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The Seeker-Sensitive Movement

The Good, The Bad, and The Silly

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by Dennis Pollock

Without a doubt the seeker-sensitive movement has hit the church with the force of a hurricane. Eager to build the next megachurch, ambitious pastors are abandoning their customary practices and joining the ranks of the sensitive. Shedding their ties, shortening their sermons, adding dramas to every service, and ridding themselves of all language that might offend the seekers, they hope to see explosive growth in their church for the glory of God.

One of the primary reasons any technique or style is frequently imitated is that it gets results. Clearly the seeker-sensitive approach has indeed brought some pretty dramatic results in many cases. Spectacular church growth has often been the reward for the faithful adherents of this new approach to the ministry of the church. Many people who would have shown little interest in a more traditional church service have indeed responded to this kinder, gentler version of the church.

The man considered to be the granddaddy of the seeker-sensitive movement in the U.S. is Bill Hybels, founding pastor of Willow Creek Church in Chicago. As a young 23 year old he set about to discover a new way of doing church. He began by taking a poll of neighborhood residents, asking the non-churched what it was about the church that kept them from participating. He got the typical answers: boring services, overly long sermons, irrelevance, and of course that greatest of all excuses – “there are hypocrites in the church.” Hybels couldn’t do much about keeping hypocrites out, but he could and did address the other issues.

Determining that he would be neither boring nor irrelevant, he carefully shaped a church service that would be attractive to those who had little use for traditional Christianity. He instituted short services, casual dress, and sermons that addressed “here and now” needs rather than the distant “heaven / hell” issues that most churches centered on. He got rid of all religious symbols, such as crosses, to make the seekers feel more comfortable, and made continual use of drama and multi-media.

The ingredients came together and worked better than he could have hoped. The church grew from a handful to become one of the largest churches in America, with around 15,000 attending weekly.  Because everybody loves a winner, he soon had his imitators and began to hold conferences to instruct frustrated pastors in this new approach to ministry.

Today, the movement has had a worldwide impact on the church. It is especially pervasive in the United States where at least some elements of the seeker-sensitive approach can be found in probably half of America’s evangelical churches. 

The Good

Is there any good that can come out of Willow Creek? I believe there is. The truth is that a concern for the lost (“seeker” is not exactly a Biblical term) is very much Biblical. In trying to create an environment that will attract rather than repel the sinner, a church is very much following the example of the apostle Paul. While Paul probably would not exactly fit the Bill Hybels mode, he was, in fact, intensely concerned with reaching the lost by every legitimate means. In some ways we could say that he was seeker sensitive.

Paul addressed the issues of Jewish and Gentile sensibilities. To the Corinthians he wrote that to the weak he became weak, to the Jews he acted like a Jew, and to the Gentiles he acted like a Gentile. He summed up his ministry model by saying:

I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. (1 Corinthians 9:22)

While some might call this compromise, Paul saw it as wisdom. He was all about souls and if acting like a Gentile helped a Gentile to find Christ, he saw no problem with that. The great Christian missionary, Hudson Taylor, emulated the apostle in his ministry to the Chinese. When Taylor came to China he found very little success among the missionaries there. Most of them were trying to reach the Chinese on their own terms, showing little interest or respect for the Chinese culture. Taylor decided a new course was necessary. He grew his hair long and wore it ponytail fashion, as the local Chinese men did. He wore Chinese clothes and adopted many of the Chinese habits and ways. As a result he was able to impact his region in a way that dwarfed the efforts of all his contemporaries. (Of course His intense prayer life and passionate love for Jesus didn’t hurt either!)

Another example of Paul’s sensitivity to the lost can be seen in the instructions he gives the church over the use of the gift of speaking in other tongues. He tells the Corinthians that if unbelievers come into a church service and find all the believers speaking in tongues, they will think they are all out of their mind. Obviously, it is hard to minister to the lost if they are convinced that you are stark raving mad! So Paul tells the Christians: Let all things be done decently and in order. (1 Corinthians 14:40)

There is nothing wrong with a church deliberately adjusting their services so that they will not offend the sensibilities of those who have little or no knowledge of Christianity and making the church service as attractive to the lost as is scripturally possible. Indeed, any church which refuses to do so is guilty of unconcern, or at the very least, a definite lack of wisdom.

What about our Lord Jesus? Was He seeker-sensitive? In many respects He was. He ministered to emotional and material needs when He fed the multitudes, healed the sick, and showed love and respect to the outcasts of society. He was constantly criticized for being a friend of the sinners. Zacheuus’ life was changed, not because Jesus preached him a tough sermon on the evils of cheating and stealing, but because the Master showed Him a respect and love that the little guy had never received from the religious authorities of his day.

Whatever you think of the actual practices of the seeker sensitive churches, you have to at least grant that the motive of desiring to reach the lost through services uniquely tailored for them is unquestionably good. Paul, who “endured all things for the elect’s sake” burned with such a passion and motive.

Some of the practices and innovations of the seeker churches were desperately needed. The use of media in the church is a terrific tool for holding the attention of our media oriented generation. There is nothing inherently evil about using PowerPoint, or videos, or producing high tech dramas. Indeed, we would be foolish not to avail ourselves of these things. We cannot reach a twenty-first century church with a style that dates back to the early 1900’s. For many pastors, shortening their sermons might be one of the best things they can do. Often less is more, and it is far better to leave a congregation wishing the preacher had gone a little longer than the reverse (which is too often the case). Casual dress may not be our idea of church attire, but America has gone irretrievably casual, and you would have to live in a fantasy world to expect to reverse that tide. Try as you will, you are never going to somehow get all your men to show up for church in dark suits, white shirts and ties, and the women wearing long dresses and high heeled shoes.  

The Bad

 “All that glitters is not gold” and all that passes for seeker sensitive is neither good nor Biblical. Too many of the seeker pastors, in attempting to make sinners “comfortable” have decided to do God a favor. Their favor is this: they will neglect or downplay those teachings which appear to be at all negative or challenging, and focus only upon the positive uplifting aspects of Christianity. Thus, the seeker will be drawn to this positive gospel, and then later he may (or may not) figure out that God makes very strong demands on our lives and disciplines those who fail to comply.

In attempting to win the seeker, sermons are too often converted into self-help pep talks. Become a Christian and you can be a better businessman; you can have your emotional hurts healed; you can relate better to your spouse and you can enjoy more happiness and success in life.

Now all of this may well be true, but it is not and has never been the core of the gospel. The gospel is not about solving your self-esteem issues or soothing your past emotional traumas. It is all about sin and righteousness, heaven and hell, alienation from God and reconciliation to God. The cross was not a therapeutic device; it was the means by which our sins were forgiven and we were given the gift of eternal life.

While Jesus talked frequently about heaven and hell, you could attend many seeker churches for a year and never hear hell mentioned, and rarely heaven. The big emphasis is on the here and now. Come to Jesus and get your hurts healed. Come to Jesus and become a success. Come to Jesus and your marriage will be great.

A second problem with many seeker churches is the lack of sound Biblical instruction. Sermons are filled with humorous anecdotes, eye-catching video, but precious little Scripture. Some of the most popular teachers today follow this pattern. I was in a Sunday school class once where we watched videos on the family by a popular Christian speaker. He was humorous and articulate, but he used virtually no Scripture. His “teachings” were just principles and humor. Surely the Bible has something to say on the family that he could have quoted.

Many would defend toning down the gospel by saying that this is a great witness to the world. By not putting off the seekers with religious language, this can be a tool of evangelism. But what kind of evangelism is that? When you never mention Christ, how much “witnessing” is going on? Once a young man showed me a cassette tape of a contemporary Christian music group. He told me their rock and roll style was a great witness to the lost. The tape had the lyrics to the songs, and so I took a look at them. There was no mention of Jesus in any of the songs and hardly a reference to God. I asked the teen how this could be much of a witness when Christ was never mentioned. He had no answer.

Too often this seeker philosophy has produced a host of timid pastors, never daring to address the issues of sin and righteousness, never speaking of Christ and His cross. At the conclusion of a nice little pep talk, they may then ask if anyone wants to accept Jesus. When I hear such an invitation after a Christless, crossless sermon, I wonder why they bother.

The Silly

Seeker-sensitive preachers consider the use of words such as sanctification, justification, or redemption to be cardinal sins. Feeling that these words are “Christianese” they purpose never to mention them for fear of confusing or alienating their seeker audience. What nonsense! Shall we give up on the cardinal doctrines of the church just because we live in a world where people are no longer growing up with the Scriptures?

The obvious answer is that people need to be taught these words and concepts. When a child is born, he knows no language at all – neither English, nor Chinese, nor French, nor Spanish. The language he learns is due to his environment. As he spends time with his parents and his culture he naturally picks up the prevailing language. Seekers may be ignorant, but they are not stupid. There is no reason they can’t be taught the meaning of redemption or sanctification or justification. In point of fact, the church will be guilty of criminal neglect if they don’t teach them these words and concepts.

While it is true that Paul could be said to be sensitive toward seekers (i.e. sinners), he most certainly could never be accused of spiritual wimpiness. Paul declared, “Knowing the terror of the Lord we persuade men”. He plainly warned that the sexually immoral “will not inherit the kingdom of God,” (1 Corinthians 6:9,10) not exactly a “sensitive” remark, but the truth nonetheless. He told the believers not to even eat with those professing Christ but living immorally.

Jesus could be sensitive but He could also be extraordinarily blunt. He warned of hell again and again, that place where “the worm does not die and the fire is not quenched”. He told his brothers that the reason the world hated Him, but did not hate them, was that “I testify of it, that its works are evil,” not a particularly “sensitive” thing to do.

While the church can learn from this movement, it is not necessary for us to swallow the entire seeker-sensitive pie without discernment or question. It is naïve to assume that church growth automatically equals God’s favor, or that man’s view of success is equivalent to God’s. May the Lord Jesus, that great Head of the church, help us to sort out the good from the bad, and give us the boldness to never cease teaching the entirety of God’s word and preaching the everlasting gospel of Jesus Christ, “which is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16).


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