A new kind of attractional ministry (or: the church has done this to itself)

If You Build it They Will Come... Just Kidding...

A while back, I was listening to an episode of On Being with the amazing Joanna Macy. Macy is a buddhist and environmentalist, and if you don’t know who she is, go and read The Great Turning then come back. I’ll wait.

The host, Krista Tippet, asked Macy about her journey from Christianity to Buddhism. Macy was raised Christian, but her life changed when she went to volunteer with refugees from Tibet. As she tells it, she saw that these refugees who had nothing and were living in incredibly difficult circumstances had this light inside of them. They seemed to radiate joy and peace inspire of their circumstances. Macy says she thought to herself, “That. I want that.” From that point she began to study Buddhism and has become an amazing teacher and activist for peace and environmental justice.

As I listened to her story, something clicked. That. That is what we in the Christian church are missing. We have busied ourselves for years with changing our congregations so that we have the “right” programs, the “right” worship service, the “right” small groups. This is called attractional ministry, or the Field of Dreams way of doing ministry. If we build it, they will come.

But this hasn’t happened. We have built it and they are walking away. We have tried to alter our way of doing things in order to attract people to our ministry instead of altering our way of being so that we might attract people to Christ.

Many of my friends who don’t do church have this listed in their reasons for staying away. Church appears to be a group of people who gather each week as one would at a social club, nothing really challenging is said, no one really emerges as changed, they just sit for an hour listening to a bunch of words and then go home the same person they were when they woke up in the morning. What’s the point?

A colleague of mine recently told me of a conversation with an older colleague who explained that, in his day, it wasn’t thought of as the pastor’s call to change people; the purpose of church was to make people comfortable. And comfortable we are, but changed we are not.

Now, let me be clear, the change I am talking about isn’t people coming to church and instantly changing their outward behaviors to become more socially acceptable people (or, worse yet, changing who they are to fit into some narrow idea of what Christian looks like). It isn’t becoming less obviously sinful or bad or whatever, changing the outward behavior in hopes of becoming more holy or something (though one hopes that through regular encounters with God’s word, change will come). We will always mess up, we will always fall short of the goal, and changing acts means little without a change of heart. The change I am talking about is the re-orientation of life that comes from communion with the holy spirit, from hearing the radical love of Jesus Christ proclaimed from the pulpit every week, from deep involvement in a community rooted in Christ, and from a discipleship journey that includes regular engagement in spiritual practices. This kind of change comes from being both mentored and challenged in faith.

Too often leaders are afraid of challenging their people. Afraid of rocking the boat, afraid of having congregants get mad because they were made to feel uncomfortable. But, the thing is, faith is uncomfortable. The gospel is incredibly disruptive. It tells us that all of the messages society gives us about what matters in life (material possessions, worldly power, etc) are wrong. The gospel tells us that every single person is loved and worthy of love — this includes people we hate, people we don’t understand, people who have hurt us AND ourselves when we are at our worst. Jesus came to proclaim good news to the poor and to flip the narrative regarding whose side God was on.  This is incredibly challenging stuff. It will make people uncomfortable, but this is the message we are called to proclaim. Every week.

Repeatedly hearing of God’s radical love for all of creation, or God’s unapologetic inclusiveness and the Biblical call to serve the oppressed will change people. Giving people spiritual practices they can use to engage with will lead to transformation.

This will lead to communities in which “All are welcome” is more than a slogan, it is a way of life. It will lead to Christians doing work in the world towards justice for all people. It will lead to people who overflow with God’s love, pouring it out into the world, leading people to look at Christians and think, “I want that.”

This is not a simplistic faith. It is not a faith defined by doctrine and dogma, but a faith that is deeply connected to God and to the world. A faith that recognizes that bad things happen, but God is with us, and we are God’s people called to walk with others who are struggling. This is a faith that cultivates a deep resounding joy that is different from fleeting happiness, a joy that helps us get through difficult times because no matter how hard things get, we know the love of God. It is a faith that recognized the broken in the world and in ourselves and boldly proclaims that love is still alive, that love wins, defeating hate and violence and death.

When we are able to love others and ourselves despite our sinful nature, when we are able to love others and ourselves as we are, we are able to create radically honest communities that love loudly and boldly beyond all of the superficial smiles so many congregations seem to feel they are required to wear on Sunday mornings. When we create spaces into which people can enter when they are not okay, we create spaces into which anyone can enter at any time and know the love of God.

We often look to a growing church for guidance on how to fix our congregational problems. In the past few years, ELCA (and other) churches (as well as the institution) have been looking to House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver for the solution. What do they do there that has helped them grow? How to they attract so many young people? What is the magic pill and how do I get it?

I have been to HFASS, I have friends who have been involved in the community and I think I have an idea what it is. Here’s the magic: excellent, challenging preaching rooted in the gospel message of radical inclusion, bold proclamation of the fact that we are all both sinners and saints and we are all equally loved and valued by God, administration of the sacrament, and a radical inclusiveness that lets you feel welcome in church when you feel like crap, when you have screwed up, when you feel totally unworthy of love, when you have a past you would rather forget about, or any of the million reasons people stay away from church on a bad day (or every day). That’s it (as far as I see it, anyway).

HFASS is not the only community doing this, but it is lifted up so often by the ELCA (and torn down by others), it is an easy example of the gospel as the solution to our current wailing about church decline. It is an excellent example of a new kind of attractional ministry.

We, as Christians, are called to allow ourselves to be changed by the gospel. We are called in baptism to a new life in Christ, a lifetime of discipleship and practicing being Christian. As pastors, we are called to create disciples. Are disciples people who can recite church dogma, people who can quote scripture, or people who hear, smell, taste and see the gospel and “Go and do likewise?”

What’s more attractional?

What will make people like Joanna Macy look at us and say to themselves, “That. I want that?”

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About Elizabeth Rawlings

Lutheran. Feminist. Child of God. Thinking about how to be a leader in a church that is trying to rediscover itself and what it means to live simply so that others may simply live in tandem with what exactly is the fast God asks of us. Chronic alliterator. Generally silly person. View all posts by Elizabeth Rawlings

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