The Holy Spirit rarely works according to the pragmatic metrics of church growth.
In Part 1 of our interview with author Jared C. Wilson, he shares how he grew disenchanted with the attractional church model, and how a gospel-centered approach to doing church is actually more effective at reaching—and growing—people for Christ. Here, Wilson dives deeper into the themes he writes about in his latest book The Gospel-Driven Church: Uniting Church Growth Dreams with the Metrics of Grace (Zondervan, March 2019).
How did we get to a place where the attractional church model has come to dominate much of the church landscape in the U.S.?
Like all things, there’s a mixture of influences there, some more pure than others. A lot of what predominates in the attractional movement today is almost a direct result of the youth group culture of the 1970s and ’80s. You had the rise of parachurch or campus ministries, Young Life, all those sorts of things, which were largely predicated on the idea that you reach the influential kids and create a trickle-down evangelism effect. In Bill Hybels’ story this plays out explicitly. They were hosting youth meetings at whatever church he was at before he planted Willow Creek and were reaching youth really well by getting them to someone’s house. And it was a lightbulb moment for him where he thought, why can’t church take this approach? There is a pure motive there: Church hadn’t been reaching people. So you take that, package it into the worship gathering, and voila, you have the seeker service.
What happens in terms of other influencers coming in is you have to attract people to those services, and that’s resulted in pragmatism over the last 20–30 years. We’ll do anything to reach anybody, so you find more and more entertaining or silly or outlandish or in some cases really bizarre things to do to get people in the door. There are two bad results: One, you end up baptizing bad methods with your good motives, and two, you demotivate the average churchgoer for evangelism. We’ve turned go-and-tell into come and see. You get them here and leave the rest to the professionals. This has been the dominant motive of evangelical worship for the last two to three decades, and we have a still a declining number of professing Christians in the U.S. Something isn’t adding up.
What’s wrong with some level of pragmatism when it comes to outreach and church growth strategy? Does pragmatism completely remove any possibility of grace?
We need to distinguish between practicality and pragmatism. The Bible teaches that there are things to do, but there are also implications of the things we believe. So it’s not that we shouldn’t have systems or processes in place or try to pursue with excellence the things we do. But pragmatism is when we take what we think is practical and turn it into a formula. Like, if you do this, you will get that result. Pragmatism is more of a paradigm than it is kind of just the implications of belief. So it’s not about being impractical. It’s simply that to be gospel-centered, you realize that the Holy Spirit is who gives the growth. So when Paul says there’s a planting and a watering, those are practical things. We do plant, and we do water. There may be a variety of ways to do those things, but he says it’s God who gives the growth. The practical approach to that would be, Hey man, let’s plant and water the best we know how, according to the Bible’s guidance. But pragmatism would say, Hey, if you do it this way, you’re going to get the growth. That kind of flies right in the face of the supernaturality of the Scriptures.
When you put it that way, it’s shocking to think about how pragmatic we’ve become. It really is everywhere in the church space, isn’t it?
Pragmatism in the heart of us. Our flesh yearns for works. We understand that innately there are effects to the causes. Plus, it just sells a lot better. It’s hard to sell a book or a ministry model by saying, Hey, do these things, and let’s see what happens. But if you were to say, This is how the Lord has set it up. Do one, two, three, and you’re going to get this, well, yeah, of course we’re going to take a chance on that. But there’s so much of the Bible that is against that. You have the Psalm sufferers who say, Why do the good get punished and the wicked get rewarded? The reality is that life is not karmic that way. It’s not pragmatic. The Lord’s ways are inscrutable. The way life goes, it doesn’t always reward hard work. So I think pragmatism kind of speaks to our flesh in a way that’s really appealing because we want it to be true. And sometimes it happens. Sometimes you do these things and you do get the results. But it’s when we turn that into a guaranteed formula that we kind of remove room for the Holy Spirit to work. You don’t need faith that way, but there’s almost no room to say, it’s the Holy Spirit who actually blesses us and gives us growth, and sometimes he uses the means of our excellence and sometimes he uses really messy people who don’t know what they’re doing. He comes and goes like the wind. You don’t know where he’s coming from or what he’s doing.
And success is easier to measure when you’re going by pragmatism rather than gospel centrality, right?
It definitely is, which is not to say that attendance and dollars are not important and don’t tell us anything, but they’re the easiest things to count. But to cut off our definition of success right there is really lazy and actually really unbiblical, because you see Jesus losing people left and right. You see him gathering large crowds of people who are there for the wrong reasons, but he was still successful. It’s just very hard to measure. You can’t do a list of the top 100 churches that are discipling people according to biblical parameters because it’s so subjective. It requires a deeper level of pastoral care. That was something almost completely missing from the attractional church experience. The attractional church turns that feature off and almost solely exists for the weekend experience. It may put on classes or training programs, but there’s usually not a meaningful kind of membership, there’s usually not scaled pastoral care or leaders who know what’s going on in the lives of their people. And if that is happening, it’s just really rare, and I wouldn’t classify them as attractional.
And the larger you get, the more unwieldy and complex it becomes, even for churches with their head on straight. Now, one of the misconceptions people have about my view is that I’m anti-megachurch, which I’m not. It’s the attractional paradigm that’s the problem. So there are attractional big churches and attractional small churches. There are healthy big churches and healthy small churches. It’s not about church size, but I do think sometimes the size of a church begins to affect the way these things are carried out, and you have to just be more vigilant about it.
Practically speaking, give a few examples of what gospel centrality looks like lived out in the life of a church.
It looks like expository preaching. I think there are a variety of ways to do that, but you need to preach a text of Scripture. You’re starting with a text, and your points come from that text. Matt Chandler used to say he’s a fan of topical preaching so long as you preach a text, which was just a clever way of saying, If you’re going to preach on marriage or whatever, have a text that applies to that topic. I favor that approach as well.
Music matters too. That’s the biggest sticking point between the pastor and the worship leader. Generally it’s not about instruments or style. I think every church’s style should be contextualized for their area. It’s more about lyrical content. Are the lyrics rehearsing the gospel? Are they reflecting biblical teaching, or is it really more of an inspirational kind of personal experience? Who’s the audience? The attractional church tends to lean toward the worshiper being the audience. What I’m suggesting is that the Bible makes the center of worship God himself. It doesn’t mean we can’t contextualize, but all of that has to be subservient to the centrality of the real audience, who is God. So to the extent that we turn the music time at the church service into an individualistic and consumeristic experience where the aim is for someone to feel something, we’ve completely lost of the plot of what worship is.
What are you seeing when it comes to new church plants and in the mind-set of young seminary grads joining staffs at existing churches? Is gospel centrality gaining a foothold?
What I’m perceiving among millennials and Gen Z is this desire to return to what they would call authenticity. So smaller congregations. Of course from my particular vantage point at the seminary, it’s more baptistic, Southern Baptist in particular, but the 9Marks crew has a huge influence on the tribe I’m a part of here in Kansas City. I also travel and speak pretty widely within all kinds of traditions: Evangelical Free, Brethren, Presbyterian and even some Anglican. And what I see across the board among the younger generations is a disavowal of the attractional thing. Where I first saw this was in the response to my book The Prodigal Church.
I wrote that book as a critique of the attractional paradigm, but I wrote it in a way that I hoped pastors in that movement could pick it up and not see somebody shaking their fist at them but just asking gentle questions, kind of like over coffee. I really hoped it would land with the gatekeepers, but who I heard a lot from were guys in the second and third chairs, in particular youth pastors. They had some issues with the way church was going and they weren’t going to complain or criticize because they were learning a lot and getting some experience, but it just didn’t seem right, and they couldn’t figure out how to articulate it. That book helped them. So my hope is, five years or so after the previous book and for the next 10 years, I’m helping the younger generation as they inherit either churches they are going to revitalize or as they move up the ranks into second or maybe even third chair, or even they’re just inheriting the paradigm as they go plant.
What’s happening in the seminary space to train emerging leaders to think about church as being gospel-centered?
What I’ve been doing is trying to help young and aspiring pastors get their head around how powerful the gospel really is. There are quite a few who resonate with a gospel-centric model, and I’m cool with that, but I’m a little bit cautious about it because if it’s not a personal or spiritual thing for you, if it’s just, This is the tribe I’ve found inclusion in, or This is the model of church I’ve found myself in, or This is the cool thing going right now, I worry it won’t last. But for others and for quite a few guys in our residency at Liberty Baptist, it really does come out of the wreckage of their own life and a turnaround. Gospel centrality is in their bones, and those are the folks with whom I really see a lot of hope for the future of the church. Sometimes things get healthier when they get smaller, and the church might have to get smaller before it gets bigger.
Ultimately, the teaching pastor, or the person preaching from the stage, sets the tone for the rest of the church by the content and style of their preaching. So does gospel-centricity really rise and fall on these leaders?
That person is setting the DNA, but it has to be implemented beyond that, otherwise it’s just talk. There’s a reason why the sermon itself hasn’t died. If you go into any church of any style, of any tradition, you’re going to find a talk. We understand that preaching actually changes people. Over the life of the church, the diet of preaching really does change and affect and cultivate what a church values. But I wouldn’t say it’s the only place to create change, which is why I stress things like discipleship culture, community and pastoral care as well.
If you make the transition to gospel-centeredness, it takes a while to change. Think of it like a statue you’re sculpting. It doesn’t take one day to turn a block of marble into a figure. You have to chip away over time and polish.
When someone in an attractional church does mature in their faith, or mission does happen, is it in spite of the attractional framework, or are there elements of gospel-centeredness there?
In general I think it happens in spite of it. When you see the lifespan of folks at some of these churches, they tend to top out at about four years, when they move on. The church primarily exists to evangelize and not really to disciple. Anybody who sticks around beyond the baby Christian stage has to do it on their own, to some extent. The church isn’t really set up to facilitate that. So if it happens, it happens in spite of, but typically those people end up leaving and going to another church.
I was at a church plant in Houston that used the Willow Creek model, and we were very up front about that. We would say, Hey, our role as a church is to reach people. Other churches are responsible for growing them, and that’s fine. We all play roles in the body. And that’s how we rationalized it. I didn’t have the framework at that point to say that’s not biblically what a church is. Jesus called us to make disciples, not just converts. So if all we’re concerned about is conversion, we’re actually half obeying Jesus, which is actually disobeying him. But I didn’t think of it that way.
What I hope everyone can agree on is that we want healthy churches, though we may have a different vision for what that looks like. So what I’m trying to say is counting heads and volunteers only tells you so much. It doesn’t tell you something unimportant, but it doesn’t tell you the full story. So is church worth going deeper, doing a little bit harder work to look at some of the metrics that tell us more about the state of our church? I think if we’ll be courageous and convictional enough to do that, not only will we reach more people for the gospel, but our churches will be more aligned with God’s vision for the church.
Read more at OutreachMagazine.com/Jared-Wilson.