Why the Seeker-Sensitive Model is Neither Relevant or Biblical

May 19th, 2008 / 1 Comment

I was curiously surprised to hear that Willow Creek has decided to retire the “seeker-sensitive” church model which has been its staple for the past 30 years. In the words of “executive” pastor Greg Hawkins:

Our dream is that we fundamentally change the way we do church. That we take out a clean sheet of paper and we rethink all of our old assumptions. Replace it with new insights. Insights that are informed by research and rooted in Scripture. (emphasis mine)

While I certainly agree that the members of Willow Creek could benefit from some constructive rethinking, my suspicion is that Willow Creek’s “new insights” are nothing more than a re-branding of their previous assumptions. Theologians far and wide have spent the latter part of the 20th century debunking many of the seeker-sensitive model’s claims, especially its reduction of Christianity to a product to be consumed.

Seeker-sensitives frequently justify their concerns in the interest of being practical, and often with clear awareness of the reciprocal theological expense. Yet in addition to the many theological critiques, I believe the seeker-sensitive model (and most likely its future reincarnation) also fails in its own attempt at pragmatism. The following example from my own church experience should help illustrate my skepticism.

Shortly after finishing college I became involved as the worship pastor of a church plant. I grew to discover that is was a particularly peculiar church for a number of reasons, and one of the more peculiar was the insecurity concerning tithe. The thinking went that church needed to be relevant, and asking for money, despite a ‘wealth’ of historical precedence, might create an unnecessary barrier for those unfamiliar with church. Therefore, out of practical concern the baskets were passed unassumingly during announcements as a seldom mentioned curiosity. As months went by the church financial situation began to look grim. At the same time, the collection baskets gradually began working their way up to more prominent positions in the worship service. Initially we simply added language encouraging members to consider consistent giving as a habit. This turned out to be largely successful so we promoted the activity to occur during a worship chorus (this had the double effect of ensuring that people were standing which, as church planting literature is fond of sharing, is statistically proven to yield greater contributions.) Eventually, “tithing,” while arguably not a seeker-sensitive term, ended up getting its own weekly sermon series encouraging members to make commitments of giving 10% or more to the church. (The option of whether to tithe from one’s net or gross income was beautifully answered with the option of receiving a net or gross blessing.)

Amazingly this entire shift took place in the span of less than a year. My growing question was what happened to practicality and the need to be relevant? (Confession: I was a seeker-sensitive apologetic at the time.) The response came as a mandate to honor biblical principles. In the years since serving at that church I have often heard the same binary language, relevance and practicality set against being biblical or God-honoring used to support or throw out any number of church practices.

My hunch is that these concepts actually have very little influence in the decision making process of many seeker-sensitive leaning pastors. In reality these competing terms are not much more than scapegoats for the decision-makers conscious or sub-conscious personal preferences. In the same way I anticipate that Willow Creek’s new model, as a continuation of a consumer-based approach, is unfortunately just as susceptible to the false pragmatism of the previous seeker-sensitive model.

I think my growing awareness of this problem might help explain why I’ve become increasingly interested in the Liturgy. The history, community, and scope of the liturgy collectively functions to stabilize us from our own individual self-driven impulses. By following the liturgy we seldom have to worry if what we’re doing is biblical or God-honoring or doubting how a particular practice might be relevant.

What about you? Have you been positively or negatively shaped as a result of seeker-sensitive approaches to church? What is your understanding of the role and importance of the liturgy? How else can we avoid crafting church practices based on our own self-driven impulses?

Comments (1)

  1. Scott,
    Great article. I agree and disagree. I agree that the seeker sensitive model is neither biblical nor relevant. I would further argue that it’s hurtful to Christians trying to mature in their faith, and tenuous in actually helping people to come to faith in Christ to begin with.

    I would differ that the only way forward is Traditional liturgical worship. My family has come to these same conclusions as one of my brothers became a Presbyterian pastor and is in favor of the Regulative Principle. My other brother has become Catholic and is a member of the “home to Rome” movement (although he doesn’t know it’s a movement, I think).

    I do not have a problem with Liturgy, but it has flaws as well, . .such as heartless, dead orthodoxy (at it’s worst) and a lack of being free to follow the Spirit as a church leadership. (I have also seen great, thick, deep, liturgical churches that don’t make either of those mistakes)

    At our church, we recently saw that many marriages in our church were in crisis. Our elders were counciling many couples through difficult times and decided that we should teach on the topic. So, about 2 months later we broke from our series in the book of John and spoke on marriage for 4 weeks in a row. We then returned to John.

    I’m sure some applications of the liturgy allow for things like that. But, far from “crafting church practicies based on our own self-driven impulses” we should have a prayerful, Godly group of men leading the church forward with their bibles open, on their knees.

    I think what keeps churches within biblical bounds, is biblical eldership and a high view of Scripture. The “boundaries” are marked by the Word of God and by Godly men applying them, and keeping the “lead” pastor in check (although, i would argue that there should be a plurality of leadership, not a hierarchy, at the highest level).

    I know it’s easy to say “Word of God”, but I think if we put ourselves and our methods under his word, tremble at his word, clearly proclaim his word and not get cute with it. . . . than many (not all) problems will be avoided.

    I don’t have a problem with Liturgy, I just think that every church has one, . . . even churches where the liturgy is 3 songs, an offering and a talk. Paul’s instruction to ‘teach the whole council of God’ should keep any council of elders from letting any imbalances get too great.

    my 2 cents,

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