(Part six in the Recovering Missional Moxie series from Alan Hirsch. Read part seven here.)
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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Join the discussion 7 Comments
Thank you, Alan. I will forward this article on to some friends. I have a question for … whoever is listening. Alan, you say “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.” – What does it mean to “gather incarnationally” within a host culture/community? Can you give examples? Perhaps it would also help to have examples of what “extracting them” looks like.
Hello Jesse – I know Alan would point you toward his book, “The Shaping of Things to Come.” Also, “Saturate” by Jeff Vanderstelt explains this very well too. I think what Alan is saying is that we need to look for ways to join what is already going on in the culture/community where we live. For example, we want Christians in the coffee houses, not “Christian” coffee houses. We are called to join and then permeate the culture with the good news of Jesus through our involvement.
Then to your “extracting” question, if I’m understanding what you’re asking, an example of this would be the mindset where Christians believe they need to invite people to church to hear the gospel/”get saved,” rather than believing they ARE the ministers of the gospel. We don’t go to church, we are the church (the body of Christ) sent out into the communities where God has planted us. We are called to share the good news of Christ in word and deed through the everyday stuff of life as we take part in that culture/community.
Thank you, Amy. Thanks for taking time to respond. I’m sorry, but I’m still a bit confused. Can you help me?
I’ve read “Saturate” and I don’t think it really gives examples like I’m looking for. It sounds like you’re saying: “Read Saturate, because it talks about ‘missional communities’ and that’s what Hirsch is saying: the ‘MC’ is what it means to gather incarnationally” – is that what you’re saying, Amy? Please help me understand, my sister.
From your sentence: “we want Christians in the coffee houses, not “Christian” coffee houses. We are called to join and then permeate the culture with the good news of Jesus through our involvement.” – it seems like you’re talking less about “gatherings” and more about interacting with and building relationships among not-yet-christians, is that right?
If so, can we talk about gatherings? Like, what would make a gathering “incarnational”? Just trying to understand, sorry if it seems I’m splitting hairs, and please do tell me plainly if I’m splitting hairs. Thank you, Amy. May Jesus bless you with joy and peace and lots of fruit.
Hi Jesse – Yes, that’s what I’m saying. By “gathering” do you mean traditional Sunday worship gathering (music, preaching/teaching, prayer)? I think what Alan and I are saying is that these two things are different. We are to join m1–m4 (and with us comes the power and presence of God working in and through us, John 7:38) in their “gatherings” (whatever that may be – parties, sports, events, back yard BBQs) instead of pulling them out of their “culture” and into our church culture. When we do this in light of our baptismal identity (Family, Servant, Missionary), we’re incarnationally worshipping in the midst of their culture. I don’t think Alan is talking about a new and different type of “incarnational” gathering. I don’t know if that helps.
Thanks, Amy. Ok, thanks for clarifying. When I say “gathering” I’m only trying to use it in whatever sense Alan used it when he said the following: “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.” – it sounds from this paragraph (the specific one my original question is asking about) – that he’s talking about our existing gatherings, and changing them. Did I misunderstand that?
I see how what you’re saying fits, but it doesn’t fit the way I was expecting. I guess I’m confused about what you mean when you say “When we do this in light of our baptismal identity (Family, Servant, Missionary), we’re incarnationally worshipping in the midst of their culture.” – what does it mean to “incarnationally worship”? Is that like simply loving and serving the folks I’m partying with? Or am I like saying “praise Jesus for this pork taco!”? Or just “spilling” Jesus out on people, talking about Jesus?
My wife recently setup a Friday morning coffee time with some ladies from the apartments across the street. They come over and drink coffee and chat on our porch with her. Are you saying that she is “incarnationally worshipping” by simply providing coffee and serving them? If so, is the worship part that she is giving & serving, or would she still be “incarnationally worshipping” if she went over to their apartment and just hung-out?
thanks for helping me understand!
Great conversation here. Hi Jesse. In response to your first question, I think extracting people from their culture happens when someone asks questions about who you are, what you believe and where your community is. Extracting looks like inviting them to a worship event etc… Nothing wrong with that, but it has to be more. When folks have asked me questions like “when does your church meet,” my response has become, “does this count?” Staying in a culture and incarnating there brings real conversation to where you actually are, in real time, in the moment. Many are trained to invite people to the events of the church instead of thinking of “church” as an identity they carry into all things.
As for a group incarnating in a culture, that might look like investing in your local parent-teacher association together or all working at the same store or something similar. In our current missional community, the group said, “we are already going to cook out on Sunday nights, why not do it in a particular part of town?” So we all did it together all summer in the same location and many great relationships came out of that. Does this make sense? Does this help with your question?
Hey Everyone, I love this conversation so I thought I would jump in. I think it hinges on worship.
I think local churches can, will, and should continue gathering for worship on Sunday mornings as a sign and celebration of the resurrection of Jesus and a crucial component of of being the church in the world. These worship times are structured, intentional, and completely God oriented and gospel saturated. This is a wonderful thing. I love it! There’s no substitute for it.
Also, we worship God when we live our lives according to our new identity (new self in St. Paul’s language). This worship often (all except for 1.5 hours every Sunday morning) happens away from the church building and church service.
As a pastor and equipper of the Saints, one of my primary roles is to lead our church in worship on Sundays and to equip, disciple, and send our church into our culture as sons and daughters worshipping our good father, citizens and servants of our king Jesus, and missionaries empowered by the Spirit. I can’t speak for Alan, but I can speak for myself, this is hard and intentional work. Many pastors, christians, and cultures have not thought about sending people into their societies but about attracting people in their neighborhoods to their building and their services.
If I was your pastor, I would be thrilled to see you inviting friends to your front porch for coffee. I do believe that is a function of worship of Jesus as Lord and Savior. I would also be thrilled to see you gather with the rest of the church on Sundays to remember and celebrate the gospel. In BOTH you’re worshipping, in both you’re gathering empowered by the Spirit. That’s my two cents anyway!