Strangely Defending Seeker Sensitive Churches

Mac approvingly quotes and comments on an article criticizing seeker sensitive churches.

It’s no secret that I am critical of seeker sensitive churches. But I thought this article was particularly bad, and little bothers me more than a poorly made case, particularly when it takes a position I agree with. It only serves to discredit my position. So I find myself oddly compelled to attack an article I agree with that criticizes something I also criticize. Ah, well, here goes.

To begin with, the article is not supported by much research. The author’s research seems to be a single visit to Willow Creek, and reading one book critical of Willow Creek. I’m certain more research must have gone into the article, but if so, it is not presented.

If you’re going to criticize something, you ought to at least make sure you are doing a fair job of it. That means a little bit of research. At a minimum, more than a single visit to one church.

There are three primary accusations levelled against seeker sensitive churches in this article.

The first accusation is that seeker sensitive churches are using a “marketing” approach to presenting the gospel. I’d agree with that assessment, and I suspect many seeker sensitive advocates would, too, given a reasonable definition of marketing. Is marketing that different from Paul’s evangelistic strategy of being all things to all people?

Where the article is unfair, though, is here:

Let?s begin with marketing as a tactic for reaching the lost. Fundamentally, marketing has to do with profiling consumers, ascertaining what their ?felt needs? are, and then fashioning one?s product (or its image) to appeal to the targeted customer?s desires.

By offering such a misleading definition of marketing, the author can go on to accuse seeker sensitive churches of distorting the gospel:

First of all, the gospel and, more significantly, the person of Jesus Christ do not fit into any marketing strategy. They are not ?products? to be ?sold.? They cannot be refashioned or image-adjusted to appeal to the felt needs of our consumer-happy culture. Any attempt to do so compromises to some degree the truth of who Christ is and what He has done for us.

He goes on to say that if the customer is always right, then seeker sensitive churches simply _must_ be discarding, revamping, or downplaying any elements of the gospel that are offensive to the lost. He further claims that, to attract the lost, churches are “appealing to and accommodating their flesh” and offers such shocking examples as “theatrical productions” and “stimulating multi-media presentations”.

The error here is in his deceptive definition of “marketing”. Marketing is not always about “fashioning one?s product (or its image) to appeal to the targeted customer?s desires”. There is no reason to assume anyone is changing, revamping, or downplaying any elements of the gospel. The author fails to make an important distinction between the _gospel_ and a local _church_ or its presentation of the gospel. There is no reason to conclude seeker sensitive churches are marketing _the gospel_ at all. Holding services at times other than Sunday morning is not marketing _the gospel_. If anything, it’s marketing _the church_. And it’s no different than putting an ad in the newspaper or holding any sort of outreach event.

If the gospel has been modified in any way by the seeker sensitive movement, it ought to be trivially easy to demonstrate this. Since this author relies on arguments along the lines of “they don’t preach on topics I like” and “I don’t like their preaching style”, I can only conclude that the argument that the gospel itself has been modified, is without merit.

The second accusation is that the seeker-sensitive movement consistently produces weak Christians.

they continue to attend, being fed the same biblically anemic diet created for the wooing of unbelievers. At best, they receive the skimmed milk of the Word; at worst, pablum contaminated with ?profane and vain babblings, and oppositions of science falsely so called? (1 Tm 6:20). Certainly a church can grow numerically on that basis, but not spiritually.

Furthermore, there is no opportunity for believers to mature in the faith in such an environment. In defense of seeker-sensitive churches, some have argued that mid-week services are set apart for discipleship and getting into the meat of Scriptures. If that indeed is the case, it?s a rare exception rather than the rule.

As we?ve noted, most seeker-friendly churches focus much of their time, energy, and resources on accommodating unchurched Harry and Mary. Consequently, week after week, the entire congregation is subjected to a diluted and leavened message. Then, on Wednesday evening, when a fellowship is usually reduced to quarter or a third of its normal size, would it be reasonable to assume that this remnant is served a nourishing meal featuring the meat of the Word, expositional teaching, and an emphasis on sound doctrine and discipleship? Hardly. We?ve yet to find a seeker-friendly church where that takes place. The spiritual meals offered at mid-week services are usually support group meetings and classes for discerning one?s spiritual gifts or going through the latest psycho-babble-ized ?Christian? bestseller such as Wild at Heart rather than the study of the Scriptures.

The first thing I challenge is the notion that believers are getting anything meatier in traditional churches. The author claims that most of the growth of seeker-sensitive churches is due to an influx of members from smaller, non-seeker-sensitive churches rather than actual unchurched people. If this is true, it means one of two things. One possibility is that those believers were spiritually immature and prone to being drawn away by the insidiousness of seeker sensitive churches. This is an indictment against the churches they formerly attended, for it is the responsibility of the local church and particularly the pastors/elders to see to the spiritual growth of the members. The other possibility is that those who left for seeker-sensitive churches were hungering for spiritual meat that they were not receiving in a traditional church, and apparently are receiving at a seeker sensitive one. Again, this is an indictment against the traditional churches that those members left.

Then the author simply dismisses the argument that seeker sensitive churches offer any opportunity for discipleship and spiritual meat. He does not give any evidence, other than his own assertion that “We?ve yet to find a seeker-friendly church where that takes place”. What would be helpful is some hard data here. How many seeker-friendly churches did he investigate? What were the statistical breakdowns of the types of mid-week opportunities? How many did he actually observe?

The third criticism the author puts forth is a vague implication that seeker sensitive churches are attracting worldly people by appealing to their flesh. This is supported by statements such as:

We visited Willow Creek Community Church not too long ago, and it seems to have spared no expense in its mission to attract the masses. Looking past the swans gliding across a mirror lake, one sees what could be mistaken for a corporate headquarters or a very upscale shopping mall. Just off the sanctuary is a large bookstore and an extensive eating area supplied by a food court with five different vendors. A jumbotron screen allows an overflow crowd or those enjoying a meal to view the proceedings in the main sanctuary. The sanctuary itself is spacious and high tech, complete with three large screens and state-of-the-art sound and lighting systems for multimedia, drama, and musical presentations.

While impressive, Willow Creek is not unique among mega-churches with a reach-the-lost-through-whatever-turns-them-on mindset. Mega-churches across the country have added bowling alleys, NBA regulation basketball courts with bleachers, exercise gyms and spas, locker rooms, auditoriums for concerts and dramatic productions, and Starbucks and McDonald?s franchises?all for the furtherance of the gospel.

An attractive church campus is not evidence of worldliness. A godly bookstore is something all churches should offer, IMHO. A food court strikes me as odd, but it makes a world of difference how this food court is used. Is it open during serivce? I think I’d object to that. Or is it giving people a place to eat when they come to the church for other events? That would be nice, and certainly convenient. In either case, it’s not really an indication of worldliness. Sound, lighting, and video systems are certainly not indications of worldliness, unless they are misused to transform a worship service into an entertainment event. In any case, the problem does not lie with the electronic equipment. Ditto for the exercise facilities. Most churches I know of have gymnasiums. Is the author dismayed because Willow Creek has a better gym than most?

It’s hard to answer these implications because he won’t just come right out and say anything. It’s all hints and implications, meant to conjure up unfair mental images and create unfair, unsubstantiated impressions.

The author does make two valid points. The first is his criticism of the mixture of scripture and psychology. But he does not bother to actually offer any substantial reason why you shouldn’t mix the two. He doesn’t take the time to quote 2 Tim 3:15-17 or Hebrews 4:12. His second good point is entirely contained in these three sentences: “Thousands of churches here and abroad have completely restructured themselves as outreach centers for the unchurched. This, by the way, is not biblical. The church is for the maturing and equipping of the saints, who then go out to reach the lost.” Again, he does not bother with demonstrating this from scripture.

IMHO, the author would have done a much better job to focus on the proper role of the assembled local church in evangelism, and on the problems with mixing psychology and scripture. A careful exegesis of the relevant scriptures, as well as some well researched and carefully documented examples of the alleged problems with seeker-sensitive churches modifying the gospel and failing to provide spiritual meat for believers, would do a much better job in making his case.

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7 Responses to Strangely Defending Seeker Sensitive Churches

  1. Jared says:

    I know this may have been hard for you to post, but I for one appreciated it very much. Thanks.

    The following claim by the article really irked me:
    there is no opportunity for believers to mature in the faith in such an environment.

    I know I’m biased because I’ve actually been a member of, minister in, and contributor to seeker churches, but my personal experience has been one that values greatly teaching and spiritual maturation. I’ve never been a part of a seeker church experience that did not take discipleship and maturation of its believers very seriously.

    I’d also mention that, from my own personal experience, these churches tend to have more followers eager for spiritual meat than the traditional churches I’ve been a part of, mainly because new Christians and baby believers have not grown complacent in their faith. It has been quite refreshing being around folks eager to learn more and get to know Jesus more.

    What we need more of are mature believers who “get” what we’re trying to do and join us in our work in reaching the lost and growing strong disciples. If we are lagging behind anywhere it’s because our number of seekers and new Christians outnumber our mature Christians (with teaching abilities). I see this not as a fault of the church itself, but as a fault of some Christians more interested in tending to their fishtank than fishing for men.
    That’s a blanket statement, I know, but it is hard to grow up a huge number of folks who WANT to grow up when those folks greatly outnumber capable teachers.

    Again, though, thanks for the critique. It was reasoned and charitable and proves you understand that your own position benefits from weeding out the weaker arguments made by those who’d like to agree with you.
    Which is why I’d like to criticize real “entertainment churches” and watered-down Gospel churches whenever I find them. They are no help (and not really representative) of the real seeker church movement.

  2. Mac Swift says:

    If you subscribe to the newsletter, you would see that this is part of a continual examination of seeker sensitive churches. Ripping into the man because oh gee, he only used one book to prove his point is just lame. That one book I should note, if I’m not mistaken, is Gary Gilley’s “This Little Church Went to Market” an extremely well researched book and viable source to use. Why play the numbers game (where only if the authour uses X amount of sources, then he can be taken seriously) I thought quality, not quantity was important? In addition, he only relays his experience with ONE of the churches he’s visited. He has clearly visited more than one, but one wouldn’t get that through your own deceptive critique of the article.

    Then you basically accuse the dude of lying by using a bad definition of marketing. Bad according to who?

    There is no reason to assume anyone is changing, revamping, or downplaying any elements of the gospel.

    Hogwash. I’m halfway through Rick Warren’s book, and I definitely see a gospel laced with psychology and void of the crucial elements of repentance and living a sin free life. I mean I have the evidence right in front of my face. I plan to make a review to demonstrate this if I can finally finish the book, as it’s difficult to plow through.

    for it is the responsibility of the local church and particularly the pastors/elders to see to the spiritual growth of the members.

    However, if the congregations simply doesn’t want spiritual meat, then nothing the pastors can do will change their mind.

    An attractive church campus is not evidence of worldliness…

    Yes it is. What it demonstrates is where the focus of the church is. They are interested in the exterior and physical qualities of their church rather than the interior and spiritual qualities.

    I can imagine God saying, “I am so proud of my people! They have built a nice gymnasium while several hundred of my children continue to suffer from starvation.”

    In other words, their priorities have gone bonkers. It takes an astonishing amount of money to build and maintain the Christian “malls” along with their bowling alleys and gymnasiums. When they pass the basket around, how much do you think will go to NBA regulation basketballs instead of going to feed the poor?

    There’s a church called Times Square Church, whichs owns a Broadway theatre in New York City. They are a prosperous church that have built foodmobiles and support ministries, and have used their finances to lease buildings to house abused mothers and children.

    So what does Willow Creek do in comparison? Build a bowling alley. That’s not worldliness?

    You’re basically saying that the authour has to spell it out for us because we’re all such blithering idiots that we can’t see the fallacy of creating a church that becomes a center for entertainment and recreation, with the gospel being only an afterthought.

  3. Editor’s note: Some comments and followups to them, have been deleted. Other comments have been edited to excise parts I considered unnecessarily harsh.

  4. these churches tend to have more followers eager for spiritual meat than the traditional churches

    I don’t really know if any of the churches in this area would qualify as a seeker sensitive church or not; in any event, I’ve never been a part of one so I’m not qualified to speak to that from my own experience or from any kind of objective basis.

    What we need more of are mature believers who ?get? what we?re trying to do and join us in our work in reaching the lost and growing strong disciples. If we are lagging behind anywhere it?s because our number of seekers and new Christians outnumber our mature Christians (with teaching abilities).

    I think willingness is far more important than ability in this area. I disagree with the “church as an outreach center” idea, but that’s really not the point here. Whatever method we think is most Biblical to use to bring folks to Christ (equipping or seeker sensitive or whatever), the requirement to make disciples is very important and very neglected I think. Honestly, one of my biggest fears when it comes to evangelism is “what in the world would I do with them if they got saved?”

    Our spiritual gifts are supposed to be used to build up the body, and we all have at least one. I trust that the Holy Spirit will see to it that the abilities for building up the body within each local church are all there in the right proportion. We just need folks willing to serve. Pretty much anybody can sit down across from a cup of coffee with a new Christian and run through some accountability questions, get him to memorize some important verses, get him reading through the Bible regularly, and maybe read through and discuss some good Christian books together. It only takes a willing spirit. It might not be perfect or optimal, but it beats stagnation.

  5. If you subscribe to the newsletter, you would see that this is part of a continual examination of seeker sensitive churches.

    Mac, I glanced at the last 8 or 9 newsletters and read any with titles that hinted they might speak to this issue. I only found one, and I could have written almost the same critique of it. It did a little better when it came to warning about the mixture of psychology and Bible, though.

    I thought quality, not quantity was important?

    A wide variety of resources gives you credibility and indicates objectivity. Quality AND quantity are important.

    He has clearly visited more than one

    That was not at all clear to me from reading that article. A brief list of the churches he’d visited, the approximate date of each visit, and the number of visits, would have added tons of credibility.

    Then you basically accuse the dude of lying by using a bad definition of marketing. Bad according to who?

    It’s undoubtedly a _slanted_ definition of the word. This is semantic indirection – using one word a lot in an agreeable way, then changing the definition. Neat trick.

    I?m halfway through Rick Warren?s book, and I definitely see a gospel laced with psychology and void of the crucial elements of repentance and living a sin free life.

    Which book? Purpose Driven Church or Purpose Driven Life?

    A sin free life? Wow. Paul would be impressed.

    if the congregations simply doesn?t want spiritual meat, then nothing the pastors can do will change their mind.

    That’s ironic, since God has given these pastors responsibility to watch over the souls of their flocks. The elders have responsibility for the spiritual maturity of the congregation.

    They are interested in the exterior and physical qualities of their church rather than the interior and spiritual qualities.

    In a bygone era, church buildings were built beautifully in order to honor God. Long before anybody had heard of seeker sensitivity. I am one of those old fashioned people who believes that if we are going to build a permanent building to worship God in, the building ought to reflect, to some degree, the holy purpose it’s dedicated to.

    So what does Willow Creek do in comparison? Build a bowling alley. That?s not worldliness?

    Do you have copies of Willow Creek’s and Times Square’s budgets? If someone had these figures, we could objectively and fairly compare the expenditures for ministry to the world. Without this information, it’s just useless speculation.

    You?re basically saying that the authour has to spell it out for us because we?re all such blithering idiots that we can?t see the fallacy of creating a church that becomes a center for entertainment and recreation, with the gospel being only an afterthought.

    I’m saying that the author – and you – create the _impression_ that seeker sensitive churches are centers “for entertainment and recreation, with the gospel being only an afterthought”.

    You know what, it’s entirely possible that you are right. I have no stake in defending seeker sensitive churches.

    But what I fault you for is doing such a bad job of _demonstrating_ conclusively that this is an accurate characterization of these churches. Supporting such accusations does indeed require you to spell it out clearly. There can be no room for vague implications and unfair generalizations when you’re making serious claims like that.

  6. Jared says:

    I?m not qualified to speak to that from my own experience or from any kind of objective basis.

    I appreciate your forthrightness here. And I hope I was sufficiently clear that I was only speaking from my personal experience, as well. I don’t mean to demean the “traditional church” in general. I would hate to do that, since I don’t really see the kind of churches I endorse as necessarily standing outside church tradition.

    We just need folks willing to serve.

    Absolutely.
    The problem I’ve encountered in my kind of church is that they utterly depend on people serving. The last seeker church I was a member of and the church I am a member of now both require members to serve in some capacity according to their spiritual gifts. And the vitality of their bodies hinges on the people serving. We have a pastor and elders (as well as a few support staff), but they are not the real ministers of the church.

    But what we run into is a majority of new Christians or seekers (which, incidentally, runs contrary to the claim that our churches are only populated by defectors from other churches — although I’ll admit we do have some of those) and a minority of believers. To be fair to them, most of those believers want to help and teach and disciple, and most of them do (through our small group ministry and other counseling/mentoring/serving opportunities), but the demand for discipleship outweighs the available supply of teachers.

    I guess some would take this is a criticism of our church, saying that we are immature. I take it as a credit to our goal to bring in the lost and unchurched (actually, our pastor says our church is for the underchurched and the overchurched, both folks who have not had any exposure to church and folks who have been burned by past hurtful and burnout church experiences), and a criticism of mature Christians who prefer to pursue their own spiritual growth (which usually equates to simply “learning more”) than to give of themselves to mentor others.

    Most of these takes of mine stem from basic ideological beliefs, though, so I know you’ll not agree with them all. My basic working thesis is that believers are fed as they follow Jesus on mission. The disciples did not just sit around learning from Jesus (although such things did take place); they went where he went and followed his example and tried to do what he did.
    I think believers in the church grow best when they put their faith into action through service and witness, which doesn’t have to take place exclusively outside the church walls. Our church is set up to grow believers not only through the preaching of the Word and corporate worship and the teaching of believers, but also through those believers’ giving of themselves and using of their gifts for the edification of the body.

    Wow. That was a ramble. Sorry.
    But as you know, this is an issue near and dear to my heart.

    I’d also point out that Willow Creek does not merely offer bowling alleys as an alternative to other churches’ foodmobiles and what-not. Willow Creek offers all kinds of ministries and services to the community and even to the world. They are one of the largest publishers of discipleship studies for the personal growth of believers. And locally, they do things like have food banks.

    They also do something that is pretty unique, something I remember hearing about at a leadership conference I attended there in 1996:
    They have a “garage” set up, manned by volunteers from the church who are skilled mechanics. It’s basically a free service for single ladies (widows and what-not) and other folks who need car repairs but can’t afford to have them done. Those people can make an appointment with the garage, and their car will be fixed free of charge. That’s just one unique way Willow Creek cares for the needs of the people in their community.
    They also provide plenty of other ministries and services for the community including homeless care and supporting missionaries and what-not.

  7. AL says:

    In the words of Goober Pyle, “Judy, Judy, Judy.” John, hang in there.

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