Tuesday, October 17, 2006

"Exciting" Churches

I hope that this entry doesn't make me sound like a stick in the mud.

I said some things to my Consistory this week. It's part of what underlies something that I want to get up and running here over the next...hm...let's give it two years.

Ever heard of cell group ministry? You help people plug themselves into small groups of 8-12 people and they encourage each other in Bible study, fellowship, etc.? Ours is what is known as a "regional" church, so it seemed like something worth trying in the 4-5 different communities from which we pull instead of trying to get people to always make the drive. I figure the church go there instead of people come here.

And that last sentence is the essence of a "missional" church vs. an "attractional" church.

Here's where I went on a fairly calm rant during the meeting about "attractional" churches. First, what's "attractional?" "Attractional" uses a "y'all come" approach to get people in the door. It has an emphasis on programming at the church, programming that probably includes a hefty dose of spice if people figure that cars are just going to start pulling into the parking lot on their own.

All churches have some form of an attractional philosophy. It's what's behind any sort of community dinner, contemporary worship service, inviting a college choir in to perform, car wash, bake sale, "sign message ministry" (don't get me started), ad infinitum. There's nothing inherently wrong with an attractional mindset. It's when we plan these programs just assuming that people will drop whatever they have planned on a particular day to come and do your thing instead, that we may end up disappointed. No personal phone call or invitation? Maybe a flyer in the local drugstore and an ad in the paper. That's where we trip ourselves up: the lack of personal interaction and word-of-mouth.

So what did I say during my meeting? I mentioned that some churches do the attractional thing very well because they have the resources. I couldn't emphasize "very well" and "resources" enough. My people are very familiar with one such church. These churches have youth by the boatload flock to them because of their gymnasiums, climbing walls, video arcades, and soccer fields. These are the extreme examples, but they're nevertheless great attractional churches.

"Now," I asked, "what's the difference between a church with a climbing wall and the local family fun center? 'The church has Jesus.' Well, the church down the road also has Jesus. 'But they don't have a climbing wall.' So are you there for Jesus or the climbing wall?"

I'm never going to pastor a huge congregation with this mindset.

I would never say that climbing walls in churches are inherently horrible. For our own part, we go play laser tag every winter (not coincidentally, always yielding the largest turnout of kids by a mile). That really would make me a stick in the mud if I wanted to discourage anything that wasn't nose-in-your-books Bible study (perhaps a reason many have begun turning to climbing walls is in reaction to that). I mean, you don't want church to be "boring" (ask the guys at the first Pentecost if God is boring). That's what it is, isn't it? Churches become "safe alternatives" and exciting places to be, which covers both our desire for our kids to avoid bad influences and our consumerist tendencies. "Because they have a climbing wall" is a church-shopping statement. There's nothing there about seeking meaning or purpose. There's nothing there about being convicted by the Holy Spirit or connecting with God. It's just because they have a climbing wall. This church is more exciting than that church.

Let's be fair, though. Some churches really are boring. They haven't changed in 50 years and if they can help it they'll go 50 more. You know the drill: the organist plays too slow, zero attention paid to youth, and longhand manuscripts read (as opposed to preached) from the pulpit. Style does matter a little. Maybe more than a little. But I've been a part of very "traditional" churches that were also exciting places to be. There wasn't a family fun gimmick to be found, but these are dynamic places always engaged in mission projects, youth outings (but not to laser tag), and darn good preaching. And they're doing it without a gymnasium.

Style, when combined with a healthy amount of substance, can actually change lives. It can make a church exciting and deep at the same time.

And if nothing else, consider this when talking about excitement in a church context: we profess to follow an itinerant preacher who said really offensive things like telling the rich man to sell all he had and THEN he could follow, who said to take up your cross (last I checked, crosses kill people), who said that the lowest of low, the dirty, the ill-reputed, would enter the kingdom before all the big shots. That simply isn't an attractive message.

It's exciting, but not in a climbing wall/laser tag sort of way.