Seeker-Sensitive vs. Seeker-Driven

In light of the recent, albeit brief dialogue I had with Tadd Grandstaff on this blog I thought I would post some extended thoughts on the modern church growth movement.

I have been asked more times than I can remember about my thoughts on the seeker-sensitive movement within the church. For those of you who may not be familiar with the term, “seeker-sensitive” is a philosophy of church growth that arose in the 1980’s primarily through the influence of Willow Creek Community Church. In the late 80’s and early 90’s Willow Creek, lead by pastor Bill Hybels, became the largest church in the U.S. Willow Creek’s method of growth, championed by super pollster and church marketing advocate George Barna, began by asking people in the community what they did not like about church. The result was a church whose worship, preaching, and ministries reflected a sensitivity to the preferences and felt needs of the surrounding community. It has been a source of contention ever since.

Part of my problem with the Seeker-Sensitive movement is that I do not think it is aptly named. For instance, I believe every church ought to be seeker-sensitive. In other words, if seeker-sensitive means being generous and hospitable to the unconverted then count me in. If seeker-sensitive means extending compassion to those who are lost in their sins then sign me up. If seeker-sensitive means making sure that everyone who steps into our church building is warmly received and faithfully given the Word of God then let me in the club. In these ways every church and every believer ought to be seeker-sensitive. Any church that is seeker-mean-and-nasty ought to reconsider their mission.

However, if seeker-sensitive means roping in our market-niche (which, by the way always seems to be rich, white suburbanites) with one message in hopes of giving them the truth at some later date then I will have to be counted out. If seeker-sensitive means turning the corporate worship of God’s people into self-aggrandizing concerts then count me out. If seeker-sensitive means adopting Rick Warren’s recent dictum that the church does not grow through preaching and prayer then color me gone. If seeker-sensitive means a lack of reverence and absence of clear doctrinal instruction; if it means casting Christianity in therapeutic terms; if it means wasting thousands of dollars on stage props and videos then, no, I am not seeker-sensitive.

This is why I say that seeker-sensitive is not an appropriate name for the movement that has so dominated church-growth methodology over the last 25 years. A better name would be “seeker-driven” for this is what it is. It is not being merely sensitive (kind, compassionate, hospitable) to the seeker or the unregenerate. It is placing the responsibility of determining sermon content and how worship is conducted in the hands of those who know least about “the faith once for all entrusted to the saints.”

Those within the seeker-driven movement have promised all along that the only thing they change are the methods. The message, we are assured, is never tampered with. However, this clean separation of method from message proceeds from a mistaken and naïve notion that the one has little to do with the other. To the contrary, in the words of Marshall McCluhan, “The medium is the message;” a hyperbole to be sure, but one that is intentional. The point is that the message is deeply affected by the method. How we communicate a thing will impact the thing we are seeking to communicate. For instance, would a congregation’s reverence for Christ during the Lord’s Supper be impacted if the minister were dressed as a clown? Has the typical congregation’s understanding of the holiness of God been re-enforced or diminished by the focus on entertainment in the contemporary church?

Seeker-driven churches are characterized by a lack of seriousness. Theologian David Wells has written that God rests all too lightly upon the modern church. “Keep it light” we are told. “Don’t bury people with doctrine.” Not too long ago a retired Southern Baptist pastor instructed me to avoid many texts of Scripture because they will just “confuse people.” “Just give them the milk, just give them the milk,” he advised. I am afraid that the seeker-driven church has done just that.

In an atmosphere of flashing lights, stage props, fashionable crooners, edgy jokes, and light messages what is lost is all sense of gravity. The sharp edge of God’s Word is blunted and all notions of sin, if present at all, are cast in strictly therapeutic terms. There is no presentation of the terrifying law of God in all its moral intensity. Therefore, there is no concept of or revelry in the radically liberating Gospel which forms the basis of God’s stunning justification of sinners. It all gets reduced to a weightless but “practical” message of how God can help us with our problems.

The lack of gravity or weightlessness that has been cultivated in seeker-driven churches works against the Gospel. How do you tell people that they are sinners alienated from God and even hostile toward Him when your entire approach has made an unspoken contract with seekers to not bother them with such insensitive messages? How can you give your market niche the bad news when you have basically promised to not do or say anything that they do not understand or will upset them? The Gospel, the whole Gospel, will not make much sense in an atmosphere that promises comfort and fun.

If we were truly sensitive to seekers then we would not be so cruel as to give them sweet gruel when they truly need the meat of God’s Word. If we were truly seeker-sensitive then we would not lie and tell them that Jesus will fix all their problems and following Jesus is “fun.” If we were seeker-sensitive then we would make sure that we not mislead them with diminished “gospels.” If we were seeker-sensitive then we would not pander to their unregenerate desires. Instead, we would say to them, “We are so glad you are here. It’s not a mistake because God is sovereign. This morning you will see and hear some things that may be pretty new to you. We will sing some songs about the deep truths of God. We are also going to go deep into God’s Word. It’s okay if you don’t understand everything that happens. We’re just happy that you came and we are confident that God has something very precious to give you this morning.”