together in community.
Clarity and More Confusion
I quickly discovered, however, that the same problems Hirsch and others identified, were also developing in our missional house churches and among our nonpaid leadership! People still struggled with going out and being the church, even though they were simply going out from homes rather than church-owned property.
Our conclusion? Whether you are part of a church of 2,500 that gathers in a building, or a church of 25 that gathers in a house, you still have people. Calling people to live missionally does not somehow become automatic based on a smaller group and nonpaid staff. As my grandmother used to say, “It’s amazing the church has survived all these years, because it has . . . people.”
I have a feeling this cycle of clarity giving way to confusion, then clarity, and then confusion will be repeated ad nauseam in my life and ministry. Why? Because I, too, am a “people.” And I have my issues and baggage just like everybody else.
Through this process of trying to find the “perfect model” of the church, I did gain some clarity on a couple of issues.
First, the church of Jesus Christ is to be missional whether it conducts Sunday morning worship gatherings, meets together in homes, and has paid or unpaid staff. Church leaders are to equip believers to serve. We are to go and be the church. We should be the hands and feet of Jesus in our own community.
Now I serve, once again, in a megachurch. Did I sell out from the more pure, pristine model of the early church? I don’t think so. Because even in this context, the church is about teaching people God’s Word, worshipping as a community of faith, calling people to live holy lives, and being the church scattered and not just gathered.4
Second, the church of Jesus Christ is to be attractional. This does not mean we sell out the gospel or become so relevant that we lose our saltiness or light. We are to live in the world but not be of the world. We should long to be missionaries in our own community where we adapt to the language, customs, and culture of the people we serve, even if it means providing programs that will “attract” single moms and dads, children, teens, divorcées, and seniors.
I am amazed at how we would never question such missionary (think missional) practices as contextualization, integration, and adaption if we were to serve in Uganda or Argentina; but suddenly they come under scrutiny if we apply them in the United States of America. We should apply missionary practices within whatever people group we serve without compromising biblical truth.
“Both/And” Not “Either/Or”
I would argue that truly being missional includes being attractional in as much as “we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God” (Acts 15:19).
Does this mean we buy into an individualistic, consumeristic mind-set that prevails in our North American culture? No, but the answer to these problems does not come in simply repudiating buildings, large gatherings, and paid staff.
We do not simply reorganize by meeting in homes and slap a label on ourselves that we are now all of a sudden missional (i.e., better). Authentic discipleship is not just about forms; it is about our hearts and actions (cp. Mark 7:5-7; Matthew 7:24). Likewise, if we are not being missional when we are attractional, we are most likely selling out to the world and losing touch with who Jesus calls us to be.
Schizophrenic? I don’t think so. Even Alan Hirsch, in more recent years, has begun working with megachurches as well as the missional-church movement (and received a lot of criticism for it).5 He recognizes that size, buildings, and budgets are not automatically the problem. They can be the problem, but they can also simply be other resources used in the kingdom of God to help us work together to be more missional. Regardless of how many people are connected to your church body, what is important is that they are connected, and they are becoming like Jesus.
I have been in house churches and church-building churches, and I have seen individualistic, consumeristic, “pew-sitting” attitudes and actions in both. It might look a little more “spiritual” to be sitting on a couch rather than a pew, but in either context, Jesus calls us to scatter among the nations, preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, and gather where we can teach his followers to obey everything he has commanded.
Versus may be compelling, but it will be far more effective for attractional churches and those joining the missional church movement to work together in making disciples of Jesus in all the nations for the glory of God and by the power of his Spirit.
1See Rick Meigs, www.friendofmissional.org.
2Alan Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006).
3For examples, Neil Cole, David DeVries, Michael Frost, Dan Kimball, and Ed Stetzer.
4For more analysis on this perspective, see Hugh Halter and Matt Smay, AND: The Gathered and Scattered Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010).
5See Alan Hirsch and Dave Ferguson, On the Verge: A Journey into the Apostolic Future of the Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), and a critique at http://lifeasmission.com/blog/2010/03/alan-hirsch-making-missional-marketable.
Rick Grover is senior pastor of Owensboro (Kentucky) Christian Church.