So far in this series, I have touched on Posture and Perspectives in Post-Christendom. At the close of the “Perspectives” post, I argued, “I believe there has been a considerable shift over the past decade (or two) toward paganism where the majority of non-Christians today are ignorant, indifferent, and militant.” In this post, I want to elaborate on the two paradigms for engaging non-Christians in Post-Christendom.
The Attractional Paradigm
During the times of Christendom and its decline, the attractional paradigm enjoyed much success. It was a time when the majority of non-Christians in culture found Christianity relevant and were quite conversant from a cultural standpoint. Christianity was looked upon favorably by the many, and churches seemed to engage the “unchurched Harry and Mary.” The attractional paradigm saw the rise of the seeker-sensitive movement, where a large focus of the church’s mission was to get non-Christians to “come and see” through the church event what Christianity was about. Missiologists call this a “centripetal” movement where the draw is toward the center, namely the Sunday morning event/experience.
The attractional paradigm found ways to reach the non-Christians through a focus on relevance and pragmatism. The event focused on “the experience,” wherein the message would have relevance to the most pressing issues of the day (sex, happiness, relationships, overcoming fear, etc.). Outside the event, the attractional model produced goods and services that the non-Christian consumer would find practical and beneficial. Relevance and pragmatism became a winning combination for burgeoning megachurches that could exceed consumer expectations on what they could offer them and the experience they could find.
Unfortunately, the attractional paradigm has fallen on hard times in Post-Christendom as fewer and fewer non-Christians are conversant to Christianity or find it relevant. Moreover, those who were once religious consumers of experience and services have become jaded and inoculated over time, eventually comprising much of the de-churched. The attractional paradigm in Post-Christendom simply does not maintain much plausibility with event, experience, size of church buildings/campus, etc. among the increasingly secular generations who find much of these a stumbling block to them today.
If the church in Post-Christendom predominantly embraces the attractional paradigm, they will be reaching an increasingly smaller segment of our world today. Fewer people are interested in the come-and-see approach. Sadly, what often takes place is churches finding themselves in competition over the very small slice of humanity by “swapping sheep” when one becomes more attractional than the other and thereby wins over the religious consumer with a better experience and selection of goods and services. Smaller churches with fewer resources and smaller influence cannot compete in such an environment and are forced to either close their doors or merge with larger, more effective churches. Consequently, the megachurches continue to get larger as smaller churches are subsumed as new campuses or simply move their members with the appearance that more of the world is being reached when really more of dying Christendom is being consolidated.
The Missional Paradigm
A lot has been said about the missional paradigm over the past two decades. In spite of that, the term “missional” does not enjoy a broadly understood definition and description. While I may not be able to bring clarity on its meaning, I do want to emphasize its importance to Post-Christendom.
If the attractional paradigm has a centripetal movement, the missional paradigm has an opposite, centrifugal movement. This is movement away from the center. Centripetal force says, “Come and see”; centrifugal force says, “Go and show/tell.” While the attractional paradigm focuses on seekers coming to the event/experience, the missional paradigm focuses on servants going to the world in every sphere of life.
Because more and more of our unbelieving world are ignorant (-3), indifferent (-4), and militant (-5), Christians need to be mobilized to live on mission to go to them to make the gospel known. They will no longer come to us. The aspects of the attractional paradigm that engineered its success are no longer plausible to them. The questions being asked today are not being answered by those pursuing relevance. In order for Christianity to become plausible to them, they are going to need more than religious goods and services or events and experiences. They need a new kind of attraction.
The missional paradigm says that Christians need to “telescope” the gospel. A telescope takes a massive object really far away and magnifies it with special lenses so that you are able to see them up close. When Jesus commands us to go into the world, He does not tell us to go into the world we find comfortable to us. Going does not mean driving by, but entering in and dwelling deep. Going means entering into the neighborhoods and laying down stakes for Jesus’ name. To telescope the gospel, we must learn to live on mission whereby the implications of the gospel are manifested in the story of our lives and the applications of the gospel are demonstrated in the context of our world. Our lives become the lens through which the massive, glorious reality of Jesus Christ is clearly and visibly seen up close.
In Post-Christendom, the attraction to Christianity is sacrificial love for those who have nothing to give you in return. What makes Christianity plausible is not relevance but presence, not commodity but community, not event but life. While the attractional paradigm proved to be efficient and measurable, the missional paradigm is slow and messy. But if we are going to reach the world in Post-Christendom, we are going to have to telescope the gospel with the way we live sent on mission in every sphere of our existence (where we live—first place, where we work—second place, where we play—third place). We cannot be lured away for expedience sake.
Our increasingly pagan culture requires a gospel apologetic that is more profound than a service project. They need servants who embody the mission and message of Jesus Christ. Christianity will not make sense to them by field-tested marketing, but love demonstrated in tangible, personal ways that provoke questions in them only the gospel can answer. Yes, we need to live in such a way that our lives produce questions that can only be answered by the power of a crucified, risen Savior.
We don’t need to measure how many people are coming, but rather how many are going. If we are content to measure the wrong thing, we will be satisfied with results that don’t matter. We will be measuring what wins other sheep rather than what wins the world for Jesus. Why have a shadow mission that attracts the most in dying Christendom when Jesus has a mission that reaches mass of humanity dying without Christ?
The question we need to be asking is, “Are we making, maturing, mobilizing, and multiplying disciples in such a way that they telescope the gospel to our lost and dying world in order that they may see, hear, and believe in Jesus Christ?” In my next post, I hope to explain the polarity that helps to answer that question.
Tim Brister is a pastor, writer, and church planting specialist. Find out more on his blog: Provocations and Pantings.