Frankly, I have become increasingly rankled--irritated, if you will--by something of a rising great divide in the North American church. It was summarized in a recent exchange I witnessed in which pastors who described their church as a seeker congregation were challenged by others renouncing the term.
The former believed they were tuned to an enhanced approach to evangelism. The latter were persuaded that "seeker" meant shallow, and were confronting what they saw as a cheapened gospel--a message trimmed to suit the tastes of a pagan culture in order to entertain their presence.
My frustration is that I couldn't find complete agreement with either group, primarily because they were fixated on a term--"seeker sensitive." Each group either asserted or attacked the validity of the idea, and a solution was impossible because each espoused a different definition of what they meant by the concept.
One clearly felt the other was out of touch with the contemporary, while one perceived the other as having lost touch with the timeless. Because such ill-defined points of debate seem to regularly appear on the church's radar screen, breeding self-righteousness and separatism when they do, I am writing to get the subject on the table as a starter for us--especially we who pastor congregations where services have historically been times we expect God to visit and move among us in manifest ways.
It does appear that there are some undiscerning advocates of seeker-ism who are so committed to being cool and contemporary as the absolute prerequisite of ministry that they have entered a fog bank of coy and clever strategies, and have lost their bearings.
It can be seen as priorities slide from achieving true evangelism and building a discipling church, to focusing events essentially driven by the sole value of simply sustaining something exciting.
At the same time, there clearly are purist critics whose pharisaical judgments have become hurled at terminology and ministry style that doesn't satisfy their criteria for a proper liturgy at church, and promotes their bluntly confrontational (albeit orthodox) preachments at every congregational gathering.
They are quick to announce that the sky is falling, that everything seeker-oriented is an indication that the church has sold the store. Presuming each understands the other's shallowness or hard-shelled-ness (take your pick), undefined, undiscussed suppositions dominate in most speeches made by advocates of seeker sensitivity pros or cons.
To my awareness, Bill Hybels--a cherished brother I've known for years and who has been in my pulpit just as I have been welcomed to his--is the leader who either coined the term seeker sensitive, or put it into common usage. Since I've known him for nearly 20 years, I think I understand something of his passion for souls and an awareness of the heartfelt compulsion that birthed his conception of seeker services.
Bill came from a highly traditional church background in upper-Midwestern America, where evangelicalism was sound of truth, but too seldom warm or embracing to guests. Having observed something of the same in my own early environment, I understand the crippling effect of a tired, outdated style of church service that projects irrelevance, irrespective of content; where a visitor is left uninformed of the liturgy, and their discomfort and edginess become obstacles to evangelism.
When Bill became determined to break that mold, at Willow Creek he led in framing a style of church life that revised the traditional Midwest evangelical service. His goal was not born of a desire to be clever, but driven by a passion--not to build a big church, but (using Bill's words) to "keep people from going to hell."
Bill Hybels doesn't need me to defend him, but I would like to underscore the fact that I know his purpose with seeker sensitivity goes beyond a style of outreach. It progresses beyond reaching and evangelizing, to growing people--to discipling them.
For my part, that's a critical qualifier in defining the subject; one that separates the myth of seeker sensitivity from the shallow and affirms the substantial--the establishing of people in Christ, not merely interesting them in a church experience.
With the exposures I've had to settings called seeker churches (some pleasant, some disturbing) I am convinced that there isn't any single interpretation of what seeker sensitive means.
In fact, I have found the seeker spirit everywhere I find leaders or churches that seek to reach their surrounding culture for Christ. Whether they use the term or not, I see it wherever a leader seeks to cultivate a tactical approach to penetrating that facet of a pagan world where God has placed his or her ministry.
Since seeking the lost is not a style, but a passion born in a leader's soul which begets approaches suited to each one's call, setting and point of cultural encounter, seeker sensitivity is not a one-size-fits-all concept. Such a definition needs to be overthrown.
If seeker sensitivity is allowed to be defined by a single culture, it will eventually become a Christianized cult--either a band of snobbishly superior, self-impressed leaders trapped in their programs and gimmicks, or a separatist tradition in blind pursuit of a self-styled approach that becomes an end in itself rather than a means to see souls saved and lives transformed.
In contrast, to my understanding, seeker sensitivity expresses a goal to communicate warmly and intelligently. For many leaders, it spawned a whole new vision of what church and church services might look like. Everything from parking lot to platform has undergone re-evaluation and deservedly so. Access and a sense of being cared for begins with a visitor's arrival and penetrates every aspect of the environment. So, leaders took a fresh look at what face a congregation shows when people visit there. It prompts concerns for:
This only begins a list of seeker values which I would think any sensible leader would be sensitive toward. Seeker sensitivity drives us to confront tired habits, dead traditions and institutional stodginess, and to refuse that kind of self-study is to guarantee cultural obsolescence no matter how pure my doctrine is.
He was a younger pastor who became oriented to what he called a seeker-church philosophy. When he said, "Jack, my experiences at The Church on the Way causes me to see it as seeker sensitive too," I was gratified. It wasn't because I felt he was either branding me a Willow-mime, or verifying my worth as an in touch leader. Rather, it pleased me because this early 40-something pastor recognized that the term is more than a catchphrase associated with a brand of ministry.
In fact, he had visited several of our services, where we aggressively involve people in a service, where expressive worship characterizes the congregation, where a manifest passion in public prayer and an orderly exercise of supernatural gifts are evident in the meeting and a forthright appeal calling people to a decision for Christ is presented after the message.
With discernment, this young leader recognized that seeker sensitivity is not defined by seeing how little commitment we dare exact of a visitor or newcomer.
To my view, that pastor gets it. I mean, he clearly is savvy to the idea that seeker services aren't stamped out of a cultural cookie-cutter. Instead, they are churches and services where people are warmly communicated with, where they are not left at sea about what is taking place, and where a holy respect of persons characterizes the way all planning, interaction with people and teaching from the pulpit takes place.
Accordingly, I can accept his describing us as "seeker sensitive," for it has not hindered, for example, our inviting visitors to enter in with our congregation when we lead everyone in all services (in a sensitive way) to join hands with others and form small circles of prayer together. (This practice, incidentally, not only doesn't hinder seekers, but has become one of our most effective means of evangelism.)
I think we're at a point of a reconciling view on seeker sensitivity can be declared and agreed to--one that centers (1) in granting liberty to each leader to shape the tactic for his environment that will best suit reaching his culture and (2) honestly brings us all to answer the question: "What do we think people are seeking at church anyway?"
In the last analysis, I don't think people can be lured to church by a cutesy program or be charmed by how cool the worship team is. Rather, I think we are living in a world of people that are desperately looking for a real relationship with God, and however we seek them, we must come to terms with the fact that they will never find or be found in an atmosphere more concerned with its classiness than its spiritual power.
A seeker church will discern the difference, and if we all pursue that passion, we'll not only dismantle a myth, we'll dismantle strongholds of spiritual resistance and see more and more people come to Jesus as Savior and Lord.
Jack W. Hayford, Litt.D., is the founding pastor of The Church on the Way in Van Nuys, California; chancellor of The King's College and Seminary and the president of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel.
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