Attraction Versus Conversion (Newsletter 5-4)

by David Bernard

Many churches today have adopted an attraction model for church growth. This model attempts to make the church as attractive as possible to prospective members by using culturally relevant methods and by appealing to felt needs. The use of publicity, media, technology, music, dress, and communication methods are highly attuned to the people they are trying to reach.

It is indeed important to conduct services with excellence and present the gospel in terms people can understand and appreciate. We should use methods and language to communicate effectively in our culture and strive to make a good first impression on our websites and in our services. We should be willing to adjust our preferences, tastes, programs, and traditions to meet contemporary needs and expectations. There are great dangers if the main emphasis is to be attractive to the world, however. First, there is a temptation to compromise apostolic identity in hopes of increasing attendance. Second, churches of this type often focus on a particular demographic, such as young urban professionals, instead of positioning themselves’ to minister to everyone in their community. Third, they often fail to reach people who are seeking truth and who are ready for spiritual change.

A number of Trinitarian Pentecostal scholars have expressed concern that the modem Pentecostal movement is leaving its roots by loss of social separation and holiness practices, decline in the teaching of key Christian disciplines and the preaching of distinctive Pentecostal doctrines, neglect of participatory worship in pursuit of popular musical trends, decline of supernatural experiences, and adoption of a lesser view and experience of conversion. Eric Patterson contends that many Pentecostals have adopted a Pragmatic approach of designing their message and experience to fit in with popular culture and attract “customers.” Instead he advocated an Incarnational approach: “In contrast to the prevailing paradigm of pop-cultural, functionalist pragmatism, an Incarnational philosophy of evangelism is contextual, Spirit-led, and transformative. An Incarnational philosophy seeks to present a clear gospel message in a way that is relevant but does not cheapen or shortchange the confrontational and salvationary message of the Bible. Incarnational evangelism does not try to create programs; it seeks to midwife spiritual transformation through a clear and loving Gospel witness.”

Steven Land described how many churches have in essence become filling stations, circuses, nightclubs, or mere schools. He noted a decline in Spirit baptism, tongues, and manifested spiritual gifts as churches seek respectability and social accommodation. David Roebuck and Darrin Rodgers stated: “Pentecostals are in danger of being swamped by cultural and religious fads and fashions. In various quarters, respectability has replaced consecration, relevance has become more important than holiness, and Pentecostals’ distinctive testimony has been obscured.” David Moore similarly noted: “Many-if not most-Pentecostal and Charismatic churches in the United States have lost their ‘pneumatic’ [spiritual] missional orientation. Largely they market themselves to Christian consumers in a manner that reflects a cultural captivity no different from other Evangelical churches in America. . . . The fundamental missional purpose of Spirit baptism seems to have been eclipsed, at least in part, by the cultural accommodation that has come as U.S. Pentecostals have sought wider societal and ecclesial acceptance. ” Instead of an attraction model, we need a conversion model. We should not expect worldly people to understand or appreciate everything they see or hear in a Pentecostal service. The natural mind does not understand the things of God, and people need milk before they are ready for meat (I Corinthians 2:14; 3:2). But we can expect people to be converted from sin and transformed by the gospel.

We have an “unfair” advantage over other groups, for we have both the Word of God and the Holy Spirit. In a society where all beliefs are tolerated, our message stands out as unique. Other groups can appeal to tradition and philosophy, but we can establish our message from Scripture, and it is confirmed by miracles, signs, and wonders. When people listen to other philosophical and religious discourses they may be entertained, affirmed, or intellectually stimulated, but when they hear the gospel they experience conviction, anointing, and the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. We do not need to change the Apostolic message or lifestyle in order to be relevant, for God’s plan is always relevant. God’s Word and God’s Spirit will meet the needs of every age, every culture, and every individual.

This article is an excerpt from my essay in The Art of Pastoring which will be released at General Conference.

Sources: Eric Patterson and Edmund Rybarczyk, eds., The Future of Pentecostalism in the United States, 2007; Vinson Synan, ed., Spirit-Empowered Christianity in the Twenty-first Century, 2011. ®