By T.A. McMahon,
Co-founder of The Berean Call
This is the first part of a three-part series examining the explosion of “seeker-friendly” churches in the United States.¹
Author’s note: The state of the modern church has bothered me for several years. I am watching the “church’s” impact disintegrate into an ineffective, God-neglecting institution apparently, to me, more interested in marketing strategies than discipling.
The church’s purpose is not to save the lost. That is God’s job. The purpose of the true church of Jesus Christ, the Bride of Christ, is to train and equip the saints, who then go out and win souls for Christ.
In my view, the modern church, not the Bride of Christ, has lost its way and its true purpose. I’m reading lots of pastors and other church history authorities who are writing the same message.
Read Mr. McMahon’s article below and see if you agree with me.
The “seeker-friendly,” or “seeker-sensitive,” movement currently taking a host of evangelical churches by storm is an approach to evangelizing through application of the latest marketing techniques.
Typically, it begins with a survey of the lost (referred to by a leading church in this trend as the “unchurched,” or “unchurched Harry and Mary”). This survey questions the unchurched about the things their nearby place of worship might offer that would motivate them to attend. Results of the questionnaire indicate areas of potential changes in the church’s operations and services that would be effective to attract the unchurched, keep them attending, and win them to Christ. Those who have developed this marketing approach guarantee the growth of the churches that conscientiously follow their proven methods. Practically speaking, it works!
This (the “seeker-friendly” phenomenon) is a redefining of the leadership of the church, along lines that appear to me to be far more entrepreneurial than biblical. This is importing into the church the cultural success patterns, looking at corporate America, looking at successful CEOs, looking at successful businesses, everything from Ben and Jerry’s to Microsoft and trying to find the triggers, trying to find the avenues, trying to find the access, the hot buttons that allow them to sell their product to the degree that they do and to be so successful in corporation life. Phil Johnson, Executive Director of Grace To You Ministries.
Two Seeker Churches
Two churches are seen as models for this movement: Willow Creek Community Church (near Chicago), pastored by Bill Hybels, and Saddleback Valley Community Church (south of Los Angeles), pastored by Rick Warren. Their influence is stunning. Willow Creek has formed its own association of churches, with 9,500 members. Last year, 100,000 church lead-ers attended at least one Willow Creek leadership conference. More than 250,000 pastors and church leaders from over 125 countries have attended Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Church seminars. More than 60,000 pastors subscribe to his weekly email newsletter.
We visited Willow Creek Community Church not too long ago, and it seems to have spared no expense in its mission to attract the masses. Looking past the swans gliding across a mirror lake, one sees what could be mistaken for a corporate headquarters or a very upscale shopping mall. Just off the sanctuary is a large bookstore and an extensive eating area supplied by a food court with five different vendors. A jumbotron screen allows an overflow crowd or those enjoying a meal to view the proceedings in the main sanctuary. The sanctuary itself is spacious and high tech, complete with three large screens and state-of-the-art sound and lighting systems for multimedia, drama, and musical presentations.
While impressive, Willow Creek is not unique among mega-churches with a reach-the-lost-through-whatever-turns-them-on mindset. Mega-churches across the country have added bowling alleys, NBA regulation basketball courts with bleachers, exercise gyms and spas, locker rooms, auditoriums for concerts and dramatic productions, and Starbucks and McDonald’s franchises—all for the furtherance of the gospel . . .or so it is claimed.
Although it’s true that such churches are packing them in, that’s not the whole story in evaluating the success of this latest trend in “doing church.”
Seeker Churches’ Goal
The stated goal of seeker-friendly churches is reaching the lost. Though biblical and praiseworthy, the same cannot be said for the methods used in attempting to achieve that goal. Let’s begin with marketing as a tactic for reaching the lost. Fundamentally, marketing has to do with profiling consumers, ascertaining what their “felt needs” are, and then fashioning one’s product (or its image) to appeal to the targeted customer’s desires.
The hoped-for result is that the consumer buys or “buys into” the product. George Barna, whom Christianity Today calls “the church’s guru of growth,” claims that such an approach is essential for the church in our market-driven society. Evangelical church-growth leaders are adamant that the marketing approach can be applied–and they have employed it–without compromising the gospel. Really?
First of all, the gospel and, more significantly, the person of Jesus Christ do not fit into any marketing strategy. They are not “products” to be “sold.” They cannot be refashioned or image-adjusted to appeal to the felt needs of our consumer-happy culture. Any attempt to do so compromises to some degree the truth of who Christ is and what He has done for us . For example, if the lost are considered consumers and a basic marketing “commandment” says that the customer must reign supreme, then whatever may be offensive to the lost must be discarded, revamped, or downplayed.
Scripture tells us clearly that the message of the Cross is “foolishness to them that are perishing” and that Christ himself is a “rock of offense” (1 Cor:1:18; 1 Pt 2:8). Some seeker-friendly churches, therefore, seek to avoid this “negative aspect” by making the temporal benefits of becoming a Christian their chief selling point. Although that appeals to our gratification-oriented generation, it is neither the gospel nor the goal of a believer’s life in Christ.
Appealing To The Flesh
Secondly, if you want to attract the lost on the basis of what might interest them, for the most part you will be appealing to and accommodating their flesh. Wittingly or unwittingly, that seems to be the standard operating procedure of seeker-friendly churches. They mimic what’s popular in our culture: top-forty and performance-style music, theatrical productions, stimulating multi-media presentations, and thirty-minutes-or-less positive messages. The latter, more often than not, are topical, therapeutic, and centered in self-fulfillment–how the Lord can meet one’s needs and help solve one’s problems.
Those concerns may be lost on increasing numbers of evangelical pastors but, ironically, not on some secular observers. In his perceptive book This Little Church Went to Market , Pastor Gary Gilley notes that the professional marketing journal American Demographics recognizes that people are . . .
“into spirituality, not religion….Behind this shift is the search for an experiential faith, a religion of the heart, not the head. It’s a religious expression that downplays doctrine and dogma, and revels in direct experience of the divine–whether it’s called the ‘Holy Spirit’ or ‘cosmic consciousness’ or the ‘true self.’ It is practical and personal, more about stress reduction than salvation, more therapeutic than theological. It’s about feeling good, not being good. It’s as much about the body as the soul….Some marketing gurus have begun calling it ‘the experience industry.” (pp. 20-21)
¹ Taken from an article on the Berean Call website called The Seeker Friendly Way Of Doing Church.