As congregations determine how best to seek and save the lost, they often choose one of two models or a hybrid of both. These types of approaches may be labeled “attractional” and “relational.” The attractional model hopes to attract people to Christ through programs, such as a Sunday morning service. Once in the doors of the church, the church invites its guests to take additional steps in their journeys. The relational model hopes that its members will attract people to Christ through genuine relationships with unchurched individuals in the community. From the strength of these relationships, non-Christians are invited to take additional steps in their journeys.
While it is not uncommon for proponents of either model to get into a “rockem sockem” boxing match, both models share many admirable qualities. First, they share a commitment to follow the example of Christ by seeking to save the lost by leading people to salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. Both share a measure of the other: the attractional has a relational component and the relational has an attractional component. Both speak to the inner need of humanity to find harmony in and hope for life in the Creator. It appears that both have been “successful” in making disciples. It also appears that both must resist the temptation to become inward focused. Finally, both must work hard at being honest with seekers: following Christ is not always attractive, nor is it easy on relationships.
While the attractional and relational model may share those similarities, and many more, they differ significantly. Here are a few differences that I have noticed. Perhaps you would like to add one more to the list but first a caveat.The following list includes broad generalizations typical of both approaches. Of course, there are exceptions to each difference cited. Overall, however, I think you will find the list representative of the tendencies of each approach.
- The attractional model is church based while the relational model is community based.
- The attractional model invites the community to “church” while the relationship model sends the “church” to the community. In other words, the attractional model tends to be campus based while the relational model tends to be community based.
- The attractional model leads to relationships while the relationship model is built on relationships. As a result, attractional relationships are built around the life of the church while the others are built around the life of the community.
- The attractional model works better for large congregations with an extensive menu of opportunities, while the relational model works better for small congregations whose members are active in the community. In fact, the bigger the church, the more attractional, and the smaller the church, the more relational.
- The attractional model can lead to consumerism and the relational model to narcissism. Both have insatiable appetites which threaten the health of congregations.
- The attractional church tends to operate like a business, while the relational functions like a family. Correspondingly, the lead pastor of the attractional tends to function like a CEO while that of the relational church tends to function like a gardener.
- The attractional model was very popular towards the end of the 20th century, the relational model appears to be the popular model at the outset of the 21st.
Why is this important? In my work consulting congregation I have witnessed too many congregations struggle because they have adopted the wrong model. More often than not, I observe small congregations, with strong relationships both in the congregation and in the community, competing with larger attractional congregations by adopting attractional practices rather than relational ones. That approach leads to the demise of smaller relational congregations which don’t have the resources to compete with large attractional congregations. By expending limited resources on programs, they fail to cultivate their relationships which are the very key to congregational health.