“How can we take the message to them?”

Interim pastors get asked this question all the time. It’s posed by those who don’t see the church paradigm shift sweeping through American culture. They are living with a legacy that stretches back to the early 1930s (at least).

For close to a century the Western Church has focused on one question: “How do we make them come to us?“[pullquote]Several problems have, however, emerged from the use of this model. First, its usage seems to relentlessly pull the church to shape its message so that those whom it wishes to attract are not pushed away too soon, that is, before they become Christians. I personally have felt this pressure, and I have defended Bill Hybels against the accusation that his message is watered down, but few anymore deny that the attractional model tempts church and preacher to conform to the world, at least a bit.


The question rises from a church paradigm known as the Church Growth movement. Its offspring is the Attractional Church Model.

The fruit of this paradigm, dramatic in some cases, failed to stem the tide sweeping the church from its place in American society. The number of unchurched Americans continues to rise. American Christendom’s cultural capital, accumulated in preceding generations, has been spent. The few remaining assets have been devalued. A church paradigm shift is well underway. (Aside: it’s not certain the Missional Model will be more effective)

The new church paradigm, still emerging, has yet to filter into the way declining churches think. That is why they invariably ask the interim pastor, “What do we have to do to make them come to us?

When I started as an interim pastor I answered the question¬†I soon realized the real question was, “How can we get them to come in and be like us so we can keep the doors open?” When they were told what had to change to be attractive, they didn’t like it. Get rid of the organ? Heavens no! Refurbish the sanctuary? On my mother’s grave! Freshen up the Nursery and staff it? Not until there are lots of children!

Change the question

Change is what the interim period between settled pastors is all about. An interim pastor manages change for the congregation’s benefit. Like new narratives, new questions posed at the right moment will open fresh perspectives in people’s thinking. A new church paradigm emerges under the tutelage of an experienced interim pastor.

Changing the questions the church asks is an important part of change management.

By asking “how can we take the message to them?” the interim pastor transports the church to a place of new thinking. Suddenly the congregation sees itself from a missional perspective. Resources once devoted to adorning the church to make it attractive are deployed to equipping the believers to smuggle the gospel into places it rarely penetrates.

A suggestion

Use the listening phase of your next interim service to observe the questions people are asking. Make note of the perspectives and presuppositions revealed in the asking. Devise carefully crafted questions that lay bare the assumptions and transport the congregants into a new way of thinking about themselves, God’s mission and the field in which they have been placed.

What questions have you found helpful? How have those questions changed the church’s trajectory?


If you are interested in digging deeper into the traditional church paradigm, or if you’d like a simple compare and contrast of the attractional model and the missional model, drop me an email. I’ll send you a copy of “Missional Ecclesiology in the Book of Acts” that I delivered at a conference a few years back. Put “please send missional ecclesiology” in the subject line.