What is the Attractional Church?

Jarod Wilson and others use the term attractional to refer to a way of doing church ministry that prioritizes making Christianity appealing.[1] The goal is to reach as many people as possible, by attracting the unbeliever to the church gathering. The attractional church is built upon two functional ideologies: consumerism and pragmatism. The driving questions are: Who is our customer? And what does our customer want?[2] Wilson writes to oppose the attractional movement, but he writes as someone who was once a part of the movement. He describes the mindset in this way:

One reason seekers aren’t attracted to church or Christianity is because they do not see the Bible as relevant to their everyday life. Seekers ask questions and feel needs that most Christian churches do not address. In fact, the old ways of doing church erect unnecessary barriers between people and Jesus, barriers of religion, tradition, judgment, and intellect. Successful ways of doing church remove those barriers.

– Jarod Wilson

Attractional churches focus their energies on creating experiences and environments that alure the unbeliever. Gatherings are designed to draw the outside world by means of professional marketing, entertaining services, comfortable worship environments, and finely tuned programs. The hope is that churches will grow and that unbelievers will be converted as they are drawn to the gathering to hear a professional give a convincing presentation of the gospel. Within this ministry philosophy, however, preachers tend to avoid uncomfortable topics that might turn someone away, and thus crucial doctrines are often bypassed.

The History

By the 1980s, a fifteen-year decline in membership and attendance had many evangelicals looking for answers. Churches on the verge of extinction turned to church growth tactics made popular by several high-profile churches.[3] Among these influential churches was the ministry of Bill Hybels at Willow Creek Community Church. The terms “seeker-sensitive” and “seeker-friendly” originated with Willow Creek’s outreach strategy. Bill Hybels describes the movement as, “Nothing more than a growing awareness among thousands of church leaders that local churches lost their evangelistic effectiveness many decades ago and that something should be done about it.”[4]

In response to the perceived nationwide loss of evangelistic effectiveness, Hybels led his church to do extensive surveys and research. From the results, they created a figurative character named unchurched Harry. This character represented the type of person that Willow Creek was committed to reach. In marketing their church, they simply asked, “What would unchurched Harry want?” He was the consumer, and the church experience was the product. Willow Creek’s Sunday service was designed around the felt needs of seekers like unchurched Harry. Services featured professional music, drama, children’s programming, and a practical message that appealed to the seeker.[5] Under the influence of the attractional movement, one best-seller of the 1990’s writes, “The audience, not the message, is sovereign. . . . Our message has to be adapted to the needs of the audience… When we produce advertising that is based on the take it or leave it proposition, rather than on a sensitivity and response to people’s needs, people will invariably reject our message.”[6] Another representative of the movement in the 90’s writes,

Though unchurched baby boomers may privately acknowledge they are flawed, and maybe even sinful – they are hardly going to sit in a public place and listen to themselves being described as worms, wretches, fallen creatures, and other totally depraved types. . . . I’ve made a deliberate practice of making sure that the messages I direct to my age-group always strike a positive note.[7]

– Doug Murren

In 1991, Bill Hybels created the Willow Creek Association (WCA), a network of congregations committed to reaching the unchurched.[8] The association offered conferences, workshops, and curriculum for churches around the world. By the year 2000, the WCA membership included 3,300 churches in the U.S., 200 in Canada, and approximately 2,500 outside of North America.[9] By 2008, Willow Creek Community Church averaged 17,000 weekend attendees, and more than 12,000 churches were partnered with the association.[10] The influence of the attractional church movement on the North American Church was astronomical. The movement made sense to the American mind because it was a product of American culture. Businesses grow when they can efficiently mass produce what the consumer wants to buy. If it works for modern businesses, why wouldn’t it work for the church?

Attractional Churches Today

The attractional church movement and its influence persists today. Wilson writes,

As we come to the end of another decade of American church ministry, it’s worth noting the persistent resilience of the seeker church model. We do not call it seeker church anymore, of course. It’s difficult to know what to call it. So many streams and tribes within the movement have grown in distinct ways that the seeker church of the ‘80s and ‘90s has become a veritable Baskin Robbins of church options– there are thirty-one flavors (at least) to choose from![11]

– Jarod Wilson

Though there is a Baskin Robbins of church options that have been influenced by the attractional movement, Andy Stanley stands out as one of the most influential proponents of the movement today. Stanley founded Atlanta-based North Point Ministries, a network of over 100 churches around the globe serving nearly 185,000 people weekly. Outreach Magazine identified Andy Stanley as one of the ten most influential living pastors in America. According to his website, 10.5 million of his messages, leadership videos, YouTube videos, and podcasts are accessed each month.[12]

Stanley introduces his book, Deep and Wide, with these words, “This is a book about creating churches that unchurched men, women, and children love to attend.”[13] In 2016, Stanley faced criticism for his approach to preaching which references the Bible little if at all. Stanley responded to the criticism with these words, “The approach most of us inherited doesn’t work anymore. Actually, it’s never worked all that well. In a culture that had high regard for the Bible the traditional approach held its own. Those days are over. They’ve been over for a long time.” He continues,

As part of my shift, I stopped leveraging the authority of Scripture and began leveraging the authority and stories of the people behind the Scripture. To be clear, I do not believe “the Bible says,” “Scripture teaches,” and “the word of God commands” are incorrect approaches. But they are ineffective approaches for post-Christian people.[14]

– Andy Stanley

Stanley argues that his church is simply committed to removing all barriers that might hinder someone from coming to church. This includes both the sermon and everything about the church experience. The key is not simply adapting the message to the culture, but the entire Sunday experience from the parking lot to the auditorium is for the unchurched. He writes, “Environments are the messages before the message. The messages your environments communicate have the potential to trump your primary message. . . . The sermon begins in the parking lot.”[15]

While Bill Hybels and Andy Stanley are key representatives of the movement, the ideas of the attractional movement are pervasive in all types of churches. Attractional churches are not always mega churches, nor are they all contemporary churches. Wilson rightly asserts,

“Attractional is not a style. It’s a paradigm.”[16]

– Jarod Wilson

The paradigm assumes that the end justifies the means. When a church leader believes that doing whatever it takes to get people in the door is reasonable as long as they hear Jesus, he is thinking pragmatically.[18] Thinking pragmatically, however, does not always lead to thinking biblically.


Ecclesiology and theology are closely intertwined. What one believes about the church, God, Scripture, salvation, and the great commission all coalesce into how one “does” church. In his book, Conversion: How God Creates a People, Michael Lawrence writes, “Getting our theology of conversion right means more than having correct theology. It means developing ministry practices that both reflect and undergird our theological convictions.”[16] In other words, a church’s doctrine of conversion impacts the way a church seeks to evangelize and disciple. The attractional church ministry philosophy assumes that securing conversions and growing attendance by whatever means necessary is their chief goal and primary way of honoring God. This assumption understands the church to be primarily a convert making institution by whatever means necessary. The Scriptures, however, do not paint a picture of a God who is desperate for us to figure out how to secure conversions. Nor does the Bible emphasize evangelistic fruitfulness at the expense of faithfulness of biblical teaching.

The church is certainly called to evangelize, but more than that, the church is a community of people called to make known the manifold wisdom of God even to those who are in the heavenly places (Eph 3:10). When Paul says that the church makes known the manifold wisdom of God, it is not in the context of evangelistic strategy where unbelievers are drawn to a place to hear a professional communicator. The supernatural display of God’s wisdom is in how the members of the community join themselves to one another despite cultural divisions. By joining together around the gospel as the primary uniter of all types of people, God is glorified (Eph 2:19–22). The communal life of mutually committed born again people is the supernatural tool which puts the gospel on display for the watching world. These joined together saints are set apart and equipped to do the work of the ministry. A local church is a functioning body of set-apart and joined together people that work together to accomplish the mission of building up the church (Eph 4:11–16). This is hardly the picture of Willow Creek’s approach for reaching “Unchurched Harry.” There is nothing supernatural about drawing a group of non-Christians to a building by offering from a stage what they already want to experience and hear. Mark Dever writes,

God has great purposes for the community of your church: to safeguard the gospel, to transform lives and communities, to shine as a beacon of hope to the unconverted. Community that does this is demonstrably supernatural. It is not a community designed around gospel plus some other bond of similarity. It is community that reveals the gospel. Yet too often, community in our churches better testifies to our own prowess in niche marketing than to the supernatural at work.[19]

– Mark Dever

The apostle Paul discusses outreach strategy remarkably little compared to how often he calls for counter cultural community. For Paul, evangelistic outreach and church growth was not necessarily easy, but it was simple. “The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor 1:18). Paul writes, “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified . . . My speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (1 Cor 2:2–5). God gives the growth (1 Cor 3:7). God accomplishes regeneration in the hearts of those who hear his message clearly explained. We are certainly commissioned to go and tell even at great personal cost, but not at the expense of obedience to other commands. The overwhelming instruction for the church in the New Testament is that the church gathering be one where pastors teach sound doctrine to equip the saints for the work of building up the body of Christ (1 Tim 3:2, 15; 4:11–16; 5:17; 6:2–3; 2 Tim 4:2, 14–15, 24–26; 3:14; 4:1–5; Titus 1:9; 2:1, 15; 3:8).

While God’s missional strategy seems to highlight the differences and separation between church and world, the attractional church seeks to gain the world by assimilation with the world. Lloyd Jones words ring true still today,

“Our Lord attracted sinners because he was different. They drew near to him because they felt that there was something different about Him. . . . This idea that you are going to win people to the Christian faith by showing them that after all you are remarkably like them is a theologically and psychologically a profound blunder.”[20]

– Martin Lloyd Jones

[1] Jarod Wilson, The Gospel-Driven Church: Uniting Church Growth Dreams with the Metrics of Grace (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2019), 24.

[2] Ibid., 25.

[3] Eddie Gibbs, “Church Responses to Culture Since 1985,” Missiology (2007): 157–168.

[4] Bill Hybels, “Selling Out the House of God? Bill Hybels Answers Critics of the Seeker-Church Movement.,” Christianity Today (1994): 21.

[5] Anthony Robinson, “Learning from Willow Creek Church,” Christian Century (1991): 69.

[6] George Barna, Marketing the Church: What They Never Taught You About Church Growth (Colorado Springs: Navpress, 1991), 145.

[7] Doug Murren, Baby Boomerang: Catching the Boomer Generations as They Return to Church (Ventura, CA: Gospel Light, 1990), 215–217.

[8] David Luecke, “Is Willow Creek the Way of the Future?,” Christian Century (1997): 479–485.

[9] Michael Hamilton, “Willow Creek’s Place in History,” Christianity Today (2000): 62–68.

[10] Adelle Banks, “Willow Creek Finds Limits to Its Model,” Christian Century (2008): 16.

[11] Wilson, The Gospel-Driven Church: Uniting Church Growth Dreams with the Metrics of Grace, 23.

[12] Andy Stanley, “About,” accessed March 2, 2021, https://andystanley.com/about/.

[13] Andy Stanley, Deep and Wide: Creating Churches Unchurched People Love to Attend (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 5.

[14] Andy Stanley, “Why ‘The Bible Says So Is Not Enough Anymore,” Outreach Magazine, Last modified May 20, 2018. https://outreachmagazine.com/features/19900-the-bible-says-so.html.

[15] Stanley, Deep and Wide, 133.

[16] Wilson, The Gospel-Driven Church, 47.

[17] Wilson, The Gospel-Driven Church, 48.

[18] Michael Lawrence, Conversion: How God Creates a People (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017), 16.

[19] Mark Dever and Jamie Dunlop, The Compelling Community: When God’s Power Makes a Church Attractive (Wheaton, IL.: Crossway, 2015), 27.

[20] D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers, 40th anni. ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 140.

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