20110814-033944.jpgThe other morning I was driving to work and I heard on the radio “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show” by Neil Diamond. Yes, I listened to it and enjoyed it because Neil Diamond may be a cheese ball, but he’s a cool cheese ball. The song is about a traveling evangelist, who sets up a circus tent and puts on a Jesus show for everyone. The whole town turns out because it is entertaining. The lyrics imply that Brother Love is quite the showman. While I was listening to the song, my mind wandered to a discussion I had recently regarding the seeker sensitive movement and whether or not it was a legitimate way to do ministry.

For those not too familiar with the term, the seeker sensitive church model designs the Sunday morning service around reaching non-Christians and bringing them into the life of the church. In an effort to be seeker sensitive, music is chosen because it makes the worshiper feel good, distasteful words like “sin” are replaced with more palatable alternatives like “broken” or some other therapy oriented term. Rather than discuss Christ and atonement, sermons focus on meeting the felt need of the congregation. The general focus is shifted from worshipping God to making guests feel welcome in order to bring them into the life of the church. Ideally, seeker sensitive churches would then move guests to cell groups (groups that meet in the houses of members to do Bible study).

A couple of quick things to note regarding this model: First, it is effective at drawing a big crowd. Go to a mega-church and you will typically find the seeker sensitive model. Second, it is generally very entertainment oriented. It is not uncommon to find seeker sensitive churches doing outrageous things to draw a crowd. Just like Brother Love and his circus, there is a degree of Barnum and Bailey’s at work. These are the churches that talk more about having a great sex life through scriptural principles or feature motocross riders in the service or fire-breathing as a part of the sermon. All of these showman elements are aimed at bringing the unchurched in the front doors for an hour every Sunday. Third, the traditional gospel message is “repackaged” to be more accessible. This sometimes involves changing vocabulary or teaching with parables/stories. Sometimes sermons focus entirely on meeting the felt needs of the congregation. It is common to call them self-help sermons or sharing the therapy gospel. Ultimately, the message shifts from salvation in Christ alone to: how to have your best life now.

20110814-034153.jpgI will begin with a disclaimer: some churches that do this model could potentially do it well and with pure motives. Some seeker sensitive churches teach that we are all sinners and that the only way to avoid the wrath of a just and righteous God is through Jesus, thus doing more than simply teaching people how to feel good. It seems reasonable that some of the thousands of seeker churches that exist clearly proclaim the gospel. Ultimately, this is a method for drawing in unbelievers. The purpose of drawing in unbelievers is to expose them to the Gospel. That having been said, this raises the question of the purpose of the worship service. Is the purpose of worship evangelism? Further still, one of the central tenets of seeker sensitive worship is to focus on the felt needs of the unchurched. How does this gel with worship focusing on God? This question is especially pertinent when we consider the fact that many seeker driven churches soften the Gospel to make it more palatable for the lost that are visiting. This is the constant temptation faced by those who look to grow through seeker sensitive methodology. It is a temptation that results in a broken system on Sunday morning. No man can serve two masters and the seeker sensitive crowd frequently winds up having to deal with meeting the needs to the uncommitted against preaching the Gospel. Thus, we end up with therapy gospel and other messes that turn growth/numbers into an idol we worship rather than God himself.

Another problem with this model is that it often rests on a faulty assumption regarding everyone’s role in the church. In the seeker sensitive model, it easy for the Sunday morning Jesus show to become the primary attraction for the lost, rather than disciples of Christ going out to reach the world for His name. Ministry to the world is often reduced to simple service with no real sharing of the Gospel message of Christ as the one who redeems us. In such cases, serving our neighbor is sufficient ministry and no preaching is ever endeavored upon. Instead, the role of evangelist falls exclusively on the shoulders of the pastor. If a pastor desires to grow his church, but doesn’t so much care to disciple and train members to reach the lost, he is stuck in the role of trying to bring them in through other means. This often manifests itself in the three ring circus that is a seeker church.

One of the central problems, I would argue, is the desire of modern Christians to be served and entertained. They consume church like a product. When they are bored or uncomfortable, they leave and go somewhere else. As a result, congregations are frequently loaded with immature Christians who throw tantrums and leave every few years or throw tantrums and force out the current leadership ‘cause they don’t get what they want.

Sound Biblical teaching and discipleship are the missing ingredients that keeps Christians immature and prevents them from going out to reach the lost. As a result, the seeker service is the only answer for a pastor looking to grow his congregation, stoke his ego or appease a demanding consistory. This means that, at times, seeker sensitive tendencies can be used as a thermometer to measure the disciple-making efforts/health of a church. When a pastor has to entertain or scratch itching ears to keep people in the church, there is something wrong. That “something” is a congregation that lacks maturity and is not producing disciples. The big show should not be the attraction to worship.

I believe at one of the best scriptural illustrations of this concept is found in the Matthew account of the feeding of the 5000 and the day that followed. Everyone knows the story of the miraculous feeding of the 5000 from Matthew. In fact, the story is a favorite amongst seeker driven and health/wealth preachers because Jesus draws a big crowd and meets their needs. After this happens, Jesus crosses the nearby lake (on foot), helps Peter briefly walk on water and sets up camp on the other side. The crowd he had fed the previous day comes to find him the next morning looking for more food. There is a great conversation about Moses and manna, in which the people ask for more bread as proof of Christ’s having been sent from God. Christ responds by telling them that they need to eat his flesh and drink his blood in order to gain entrance into heaven. The crowd says his teaching is too hard and abandons him. We see this in the seeker movement today. They are fed and their needs are met, but at the first sign of difficult teaching or challenge, they abandon ship, because they did not want to know Christ. Rather, they wanted to have their needs met. We see the same thing happen with the Israelites in the desert when they demanded manna, meat, etc. and wandered when God didn’t jump to their service like a cosmic maitre’ d. The disciples did not abandon Him. Instead, they said that they had nowhere else to go, because only Christ had the words that bring eternal life. This is the response of a disciple of Christ to difficult teaching.

Now, another quick disclaimer: I don’t like organ music and I believe that living in Christ will change my life. Preaching should point me to Christ; in Christ, God’s Spirit will comfort me and produce fruit in my life. However, worship music must honor and worship God. It need not make me feel warm and fuzzy. The change in my life is not from applying principles and pulling myself up by my bootstraps. Rather, it is Christ and his Spirit living in me that produces changes. I also would argue that it is necessary to preach the good news every Sunday for the lost who are present.

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