And the reoccurring theme in the discussion seemed to mostly bypass my focus on design and center instead around this hackle-raising philosophy/church methodology/label for churches actively pursuing souls within a modern cultural context as… wait for it… “seeker sensitive.”
Now I want to say this and be heard… so if you have a fire in your belly that burns with passion to eradicate all things “seeker sensitive,” because you think it is an unbiblical, dangerous, corrupt, or even heretical methodology… please set down your shotgun for a minute and hear me out. Before my September 29th post, I honestly thought being “seeker sensitive” was a good thing. And, by the way, I still do – albeit not necessarily as “seeker sensitive” is defined by some of you. Our church, Living Hope, has been unapologetically “seeker sensitive” from our earliest days. And to me, I just thought every church would desire that. To be sensitive to seekers. What could be wrong with that?
Well, I’ve made some new friends (and I had some old friends) who have raised the red flag and sounded the alarm. Apparently, Rick Warren is destroying the Church. And I don’t write that to be sarcastic or hyperbolic. Among some, there is a visceral, white-hot anger at the man – and a feeling that any church that is comfortable with the term “seeker sensitive” is walking on dangerous ground. Or altogether in sin.
I refute that sentiment as a “seeker sensitive” pastor who wants to love people with Jesus’ love, and who wants to share the whole truth of Scripture – the condemnation of the Law and the freedom of forgiveness through Jesus’ death and resurrection alone. AND, I WANT TO BE EFFECTIVE in ministry. If the methods I use are not working to help the community I live in connect with the Gospel, I will continue to adapt and monitor (and adapt some more) the METHODS I use – without ever being willing to compromise the fullness of the Truth of God.
And that’s where I am wondering just how deep this chasm runs. How great is this division we see in the Church? On one side, those who are sensitive to seekers in their methodology, trying to remove barriers to the Gospel before the Word is even shared. And on the other side, those who label “seeker sensitivity” a “man-centered” methodology (or even theology) that must, by definition compromise the Truth in order to make seekers more comfortable?
Is there a sacred cow to be killed on both sides of the discussion?
I’m writing to encourage hope and peace in the Church over this hot-button topic. Jesus Christ’s prayer for His Church on the night he was taken into captivity was this: “I pray that they may be ONE…” (John 17:21). There is hope for greater understanding and greater unity with the bride of Christ here. And no, I don’t think that means disregarding the importance of solid doctrine for the sake of a “lowest-common-denominator” kind of unity.
To help clarify the discussion, I asked permission from a friend of mine, Jason Coyle, to repost a comment he sent to me during our last blog discussion. To read it in context, go here and scroll through the comments below the post. Jason and I attended the Association Free Lutheran Bible School together about 20 years ago, now. I found his press back to be both very thoughtful and thought provoking. While I think there are some core kernels of disagreement between us, his thinking is clear, and his discussion is respectful. Here it is, in full, unedited:
Thanks for the time in writing a response, Josh. There’s a lot I could say to clarify what I meant or refute what I disagree with in what you wrote, but I think you’ve done a good job finding the core bone of contention between how we teach/think/believe: pragmatism within the church. I’ll stick to that; the rest (e.g. changing methodology over time or culture), however important, is secondary, and largely an application of the central issue. And I’m sorry this is still long; I’m too tired to effectively edit it down.
We may not mean exactly the same thing by “effective,” but your reply was pretty thorough, and I think we’re close. And yes, you’re correct: I disagree with you. I’d go further, and say I believe that your position is counter to Scripture, and its typical application lays the enormously heavy burden on the servant of God. (We haven’t spoken for years, but trust me when I say that I don’t use terms like this often or lightly. This is a serious subject.)
You said “Does effective = good? Maybe not all the time. But I’ll say this with conviction… INEFFECTIVE does NOT = good.” Yikes, Josh. It is a very small step from there to “INEFFECTIVE = bad.” Do you have any idea of the disastrous weight such a concept places on the believer that God, in His wisdom, has called to preach without visible result?
Effective and ineffective are moot; ONLY FAITHFULNESS = good in this mathematics. Jonah preached to the Ninevites and they repented; was his ministry better than that of Noah, who preached for a century without effect outside his own family? Or Ezekiel, who was sent to Israel to give God’s message and was actually told by God that he would be completely ineffective!? (Ez 3:4-9)
What of the missionary that faithfully labors years or decades preaching the Word and displaying God’s love in the field before seeing a convert, or the pastor of a small flock that he shepherds faithfully, but without growth in numbers? Are we to condemn their lack of “success?”
Point 1: We are called to be faithful, not effective. The results, whatever they may be, are to God’s glory, for His pleasure.
Clarifying subpoint: Part of faithfulness is to be good stewards of the gifts and talents God gives us; being lazy or half-hearted in one’s service is not being faithful.
You continued “And churches who make the case that God alone is responsible for their growth while doing nothing to try to increase their effectiveness in communicating the gospel are in sin.” There’s a lot of wiggle-room in how you’ve phrased that, so I’m going to hold back a bit. I’m concerned we’ve started talking past each other.
There may be churches that actually behave as you’ve described. But are there churches that deliberately avoid preaching on certain passages or topics because it might offend attendees or give a bad impression to “seekers”? Or that structure their worship music or other service elements to manipulate emotional responses (or even decisions for Jesus)? Which version of the error (for both are rooted in sin of elevating tradition to the level of Scriptural authority) do you think is more widespread, and thus probably needs to be fought more stridently?
Point 2: “Does it work?” is fundamentally a man-centered question, and it will inevitably shape the message to be more man-centered, regardless of the methods used. And a man-centered Gospel is another gospel; it is not the good news.
(A) Jason, I told you at the time, and I’ll say it again here… OUTSTANDING response. Thank you so much. You help me clarify my thoughts, and you provide some clear Biblically supported points that will help refine the Church.
(B) Where we agree: God calls us to be faithful, and the results are ultimately up to Him. No one is able to save a soul. Only God does that. No one is able to turn a heart God-ward and refine it. Only God does that. Warning to “seeker sensitive” churches: Any church that compromises the Truth, manufactures an emotional experience in order to manipulate people, or chooses to bypass difficult (or possibly “offensive”) passages of Scripture in order to add more “seekers” to your roster is engaged in idolatry. We are to be obedient. The eternal results of our ministry are in God’s hands, and to think otherwise is dangerous. We agree, I believe, on this – and on the key qualifier that “being lazy or half-hearted in one’s service is not being faithful.” And that leads me to…
(C) Where we disagree: Jason, when you say “Effective and ineffective are moot; only FAITHFULNESS = good in this equation,” I will press back. Is it not part of our responsibility – part of that FAITHFULNESS God asks for – to serve with ALL of the creativity God has given us? To work and pray and reinvent our methods as long as necessary to bring the fullness of the Gospel to as many as possible? Providing we agree that the MESSAGE must not be compromised, why is flexibility in methodology not EXPECTED in every local church?
I submit it is often because for many many churches (both traditional and contemporary, by the way), some form of methodology has become its own kind of idolatry, and the truth that God is ultimately responsible for spiritual growth (in hearts and in numbers) gets twisted into an excuse to settle. To settle for what has always been done, wrapped in self-righteous indignation over churches with a different approach to ministry.
Warning to churches who reject a “seeker sensitive” methodology: Don’t excuse yourself from investing your deepest, best efforts to reach this culture – the one we live in NOW, not 20 years ago – with the excuse that your methods are somehow more sacred because of their style. If the content of the message is the truth of scripture – without compromise – then you have no business judging churches who are trying to build relational bridges with their communities using a modern construct.
(D) Final thought to put a bow on it all… There are sacred cows here on both sides of the chasm. But there is common ground to be found. At the end of the day, I understand concern over man-centered “seeker DRIVEN” methods that are willing to compromise the message in order to attain more measurable “success.” I also have concern over the legalism and judgmental attitudes I see in many who throw out the baby with the bathwater when it comes to seeker sensitivity. Can we get beyond the label here and deal with the core issue?
Message does NOT equal method. I believe it is possible (and simply wise) to create welcoming environments for people who are not yet connected to God, so that they feel welcome in our churches, so that they may hear the full truth of Jesus – which may, as God works, make people very uncomfortable on its own. I pray that God will give me the humility, wisdom, courage and creativity to NEVER compromise the message, while being ALWAYS willing to compromise my methods. I pray for healing in the Church. I pray for sound teaching of the Truth of God’s Word. And I pray that we will be EFFECTIVE in our methods to reach our culture with the Gospel.
Where does your church land on this, and what do you think?
“rick warren is not the antichrist :: seeker sensitive sacred cow tipping” by Joshua Skogerboe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.