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What Does it Mean to be Missional; or Is Being Attractional Bad

Posted by thethousandmarch on February 1, 2011 at 9:05 PM

     These days – at least in the “emerging church” subculture and amongst those reacting to the movement – there is a lot of fuss about being missional and incarnational. This is often contrasted with being attractional. All the cool pastors want to be missional, and they like to criticize the mainstream church for being attractional. Well I've come to the conclusion that there is no such thing as a missional church that isn't attractional, or an attractional church that isn't missional.

     Now let me try to explain what this all means in the first place. For a church or Christian to be missional means that the group, or individual, is participating in the mission of God. The mission of God, Christians believe, is to redeem the world through his Son Jesus the Anointed One. Jesus commanded his disciples to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matt 28:19-20). So, presumably this gives us a pretty good idea of what a disciple is supposed to do in order to participate in the mission of God.

     Now it is explicit that Jesus' command involves going. And this is where many people want to draw the distinction between missional and attractional. They point to Jesus as the prime example of how we are supposed to go. Jesus came down to us, he “moved into the neighborhood”. He took on our language, culture and flesh becoming God incarnate – thus the term incarnational. So, we as followers of Jesus must go to other people, outside of our own communities, and we should learn to communicate with them in ways that will make sense. This may be going to France and learning to speak French, or as the Jesus people in the '70's and '80's going all hippy (and eventually buying in and going corporate).

     Now, much of the emerging church leadership is critical of the mainstream church for being attractional rather than missional. The accusation is that these churches do not go out to anyone, they wait for people to come to them. Of course they don't wait passively, they work really hard to organize programs and events which will attract outsiders, making them want to come. Unlike Jesus who went to seek and save the lost, they try to lure seekers in. I do not believe this dichotomy actually exists. Furthermore, Jesus as our prime example was both missional and attractional.

     Let's start with the example of Jesus. Jesus came down from heaven, took on human flesh and moved into a very out of the way inconsequential neighborhood where most of the people he came to preach to (the Jews) didn't even live and where a bunch of other people (the Gentiles) did live, but he wasn't particularly interested in them. Then he didn't do much for about thirty years (maybe he was practicing lifestyle evangelism). When he did start his ministry he did specifically seek out some people, but most people came to him. And, he spent a lot of time actually trying to avoid a lot of people. When he did get to work he generally would find a nice place to doing some teaching, and whoever showed up got taught, healed and sometimes fed. He performed miracles and healings which attracted huge crowds. I can't really think of anyone Jesus sought out for healing. He made himself available, he came to this Earth, he took on human flesh, culture and language, but people then generally had to make some effort to come find him.

     We must remember that the first step of sharing the good news with the lost, the first step in seeking the lost, is performed by God. It is his love shown through a myriad of means, many which do not involve the Church, which initiates a relationship between God and the individual. This is not our job (though we may be a tool which God uses to show his love). It is ". . . [H]e himself [who] gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring" (Acts 17 25-2) The Father draws people to Jesus (John 6:44). And, Jesus said in John 12:32 “. . . I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” We have been commissioned to take part in the mission of God, but we must remember that God himself leads the way.

     What is our part? We must often take the first step in initiating contact with those we are trying to reach. This will require putting ourselves in proximity to them. Whatever we do next will be an act designed to persuade the other to respond and engage in relationship – an attractional act. No matter what a person does, establish a church, a community center, a coffee shop, a hospital, a food pantry, an art studio, these are all institutions designed to attract outsiders. No matter what we do to reach out to people there is always an attractional element. No matter what service we provide, even if it's going downtown and handing out socks to homeless people, we do these things to lure people into relationship. Therefore a church which provides a wide variety of services to it's community – the central service being the proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ, and the training of disciples - is no less missional, or more attractional than a group of Christians who start a pub. They both establish an institution which they then attempt to attract people to through various methods so they can share the good news of God.

     So, as a pastor I feel very good about what my church is doing. I want to do even more to attract our neighbors to us. We are in a neighborhood where a lot of people need to hear about and experience the love of God. We are going to go out and introduce ourselves to our neighbors. We are going to attempt to seek out, the best we can, those neighbors who may need help – the elderly and single parents for example. But, for the most part we are going to do a whole lot to attract our neighbors to us. We are going to start programs/services and put on events which we will invite our neighbors to. We will try to be a blessing to our neighbors. But, our neighbors are going to have to come to us in order to receive most of what we are able to provide.

     In the end a church as an institution must set up a base from which to operate and to which it attempts to attract people. As long as we are trying to engage those outside of our community in some manner we are doing good. As a community there is no other way we can act (as individuals we may act a little differently; I will discuss this in another post.) A church is an embassy of God's Kingdom, a sign of his coming reign. The acts of service the Church provides, like the acts of Jesus, operate as a foretaste of God's redemption. Like Jesus we'll be in the neighborhood. Hopefully like Jesus we'll be attractive. Like the people in Jesus' day the people who the Father is drawing to his Son will have to do a little seeking in order to find him.

* A footnote on being extractional. Now this is the practice that really gets hammered by emerging church people. This is extracting people out of their pre-Christian lives, taking them out of their cultures, or subcultures, and bringing them into the Christian subculture. They lose their ability to go back and share the good news with their old friends. This can be a problem. But there are many times when it is necessary to take someone out of their old life, removing them from it completely. There are many people Jesus told to leave behind their old life, abandoning their friends and family in order to follow him. What is important is that we do no isolate ourselves inside a Christian community which never then attempts to engage and bless outsiders.

Categories: Church Planting, The Kingdom of God, Being Missional