God, God's Power, God's Will, Grace / Mercy, Jesus, Love, Relationship With God, The Church, The Gospel, The Holy Spirit

Seeker Friendly Churches

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.

Questions: Where is The Church of Jesus Christ, the Bride of Christ? Is the modern church more like a harlot or the Bride of Christ?

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.

6 thoughts on “Seeker Friendly Churches

  1. Steven, I’m so grateful that you have posted this series. I have been in the trenches, fighting this same battle in my area of the country — and with what little influence I have — for several years now. It is truly frightening to me to see what is happening. I guess it hit home for me even more soundly about 11 years ago when a church I helped to found — a church that had been a birthplace and training ground for hundreds and hundreds of sold-out, on-fire, Holy Ghost anointed, solid-Word-teaching servants of Christ — a church known throughout the area as a place people KNEW they could go to experience a soul-searching, no-nonsense, face-to-face encounter with God — threw out that Gospel and adopted Willow-Creek’s formulas in place of it. I had been gone from this area for about 15 years, and it was during that time that the major changes took place.

    Obviously, there were a great many strong, Christ-centered believers who felt they had no choice but to leave the church and try to find some place where they could function in their service for the Lord in Scripturally sound ways again. Unfortunately, they discovered — as I have — that a place like that is almost non-existent right now.

    To say I’m praying and crying out to the Lord for merciful intervention is such an understatement. I feel such desperation over the situation — and over all the lives that are being effected negatively. I see hundred of people coming into these churches — sitting at the coffee bars, sitting around tables in what are called “Bible Classes,” but which are actually round-table discussions of a topic, mostly by people who are well meaning, but still ignorant themselves in the things of the Word and who need to be TAUGHT — not encouraged to rally behind their own ideas.

    One of the most significant physical aspects of most of these churches is the fact that they turn out the lights in order to engage in what they call “worship.” What they are actually doing is engaging in the theatrical production taking place on the stage under the spotlights. The Word of God is SO VERY CLEAR that we are to come into the “light” and avoid the dark places — in fact the Word says that people seek the darkness when they want to hide. I think if these church leaders were thinking scripturally at all, that one aspect should be a danger flag for them. I talked with one pastor the other day for about an hour, and that’s one of the points I made. Unknown to me, several people who lead praise and worship in one of his two Sunday morning services had been trying to push him to let them turn out the lights — “because that’s the way it’s done now.” He sat and thought a moment after I had spoken and said, “Well, at least what you’re telling me is based on the Word of God, whereas what they are telling me is based only on what’s ‘popular’ right now.” Hopefully, he will give it more serious thought before he grants them permission.

    I see these people who pack these churches “playing the games” of Christianity, having fun, feeling no compulsion to change anything about the rest of their lives or to avoid compromise with the world in any way. And (having eyes that are well-experienced after 40 years in ministry) I see that they are skating on such thin ice that it is frightening. Were they to be faced with a great spiritual battle of any kind right now, they would have no Word to stand on, no Sword to fight with, and no active Faith with which to overcome. In short, they are “like sheep without a shepherd” because the Church has cast aside the commission and thrown off the anointing of Jesus Christ.

    Well, just in case you were wondering how I feel about the subject ….

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    1. Sandra,
      This is beautiful. I am so grateful you shared your thoughts and disappointments with me. You and I truly are on the same page with these type churches. I know you were probably sick when that church adopted Rick Warren’s feel-good-and-get-as-many-people-in-church-as-you-can model. This is so good I’d like to ask your permission to re-post the whole thing on my blog. Every response I have received about this series has said, in their own words, what you have shared with me. Thank you so much! I’m off for the weekend, but I will definitely post your reply as a post, if that’s okay with you, next week. Wow! Thank you, Sandra.
      I hope you and your family have a blessed weekend of thanksgiving.
      God bless you.

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      1. Certainly, Steven. Feel free to share what I said anywhere you like. I’m for doing whatever it takes to get more people to stop and really think about what’s happening.

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      2. Thank you. Great! I want my readers to take in what you wrote. God bless. Look for it next week. I’ll send you the link when I publish!

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  2. from a former ordained elder and somewhat cynical viewpoint the local church groups and umbrella groups have bought into and promote as a major component of their church/religion -the mission is to substitute more government as the solution to the church not doing it’s job. And to substitute a presidential /political/ champion as a substitute savior for Jesus saving their individual heart and thus changing their will to thy will be done on Earth as in heaven savior. I challenge established well respected folks in religion relationships who have actually accomplished something in their individual careers – built a bridge, started a successful business, raised honest decent, kind, gentle kids to adults, built something that works from scratch to – take a chronic LOCAL ISSUE PROBLEM that is trotted out each year at the appropriate calendar time – around here the church goes on vacation when school is out – back to the challenge – when the usual call for money or the fund raising event etc. make some concrete suggestions the energy and money should go to directly CURE/FIX/END/STOP the problem LOCALLY – see how gracious and kind the folks who give the heart strings pulling appeals and take in and dole out the money REMAIN when you show initiative to actually cure a problem LOCALLY. aDDITTIONALLY, MOST SALARIED FOLKS in the local non-profits are from NYC, Chicago, or Boston and some are just stupid inane imho am I am an individual Christian and I am judging.. Sincerely and respectfully, Steven Sawyer – aka – Jiminy “J.C.”Cricket LeDouche November 20, 2012

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    1. Jimmy,
      Thank you for this thoughtful, candid, albeit somewhat cynical response. I have discovered that most folks who comment on this issue agree that the modern church has created a monster that it more about crowds than the cross of Jesus Christ. Auditoriums full of people do not translate into saved souls. Seeker churches to not seek the lost as much as they do money, prestige and recognition.
      Thank you again for contributing so knowledgeably to this discussion. I appreciate your thoughtfulness and your willingness to share your views with us.
      May God richly bless you.

      Like

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