So Ed Young is at it again. Last week he announced a forthcoming sermon series titled “Wrastlin’” and did so through a video that is nothing short of absurd. “Over four weeks this September, Ed Young and Fellowship Church welcome four legendary guests from the world of professional wrestling – Ric Flair, The Undertaker, The Million Dollar Man, and Sting!” You can probably guess the premise of the series: “The Bible often compares the Christian life to that of a warrior, a wrestler. Wrestling is a metaphor commonly used in the Christian life and one that will remind us that no matter what, God is ready and able to step in between the ropes and help us overcome any challenge we face!”
This series may represent “peak attractional,” which is to say, it may mark the moment the attractional church model finally hit rock bottom (though you could probably make the case Young already achieved that the day he got into bed with his wife on the church roof). I’m almost afraid to ask: Can the model possibly become more of a parody of itself?
The attractional church is, according to Jared Wilson, a “ministry paradigm that has embraced consumerism, pragmatism, and moralism as its operational values.” It assumes that the greatest and highest purpose of the church service is to evangelize unbelievers rather than to encourage and disciple believers. It assumes we are responsible to do whatever it takes to get people through the doors of the church. It assumes that we shouldn’t do or say anything within a service that may make unbelievers uncomfortable. It assumes that growing numbers are a necessary indication of God’s favor.
The attractional church model has been tried and found exceptionally successfully in its ability to draw massive crowds (though it seems these crowds are less likely to be comprised of unchurched people with genuine spiritual questions than churched people who come from smaller, less attractive congregations). The attractional church model has been tried and found exceptionally wanting in its ability to draw people into a living relationship with the Lord that results in their spiritual maturation and reproduction. Yet it lives on in a thousand megachurches and a million smaller imitators.
As I watch the video announcing the series, I can’t help but feel some pity for the countless thousands of pastors who have been convinced by this model. James Montgomery Boice once warned “what you win them with is what you win them to” and the attractional model bears this out: If you draw people with stunts like Wrastlin’, you’ve got to keep them with other similar or bigger stunts. I feel sorry for the pastor who knows that to keep his congregation, he has to keep coming up with bigger and more shocking ideas. He knows that as soon as the fun stops or the place down the street offers something better, the seats will empty, the budget will decline, the church will collapse. It must be exhausting. I feel pity for the small-church pastor who has to compete with this attractional model but with only a fraction of the budget. A megachurch like Young’s has the means, the administrative ability, the design department, and the advertising budget necessary to create an event that will make a huge splash. The average local church of 200 or 300 people can only look on with envy. What can they do to compete? If inviting professional wrestlers looks desperate, the small church equivalent can only look cobbled-together and pathetic.
Ed Young’s latest desperate attempt to draw a crowd is a good opportunity for us to consider the hallmarks of the attractional church model and to compare it to something far better, courtesy of Jared Wilson.
First, here are eight unfortunate hallmarks of the attractional church:
- Sermons driven by what Christian Smith calls “moralistic therapeutic deism”
- Functional ideology of pragmatism. (Not “what’s biblical?” but “what works?”)
- Truncating of the gospel or relegation of the gospel to background/afterthought
- Equation of bigness with success, contrary to numerous biblical examples otherwise
- Treating membership solely or mainly as a means of assimilating volunteers
- Wide open back door for those needing to be discipled beyond conversion
- Reduction of the Bible to a source for good quotes
- Claiming relevance/innovation while insulating from critical challenges to assumptions.
Meanwhile, for your edification and encouragement, here are the hallmarks of gospel-centered churches:
- Trust not just in authority of Scripture but sufficiency of Scripture
- Sermons that emphasize “It is finished!” over “Get to work!”. Jesus is the star, not a bit player
- Meaningful membership encompassing whole-life discipleship, pastoral care, and church discipline
- Emphasis on members as missionaries & emphasizing “go and tell” over “come and see”
- A total trust in the gospel to be the power of transformation that no amount of inspiration can be
- Regular commitment to the Lord’s Supper
- Reliance on robustness of the gospel to apply to the believer, justification & sanctification
- Church as community of saints, not merely a worship service or resource center for programs
While we wait for the attractional model to finally and blessedly go into decline, we may do well to affirm once again how and why it is opposed to what the Bible calls the church to be and to do. To that end, perhaps consider reading The Prodigal Church by Jared Wilson or Ashamed of the Gospel by John MacArthur. Both will bless and challenge you. Both will direct you to a far better, far more biblical, and ultimately far more successful model of doing and being church.