Mindboggled: Shifting From Attractional To Missional Church

Besides being the most difficult shift to make, this shift for the 21st century church is the most difficult to understand. We are so immersed in the attractional church model here in North America, we struggle to step outside our paradigm enough to even comprehend the missional church movement. Trying to wrap our minds around the missional church movement, if we have been involved in the Christian church for long, can be mindboggling (to use a very sophisticated word).

As we go about doing what we do as Pinnacle Leadership, frequently we hear disciples in churches describing their church as missional. When asked more specifically what they are describing, it turns out they mean “missional-ish” or “missional-like.” They describe missional forays out into their context, missionally-oriented projects, or even mission trips where they drop in on a foreign culture for a week. These activities are not bad, it’s just that they are missional forays by the attractional church. Their goal is to help others, while spiritually invigorating their disciples, in hopes this will energize those back on the church campus. Allan Roxburgh theorizes that 90% of churches actually are attractional in nature.

Here is the essential distinction between the attractional versus missional church: location.
The attractional church paradigm assumes the center of God’s activity is the church campus. That’s where God dwells, so the goal is to get as many people there as possible, knowing they are likely to meet God while there (evangelism and mission). The missional church paradigm assumes the center of God’s activity is in the world at large. The missional church believes God is bringing the kingdom to earth through reconciliation, redemption, justice, peace-making, loving relationships, etc. So the goal is to join God’s movement in the world every day of the week.

Let’s follow these contrasting paradigms further. The attractional church’s goal may include going into all the world making disciples. Then, when we do, we extract those disciples from their indigenous contexts, introducing them to our church culture. Largely, we ask them to give up their closest relationships and networks, along with that subculture, coming to church where we will train them in church subculture while giving them new friendship networks. One might remember European missionaries going to Africa, building European-looking church buildings and converting the indigenous people to European culture (language, dress, manners) along with Christian faith. Those converts were instructed to give up their relationships and culture and come join another culture (European religious culture). This is the polar opposite of Jesus’ instructions to the woman at the well, whom he instructed to go home and tell what God had done for her. So, the attractional church model really is an “extractional” church model (Carol Davis, DAWN Report, June 2000). The attractional church extracts people from their indigenous contexts, pulling them into modern-era church paradigms.

Missional churches, by contrast, view their mission as joining God’s movement in the world. The center of God’s activity in this paradigm is the world, with occasional forays back to a church campus. Missional disciples do a lot of listening, relating, and giving their gifts to their community. Since God is there, bringing the kingdom to bear, they watch for God’s activity, joining the movement. Often this leads to people discovering the pearl of great price (Jesus Christ), forming small bands of disciples right where they are. They get to keep their culture, language, and friendship networks. Often this kind of activity results in Christ-focused faith communities springing up within subcultures. This seems to be what happened in the first few centuries of the Christian movement.

Reading this article’s title, you might recognize I’m struggling with this shift. I, along with 90% of the disciples and churches of North America, are enculturated into the attractional church model. We are always thinking about how to connect more people, how to help more people get to our worship gatherings and small groups. That’s how we know we are effective, or at least successful, according to our attractional understanding of church (buildings, bodies, budgets). Our attractional church organizational paradigms don’t know what to do with the missional church. We don’t have categories, or boxes on our forms, into which the missional church fits. To think differently boggles the mind, leaving us mindboggled.

It turns out, this missional church language and paradigm shift is more dangerous than we thought. It turns out that church is not all about us. It turns out that this gospel-living and Jesus-following stretches us far beyond our comfort zones. It turns out, this world is hungry and yearning for this kind of good news…a gospel of Jesus Christ which is good news for people IN our world, where God lives.

Mark Tidsworth, President, PLA