*This is the first in a series of entries inspired by books I’ve read on the subject of the “missional church.” Please read the ground rules before beginning. Also, try to read entries in chronological order as they tend to build on the previous entry, okay?

The movie Field of Dreams was meaningful to a lot of folks.

For those of you unfamiliar with the story, let me see if I can summarize it quickly. A failing farmer in Iowa, Ray Kinsella, hears whispering voices telling him to “build it, and they will come.” His family, creditors, and townies naturally think he’s crazy when he turns his cornfield into a baseball diamond…where ghosts of historical ballplayers show up to play. He obeyed the voices, built it, they came.

The ghosts coming to the makeshift ballpark allowed also allowed for a lot of personal issues to be resolved among the main characters in the story as well: Issues between Ray and his father. Between Archibald “Moonlight” Graham and his life-choices. Between Terence Mann and his radical past. There’s a reason it was nominated for “Best Picture” in 1990 and “build it, and they will come” became part of pop culture.

Ray built it.
They came.
There was a happy ending, which shows lines of cars heading to a remote field in Iowa, paying to visit the field, re-live their dreams and resolve their own issues with the past.

The combination of baseball nostalgia and bringing your past to some sort of resolution resonated with people for roughly two decades.

After the success of the flick, folks would drive down Lansing Road in Dyersville, Iowa, pay their money and relive their dreams of playing in the big leagues and maybe harboring thoughts of making amends with the past or some combination of the two at the same location of the movie shoot. If I were ever in the neighborhood, I’d probably do that very thing. Just walk around and dream and wish I could have “one more game of catch” with my dad who died much too soon.

See, the Field of Dreams is an attraction…and some 20 years later, the numbers are in decline and they have to come up with alternative ways to continue to attract visitors or they’ll go out of business. The average attendance is about 65,000 per year, but the highs were closer to 1990 and the attendance has been in decline to the point that locals are trying to build a baseball complex around that field to attract baseball/softball tournaments–which in turn, will drive tourism.

And much of what the suburban American church has done has been labeled the “attractional” model of doing church. The “voices” said “build it, and they will come.” If we have the right building in the right location with the shiny new programs led by the charismatic pastors who give relevant messages in comfortable surroundings with high-energy worship and meet the needs of people…then…


…build it and they will come, right?

And, for a couple of decades, they came. “Attractional” churches sprung up all over the country. Books were written. Conferences were held. Folks copied those methods. Charismatic pastors trained others in their teaching style and message preparation. Churches ran surveys to get prime real estate in certain communities. They put in coffee shops and comfy chairs and gyms and colorful plastic indoor playgrounds and lots of churches saw spikes in attendance early on. At least the ones who got in on the ground floor did.

Then the numbers stalled, and started to decline.

First of all, like the Field of Dreams, there’s a limited appeal of the attraction. See, if you use the Field of Dreams average attendance, it amounts to 0.02% of the population of the USA. Suffice to say that those it appealed to likely already went and got the t-shirt. I’ll be honest here, too. If I were to tell the family we’re headed to Iowa to see it on vacation, well, um, I could assure you that’s NOT where the McKinney family would wind up on holiday. My guess is that most of you wouldn’t place it high on your list of “America’s Must-See Sites,” either.

And granted, you can do a lot with statistics, but a good breakdown of church attendance can be found here at the Gospel Coalition’s site. The bottom line is the most accepted number is that 18% of Americans attend church services each week and has been decreasing since 1990. There is also reason to believe that it could be as low as 10% in major metropolitan areas. This means that churches aren’t very high on “America’s To-Do List,” either. It’s ironic that most Americans lie about their church attendance, too, no?

Second, what about the non-baseball fans? What about those that were underwhelmed by the movie? They built it to attract folks and make money in a struggling farm economy. And sure, the baseball fans and movie aficionados showed up to see it at first…and maybe brought their family and told a few friends who maybe stopped by. But after you’ve been there once or twice and brought the shirt, you likely aren’t going back unless some major changes are made. And if you don’t care about baseball or that movie, well, you probably aren’t ever going no matter what. The movie is 20 years old and nearly two generations of kids never even heard of it, and likely don’t even know the “real” field exists.

Is the “build it and they will come” model drawing those that don’t know Christ? Most of the statistics show that over 64% over Americans don’t go to any type of religious service on any given weekend. So, at the very least, 6 in 10 aren’t going…which is startling. But if you’re not a follower of Jesus or even inclined to seek truth…what are the odds that you’re going to attend a church, particularly if you’ve had past negative experiences? The truth is that it is extremely rare for a non-believer to show up at church even if there’s free pizza, a Super Bowl (er, Big Game) Party, concert, children’s program, etc. They’re only coming if they have a relationship with someone who goes to that church who invited them, and even then, they come with preconceptions and guards up.

Finally, what about those charity events and drives to save the Field of Dreams that raised public awareness? Didn’t they draw some big crowds and new folks to the field? Sure. The stars of the movie have been a part of charity baseball games that brought big crowds and raised money to keep it afloat. But those could only seat 2,500…and on average the place only holds about 80 fans at one time on normal days. But a 20th anniversary celebration had to be canceled in 2010 due to lack of funds. Attendance does average 65,000, but it’s now below 50,000 per year and the land was sold in 2011…with plans to develop something new.

It’s the same for the church. The total number of Americans attending church is at it’s lowest point in American history (and it’s projected that those numbers will halve in 40 years). So, while attendance numbers are still large in those megachurches, they’re basically like Wal-Mart coming to a town of mom & pop stores. Other numbers in mainline denominations are in decline…so the idea is that you’re really only re-shuffling the deck. Think of it like this: Churches A, B & C each have 100 members. Church C has 10 leave due to a change in leadership. Church B loses 30 to financial mismanagement. Some stop attending at all. Church A gets the 30 new members who came from other churches. So now you have a churches with 130, 90 & 70 members, but a 5% overall drop in attendance. One church grew quickly, another didn’t notice much change, and one will be making various changes to accommodate loss in giving and people. Repeat that process over several times and you’ll get a picture of the decrease in attendance in the last 20 years even though some churches are growing very large.

Lastly, what about those folks who show up at Field of Dreams. Aren’t they having fun? Aren’t they getting all the baseball goodness and nostalgia they came to get? Sure, but the operation doesn’t always run as smoothly as it could. There has been some competition among neighbors (at one time, two different families owned part of the field, one most of the infield, the other the outfield) who’d compete for tourism dollars. The field closes at 6pm so lots of visitors don’t get to see the sunset like they wanted. Once you’ve seen the field, there’s not a lot to do in Dyersville from 6pm until bed time. The families have visitors take corn (which they need) and go deeper into the farm than they’re supposed to. And, after about 10 minutes of a dad in a minivan getting video of himself running the bases or catching a pop up or having catch with his kids, that’s about it.

A good summation of the general consensus on whether or not the attractional model of church is being truly effective in discipling people was answered by Willow Creek Church (yes, THAT Willow Creek Church) when it performed an “in-house” study of whether or not they were truly making disciples of Christ. Leaders lamented putting “millions of dollars” into things that “didn’t help people grow much spiritually.”

Another quote: “We made a mistake. What we should have done when people crossed the line of faith and become Christians, we should have started telling people and teaching people that they have to take responsibility to become ‘self feeders.’ We should have gotten people, taught people, how to read their Bible between services, how to do the spiritual practices much more aggressively on their own.”

A good overview of that study (with other helpful links) can be found at Christianity Today’s review of Reveal.

Now that you’re all sufficiently depressed…

…let me give you the other side of the coin:

Yes. I have seen large, healthy churches. Even been a part of one. It can be done well, and is being done well here and there.
Yes. I have seen lives transformed. Even had my own life shaped significantly at one. But you can’t dismiss the reality that for many individuals in that sea of numbers, Christ has healed, freed and changed them in ways that will have Kingdom benefits.
Yes. There are tremendous resources doing LOTS of good things for the Kingdom. Namely, but certainly not limited at all to, a tremendous amount of ministry and money flowing through to foreign and inner city missions.
Yes. There are many positive things to talk about regarding the attractional model, namely, the number of people who came to know Christ through those churches when they were just getting going and humming at their best. I’m not sure you can put a price tag on that. Sometimes, those millions of dollars may have had more of an eternal impact than Dr. Hybels may know. Frankly, I think the guy is being a little harsh on his work.

See, the early publishing on the missional movement tended to call for radical and quick transformation of the attractional church. Thankfully, many of those authors have mellowed a bit in the approach. While I have to admit that many of their early works appealed to my punk/grunge sensibilities, I was usually in tension with the truth they were pointing out but the approach they were taking. That radical approach would’ve unnecessarily hurt a lot of people. Good people. Who did the things they did with honest motives. Who sacrificed and loved well.

Thankfully, they seem more balanced now. They realize that the attractional Church “Field of Dreams” had a nice run and are grateful for the way those churches have been used for His glory and Kingdom…

…but at the same time realize that it’s time to use the wisdom & experience gleaned over those years to dream about what we can do next to combine the best things of the attractional model and at the same time correct the deficiencies in making disciples. They realize the masses will miss out on the beauty of a cornfield in Iowa if others don’t explain to them why a cornfield in Iowa can be deeply meaningful.

So, for tomorrow, I’ll focus on three general unintended consequences of the attractional movement…and then we’ll gear up on how we can get on mission to correct those.

But for today, a few questions:

First, do you agree/disagree with the idea that the “build it, and they will come” is on decline for believers? Why or why not?
Second, do you think non-believers are coming to churches for the attractional aspects? Why or why not?
Third, how can attractional churches do a better job of making disciples (note: I’m assuming some are making disciples)?

Or, feel free to go “off the board” with discussion of whatever else came up in your brain in reading!

And, thanks for taking the time to read it, too.

Glad to have you all back here at The Diner. It’s been too long. Let’s have some coffee and enjoy deep thoughts!