Foundational Flaws Of The Seeker Sensitive Church Movement
POP GOES THE GOSPEL (Part VIII)
The seeker-friendly or seeker-sensitive church movement, epitomised by Willow Creek Community Church and Saddleback Community Church, and adopted by tens of thousands of churches world-wide, seeks to gear its services to the unsaved by making them attractive, non-threatening, entertaining and relevant to their perceived needs. It is a consumer driven approach to church, employing savvy marketing strategies and preaching an appealing, modified gospel.
Apart from the appallingly shallow and misleading content of its sermons, the movement is also based upon several foundational philosophies which are deeply flawed. I briefly outline several of these flawed presuppositions below:
UNBELIEVERS ARE SEEKING GOD
The seeker-friendly movement assumes that there are a swathe of people out there who are earnestly seeking God, and that our old fashioned services are the problem; our out-dated way of “doing church” is the stumbling block stopping these earnest seekers from finding God. The Bible, however, paints a very different picture. There are no true seekers; no-one is naturally and earnestly searching for God!
David, in Psalm 14:2-3 states it plainly: “The LORD has looked down from heaven upon the sons of men, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all turned aside, together they have become corrupt; There is no one who does good, not even one.” (See also Psalm 53:2-3). Paul echoes these words in Romans 3:10-11: “There is no one righteous, not even one. There is no one who understands. There is no one who seeks God.”
The Bible portrays unbelievers, not as those who earnestly seek God, but rather as the spiritually dead (Col. 2:13), the spiritually rebellious (Eph. 2:1-3), and the spiritually hardhearted (Eph. 4:18). Even though God’s self-disclosure through nature and the conscience should cause men to seek Him (Acts 17:27-29), unbelievers have rejected the truth that they know, becoming “futile in their thoughts [so that] their foolish hearts were darkened” (Rom. 1:21).
In other words, the reason unbelievers are not flocking to our services is not because we are doing it wrong, but because of their hard hearts! People are not seeking God, it is God’s Spirit who draws them to himself.
EVERYTHING IN A SERVICE MUST BE UNDERSTANDABLE TO UNBELIEVERS
One of the strongest, foundational philosophes of seeker-friendly churches is that everything within the service must be understandable to unbelievers – it must be pitched at their level. According to this philosophy, complex doctrine, creeds and weighty theological concepts have no place in Sunday services. That kind of meaty content needs to be dealt with in mid-week meetings for Christians; the Sunday service is for unbelievers.
The problem with this is that the Bible says that “the natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14 ESV). In other words, the reason unsaved people, when they first come to church, may not understand the things that are said and sung, is not that we’ve pitched it too high for them, it’s because they are spiritually dead. If we adopt the policy of dumbing down the service to a level where unbelievers will understand, we will need to basically remove everything of any significant spiritual content! Which is exactly what seeker-friendly churches do!!!
In so doing, these churches fail to trust in the work of God’s Spirit to open the minds of unbelievers – a work that He and He alone can do. It takes a miracle for an unbeliever to comprehend spiritual truth, but such miracles happen very often, otherwise there would be no Christians! This dumbing down of church services also has the dire consequence of failing to provide adequate teaching and training for Christians. By failing to provide meat, and only feeding people milk, the seeker-friendly church produces spiritual babies who never grow up to maturity.
THE GOSPEL NEEDS RE-PACKAGING TO APPEAL TO UNBELIEVERS
The seeker-friendly movement seeks to modify and re-package the gospel in order to make it appealing and relevant to unbelievers. It removes or avoids many of the so-called negative aspects of the gospel such as sin, judgment, hell, God’s wrath, the total depravity of mankind and our need for repentance. In so doing it hopes to sell the gospel as an attractive proposition. According to this philosophy, the reason the church throughout the ages has been relatively unsuccessful in evangelising the world is that we have been too negative. Apparently, Paul and the other Apostles got it wrong when they spoke so much about sin and repentance!
The problem is that the Bible clearly indicates that the gospel will always seem foolish to unbelievers – until and unless God’s Spirit works in their hearts to bring them to faith. Consider these verses:
“The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing” (1 Cor 1:18)
“But we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Cor 1:23)
Notice that while Paul concedes that the gospel appears foolish to unbelievers, he doesn’t stop preaching it and he doesn’t modify it!
In other words, the problem is not in the message, it’s in the hearts of the recipients. Our job is not to change the message, but to pray for God’s Spirit to change their hearts!
CHURCHES REQUIRE CLEVER MARKETING IN ORDER TO GROW
Another philosophical foundation of seeker-friendly churches is that the church requires clever marketing in order to be attractive and effective. Powerful, emotive music is played, clever drama is performed, mood lighting is used, impressive audio visuals are projected, creche is provided, good coffee is served, a polished welcoming team is there to assist – all to make the unbeliever comfortable, to make their experience of church enjoyable and to convince them to return. According to this philosophy, churches that don’t market the gospel successfully like this are “out of date” and will gradually become ineffective.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with any of these practical procedures and ministries in themselves. They can be quite helpful in enhancing the experience of worship and ministering effectively to church members. But when too much emphasis is placed upon these kind of extraneous frills, a church can subtly drift into a consumerist mentality, where the predominant philosophy of the leaders is “How can we sell our product better?” and the predominant attitude of those attending is “What’s in it for me? Are my needs being met?” In this kind of church it is easy to begin to place your confidence in clever marketing strategies and product placement, rather than in the inherent power of the gospel to transform lives (Rom 1:16). In 1 Corinthians 2:1-5, the Apostle Paul writes of his visit to Corinth and stresses that he deliberately avoided “dressing up” the gospel in order to make it more appealing, because it didn’t need any help from him:
“And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God.[a] 2 For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 3 I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. 4 My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, 5 so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.” (1 Cor 2:1-5)
In other words, Paul deliberately did not use trickery, or showy techniques, or “razzle dazzle” to impress his listeners. He had such faith in the inherent power of the gospel that he let it speak for itself, so that the result was true conversion through God’s power rather than garnering superficial followers through his own cleverness. Elsewhere, Paul declares his absolute confidence in the power of the gospel alone to save: “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes …” (Romans 1:16)
NUMBERS ARE A RELIABLE MEASURE OF SUCCESS
The seeker-friendly movement believes that numbers are the ultimate measure of success. A church that is truly effective will be growing numerically.
While it is true that the church’s mission on earth is to “make disciples of all nations” (Matt 28:20), and that this should be reflected in more people turning to Christ in faith and repentance, two key points need to be noted.
Firstly, numerical growth is not a reliable means of assessing effectiveness. The number of bottoms on pews does not automatically equate to true church growth. A church with great music, great coffee, entertaining sermons and an overall glitzy performance may attract large numbers of pew warmers who are never truly converted and who are there for all the wrong reasons. Jesus encountered this very issue when he rebuked the large crowd who had followed him only because they had come for a free lunch! (John 6:26-27). Conversely, low or shrinking numbers are not necessarily an indication of ineffectiveness. Jesus modelled this himself when, during the latter part of his ministry, we are told that his non-seeker-friendly message drove the crowds away! (John 6:53-66). One could hardly accuse Jesus of being ineffective! Numbers, by themselves, are an extremely unreliable means of assessing effectiveness.
Secondly, focusing on numbers has an inherent danger. Numerical growth can become the primary goal, the thing that drives everything a church does, rather than true spiritual growth. In such a church, anything that puts more bottoms on pews becomes justifiable, without any further need to evaluate its biblical validity or its ultimate spiritual consequence. Churches driven by the need for continual numerical growth can easily stray into worldly strategies and clever marketing ploys that produce superficial results, but which can undermine the gospel and cause great harm to the spiritual health of the church.
Charles Spurgeon, the powerful preacher of the 19th century “Great Awakening”, preached a sermon entitled, “Feeding Sheep or Amusing Goats?”, in which he said;
“An evil is in the professed camp of the Lord, so gross in its impudence, that the most short-sighted can hardly fail to notice it during the past few years. It has developed at an abnormal rate, even for evil. It has worked like leaven until the whole lump ferments. The devil has seldom done a cleverer thing than hinting to the church that part of their mission is to provide entertainment for the people, with a view to winning them.”
When Bill Hybels, the poster boy for the seeker-friendly movement, publicly admitted, in 2007, that their church had “made a mistake” in its implementation of the seeker-friendly philosophy, resulting in a significant lack of maturity among its “converts”, the Christian world was shocked – for a brief moment. Sadly, most seeker-friendly churches quickly resumed what they were doing, blindly going down a path that had already proven to be ineffective in producing mature disciples.
Are you a member of such a church? Why not give your leadership a copy of these papers? Why not start a dialogue with them? If that proves unfruitful, perhaps it’s time to look for a church that faithfully proclaims the gospel, relying on the power of God rather than the cleverness of man.