Modern evangelical churches are just like AT&T: they’re more interested in attracting new members than they are in keeping old ones. In case you don’t believe me, I’d like to share two quotes from leaders in the seeker-sensitive church movement.
Rick Warren, “Purpose Driven Church”
“In every membership class we say, ‘If you are coming to Saddleback from another church, you need to understand up front that this church was not designed for you. It is geared toward reaching the unchurched who do not attend anywhere. If you are transferring from another church you are welcome here only if you are willing to serve and minister. If all you intend to do is attend services, we’d rather save your seat for someone who is an unbeliever. There are plenty of good Bible-teaching churches in this area that we can recommend to you.’
“This position may sound harsh, but I believe we are following the example of Jesus. He defined his ministry target by saying, ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners’ (Mark 2:17).’ At Saddleback we continually remind ourselves of this statement. It has helped us stay true to the original focus of our church: to bring the unchurched, irreligious people of our community to Christ.”
Steven Furtick, sermon
“We preach so that people can come to faith in Christ and we want them to get in a small group and serve so that other people can meet Christ. If you know Jesus, I am sorry to break it to you: this church is not for you. Yeah, but I just gave my life to Christ last week at Elevation. Last week was the last week that Elevation Church existed for you. You’re in the army now. We do one thing: we preach Jesus so people far from God can know Jesus, and then we train them up so that others can know Jesus…If that doesn’t get you excited, and you need the Doctrines of Grace as defined by John Calvin to excite you, you in the wrong church. Let me get a phonebook. There are 720 churches in Charlotte. I’m sure we can find one where you can stuff your face until you’re so obese spiritually that you can’t even move…We’re not perfect, but we know what we came to do: Luke 19:10, seek and save that which is lost. It’s the mission of Jesus, it’s the mission of Elevation Church, and may we never become a church of front row spectators who judge the deeds being done more than we care about the people that Jesus wants to save.”
When church leaders only care about attracting new members, it’s a recipe for disaster. Here are some of my critiques of this seeker-sensitive church model.
Seeker-sensitive churches use slick corporate marketing strategies and cheap gimmicks to appeal to the worldly desires of unbelievers. Here are some examples:
- They’ll furnish the stage with a giant novelty trampoline couch similar to the one used by 1980s comedian Galagher.
- They’ll capitalize on the popularity of the Christmas holiday by putting on a sleazy song and dance routine similar to the Broadway musical Chicago.
- They’ll use vulgar language to promote a Valentine’s Day sermon about sex and relationships.
- They’ll capitalize on the popularity of the latest summer blockbuster by turning their sanctuary into a movie theater complete with popcorn and an Iron Man on stage.
I applaud their efforts to reach the unsaved with the Gospel, but we shouldn’t lower our standards to bring the outside world into the Church (Romans 12:2). As Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.” (Matthew 5:13) In other words, the Church is supposed to act as a preservative, delaying the inevitable slide of society into greater and greater moral decay. But if instead we become part of the problem, then who else is left to be the light of the world?
The arguments that seeker-sensitive church leaders use to defend their movement are the exact opposite of what the Bible teaches, starting with the false premise that people naturally seek God. This idea was proven false 2,000 years ago when the apostle Paul wrote that “there is no one who seeks God.” (Romans 3:11)
In his book “Chosen by God”, R.C. Sproul cites Thomas Aquinas to address this fundamental error of the seeker-sensitive movement:
“Aquinas said that we confuse two similar yet different human actions. We see people searching desperately for peace of mind, relief from guilt, meaning and purpose to their lives, and loving acceptance. We know that ultimately these things can only be found in God. Therefore, we conclude that since people are seeking these things they must be seeking after God. People do not seek God. They seek after the benefits that only God can give them. The sin of fallen man is this: Man seeks the benefits of God while at the same time fleeing from God Himself. We are by nature, fugitives.”
Because of their mistaken belief that people naturally seek God, seeker-sensitive leaders believe “that anybody can be won to Christ if you discover the key to his or her heart.” (Rick Warren, “The Purpose Driven Church”). This idea is contrary to what Jesus taught in the Parable of the Sower. It’s not the skill of the sower that leads to a good harvest; it’s God that gives the increase. Similarly, it’s not the skill of the preacher that wins souls; it’s God that does the saving.
Seeker-sensitive leaders believe that the local church should be designed to attract unbelievers, and Andy Stanley is the chief architect of this concept of “creating churches that unchurched people love to attend.” The source of his inspiration for this boondoggle is Acts 15:19, where James, the brother of Jesus, says that “we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.” In his sermon entitled “Your Church”, Andy claims that James is saying that “anything that is an unnecessary obstacle, anything that is an impediment for a Gentile turning to our God, we should remove it.” For example:
- Unbelievers don’t like expository preaching, so instead we should deliver a stand-up comedy routine with a few Bible verses sprinkled in.
- Unbelievers don’t like being told that God is angry at them, so instead we should tell them that Jesus is their best friend.
Wow, that’s quite a stretch. Not only is Andy ignoring the context of the passage, but I find it hard to believe that James would want us telling unbelievers that Jesus is their best friend since he wrote this: “You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.” (James 4:4)
In reality, James was merely agreeing with a core tenet of Christianity: we are saved by faith alone, not by works. However, he also didn’t want the Gentiles to impede the spread of the Gospel by offending their neighboring Jews, so he suggested some commonsense prohibitions. There is nothing in this passage at all about how to do church for the unchurched.
Leaders of the seeker-sensitive movement claim that the local church exists to attract unbelievers to Christ, but this claim just demonstrates that they don’t understand the purpose of the local church.
According to a recent blog post, during one of Andy Stanley’s lectures at the 2017 Drive Conference, Andy used Luke 15 to argue that “the gravitational pull of the local church is towards the ninety-nine sheep, the nine coins, towards the older brother.” Andy thinks that’s a bad thing because it doesn’t reflect the heart of the Father, and he explained that since God’s “eyes are on the road, looking to wayward children ready to come home” then the local church should have a similar outward, rather than an inward focus.
Apparently Andy thinks that Jesus was telling the Pharisees the Parables of the Lost because He wanted them to build Six Flags over Georgia to attract more pagans to church on Sunday. Sorry Andy, but the Bible teaches that the main purpose of the local church is to help existing Christians to mature in their faith by preaching and teaching Scripture.
When Jesus gave the Great Commission, He said, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20) A disciple means a learner, and Jesus said that we make disciples by teaching them to obey everything that He commanded, which would require us to teach the entire Bible in depth. A new believer may not yet know the Bible well enough to do that sort of in-depth teaching, so that’s where the local church comes in.
From the earliest days of the Church, Christians would gather together to study the apostles’ teaching (Acts 2:42 and Hebrews 10:25). However, the church expanded beyond Jerusalem and the apostles were no longer able to teach everyone in person, which is why Jesus created the office of the pastor. The idea is that each local congregation has its own resident theologian whose job it is to teach the Word of God and equip the members of the church to do good works (Ephesians 4:11-13 and 1 Timothy 4:13). Because teaching God’s Word is such an integral part of making disciples, the job of a pastor is not something to enter into lightly (James 3:1, 1 Timothy 3:1-7, and 2 Timothy 2:15).
By the way, the concept of God’s people gathering together regularly to hear an expert read and exegete the written Word of God is not a new concept⸺the Jews had already been doing this for hundreds of years (Deuteronomy 31:9-13, Joshua 8:34-35, Nehemiah 8:8, Luke 4:16-17, and Acts 15:21).
Due to the constant influx of new people at seeker-sensitive churches, they feel the need to keep their sermons shallow. They would never pull a John Piper and spend 8 years and 225 sermons working verse by verse through the entire Book of Romans; in fact, they would probably consider that heresy. Instead, they just repeat a very predictable annual sermon cycle, sort of like an evangelical lectionary. Here are some of the topics that come up constantly:
- Learn how to discover the unique calling for your life, and how to discipline yourself to achieve it.
- Your church
- Learn about the unique vision for your particular church, and what you need to do to help them achieve it.
- Self improvement
- Learn how to develop some good habits and get rid of some bad ones so you can stop repeating the same mistakes in life.
- Learn about letting go of guilt, forgiving others, and healing emotional wounds.
- Learn how to persevere through life’s difficulties so you can win at life.
- Learn how to be a better spouse/parent/child/sibling/neighbor/friend and how to deal with difficult people.
- Learn how to handle your finances so you can experience more joy and peace in your life.
- Learn how to to make wise decisions.
As you can see, seeker-sensitive pastors spend very little time preaching on what Jesus has already done for us and instead hunt for principles that people can apply in their lives to get an immediate payoff. It’s all about appealing to the selfish and greedy consumer instincts of the unbeliever who wants to know, “What’s in it for me?” However, all this repetitive, shallow preaching for the brand new church attendees comes at a cost: people who’ve been around a while tend to become dissatisfied as they start to hear the same sermons preached over and over.
In an effort to keep existing members from leaving the church, some pastors go to great lengths to avoid repetition. For example, Andy Stanley sometimes doesn’t even bother teaching the Bible anymore, as in his recent Seinfeld sermon. Other pastors just start inventing their own stories to add into the Bible. For example, Jentezen Franklin invented a whole doctrine on the demonic Spirit of Python, who attacks churches to squeeze the Holy anointing out of them, as well as the Angelic Unemployment doctrine: “when you don’t pray, angels become unemployed.”
When people complained to Bill Hybels that they wanted more in-depth sermons, his solution was to teach them to become self-feeders. At least he didn’t call them jackasses like Perry Noble, but I wouldn’t recommend that pastors start dodging their responsibility to feed the sheep (John 21:15-17 and 1 Peter 5:2).
What happens is that well-meaning but unqualified laypeople try to lead small group Bible study, and since they don’t have time during the week to prepare like a full-time pastor would, they just get the most popular study guide from Bible twisters like Priscilla Shirer and Joyce Meyer. Now they’re getting fat on narcissistic lies, which leaves them “worse off at the end than they were at the beginning.” (2 Peter 2:20)
While the seeker-sensitive church model has proven to be extremely effective at drawing a crowd, the group you end up with is Biblically and doctrinally illiterate. To whitewash these results, megachurch CEOs like Andy Stanley have decided to create a new definition for disciple:
“[Jesus] said the mission of the Church is to make disciples. That is, wherever there is a church, there should be more people who are beginning to follow Jesus. Or another way to say it is simply this: to draw people to Jesus. Sometimes we say to lead people into a growing relationship with Jesus Christ by helping them understand or encounter intimacy with God and community with other Christians and then begin to leverage their influence in the community.”
According to this very loose definition, as long as Andy’s church is drawing people in who claim to be following Jesus, then he can check the box that he’s making disciples. Have any of these people been convicted of their sins and repented? Are they maturing spiritually, growing in wisdom and holiness? Can any of them actually explain the Gospel to an unbeliever? Are they sufficiently knowledgeable to discern between true and false doctrine?
The saddest part is that as long as these people feel like they’re doing good works for Jesus, such as volunteering to direct cars in the parking lot, they will have the false assurance that they’re saved. Jesus will say to them, “I never knew you. Away from me you evildoers!” (Matthew 7:21-23)