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The Attractional Church Model as a Funnel for Discipleship

Joshua Roberie

Is the Attractional Model (AM) a way for churches to funnel new attendees into discipleship or does it produce churches whose only focus is “a way of ministry that… [makes] Christianity appealing?”[1] While many of the fastest-growing churches in America utilize the AM,[2] criticism of this approach has risen. It is effective at gathering new people, but some believe these churches are compromising their missio Dei for relevancy.[3] Is it possible to have a church committed to being attractional and making disciples? This research will present that the AM works as a funnel for discipleship as long as the same commitment to attracting the lost to weekend services is present in a church’s attention to missional-style discipleship.

In How to Make Big Decisions Wisely, Alan Ehler presents a biblical framework for making decisions utilizing the power of story. His goal is “to bring together biblical wisdom and the best scholarly insights to help you shape your story in the best way possible.”[4] He accomplishes this by teaching a model of decision-making he calls “Story Shaping.”

Story Shaping has a “four-step framework for decision-making: (1) Read the Backstory, (2) Catch God’s Story, (3) Craft a New Story, and (4) Tell the New Story.”[5] The Story Shaping method is used in this research to address the discipleship problem facing AM churches. It will become clear that there are various opinions on the AM and multiple approaches available for discipleship in the local church. As Ehler states, “if outside experts or others involved cannot agree on the right approach, or if there seem to be multiple options with equal chance of success, then an intentional decision making process like Story Shaping is warranted.” [6]

Read the BackStory

A few simple questions must be asked to “read the backstory” of the AM. In Ehler’s first step of the Story Shaping process he says one should “ask questions about the existing strengths of an organization and uses those to determine what must be eliminated when change is made.”[7] The research will ask questions that examine the AM’s backstory to help determine its ability to lead people into a discipleship process.

If its critics are correct, then the AM has a discipleship dilemma. In an article written for the Gospel Coalition, Jared C. Wilson says that in the AM, “there is no significant attention given to life or discipleship beyond the weekend worship service.”[8] According to Richard Green in an article for the Keystone Project, the AM “does not make disciples.”[9] Green continues by saying the AM’s methods lead to “a form of Christianity which has allowed [an attendee] to be a Christian without being a disciple.”[10] L.E. Brown cautions that because of the AM paradigm, “the Church in America faces a significant existential threat that will eventually sweep countless congregations into history’s dustbin.”[11] These warnings paint a picture of crisis for those who seek to utilize the AM for their congregations. These churches may be growing in size, but are they making an eternal difference in their communities and their members’ spiritual formation?

Should attractional churches even be concerned with discipleship if they see large attendance numbers in their weekend services? The most evident reason church leadership should make discipleship a top priority is that going out into the world and making disciples was the last command given by Christ in Matt. 28:19-20 (NIV): “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”

The Apostles also continued to emphasize the importance of discipleship. In one of the most well-known discipleship relationships in scripture, Paul tells Timothy, “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others” (2 Tim. 2:2). In His masterwork, The Master Plan of Evangelism, Robert E. Coleman says, “The ultimate goal of Jesus for his disciples was that his life be reproduced in them and through them into the lives of others.[12] Coleman proposes that Jesus had no backup plan for world evangelism other than his investment into people who would do the same for others through discipleship. It can be gathered from these examples that a church’s commitment to discipleship is paramount. 

Now that the AM’s dilemma has been established and why it is essential to be solved, it is now important to define the AM and its strategies. Two opposing views on what the AM is will be considered, along with a third that seeks to find common ground between the two.

 One predominant view of the AM that has already been reflected in this research is that the AM seeks crowds more than mission effectiveness. This point of view is represented in a review of The Prodigal Church by Joey Chen. In his paper, he states that Jared C. Wilson believes pragmatism and consumerism are the two ideologies driving the attractional church.[13] Chen explains these two points further by saying Wilson “criticizes pragmatism because it assumes that ‘what works’ is wise and beneficial. He identifies consumerism as being ingrained in the Church Growth movement but questions whether consumer desires should be the primary concern of the church.”[14] In Wilson’s perspective, churches are misguided if they believe “that the customer’s interests are legitimate.”[15] Based on these insights, it can be concluded that Wilson’s definition of the AM is one where a value system of prioritizing consumers’ interests above other missions of the church is present. This perspective questions whether an approach is valid simply because this is what brings people into the church building on Sunday Morning.

In his book, The Attractional Church: Growth Through a Refreshing, Relational and Relevant Church Experience, Billy Hornsby gives many examples to describe what an AM church looks like in practice. A straightforward definition he gives is that they are called attractional simply because they attract large numbers of people.[16] What is it that they are attracted to attend? Is it a compromising of the message of the gospel in order to shamelessly get them in the door? According to Hornsby, people are attracted to these churches simply because they are “refreshing, relational, and relevant church experiences.”[17] He says a good word to describe these kinds of churches is “life-giving.”[18]

The contradicting perspective on even how to define the AM is rooted in someone being a part of one of two camps: missional or attractional. Interpreting the story of the AM is based on one’s own experience or connection to one of these groups is what Ehler calls “our story reading glasses.”[19] It is from these two groups that a “controversy over the most effective way to expand the kingdom of God” [20] has been argued. According to Dr. Jesse Wilson, this “is an argument that the church cannot afford.”[21] He offers a definition of both to find common ground between the two ideologies. He says a missional church “is about the (1) missionary status of God and His church… (2)  …incarnational ministry… [and] (3) …actively participating in the missio Dei, or mission of God.” [22] He then defines the attractional church by saying that the AM “hungers for lost people, …believes in worship excellence, [and] … creates a loving community.” [23] These two definitions create a clearer picture of how the attractional church can be defined, a glimpse into its methods, and why it has taken on criticism because of how it differs from the missional approach to church growth. 

The researcher’s experience with training, planting, and leading AM churches finds a definition from Sam Horn to be the most accurate. He states, “AM churches believe the primary purpose of weekly corporate worship is to attract lost people, disengaged Christians or the unchurched to come to Jesus, accept the Gospel and reconnect with the church.”[24]From this definition of AM churches, an evaluation of AM discipleship dilemma will be conducted. To use this definition alone, though, and not include the perspective of the missional and attractional proponents’ opinions on the AM would be incomplete. All that has been covered is vital to moving forward because in both the criticism and defense of the AM, the issue of discipleship is front and center.

Catch God’s Story

The research will now attempt to “collaborate with God in shaping [the AM] story” [25]  in the second step of the Story Shaping process. This process is in line with “the principles of practical theology, which seeks to ‘interpret the revelatory realism of God’s action in concrete lived experience.’”[26] From this perspective, the research expects God to be involved in the story of the AM and will attempt to “catch” that involvement in this next section.

The AM does not derive its “primary purpose [from] making Christianity appealing,” as Wilson claims. This would stifle God’s work through repentance. Instead, the AM embraces a “growth mindset that sees[s] themselves and others as capable of learning and improving.” [27] This is seen in how the AM takes a friendly approach that draws people to church so repentance can occur. The AM abandons the reasoning of  churches that refuse to adjust their approach with the change of culture due to a “fixed mindset.”[28] Hornsby says that “theologically, the attractional church’s message is biblically based.[29] It is not “the content of the message but rather… the style of presenting it”[30]  that the AM seeks to change. 

One can further observe God’s involvement in the methods of the AM by comparing them to how Jesus ministered. Hornsby says that an attractional church’s “real success can be measured by the number of souls that come to Christ and the impact the church has on its community.”[31] This example reveals that the attractional church model seeks to be evangelical, not for gathering alone, but for multiplication and the glorification of God in the community. Jesus often gathered crowds and cared for their needs when he taught (Matthew 5-7). God is involved in attempts to gather people to hear the gospel, as displayed in the AM, and not just church gatherings that are believer-focused.  

God’s involvement in the AM process is further displayed in the book of Romans. Paul quotes the prophet Joel when he tells the Romans that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Rom. 10:13 NIV). He then goes on to explain how one comes to salvation. “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them (Romans 10:14)? From this, it can be concluded that hearing is necessary for believing, which is required for salvation. Since discipleship cannot begin without salvation, we can rightly say that creating opportunities for people to hear the gospel is paramount for discipleship to take place eventually. With this understanding, we can “catch God’s story” in the AM strategy for evangelistic gatherings to create a funnel for churches to engage in discipleship.

God can use weekly church services created with unchurched people in mind to see new attendees connected to the church, but does that mean these services are effective at creating disciples? The next step in the Story Shaping process will present ideas to understand this area better. 

Craft a New Story

In this section, an attempt will be made to“craft a new story” about the AM and discipleship. Ehler describes this step as including three different elements.[32] The word craft is used to show a person’s involvement with God in finding the best possible solution.[33]He describes this step as “a story” so that a person does not become paralyzed into believing there is only one way forward.[34] This is certainly true when making disciples in the local church. Many options are available. This research aims to find the best options for the AM to make disciples. The final component used to describe this step is the word “new.”[35] The reason why Ehler uses this word to describe the third step in his Story Shaping Process is that the results “will change the future for [the person involved in the decision making process] and perhaps others.”[36]

To craft a new story for AM’s effectiveness in discipleship, attention will first be given to an explanation of how discipleship takes place. In a post called “Jesus’ Upside Down Strategy” at EmotionallyHealthy.org an example is given between modern-day discipleship vs Jesus’ discipleship strategy. The author claims that “Jesus focused a disproportionate amount of time discipling the Twelve…”[37] The article goes on to explain that programs and services can distract ministry leaders from the critical work of discipleship.[38] Honest attention is given to “the great tension of the big and the small”[39] in churches. Then the author asks the question that this research is attempting to address as well, “How do I focus on the few… when modern culture demands the big… and now?”[40] Two models of discipleship are presented along with a graphic that depicts both to answer this question. 

The first graphic represents “modern-day discipleship.” This can also be described as the AM’s discipleship method because “attend” is at the top of the funnel (Fig. 1). 

Fig. 1 The AM is being reflected as one that attracts a large number of people but leads to only a few followers going into the world as disciples. The impact is minimal and represented by a drip on the world.[41]

The interpretation of the AM shown in Figure 1 paints a picture of a discipleship funnel with little impact on the Great Commission.  The “Jesus Discipleship Strategy” in Figure 2 tells a different story of many disciples being released to fulfill the Great Commission.

Fig 2. The missional model of discipleship is reflected as starting with a few people but, over time, multiplying until a large number of followers are turned into followers. The massive impact of these disciples is reflected in the flood of water being emptied onto the earth from the funnel.

These two funnels do not have to exist in a contradictory relationship. Benny Perez says he sees great value in both the attractional and the missional model. According to Perez, they “do not need to be in opposition to each other.”[42] Perez says that when Jesus spoke to crowds, he got on their level by using stories.[43] Jesus was attractional in his presentation of the gospel in order to connect with as many people as possible. Perez models the example of Jesus by avoiding insider language in his church that outsiders will not understand.[44] He says that taking this approach allows his church services to be geared toward both believers and unbelievers.[45] According to Perez, the experience does not end with the weekly worship service. He says, “when people come to church… there should be a ‘wow factor.’ Then, when people leave your church, they should leave with the understanding that they too are on a mission, living life with a higher purpose.”[46]

A new model for discipleship can be derived from the Both/And approach of Perez, and the Jesus Discipleship Strategy presented in the Emotionally Healthy Discipleship article. In Figure 3, a model is presented where many of the upside-down funnels are taking place in one church because, first, a come-and-see approach was taken by a church. Many Jesus Discipleship funnels can exist in one church using the AM as a larger funnel that feeds this smaller funnel. This is how a church can commit to making disciples once new people are connected to the church. 

The new story for the AM should involve a commitment to its current strategy of attracting people who otherwise would not come to church while also embracing a missional “perspective of sending people out into the community, [and] encouraging… members to evangelize in those places.”[47]

Tell the New Story

Ehler’s final step in the Story Shaping process is to “Tell the New Story.”[48] He calls this step “making your decision happen.” [49] How can AM churches tell the new story of being both attractional in their weekend services and missional in their approach to discipleship? In Deep & Wide, Andy Stanley suggests that discipleship in past models increased people’s knowledge without growing people’s faith.[50] To tell the new story for his church that he wanted to be both deep (missional) and wide (attractional.). He states his approach to discipleship is to “lead people into a growing relationship with Christ” and “a growing relationship equate[s] to growing faith.”[51] From this, Stanley developed “five faith catalysts” that include: “practical teaching, private disciplines, personal ministry, providential relationships, and pivotal circumstances.”[52] These “faith catalysts” correlate with Ehler’s encouragement to “frame the plan with a clear model” when telling the new story.[53]

Chris Hodges suggests four simple steps that help “tell the new story” of discipleship through a faith journey that includes “know God, find freedom, discover purpose, and make a difference.”[54] As Ehler teaches, these four steps are “simple” and are created with the target audience in mind.”[55] These four steps could have easily been called salvation, church membership, discipleship, and leadership. Instead of framing the discipleship journey with traditional language, Hodges prefers to lay out the steps in a way that is “refreshing, relational, and relevant;” which is how Hornsby describes an attractional church’s weekend services.[56]

What is the result of Hodge’s attempt to bridge the gap between the attractional and missional models with weekend services that are “empowering environments [that] challenge you to your core in an atmosphere of encouragement”[57] and a simple and inviting discipleship program? Church of the Highlands, the church Hodges pastors, has grown to 24 locations.[58] As of 2019, the church has 51,153 people in weekly attendance.[59] While this growth is impressive compared to the average church size (65 in weekly attendance)[60], does it mean Hodges and Highlands is effectively making disciples? According to the Highlands Legacy Report from 2021[61] the church’s members regularly serve over 21,000 people in the community through outreach efforts and served over 15,000 people on the church’s annual service and outreach day called “Serve Day.” The church also gathers 4,856 prisoners weekly across 21 Alabama correctional facilities for Sunday worship. Through the church’s local and global efforts, 87,653 people were baptized in 2021.

The Attractional Model for churches can work as a discipleship funnel as long as the churches who use this strategy include a missional mindset to equip believers for the work of the ministry once they are connected to the church. Churches cannot, as Cross states, “relegate the majority of ministerial work to paid clergy whose professional training has provided them with various forms of work we call ministry.”[62] This is because “God is not pleased with sacrifices arising only from [church attendees] lips but demands the service of [their] lives.”[63] If AM churches are content to only gather and not properly prioritize discipleship with the same commitment that they give to excellent weekend services, then they are laboring in vain. This does not need to be the case. As many churches have shown, for example, Andy Stanley’s Northwood and Chris Hodge’s Church of the Highlands, churches can utilize a simple onboarding process for discipleship that complements their attractional weekend services with great success.

Bibliography

Brown, L. E. “Missional Ecclesiology in the Book of Acts.” Journal of the Grace Evangelical 

Society Autumn2011, P65 (2011)

Chen, J. (2016). Book Review: The Prodigal Church: A Gentile Manifesto against the Status 

Quo by Jared C. Wilson. Great Commission Research Journal, 8(1), 131-134. Retrieved 

from https://place.asburyseminary.edu/gcrj/vol8/iss1/12 

Church of the Highlands. Last modified October 17, 2022. 

https://www.churchofthehighlands.com/campuses/

Church of the Highlands. “Highlands Legacy Report.” accessed October 17, 2022. 

Coleman, Robert E. The Master Plan of Evangelism. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Revell, 2008.

Cross, Terry. Serving the People of God’s Presence: A Theology of Ministry. Grand Rapids: 

Baker Academic, 2020.

Duck, Braeden, Jack Kellum, Carson Knauff, and Adam Carr. “Church of the Highlands, Grants         

Mill Campus.” Magic City Religion (blog), December 16, 2019. 

Earls, Aaron. “Small Churches Continue Growing—but in Number, Not Size.” Lifeway Research 

(blog). Lifeway Research, October 20, 2021. 

https://research.lifeway.com/2021/10/20/small-churches-continue-growing-but-in-number

-not-size/#:~:text=While%20the%20average%20U.S.%20congregations,the%20median

%20church%20each%20week., October 17, 2022. 

Ehler, Alan. How to Make Big Decisions Wisely: A Biblical & Scientific Guide to Healthier 

Habits, Less Stress, A Better Career, and Much More. Grand Rapids, Michigan: 

Zondervan Reflective, 2020.

Emotionally Healthy Discipleship. “Jesus’ Upside down Strategy,” Emotionally Healthy 

Discipleship, April 26, 2016, https://www.emotionallyhealthy.org/jesus-upside-strategy/.

Henry, Desmond. “Missional Postures and Practices for South African Baptist Churches.”

Verbum Et Ecclesia 39, no. 1 (2018): 1–9. https://doi.org/10.4102/ve.v39i1.1817.

Hodges, Chris. What’s Next? The Journey to Know God, Find Freedom, Discover Purpose, and 

Make a Difference. Nashville: Nelson Books, 2019

Hodges, Chris. Fresh Air: Trading Stale Spiritual Obligation for a Life-Altering, Energizing, 

Experience-It-Everyday Relationship with God. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale Momentum, 

2012

Horn, Sam. “Choosing a Church: Two Models Recognizing the Theological Orientation of a 

Local Church” Bob Jones University: November 19, 2019, 

https://today.bju.edu/vice-president/choosing-a-church-doxological-vs-attractional-model

s/

Hornbsy, Billy. The Attractional Church: Growth Through a Refreshing, Relational, and 

Relevant Experience. New York: Faith Words, 2011

Perez, Benny. Both/And Ministering In Between Life’s Extremes. Las Vegas: ChurchLV, 2020

Saldivar, David. “The Problem with Attractional Evangelism.” The Keystone Project, February     

25, 2013. https://keystoneproject.org/the-problem-with-attractional-evangelism/.   

Wilson, Jared C. “5 Reasons You Should (Probably) Leave Your Attractional Church.” Web 

blog. The Gospel Coalition (blog), February 2, 2016. 

https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/5-reasons-you-should-probably-leave-your-attr

actional-church/. 

Wilson, Jared C. The Prodigal Church: A Gentile Manifesto against the Status Quo. Wheaton, 

IL: Crossway, 2015.

Wilson, Jesse. “Missional vs Attractional: An Argument the Church Cannot Afford.” Ministry 

Magazine: August 2018: https://www.ministrymagazine.org/archive/2018/08/Missional-

versus-attractional-An-argument-the-church-cannot-afford


Footnotes

[1] Wilson, Jared C. The Prodigal Church: A Gentile Manifesto against the Status Quo.( Wheaton, IL: 

Crossway, 2015), 25 

[2] Billy Hornsby, The Attractional Church: Growth through a Refreshing, Relational, and Relevant Church 

Experience (New York: FaithWords, 2011), 2

[3] Henry, Desmond. “Missional Postures and Practices for South African Baptist Churches.” Verbum Et 

Ecclesia 39, no. 1 (2018): 1 https://doi.org/10.4102/ve.v39i1.1817.

[4] Ehler, Alan. How to Make Big Decisions Wisely: A Biblical & Scientific Guide to Healthier 

Habits, Less Stress, A Better Career, and Much More (Grand Rapids, Michigan: 

Zondervan Reflective, 2020), 19

[5] Ehler, How to Make Big Decisions Wisely, 20

[6] Ehler, How to Make Big Decisions Wisely, 26

[7] Ibid.

[8] Jared C Wilson, “The Gospel Coalition,” The Gospel Coalition (blog), February 2, 2016, 

https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/5-reasons-you-should-probably-leave-your-attractional-

church/.

[9] Saldivar, David, “The Problem with Attractional Evangelism,” The Keystone Project, February 25, 2013, 

https://keystoneproject.org/the-problem-with-attractional-evangelism/.

[10] Ibid.

[11] L.E. Brown. “Missional Ecclesiology in the Book of Acts” (2011) Journal of the Grace Evangelical 

Society, p66-5.

[12] Coleman, Robert E. The Master Plan of Evangelism (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Revell, 2008), 161 

[13] Joey Chen, “Book Review: The Prodigal Church: A Gentile Manifesto against the Status Quo by Jared  

C. Wilson,” The Great Commission Research Journal, 8, no. 1, 

https://place.asburyseminary.edu/gcrj/vol8/iss1/12

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Hornbsy, The Attractional Church, 2

[17] Ibid., 1

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ehler, How to Make Big Decisions Wisely, 39-41

[20] Wilson, Jesse. “Missional vs Attractional: An Argument the Church Cannot Afford.” Ministry 

Magazine: August 2018: https://www.ministrymagazine.org/archive/2018/08/Missional-

versus-attractional-An-argument-the-church-cannot-afford

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Horn, Sam. “Choosing a Church: Two Models Recognizing the Theological Orientation of a 

Local Church” Bob Jones University: November 19, 2019 

https://today.bju.edu/vice-president/choosing-a-church-doxological-vs-attractional-model

s/

[25] Ehler, How to Make Big Decisions Wisely, 73

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid., 44

[28] Ibid.

[29] Hornsby, The Attractional Church, 3

[30] Ibid.

[31]Hornsby, The Attractional Church, 2

[32] Ehler, How to Make Big Decisions Wisely, 92-93

[33] Ibid.. 

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid.

[37] “Jesus’ Upside down Strategy,” Emotionally Healthy Discipleship (Emotionally Healthy Discipleship, 

April 26, 2016), https://www.emotionallyhealthy.org/jesus-upside-strategy/.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Perez, Benny. Both/And Ministering In Between Life’s Extremes. (Las Vegas: ChurchLV, 2020) 

Kindle Edition, 31

[43] Ibid., 32-33

[44] Ibid., 33

[45] Ibid., 34

[46] Ibid., 31-32

[47] Ibid., 31

[48] Ehler, How to Make Big Decisions Wisely, 119

[49] Ibid.

[50]  Stanley, Andy. Deep and Wide: Creating Churches Unchurches People Love to Attend. (Grand 

Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2012), 107

[51] Ibid.

[52] Ibid., 108-109

[53] Ehler, How to Make Big Decisions Wisely, 121

[54] Hodges, Chris. What’s Next? The Journey to Know God, Find Freedom, Discover Purpose, and 

Make a Difference. (Nashville: Nelson Books, 2019)

[55] Ehler, How to Make Big Decisions Wisely, 120

[56] Hornsby, The Attractional Church, 2

[57] Hodges, Chris. Fresh Air: Trading Stale Spiritual Obligation for a Life-Altering, Energizing, 

Experience-It-Everyday Relationship with God. (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale Momentum, 

2012), 28

[58] Church of the Highlands, last modified October 17, 2022, 

https://www.churchofthehighlands.com/campuses/

[59] Braeden Duck et al., “Church of the Highlands, GrantsMill Campus.” Magic City Religion (blog), 

December 16, 2019.

[60] Aaron Earls, “Lifeway Research,” Lifeway Research (blog) (Lifeway Research, October 20, 2021), https://research.lifeway.com/2021/10/20/small-churches-continue-growing-but-in-number-not-size

/#:~:text=While%20the%20average%20U.S.%20congregations,the%20median%20church%20each%20week., October 17, 2022.

[61]Church of the Highlands, “Highlands Legacy Report,” accessed October 17, 2022 

[62] Cross, Terry. Serving the People of God’s Presence: A Theology of Ministry. (Grand Rapids: 

Baker Academic, 2020), 13.

[63] Ibid.,26

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Josh Roberie

Josh Roberie is a ministry leader, communicator, and creative that wants to inspire people to believe again though a message of hope in Christ.

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