The church of ‘Come and see’ or ‘Go and do?’

I just got back from a three-day summit in Kansas City, Mo., focused on the place of young adults within the church. I talked myself blue about a number of topics, including the growing ineffectiveness of the old “attractional church” model.

Several decades ago, the church benefited from several social dynamics. People moved less often, divorced less, kept the same job forever and generally stayed close to home. The concept of community was very centralized and relatively constant.

On top of this, there was a swell of confidence in institutions after World War II. From Roosevelt’s New Deal to the triumph of the good guys against Nazi Germany, we embraced idealism as a community value, as well as those institutions that represented those ideals.

In such a dynamic, the local church stood as a social, ideological and cultural hub for the local community. If you grew up in the Methodist church, you were a Methodist, period. Of course, there was some church-hopping, but the very notion of surveying the multitude of faith options out there in the world was a relatively foreign concept.

In such an environment, the institutional image was a relatively positive one. It represented permanence, safety and security – all values highly sought at the time. Rather than having to aggressively seek out fringe-dwellers, churches focused more on meeting the needs of those already in their midst. A focus on programs became paramount, along with a trust that, as these programs became known in the community, people who needed them would come.

This, in essence, is what is now known as the “attractional model” for church. Though it had its day, many things have since rendered this way of doing church nearly irrelevant. People increasingly suspect all institutions, particularly religious ones and they have fewer denominational ties without church as part of their upbringing. We are a highly mobile, decentralized, ever-discriminating – some might say skeptical or even cynical – culture.

What’s more, the last thing we need is for church to reflect the culture we see every day outside the doors. For a while, churches decided that, to reach the MTV generation, they had to look more like MTV. Though this works with some on a superficial level, the feeling-driven spirituality of high-production services takes us only so far, leaving many hungry for something spiritually richer, deeper and more relevant to their notions of justice, transformation and healing needed in the world.

Enter the “missional church” model. Instead of focusing on building up the programs that will draw those we think we need to survive, we reach out – less as firebrand evangelists and more as compassionate missionaries – ready to listen, to build community beyond the walls, and to serve.

Though worship used to be the point of entry for most people seeking a faith community, it actually is toward the end of the missional model cycle. We first build relationships in neutral territory, developing dialogue around “common ground” issues: climate change, poverty and even our own personal stories bring us closer together, rather than draw lines of belief in the sand.

From here, an organic sort of community emerges, engendering a sense of mutual trust and intimate care for one another that transcends ideological differences. Though the relationship may stay there for years, it also opens the door for invitation to deeper discipleship if the desire is clearly expressed. This is the point at which we find opportunities – either inside or outside church – to worship, study, serve and share together, growing in parallel in our spiritual lives. As for worship styles, those emerge from the passions and experiences of those who come, rather than being preordained by those who think they know what the public wants.

The hardest thing about the missional model of church is that it doesn’t offer immediate results for churches obsessed with survival. Instead it focuses on discipleship in the active, culturally engaged sense. The beauty of this new vision for faith is that it can flourish whether or not our religious institutions fail. It demands more of us individually, but it offers the potential for much more in return.

So what would Jesus do? Would he spend time worrying about how to meet his church’s budget, or would he get on with the business of cultivating disciples, one relationship at a time?

To me, the answer is clear.

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