We know from research that within three to five years of a person becoming a Christian, he or she will have no meaningful relationships with anyone outside the church.
An elephant in the room is the whole issue of what has come to be called the attractional versus missional church debate. As someone responsible for helping introduce the term into common parlance, let me try to explain it. When we use the term attractional, it is an attempt to describe how we conceive of our church in relation to our culture. In other words, it describes our missionary stance or the expectations we have about the role church plays in our contexts.
To grasp the importance of this, consider the idea of cultural distance (The Forgotten Ways, 56–57). Here is a conceptual tool we can use to discern just how far a person or a people group is from a meaningful engagement with the gospel. To determine this, we have to see it on a scale that goes something like this:
Each numeral with the prefix m indicates one significant cultural barrier to the meaningful communication of the gospel. An obvious example of such a barrier would be language. If you have to reach across a language barrier, you have a problem, and it’s going to take some time to communicate meaningfully. But others could be race, history, religion/worldview, culture, etc.
The more boundaries one has to cross, the harder meaningful communication will be. So for instance, in Islamic contexts, the gospel has struggled to make any significant inroads because religion, race, and a whole lot of history make a meaningful engagement with the gospel very difficult indeed. This is not limited to overseas missions; it is directly related to missionality right here, right now.
Let me bring it closer to home by applying it to the various spheres in which we have to live. If you see yourself (or your church, for that matter) standing on the m0 point above, this is how we might interpret our own context(s):
We are all deeply scripted to believe we must bring people to our church, so we seldom take into account the cultural dynamics inherent in that equation. But it’s all about culture. Our church has a distinct culture, as do the people we are hoping to reach! In fact, I believe we have come to a situation where all mission in Western settings now should be considered a cross-cultural enterprise.
Remember the obstinate little truth that it is we who are the “sent” people of God, and whatever that means to our identity as God’s people, it must also sometimes mean we must go to where the people are. If we fail to “go” to the people, then to encounter the gospel meaningfully they must “come.” This is the inbuilt assumption of the attractional church; it requires that the nonbeliever do all the cross-cultural work to find Jesus—not us! Make no mistake: For many people, coming to church involves some serious cross-cultural work for them. They have to be the missionaries!
Another very important fact must be remembered here. We know from now-old research that within three to five years of a person becoming a Christian, he or she will have no meaningful relationships with anyone outside the church. So, assuming that we bring them to our church and happen to do a good job at it and effectively socialize them into our church community, we are, in effect, snapping the natural, organic connections they have with the host community they come from. This is very problematic because we know that the gospel travels along relational lines. Sever the relationships, and we effectively stop the outward movement of the gospel into the broader culture. In other words, attractional evangelism in missionary contexts results in extracting them from their previous relationships and cultural context. This is a big no-no if we are serious about initiating movements right here, right now.
This is not to say that churches should not gather. Of course we should—churches are worshiping communities. Nor is it saying we should not be thoroughly attractive when we do. We should be as culturally spicy as we possibly can be. It simply means that when engaging people in m1–m4 distance from us, we should gather incarnationally within a host culture/community and not necessarily extract people from their cultural tribe(s) into our church tribe.
Attractional forms of church in missionary contexts eventually are self-defeating because the church quickly exhausts its supply of relationships and because the new converts quickly become a cultural clique or religious ghetto increasingly marginalized from the original culture. I believe these shortfalls call for a reimagining of the way we engage missionally as the church today.
How does your church balance being attractional and being missional?
How do you encourage cultural “spiciness” in your church?
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