when we in the church practice functional atheism
So I’ve been thinking about the attractional church model a lot recently. Mostly because I recently started serving in a new annual conference where it seems like this is the method of choice for new ministries and church revitalization. Forgive me if I am missing other models that are out there in West Ohio, but the attractional church model definitely gets the most attention/PR.
For those of you who don’t know what I mean by that phrase let me explain. The attractional church model is essentially: if you build it cooler, more modern, more hip or trendy, then they will come. It is usually pretty obsessed with worship numbers and giving units. It is really hard not to get caught up in this style of ministry or this mode of thinking. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve fallen into this trap, this trap of thinking that if I just did the right THING/PROGRAM my church would grow. The problem with this line of thinking is that it’s stuck in a conditional/consumer driven understanding of what church is and how the church should function in the world. Really what the attractional church says is that we have a spiritual product to offer to our neighbors and our job is to make it really, really pretty and enticing so they will buy what we are selling. Eugene Peterson, who I quote way too often, put it this way: “The vocation of pastor(s) has been replaced by the strategies of religious entrepreneurs with business plans.”
One of the larger problems for the attractional church is that it creates a dynamic that is sometimes called functional atheism. Functional atheism is when people who identify as faithful people, i.e. they believe in a relational God who is acting in the world on behalf of our salvation, act as though it’s all up to us. The attractional church model says to church leaders: you can and should be growing your church by doing X,Y, and Z…. And if the church isn’t growing it’s because you’re doing something wrong. This often leads to depression, stress, exhaustion and burn-out. The reality, though, is that I can’t save a church because I’m not the church’s savior. I can’t even save myself even though I’ve tried and tried.
The crazy thing about our faith is that it isn’t until we give up trying to save everything and everyone ourselves that we finally experience that profound transcendent moment of powerlessness and grace (unearned love). It’s in this moment we see the truth of our existence which sets us free, as St. Paul put it: “ But Jesus said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.” (2 Corinthians 12:9) I’d rather be part of helping a community live into state of humble recognition of our powerlessness together, boasting of our weakness as we walk faithfully to our death together, because anyone whose read the whole story knows that God’s greatest work is done in a graveyard.