Missional vs Attractional - must we choose?

I felt called into ministry while sitting in Askanase Auditorium on the campus of North Dakota State University. I was a Sophomore attending my Architecture class when God made it clear that I was not going to be an architect, but rather enter into full-time vocational ministry. I did not know how it would all work, but I knew I felt called.

As a result, I have spent a lot of time investing in various expressions of ministry over the past 10-15 years. One question that has been circulating in my mind is how the church relates to those outside of its community. Two common models that have been pitted against one another are the attractional and missional models of ministry. When I think about attractional, I think about big mega-churches like Willow Creek Community Church, North Point Community Church, or Eagle Brook Church. These churches have mastered the ability to create a Sunday morning worship environment which draws people from all around their cities. The missional model emphasizes the need for the people of a local church to carry the message of the gospel into their communities. You might think of one as more of a centripetal (attractional) force and the other as a centrifugal (missional) force. You might think of one as a more attractive force and the other as an expansive force.

Must we choose between a missional or attractional model? Can a local church be effective at both?

This is a question that has been nagging at me.

One will always gain more focus

There are some who would argue that you cannot successfully maintain both models. If we were to survey nearly any church leader about the merits of both attractional and missional models of church, they would likely say they want both to exist in their church community. They may even say they are actively striving for both to coexist in their church community. But some would argue that you cannot actually do it well. My perception is that they would say the attractional model will ultimately win out. Churches will eventually emphasize their programs and events, communicating to their congregation that their primary role is to invite people to church functions. This will undermine the missional spirit, which seeks to remind people that they are the church (not programs, buildings or paid staff) and are therefore called to be the church in their community.

Here is a great little video that explains the missional church. It has been created to emphasize the need for a missional church, with little to no favorable mention of the attractional model. It is definitely worth watching:


Do we see both in the Bible?

When I read the Scriptures, I see both attractional and missional elements coexisting. I see them coexist in the nation of Israel, in the life of Jesus and also in the early church.

The Nation of Israel

Missional - There are fewer examples of this in the Old Testament, although I think it has less to do with God's desire for Israel to be a centripetal force than it does with Israel's inability to consistently act in accordance with God's desires. God initially tells Abraham that he would be a great nation, and his descendants would be a blessing to all nations (Gen. 12:1-3). God also calls Jonah to go to Nineveh and proclaim repentance (Jonah 1:1-2).

Attractional - People came from surrounding nations to seek the wisdom and blessing of God through Israel's leaders and prophets. The Queen of Sheba comes to seek the wisdom of Solomon (1 Kings 10:1-13). Also, Naaman the commander of the army of the king of Syria comes to Israel to find Elisha so that he could be healed from leprosy (2 Kings 5:1-14).

In the Life of Jesus

Missional - The most significant example in the life of Jesus is simply that he came. Jesus came in human form. God did not require us to find our way to Him ourselves, He made a way through Jesus. We also see Jesus send out the twelve apostles (Mk 6:7-13), the seventy-two disciples (Lk 10:1-12) and ultimately all of his disciples through the Great Commission (Mt. 28:18-20

Attractional - Jesus was an attractive figure. Crowds followed him wherever he went, and when they did he often taught them and healed them. When Jesus tried to get away with his disciples to rest, he was followed by a great crowd and ended up preaching and teaching and feeding the five thousand (Mk 6:30-44). You can page through the gospels and find numerous occasions in which a crowd has surrounded Jesus.

In the Life of the Early Church

Missional - Paul is a great example of a missional life. He said that he wanted to preach where the gospel had not yet been named (Rm 15:20). He went on many missionary journeys and was always proactive to share the good news of Jesus. As the early church spread, there are multiple examples of the gospel spreading through people carrying the message while going on their way.

Attractional - The early church was also extremely attractive. In Acts 2:42-47, the fellowship of believers is described in a way that is compelling. I don't know who wouldn't want to be part of that type of community. And it says that "the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved (Acts 2:27)." There was something attractive about the church community, and people wanted to be part of it.

So then, is it possible to have both?

I am still an advocate for both models to coexist in a local church community. Our communities must be attractive. Frankly, I wouldn't want to be part of a local community that isn't attractive. This does not mean that we need to sell out to the attractional model, or that we should communicate in such a way that programs and events become the pulse of our church community. But our communities should be welcoming and accessible to people. We need to be conscious and aware, so that we can reduce the barriers that exist for those outside of our community to engage with our church. We should have a great team of people who greet our guests on Sundays. We should have small groups that become a point of access for others to engage with our fellowship. We should strive to be a church community that is attractive to others.

It cannot end there. Everyone in our church community must start seeing themselves as the church in their community. Our local churches are not buildings or programs or paid staff. Our local churches are the people themselves, who have decided to commit to our church and claim it as their own. We need to train, equip and encourage everyone in our church to carry the message and blessing of the gospel to their own little spheres of influence. Each of our church members gets the privilege of being the church in their workplaces, schools, neighborhoods and anywhere their lives inhabit. This is a message that we need to communicate clearly and consistently.

The question still lingers for me though. Can we actually have both? If we pursue both, will we inevitably sell out to the attractional model? In order to be missional, do we need to sell out to that model instead? I am resisting the need to chose. I want to chose both.

Let me know your thoughts?

What do you think? Can we have both? Or do we need to chose? I would love to hear from you in the comments section below.