For years I have used and loved my PC but my employer just provided me with a new MAC. As you may know, the two computer systems are similar but differ significantly – and the difference between the two is frustrating me! I am an older, pleated-pants kind of guy and am tempted to give my MAC to someone else on campus. I am sure a young, hipster would treasure it.
Two different models, the PC and MAC, operate similar but different systems. Similarly, congregations typically employ one of two models or systems in their efforts to seek and save the lost. For the sake of this conversation, I label them “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. This model is especially popular in program-driven, “seeker-sensitive” congregations with weekly attendance of over 300. It is also the operating system for mega-churches.
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. You will find this approach advocated by both small, established congregations and by small but new “missional” congregations.
While it is not uncommon for proponents of either model to get into a “rockem sockem” boxing match, both models share many admirable qualities. Both 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. Both have been used by the Lord to make disciples. Both resist the temptation to become inwardly 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, they differ significantly:
• The attractional model is church based while the relational model is community based.
• The attractional model leads to relationships while the relationship model is built on relationships.
• 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.
• The attractional model can lead to consumerism and the relational model to narcissism.
• 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 shepherd.
• The attractional model was very popular towards the end of the 20th century (as in the mega-church movement), the relational model appears to be the popular model at the outset of the 21st century (as in the missional movement).
• The attractional model tends to be campus based while the relational model tends to be community based.
Surely, my list of differences between the attractional and relational models offers broad generalizations to which there will be exceptions. Overall, however, I think you will find the list representative of the tendencies of each approach.
But why is this important? First, the preferred model for ministry represents a congregational value. As such, it holds great power to shape the ministry of the congregation. If we embrace an attractional model, we will minister one way. If we embrace a relational model, we will minister another. For example, a large attractional congregation will discover the need to move people from attenders to members to servants. In response, they may develop an internally focused small-group ministry. In contrast, a small relational congregation will discover the need to develop strategies that move people, with their thick relationships, from the sanctuary to the community.
Second, by failing to recognize the difference between the two models, congregations will fail to develop effective strategies for implementing their missions. For example, a small and older congregation of 50-100 people (which by nature is relational) will most-likely fail to impact the community for Christ through an attractional model. This congregation simply doesn’t have the resources to out-attract the large congregations in the area. Yet, many small and older congregations believe the key to their futures is attractive programs. So they launch a program and six months later shut it down.
Third, the preferred model for ministry will influence a congregation’s response to numerical growth. Typically, a congregation that has embraced the attractional model will respond to numerical growth with more services, additional staff, and new construction. A congregation that has embraced a relational model will respond to numerical growth by planting a new congregation, one that also embraces the relational model.
Relational or attractional – which model does your congregation embrace?