What Is the Church and Who Is It For? Critiquing Arguments for the Seeker-Sensitive/ Attractional Model of Church

October 2, 2018

 

What Is the Church and Who Is It For?

 

Critiquing Arguments for the Seeker-Sensitive/ Attractional Model of Church

 

 

What is the church and who is it for? The answer to these questions will affect one’s approach to church ministry.[1] Andy Stanley, the author of Deep and Wide, and Jerod Wilson, the author of Prodigal Church, answer these questions very differently and therefore promote two different models of church. Stanley promotes an attractional model, formerly called the seeker-sensitive model, where the focus is reaching unbelievers. Wilson promotes, what he calls, a more “biblical” model in which the focus is believers worshiping God. [2] This paper will compare the two different church models and make an argument for which is more biblical.

 

The Attractional/Seeker-Sensitive Model

 

What is the attractional church model and what are its characteristics? Wilson defines the attractional church this way:

 

A definition of “attractional” would perhaps be something like this: a way of ministry that derives from the primary purpose of making Christianity appealing. By this definition, it would not be an exaggeration to say that the attractional church makes its primary aim in worship to get as many people through the doors of the church as possible so that they may hear what it means to have a relationship with Jesus Christ.[3]

 

Stanley confirms this definition, as he says this about his church North Point Community, “We grade ourselves on how attractive we are to our target audience [unbelievers].”[4] Wilson said that the attractional church is built on two ideologies: “These ideologies are pragmatism and consumerism. Pragmatism is the way of thinking that says, ‘If it works, let’s work it.’”[5] Consumerism simply means that a business or ministry should seek to meet the needs or wants of their consumer base. In the attractional model, this is seen by the church seeking to attract unbelievers to Sunday services by catering to their perceived needs and wants. Stanley said, “In our search for common ground with unchurched people, we’ve discovered that, like us, they are consumers. So, we leverage their consumer instincts.”[6] Since meeting the needs of unbelievers is one of the primary aims of the attractional church, their preaching often seeks to answer a question of theirs or encourage them in some way. Wilson said this: “The dominant message in so much attractional preaching is that Jesus has come to make life easier or better for us, that his teachings can help us in pursuit of our aspirations. So the attractional church sometimes struggles to talk about sin.”[7] Since sin is unattractive to unbelievers, sometimes the messages tend to neglect the topic. Stanley said in his preaching that he never ducks sin, but since the exhortations and commands in the Bible are for believers, he tells unbelievers they don’t need to obey those exhortations. He said: “I’m very intentional about this when I preach. I make statements like, ‘If you aren’t a Christian, you are off the hook today.’ Or, ‘If you aren’t a follower of Jesus, then you are not accountable for what we are about to read. You get a pass.’”[8] In addition, apart from the Sunday worship service, the attractional model tends to offer many programs in order to attract unbelievers, such as divorce recovery, addiction recovery, homeless ministry, affinity groups, movie nights, yoga, etc.

 

How is this model supported biblically? Stanley argues that God’s original intent for the church was for it to be a “movement” focused on “global mission,” which was eventually lost throughout church history.[9] A contributing factor to its loss is the fact that the Greek word ecclesia, which is normally translated congregation or gathering, is now translated “church,” which is often used of a building. He says this comes from the German influence of translating ecclesia as kirche, which means “‘house of the Lord’ and was used to refer to any ritual gathering place, Christian or pagan.”[10] Since words matter, the congregation of Christ stopped being a “movement” of believers seeking to save the lost and instead became stagnant congregations of believers—often focused on a building.

 

In addition, Stanley argues that the church should be attractional because Christ’s ministry attracted the irreligious. He said, “Because the church is the local expression of the presence of Jesus. We are his body. And since people who were nothing like Jesus liked Jesus, people who are nothing like Jesus should like us as well. There should be something about us that causes them to gather at the periphery and stare.”[11] Zacchaeus, the tax collector, was drawn to Christ. Christ ate and drank with sinners. Crowds flocked to him because of his healing and feeding ministry. To support Stanley’s argument for attractional churches, he says that churches for believers are unhealthy and, by implication, unbiblical:

 

Churches designed for saved people are full of hypocrites. You pretty much have to be a hypocrite to participate. Transparency and honesty are dangerous in a church created for church people. Consequently, the casualty in a church for church people is grace. It’s hard to extend grace to people who don’t seem to need it. And it’s hard to admit you need it when you aren’t sure you will receive it.[12]

 

Wilson’s Model

 

Wilson, in his book Prodigal Church, doesn’t necessarily argue for the traditional church model, as much as he argues against the attractional church. He says this: “Many times, when a person complains about the so-called ‘attractional church,’ people understandably assume that the person is arguing for a ‘traditional church’ instead… This is not an argument for a more traditional church so much as it is an argument for a more biblical one.”[13]

 

What identifies Wilson’s church model? What are the differences with the attractional model? One of the primary differences between Wilson’s model and the attractional model is that the focus of worship is God. Wilson says, “As important as it is to reach seekers as part of the church’s primary mission to make disciples, the target audience of the ‘worship experience’ is not any mortal in the congregation. The target audience is God himself.”[14] Though those who oversee attractional churches would agree that God is the object of worship, their developing the service to cater to unbelievers’ needs implies that God is not the primary focus. Wilson shares how he came to this conclusion through his attractional church experiences:

 

…If the purpose of worship is evangelism, this makes sense. So to advertise our worship experiences we add adjectives that communicate the intended effect. We call our worship “dynamic” or “exciting” or “engaging.” The unintended message is that worship is not for God but really for the worshiper. Which raises the question, Who are we worshiping?... I’d long suspected the worship experience at our church was aimed more at the congregation’s sense of excitement and engagement than at God’s worthiness and exaltation.[15]

 

To further support that God is not the focus of worship in many attractional churches is their use of secular music in their services. Often the content of these songs is worldly and the purpose in using them is to make unbelievers feel comfortable. It is not to exalt God or declare his characteristics to all.

 

Another major difference in Wilson’s model of church is that it is primarily for believers and not unbelievers. Wilson described the worship service this way:

 

The worship service, biblically, is a gathering of Christians to enjoy God in communion with him and each other. There are several elements to this—singing, praying, preaching, eating. We could add other elements, too. But the service is meant to reorient the body around its head—Jesus Christ—and to prepare us for the ongoing personal and communal witness of the church outside the gathering.[16]

 

Reaching the lost is important, but corporate worship helps enable and prepare believers to witness daily outside the church. This equipping of the saints is exactly where the attractional church fails. Willow Creek Community Church, one of the flagships of the attractional movement, Reveal Survey said the same:

 

The study shows that while Willow has been successfully meeting the spiritual needs of those who describe themselves as “exploring Christianity” or “growing in Christ,” it has been less successful at doing so with those who self-report as being “close to Christ” or “Christ-centered.” In fact, one-fourth of the last two groups say that they are either “stalled” in their spiritual growth and/or “dissatisfied” with the church.[17]

 

Unfortunately, the attractional model’s focus on unbelievers leads to malnourished believers. Wilson says that instead of worship services being “seeker-targeted,” those who oversee the service should be “seeker-mindful.”[18] He argues that in 1 Corinthians 14, Paul focuses on believers edifying one another through their gifts and then he says “if” an unbeliever comes into the service (v. 24), which implies that unbelievers are not the focus of corporate worship. Wilson mentions how Tim Keller practices being “seeker-mindful” in his sermons when he says things like, “If you are not a Christian or not sure what you believe, then you surely must think this is narrow-minded—but the text says this, which speaks to this very issue …”[19]

 

Another difference in Wilson’s model is that he argues for a “simple church” instead of an expansive one with lots of programs. Having many programs gives an appearance of fruitfulness but often is just busyness. Instead, churches should focus on what they are doing well and pruning their vine, so they can be more fruitful.[20] Wilson said this:

 

The bigger the selection of offerings, the more bloated and ineffective a church will actually be. That’s the cruel irony of program accumulation—it offers a way to meet many needs and reach many people, but it actually dissipates a church’s missional effectiveness in a community. This happens primarily because people get confused by the menu of opportunities and about what’s of greatest value, both to the church and in life in general.[21]

 

Which Model Is More Biblical?

 

Which model is more biblical? It seems that the attractional model is more pragmatic than biblical. It assumes that a church that is growing in attendance and “reaching the lost” is proof of God’s favor. However, that is not always true. Christ said this to the Church of Sardis:

 

…I know your deeds, you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have found your deeds unfinished in the sight of my God. Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; hold it fast, and repent. But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you. (Rev 3:1-3, emphasis mine)[22]

 

The Church of Sardis had a reputation for being alive, but in Christ’s sight, they were really dead and in need of repentance. A growing attendance and many professions of faith are not always proof of God’s approval or work. In fact, when Isaiah was commissioned to preach, God told him that people would not respond to him and that his preaching would actually harden people’s hearts instead of making them soft (Is 6). It’s often been said that the same sun that melts the ice, hardens the clay. Sometimes faithful ministry means having small numbers of people and being rejected. Even Christ sifted the crowds who just came to see miracles. In John 6, he began to give them hard teachings like “eat my flesh” and “drink my blood.” The crowds were so confused, Scripture says, “From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him” (v. 66). Aware of the disciples grumbling over his teaching, Christ said this: “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled them” (v. 65). This is part of the problem with the attractional church, they often don’t recognize the difference between God’s work and the believer’s work. God draws people, saves them, and for some, he hardens them. The minister’s job is just to be faithful. Simply being pragmatic, can often lead ministers away from biblical faithfulness. The minister plants and waters but God makes the seed grow (1 Cor 3:6).

 

In addition, it must be noted that the attractional church model doesn’t align with Scripture in that church is not primarily for unbelievers. God gives pastors and teachers to equip Christ’s body to do the work of ministry, which includes evangelism (Eph 4:9-16). By focusing on unbelievers instead of believers in corporate worship, the attractional church neglects this duty. Also, by focusing on unbelievers, they commonly neglect God as the focus of corporate worship. Jesus described true worship as in spirit and truth (John 4:24). Spirit refers to the heart of the worshiper. If we lack love for God and others, much worship is really just noise before God (cf. 1 Cor 13:1-3). However, a right heart is not the only thing needed—truth is also. Church leaders must guard corporate worship against error. Everything must be biblical. They should ask questions like: Are the worship lyrics biblical and edifying? Is every element of corporate worship Christ-honoring and in line with Scripture? If we lack biblical truth, often called the regulating principle by reformers, then it is not worship at all. Sadly, many attractional churches seem to care little for truth, as demonstrated by secular music being played in their services. As mentioned, this music often contradicts Scripture in its lyrics and purpose.

 

Another way that truth is neglected in attractional churches is in their lack of emphasis on expository preaching and preaching on sin in general. Again, the preaching seems to be primarily geared toward encouraging people instead of honoring God. By proclaiming God’s Word verse by verse, week by week, Scripture is allowed to set the agenda of the message instead of the minister. It doesn’t allow the minister to skip difficult texts (like ones on divorce, sexual immorality, homosexuality, etc.) or simply focus on what people like to hear (love, dating, finances, happiness, etc.). Ministers must preach the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27) and using primarily verse by verse preaching seems to be the best way to do that. Stanley not only promotes topical teaching but criticizes expository teaching. He says, as quoted by Wilson: “Guys that preach verse-by-verse through books of the Bible—that is just cheating. It’s cheating because that would be easy, first of all. That isn’t how you grow people. No one in the Scripture modeled that. There’s not one example of that.”[23] To say that expository preaching was not the model in Scripture is just false. In describing Ezra’s and the Levites’ teaching of Israel, Nehemiah 8:8 says: “They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read” (emphasis mine). This is expository teaching, and it led to a great revival in Israel. Topical sermons can be expository as well, if the focus is explaining Scripture. However, topical sermons which are simply led by the preacher’s thoughts and supported by Scripture are backwards. We must preach the Word and support it with other Scriptures, reason, and illustration. But we should never preach our thoughts and life experiences (or outside illustrations) and then support it with Scripture. Essentially, the preacher is preaching themselves. In 2 Corinthians 4:5, Paul said, “For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.” Also, he exhorted Timothy, “Preach the Word,” as many teachers would not but instead would itch people’s ears (2 Tim 4:2-3). It seems preaching stories, sprinkled with Scripture—meant primarily to encourage the audience instead of honoring God—was common in the early church as well. This is why expository preaching is needed today, just as it was then. In churches, God’s Word must be clearly and consistently proclaimed. God desires worshipers who worship in spirit and truth.

 

Conclusion

 

What is the church and who is it for? Church is a gathering of believers who worship the true and living God. They are salt and light to the world by sharing God’s Word and love with unbelievers, so unbelievers can come to know God. Though there are many models of church in the world, they are not all biblical. The attractional church is to be commended for their passion for the lost; however, their zeal has made their ministry model unbalanced. Their unbalanced zeal for the lost hinders true worship and the development of believers into maturity. It is when God is first in corporate and individual worship, that the church can truly love one another and reach unbelievers.

 

 

 

 

[1] Andy Stanley. Deep and Wide: Creating Churches Unchurched People Love to Attend (Grand Rapids,

Michigan: Zondervan, 2012) Kindle Locations 556-557.

 

[2] Jared C. Wilson. The Prodigal Church: A Gentle Manifesto against the Status Quo (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway) 18.

 

[3] Ibid. 25-26.

 

[4] Ibid. 90-93.

 

[5] Ibid. 49-50.

 

[6] Stanley, Deep and Wide, Kindle Locations 107-108.

 

[7] Wilson, The Prodigal Church, 28.

 

[8] Stanley, Deep and Wide, Kindle Locations 2872-2874.

 

[9] Ibid. Kindle Location 501.

 

[10] Ibid. Kindle Locations 635-636.

 

[11] Stanley, Deep and Wide, Kindle Locations 57-59.

 

[12] Ibid. Kindle Locations 774-777.

 

[13] Wilson, The Prodigal Church, 17-18.

 

[14] Wilson, The Prodigal Church, 58.

 

[15] Ibid. 32- 33.

 

[16] Ibid. 62.

 

 

[17] Wilson, The Prodigal Church, 37.

 

[18] Ibid. 63.

 

[19] Ibid. 65.

 

[20] Ibid.126.

 

[21] Ibid. 122.

 

[22] Unless otherwise noted, all biblical passages referenced are in the New International Version (Biblica, Inc, 2011)

 

[23] Wilson, The Prodigal Church, 73.

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