3 Ways Attractional Church Needs to Change To Reach the Next Generation

attractional church

In an era in which everything is changing so fast, it can be really difficult to discern what’s next.

That’s doubly true in church world. While the mission stays the same, the expression or model keeps changing.

The dominant model for growing churches over the last two decades is what many people call attractional church.

Often (but not always) attractional church takes the form of a little less worship (3-4 songs), hosting that explicitly welcomes unchurched people into the room, running everything through a filter with the guest in mind and often (but not always) includes topical preaching. Over the last few decades, that approach has helped thousands of churches reach hundreds of thousands—or millions—of previously unreached people.

But as culture changes, the church needs to adjust. When what used to connect doesn’t connect anymore, you either change or you settle for reaching fewer people.

So what exactly is changing?

When what used to connect doesn't connect anymore, you either change or you settle for reaching fewer people Click To Tweet

As I shared in this blog post, for several fascinating reasons, attractional churches aren’t growing as quickly as they used to and churches with a more charismatic expression seem to be on the rise.

In Episode 251 of my Leadership Podcast,  I do a deep dive with Cross Point Church in Nashville on how and why they’re moving beyond the attractional church model, with great effect.

These trends are borne out by Barna research that shows Millennials are the most likely generation to lean toward charismatic worship and more contemplative forms of expression.

To take the dialogue further, there are three pivots attractional churches can make that will help churches reach more people.

In the past, churches reached unchurched people by doing a little less on Sunday morning. Less worship. More careful language. Less intensity. And for a decade or two, that was effective.

The changes that need to happen to reach people all focus around this surprising but challenging truth. In today’s changing culture, unchurched people don’t want less of God. They want more.

In today's changing culture, unchurched people don't want less of God. They want more. Click To Tweet

Here are three adjustments attractional churches can make to reach today’s post-Christian culture.

Naturally, in a COVID and post-COVID world, church leaders are going to have to figure out how to do all of this online as well as in person, but that is more than possible.

Maybe the future will feel more like the Calm App or Abide App and a little like the hype that’s made up a lot of church over the last few decades.

A generation that’s sick of hype is ready for hope.

A generation that's sick of hype is ready for hope. Click To Tweet

1. Less Presentation. More Presence.

There is something really powerful about the Christian church that’s hard to deny: it’s a dance between what we do and what God, in his sovereignty, does.

Augustine phrased that tension this way. “Pray as though everything depended on God. Work as though everything depended on you.”

It’s good advice. But as flawed humans, most of us tend to lean one way or the other. We either do nothing because we expect God to do everything. Or we do everything and because we forget God has something invested in this too, not to mention power that we do not possess on our own and can’t generate.

When attractional church struggles, usually we struggle on the side of doing too much and discounting the role God plays. In an effort to be responsible, and perhaps as a reaction against people who use spiritual language to mask human weirdness or incompetence, attractional church leaders often erred on the side of minimizing the role of God in the service—pointing to God but not relying on him.

We explain, teach, point out and hope people ‘get it’ or ‘understand.’

But if that’s all we do, we miss the boat. It’s like we’re presenting people the tour brochure, not the experience and adventure it points to.

A decade ago, that was actually quite effective at leading people to the adventure—to authentic faith.

But with the rise and ubiquity of smart devices, constant bombardment by social and mainstream media, the polarization of politics, opinion and dialogue, and the sheer exhaustion people are feeling from the weight of it all, people aren’t looking for more information.

They’re looking for presence, not just presentation. For an experience of God, not just more information about God. They’re longing for a touch, for something real.

Unchurched people today are looking for presence, not just presentation. For an experience of God, not just more information about God. Click To Tweet

In an era where most people feel numb from the pace and insanity of life, people are looking for a hint that they are loved.

It’s hard to put into words, but if you think about it long enough, I think you’ll know what I mean: people want presence over presentation. They want to feel something—Someone—who is real, who knows their name, who loves them. And services that usher people into the presence of God will, I think, be more effective with this generation than churches that simply give you yet another presentation about Christianity.

I fully realize that it’s so easy to mistake a great worship leader, dotted eight notes and a full room with good lighting as the presence of God.

But you also should not dismiss the fact that we have a God who longs to be present with his people, and people who (whether they know it or not), long to be present with their God.

As someone who has been involved in leading an attractional church for over two decades, I always want to be sensitive to first-time guests and I agree we should assume they’re in the room. A first-time guest today is more hungry, hurt and open than a first-time guest a decade ago.

A first-time guest today is more hungry, hurt and open than a first-time guest a decade ago. Click To Tweet

2. Less Noise. More Space.

So what does all of this exactly look like?

Well first, one change to weekend services that can really help is simply this: less noise, more space.

Most who show up for a weekend church service haven’t stopped for more than ten minutes all week.

If you look at many church services, they’re characterized by quick announcements and/or really upbeat songs followed by an energetic message.  Add lights, production and timed-to-the-minute run sheets into the mix, and there’s almost no breathing room in the service.

I was in the UK last year and attended Holy Trinity Brompton, an Anglican Church that is reaching thousands of young adults. Even though they’re meeting in 18th and 19th-century facilities, their services are about as contemporary as most in America with a relevant message.

What’s different is what I’m also seeing in the next generation of growing churches:

More time for prayer, and an expectation that God will move in people’s lives through it.

A real expectancy that God is present and will change people that day.

A greater sense of lingering in music…not a rush just to start the next click-track.

Music that takes people somewhere spiritually…super talented musicians, but less I’m-singing-this-for-you (or at you) and more I’m-helping-us-sing-together.

And yet none of this is weird or insider…it’s just ushers everyone more into the presence of God, not just a presentation of him.

If I had to summarize the personal application for me, it would be a reminder that worship and preaching is something you do with God, not for GodYou’re not performing. You’re partnering.

Worship and preaching at its best is something you do with God, not for God. You're not performing. You're partnering. Click To Tweet

I know you know this. I know I know this, but it’s so easy to forget.

On my worst days, I can behave as though the message is something I do to present God to people. I can simply pray a summary of the message at the end, rather than asking God to move in our hearts and lives. I can think of the songs we sing as either being effective or not effective, awesome or not awesome.

But on my better days, I remember that while my preparation is important, God is very present in the delivery, in the service, and he is moving and wants to move far beyond anything we say or sing. He has a vested interest in meeting the people he loves. And I can cooperate with that, or I can compete with that.

So I need to slow down. And remind myself I get to do this with God. Not for him. And of course, any power to change anything never rested with me anyway.

Churches that are increasingly effective in reaching the next generation realize all of this and design their weekend services accordingly.

Love has a speed, and it’s slower than you are. Love has a volume. And often, it’s heard best in the quiet.

Your whole service doesn’t need to be slow, but if it never slows down, people may attend and never hear, let alone experience, God.

Love has a speed, and it's slower than you are. Love also has a volume. It's heard best in the quiet. Click To Tweet

3. Less Head. More Heart.

Another key shift that’s happening in churches that are reaching the next generation involves creating experiences that engage the heart, not just the head.

The next generation doesn’t just want to know what’s true, they want to feel what true and to experience what’s real.

Real is deeper than just an idea—real is an experience.

The next generation doesn't just want to know what’s true, they want to feel what true and to experience what’s real. Click To Tweet

When crafting the welcome…don’t just blanket people with information and the promise of a free gift. Connect with them emotionally. Tell that if they’re looking for God (why else would you be at a church today anyway?), he’s already here. He knows their name, and that we believe he wants a relationship with them. Tell people that God cares about them. Set a warm, emotional tone.

In your prayer time, take more than 30 seconds just to clear the stage. Pray for people’s real needs. Obviously, you won’t take prayer requests from the floor, but you can pray for specific situations people are facing and ask God to move.

I’ve also been trying to pay more attention to preaching, not just teaching.

It’s always hard to define the exact difference between the two, but simply put, preaching speaks more to the heart, teaching speaks more to the head.

Preachers facilitate an experience. Teachers convey information.

I think the best pastors do both well.

Preaching without solid teaching can become emotionalism. Teaching without preaching can become intellectualism.

Preaching leads people to say ‘That’s right. I need to change.” Teaching can lead people to say “He’s right. That’s a good point.”

Confession: uncorrected, I default to the head, not to the heart every time. So this is a learning and reminder for me.

Try to find an under-40 influential pastor of a growing church who’s more into teaching than preaching. There really aren’t that many.

A final word. Let people see your heart when you teach, preach, lead worship or host.

When people see your heart, it becomes easier for them to see their own heart. It also becomes easier for them to see God’s.

All of this is as much a posture shift as anything, but I think as your heart opens up, you become more open to the work of the Holy Spirit in your ministry, and you slow down long enough to let God speak into the quiet, you’ll see a new generation respond in a surprisingly positive way.

When people see your heart, it becomes easier for them to see their own heart. It also becomes easier for them to see God's. Click To Tweet

A Few Quick Reminders

A few notes before we finish up that I’ve already stated in another post.

Weird is Still Weird

The attractional movement has done a great job reminding all of us that we have guests in the room. And while the foyer may have moved, someone’s first Sunday is still a huge deal.

So that’s no excuse to be self-indulgently weird. Authentic doesn’t mean weird.

Remember the People You’re Trying to Reach

The church is still one of the few organizations that exists for the sake of its non-members.

The attraction model has helped many people become Christians, and it has a lot to teach us. The biggest lesson? Our services should be designed with non-Christians in mind.

None of that has changed. It’s just that what unchurched people are looking for is changing. So we need to adapt.

For sure you need to care for the people you have, but never to the exclusion of the people you’re called to reach.

Churches that over-focus on the needs of insiders will eventually only have insiders. And when that happens, you missed the mission.

Churches that over-focus on the needs of insiders will eventually only have insiders. And when that happens, you missed the mission. Click To Tweet

What Do You See?

What do you see as the attractional church continues to change? Scroll down and leave a comment!

3 Ways Attractional Church Needs to Change To Reach the Next Generation

19 Comments

  1. Cory Simon on June 1, 2021 at 6:30 pm

    wow this was so exciting to read as it put many words to feelings I’ve been feeling for a while now. Thank you for taking the time to gather all of these thoughts and put them down in such a clear way.

  2. Patti Edington on August 13, 2020 at 12:15 pm

    I just finished reading your article and I have one headline comment for you: YOU NAILED IT!!! I think it was a magnificent article. I have been reading the comments and – trying to be as kind as I can – I think the majority of your criticizers completely missed the point of some of the things you were saying. I’m not going to go into great detail point by point but my takeaway from this is that millenials grew up in a much “different world” than many of us did, they think differently, learn differently, and REACT differently than we do. And if we are to reach them we must adapt and teach them according to what their needs are. Most of them will not even give you more than 5 minutes if you don’t grab their interest within that time. And if you do, you’d better have something to offer that makes sense to them….or better yet, is something that grabs their attention and makes them WANT to hear more. Salvation and falling in love with Jesus Christ is absolutely not just believing what the Bible says – many people do that. But at some point, there is FEELING that Word as well. That’s what makes our walk so much more important than just textbook learning. When I read the Word I often laugh, cry, sometimes because it makes me happy, sometimes it convicts me, but ALWAYS, ALWAYS, I FEEL the Word. His Word is alive – and if it doesn’t affect you that way, then perhaps you should reread it over and over, until you don’t just “learn” it chapter and verse, but you “feel” it — it is alive and a part of your DNA – who you are. THAT’S what millenials are looking for – and they will know it when they feel it — just like we did. I am so very blessed to have Pastors at my church that make that happen every, single time they preach. I live in Missouri and drive 35 minutes one way into Illinois every time the doors are open just because I can FEEL the Holy Spirit as soon as I walk in the building! You need to GO where you’re FED. I have several churches close to my house…..but none of them are my “place called there”. God will show these people where they belong. And we want to be there for them if that’s where God wants them.

  3. Adrian Thompson on July 24, 2020 at 12:11 pm

    This made my heart leap! Yes and Amen! I have been feeling this more and more – the data is not obvious but this is about the move of God not the knowledge of the head. I know in our spiritual walk it is fundamental that we know the God we love and serve and the Word he has given us in scripture. But I believe we are in a new season that is now built on programs but presence and the need for his body to live in his presence is paramount! Thank you for your posts

  4. Patrick Steven Mateketa on July 24, 2020 at 10:54 am

    I have seen that this website is very helpful to me as an upcoming Pastor

  5. Fred on July 24, 2020 at 9:20 am

    This article makes me quite sad for the future, or lack of it, of the church. When the measure of successfully communicating God to the next generation is measured by “How we feel” then it’s just the beginning of the end. You can cater to that philosophy all you want, but in the end people will leave your church to chase a better experience elsewhere. We do not see Jesus or the apostles being concerned with how people feel, quite the opposite. When Peter preached they ripped their clothes in repentance. The failure of the church is that we are failing to preach repentance. We are preaching, “Doesn’t this feel good?” We fail to preach the whole counsel of the Word of God and we place people on the shifting sands of emotions. Yes, we should do a good job with our praise and worship, but the idea that God is singing with us is foreign to the scriptures. The angels around the throne of God are not singing in concert with God, they are singing to God. There is no where in Revelation that you see Jesus singing along in hand holding, feel better experience. They were falling down and crying, “Worthy is the Lamb”. This entire article seems to have exchanged truth for experience, when in scripture we see truth creating experience. This article is just the tail wagging the dog.

    • Adam Sapelak on July 24, 2020 at 11:54 am

      I hear your concern when he talks about wanting to feel things more then know things so to speak, and taking this aspect of feeling to the extreme can lead potentially down dangerous and false paths. I do not believe this type of feeling is what the younger generation is truly seeking. I believe my generation (35 and under) are seeking feelings, but not what you speak of just ‘feeling good’ type feelings. You brought up a great story of when Peter preached and people ripped their clothes in repentance. I believe their was a major amount of ‘feeling’ when those people repented and that I believe is what I and young people desire. We have seen church done before us that has preached truth while not seeing it transform deeper in peoples lives. The experience we seek is to see people who don’t just go to church on Sunday’s, hear solid truth preached then go back to their normal lives, chained in their secret sins, ashamed to share Christ to their co-workers and fabricating surface level community. We want authenticity, people that walk together seeking freedom from the sins and temptations that are so prevalent in the world and in the church. We want to know the truth as I believe those before us have as well but we want it to change us which in turn will change others. I grow weary of singing words like ‘I surrender all’, and then see how tightly we all grab everything but God. In many ways we have seen the ‘right’ words often without any feelings or action afterwards. Truths heard need to go deeper, bring transformation and repentance, feelings will often follow (whether their tears of redemption or exclamations of joy etc) and then action/transformation should be the result. The action of turning towards Him in who we are, how we think and what we do. I do agree that it is easy to start seeking the feelings and we can err that way if we are not careful but it is because we are swinging the pendulum from a generation where feelings were seemingly discounted or suppressed out of a desire to put on an image that people had it all together. But lets face it, often we do not and we are tired of the faces people put on.

      • Joe Ballard on July 24, 2020 at 2:20 pm

        This comment is a reminder for me and hopefully some help to those that read it but authenticity, and freedom from sins and temptations cannot be attained by a focus on what other people are doing in church or after church nor is it dependent on a feeling, it is wholly attained through the work of Christ on the cross and the sanctifying work of His Spirit. Our greatest personal help after of course the Spirit of God Himself is prayer and a focus on the truths given to us in His word. God do not let me be tempted by good feelings or experiences that cause me to leave the path of truth laid out in your word and help me to be fully reliant on you regardless of circumstance. I pray also that the recognition of your work on our behalf would exponentially increase our true and genuine joy
        -Philippians 4

    • Jerry Fabre on July 25, 2020 at 10:19 am

      I believe you are missing the entire point of the article. Thomas is not focusing on our quiet, personal time with God, but rather our outward expression as we live our lives to reach others. In that sense, we do life “with” God rather than for God. Jesus said “I am the vine, you are the branches. Apart from me you can do nothing.” When I do life with God I am honoring Him by acknowledging He has already given me all that pertains to Life and Godliness.
      Or at least that’s the way I see it.

    • RJP on July 25, 2020 at 3:27 pm

      It is exactly this type of thinking that has driven people from the Church. God is love—and love feels good. The Gospel literally means the good news—but you would rather spend your Sundays condemning people? When people get how good love feels they will sin no more.

    • Guerry Driggers on July 27, 2020 at 5:39 pm

      I agree with Fred and give a hearty Amen! I would also add this: Church worship meetings were not, and should not be today, planned with non-believers in mind. We come together to worship the God and Father of our Lord Jesus, the Christ, to receive His instructions and guidance, His strength and preparation for what we must do outside the walls. We, the Church, come together around Him, the body to the head, to be mutually encouraged in Him and “healed” by the edification of His word beneath the leadership of His appointed minister as each fulfills his place in the body of Christ. Then we leave encouraged in the Lord and are thus enabled to be used of God to show forth Christ to the lost and dying by His Spirit to His Glory. We cease straining to be, and simply are, His. Programs and plans are forgotten in the Life that is found and lived, Christian’s known by our love to Him and to His and our hatred of and for sin as He Himself hates sin.

    • Tom on January 13, 2021 at 8:55 am

      I think you missed the author’s point. No one wants to sit in a boring church, give there offering, and then go home. Unless your a charter member and dont want to see your church die out. But eventually it will if you dont reach people’s felt heart needs. I dont think the author said anything about marginalizing the Word of God over feelings. I know the point you are making, but not even close to what the author is saying. I would agree with you if that is what this article is doing, but it’s not. This article is SPOT ON in my opinion. My final comment, “if you have all spirit in your service, you blow up! If you have all word, and no spirit, you dry up! If you have a balance of word and spirit, you grow up!” Many blessings!

  6. Scott Madeira on July 3, 2019 at 1:03 pm

    Great article. One thought regarding “Churches that over-focus on the needs of insiders will eventually only have insiders. And when that happens, you missed the mission.” The opposite is true as well. Churches that over-focus on the needs of outsiders will eventually only have outsiders. And when that happens, you missed the mission because you will be an inch deep and a mile wide. People that want to grow deeper in their faith will need to go elsewhere. That leaves nobody to disciple the outsiders as they hear and respond to the gospel.

  7. Barry Drinkel on May 23, 2019 at 10:39 am

    Hi Carey, thank you again for a very insightful and thought-provoking post. Your first point about Less Presentation. More Presence is so pertinent. It is very easy to slip into making everything ‘excellent’ in our genuine desire to see people encounter Jesus personally and yet miss the mark because we don’t leave enough room for them to actually encounter Him. Also, although I do not preach a lot, I am guilty as charged for being more head than heart. There is often a fine line between intellectualism and emotionalism, but getting the balance is very important. Thanks again!

  8. Blake on May 21, 2019 at 8:53 am

    Hi Carey, very insightful post. Appreciate you thinking through these things.

    The only item I would have some pushback with is #3. I agree with most of what you put in that section, but “Less Head. More Heart.” seems to be a bit of a false dichotomy. I don’t think our services need to be less intellectual, I think the intellect needs to be bridged to the heart (I think you agree with this based on the post). Our enlightened Western impulses are always working to separate functions of our being that were never meant to be separated. My concern would be that, even if you didn’t mean to, people will see #3 and imagine head vs. heart as a zero sum game. We need to recover a holistic, integrated view of the human person. Again, I think you agree with this! But I would like to see the Church do a better job of managing methodological (and theological for that matter) tensions by not pushing the pendulum to the other side of the spectrum so quickly.

    I can actually think of several churches led by younger pastors that fall in the teaching category, and their churches are thriving with young adults (Bridgetown Church in Portland, OR, Reality LA, and Church of the City in NYC are just a few that come to mind). These churches truly *teach*, but then leave room for the Spirit to work during times of worship. I see more and more of my generation (I’m 28) wanting a church that combines robust teaching from the truths of the Bible and worship that sends the heart soaring based on those very same truths.

    Thanks again for choosing to think through these things. We need more discussions like this in order to reach people! Grace and peace.

    • Laura on July 24, 2020 at 4:15 pm

      Yes! I totally agree with your response to #3. I wish I could attend Bridgetown . . . but what 29 year old doesn’t? I guess I’m not every millennial, but it seems to me that “deep” teaching is also really important to “us” too? Number 3 made me really sad, actually, but I guess there are some really popular “preachers” who people my age seem to really gel with. I feel like I spent my whole life listening to preachers and am still waiting for the teaching shoe to drop . . . and wouldn’t HTB be more teaching oriented too?

  9. Phil McCallum on May 20, 2019 at 11:33 pm

    Hi Carey,

    Outstanding article. I was searching today for just the right content for staff meeting tomorrow. Then I saw your blog. It’s perfect.

    I was at the HTB/Alpha experience as well. I introduced myself at breakfast at the hotel on the last day.

    Evergreen Church where I serve focuses on the 96% of our city who don’t go to church. Your three observations are spot on for our context.

    We’ve found two other keys in our community.

    Listening is the power tool of evangelism. We’ve had 1,600 go through the Alpha Course. Now in year three, we feel we’ve only just begun to grasp the culture of the table, the social events that lead to Alpha, and an invite to a nearby pub after the Alpha event. Each of these open time to listen which then leads to extraordinary conversations. Lives are changed.

    Curiosity is the superglue between cultures. Our neighborhood is populated by companies like Amazon, Microsoft, and Oracle. So we are over 50% non-Caucasian. Through the kindness of interest in the worldview of others we’ve become a multicultural church without gimmicks. Curiosity, especially over meals, has created a natural space for people of many ethnicities to feel at home and a sense of purpose. We are intentional in our menu to include dishes and items from the nations in our neighborhood. It’s amazing to watch people come alive over foods from home.

    Thanks again for the article. Our staff will read it and apply it tomorrow at 10am.

    So grateful,

    Phil McCallum
    Lead Pastor
    Evergreen Church
    Bothell, WA

  10. Gail Kavelman on May 20, 2019 at 9:06 pm

    Hi Carey
    I have been following your posts for a few years now
    In February of 2019 I became the pastor of East Nissouri Union church
    I would love you to discuss becoming a new pastor in a church that has been uprooted by the quick departure of the last pastor

    That is my current situation
    Thanks so much
    Gail Kavelman

  11. LindaBeth on May 20, 2019 at 11:41 am

    So good. This is exactly what we have been talking about and starting to implement as we plant a church. Thanks for articulating it so well.

  12. Dacosta on May 20, 2019 at 11:29 am

    Good in terms of numbers but instead of seeking God rather seeks solutions to their problems. Matt. 6:33 said that seek God first, righteousness, Kingdom and ye shall received rest.

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