The Dark Side of the Seeker Sensitive Church Part Two The Vision Problem

Part One can be read here

Many of the problems which seeker-sensitive churches experience are a result of the emphasis on the vision of the leader.

In Courageous Leadership Bill Hybels defines vision, “Vision is a picture of the future that produces passion.” (Bill Hybels, Courageous Leadership, Zondervan Michigan, 2009, p 32) The leader, the minister or pastor, has a vision of the future, which usually involves being bigger and attracting “seekers” and he passes his vision on to the congregation to inspire passion in them to help achieve his vision.

This is not Biblical. As Christians, what motivates and inspires passion in us should not be what we as a church are going to do. It should be what Jesus has already done for us. In spite of all our sin, God still loves us, His Son Jesus suffered and died to pay for our sins so we can be forgiven and have eternal life. That is what inspired passion in and motivated the early church in Acts. What they did was inspired by what Jesus had already done.  What many Christians need today is not a passion for what their church plans to do, but a deeper understanding of the Gospel, what Jesus has done for them.

In Transitioning, Leading Your Church Through Change, Dan Southerland says that the leader’s vision come from God,

“Vision is the picture of what God wants to do. Vision is a picture of what God will do in His church if we get out of His way and turn Him loose to do it. So the process of vision is the process of joining God in what He is doing and wants to do in His church.” (Dan Southerland, Transitioning, Leading Your Church Through Change, Serendipity House, Colorado, 1999, p 22)

In The Power of Vision George Barna also says that the leader’s vision comes from God,

“Vision for ministry is a clear mental image of a preferable future imparted by God to His chosen servants and is based upon an accurate understanding of God, self and circumstances.” (George Barna, The Power of Vision, Regal, California, 1992, p 28)

Barna says that because the leader’s vision is really God’s vision, it is perfect (p 72), it is inspired and conceived by God (p 73), it cannot be wrong (p 74) and different interpretations of the vision are impossible (p 181). This suggests that the minister and his vision are infallible. It is really God’s vision. To disagree with the minster’s vision is to disagree with God.

In Part Three I will discuss how the seeker-sensitive church movement has been influenced by secular management principles. Nevertheless, the seeker-sensitive movement’s concept of vision fails to take into account the policy/administration dichotomy. Suppose a community wants to build a bridge across a river, but they cannot agree about the design of the bridge, i.e. a suspension bridge or one with pylons. Their policy is that they want a bridge. The administration is how they implement the policy, what kind of bridge. There is clearly more than one way of implementing the policy. Often in politics, both sides have the same policy, i.e.,  they want better health care and education, but they disagree on how to implement it, the administration.

The same distinction applies or should apply to the church leader’s vision. The vision is the policy. The vision sounds good. They want to reach the community around them, they want non-Christians to come to church, feel safe and welcome, hear the Gospel and become growing Christians. What Christian would not want this? The problems begin when they implement the vision, the administration.

The seeker-sensitive church model fails to differentiate between the vision (policy) and the implemenatation of the vision (administration). It is not open to the idea that there are different ways of implementing the vision. George Barna says this is impossible (The Power of Vision, p 181).

At my old seeker-sensitive church the leaders decided they wanted to appeal to the unchurched and young people by playing loud music. It was too much for many of the elderly. When they complained, they were told they were disagreeing with the vision and if they didn’t like it, they should leave. This is a common occurrence in seeker-sensitive churches. They were not disagreeing with the vision. Of course, they wanted to reach the unchurched. They were disagreeing with how the vision was being implemented.

Playing loud music is not the only way to appeal to the unchurched and young people. They could have compromised, turned down the volume, had a second service with more traditional music. There is more than one way to implement the vision. The irony was that after many of the elderly had been driven out, many of the young people, whom the loud music was supposed to appeal to, also left. Seeker-sensitive services are intended to appeal to baby-boomers, rather than young people who are more likely to be disillusioned with both consumerism and Chrisitanity. As the population ages, the seeker-sensitive church movement, which is trying so hard to be relevant, is becoming increasingly irrelevant.

Bill Hybels also describes the leader’s vision as a weapon, “That’s because God put in the leader’s arsenal the potent offensive weapon called vision.” (Courageous Leadership, p 31)

I thought the Christian leader’s offensive weapon was the Bible, “the sword of the Spirit” (Ephesians 6:17), but I have never been to a Global Leadership Summit, so what would I know?

If the leader’s vision is an “offensive weapon”, who is he supposed to use it against?  It looks like the answer is, his congregation. The vision is used to bully the congregation and silence any criticism and questioning. The leader believes his vision comes from God. Any decision, even the smallest ones, which the leader makes can be said to be part of implementing his divine vision. If anyone questions their decisions, like suggesting that the music is too loud, they are challenging the vision which comes from God. To question the minister’s decision is to question God’s will. This attitude is evident in Bill Hybels’ book Courageous Leadership when he describes how his church staff were hesitant about the changes he wanted,

“At a critical point, after several months of talking through the staff alignment process, I finally said to the staff, “I’m done being cool, calm and collected about this alignment process. The whole future of Willow is hanging in the balance. I am resolved that we are going to align ourselves with the God-anointed strategic plan for this church. Do you understand?

If any of you feel disinclined to get on board with this plan, feel free to find another church ministry that you can fully support. No hard feelings, but it’s a new day here.” (Bill Hybels, Courageous Leadership, Zondervan, Michigan, 2009, p 64)

I do not believe that the Willow Creek  staff disagreed with the vision and they did not want to reach the unchurched. They disagreed with the steps he was taking to implement the vision. Hybels did not differentiate between his vision, which he believed was from God, and the implementation of his vision. He regarded the staff and their legitimate concerns as challenging his God-anointed vision and challenging God. Their opinions and expertise counted for nothing. They had to agree with God-anointed Bill or leave.

I am surprised that Hybels thought his behaviour was normal enough to include in a book on Christian leadership. It sounds like bullying, reminiscent of a cult leader. Quite frankly, Hybels strikes me as an insecure person who cannot take criticism or advice (Proverbs 12:1).

On the subject of seeker-sensitive church leaders, who do not like it when you disagree with them, there is this response by Steven Furtick of Elevation Church to his critics.

Again, is this normal behaviour for a Christian leader? This is not throwing a tantrum in private. He thought it was appropriate to get the church production team involved and put it on the Internet.

What exactly do Bill Hybels, Steven Furtick and other seeker-sensitive church leaders think their critics are objecting to? It is usually more than just the loud music, or the minister doesn’t wear a suit and tie. These are side-issues. The real objections to the seeker-sensitive church are the way the leaders ignore, neglect and exploit the congregation and have watered-down the Gospel. But if you try to raise these issues, you can be called a “hater”.

In another post There is no such thing as a Gnostic Gospel,  I have discussed the Gnostics. They were  an ancient Christian heresy  which believed they had the secret knowledge (gnosis in Greek) about the true nature of God and Jesus. They believed they were superior to the ordinary orthodox Christians who “only” had the Bible. Some leaders of seeker-sensitive churches are reminiscent of the Gnostics. If someone tries to tell them what the Bible says about leadership, church and the Gospel, they will not listen. They know better. They have the superior knowledge (gnosis) about these things which they got from Bill Hybels.

Some seeker-sensitive churches, such as Elevation Church, Lifestyle Church, and Church of the Highlands  say in their vision statement that they will “aggressively defend” their vision.  How exactly does a church “aggressively defend ” its vision? What do they do to little old ladies who think the music is too loud? I feel like doing my Winston Churchill impersonation here, “We will fight them on the beaches. We will fight them on the streets. We will defend our vision. We will never listen.”

It is a pity they will not aggressively defend “the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3), assuming they knew what that means.

In Willow Creek Seeker Services Gregory Pritchard writes that there is a “deep fear of being labelled disloyal” at Willow Creek (G.A, Pritchard, Willow Creek Seeker Services, Baker Books, Michigan, 1996, p 43). This is presumably a result of Hybels’ “agree with my God-anointed vision and everything I say or leave” attitude. Pritchard continues,

“Virtually any time staff members told me something about the church that could be interpreted negatively, they would quickly try to qualify their remarks, ask me not to use their comments, or request that I not identify them as the source. They wanted to avoid the earmark of disloyalty. One of these individuals admitted, “I don’t want to be seen as a curmudgeon.” The only dissatisfied staff member I found remarked, “They [church leaders] value loyalty more than honesty.” (Willow Creek Seeker Services, p 43)

Disagreeing with the minister on the implementation of the vision is not necessarily the same as disloyalty. A good example of this is Shakespeare’s King Lear where the old king decided to divide his kingdom among his three daughters. Two agreed with him. The other said he was wrong, so she was banished. The two daughters, who had agreed with their father, betrayed him. The daughter, who had disagreed with him and had been right, turned out to be the loyal one.

When staff or lay people in the church disagree with changes in the church, the implementation of the vision, they are not necessarily being disloyal or challenging the vision. It is more likely that they believe there is a better way of implementing the vision – keep the vision, just change a few things. However, the  Willow Creek seeker-sensitive church model does not differentiate between challenging the vision  and suggesting there is a better way to implement the vision.

If the staff, who have concerns about the implementation of the vision, are bullied into silence or into leaving the church, what sort of staff are the church left with? People who lack the knowledge of the Gospel to understand what the problems are and “yes men” who go along with whatever the leader says, often to advance themselves.

The Holy Spirit has given some Christians the gift of discernment (1 Corinthians 12:10), This is not the gift of being able to criticize people on the Internet. It could be defined as the ability to differentiate between right and almost right. The seeker-sensitive church movement is almost right. It has good intentions. We must reach the unchurched, but it needs reforming.

The seeker-sensitive church leader and his vision is at enmity with the Holy Spirit and His gift of discernment. If someone with the gift of discernment is part of a seeker-sensitive church and tried to explain to the leader that some changes need to be made in the implementation of the vision, they would be seen as disloyal and disruptive, challenging the vision. In truth, they are using the gift which the Holy Spirit gave them, to keep the church on track. When some members of the church are ignored and silenced and are not allowed to use the gifts, which the Holy Spirit has given them to use on the church, the whole church suffers (1 Corinthians 12:20-26).

In 2009 Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York spoke at the Global Leadership Summit. Around the 37th minute he made the comment . “Really dysfunctional churches don’t have arguments, people just leave.” Most Christians do not want to get into nasty confrontations with other Christians, so when the ministers will not listen to their concerns, will not give an inch and tell them to put up with it or leave, they leave. It sounds like Tim Keller was hinting that seeker-sensitive churches are dysfunctional. Everybody’s smiling, everything seems fine, while hundreds of people are leaving.

Ministers know that they adopt seeker-sensitive church and Willow Creek leadership practices, many people will leave the church (Transitioning, p 127-128, Courageous Leadership, p 42, The Power of Vision, p 149-150). This is sometimes referred to as the “blessed subtraction”. In spite of all their talk about communicating the vision to the congregation, they keep the known consequences of implementing the vision secret from them.. They do not explain to them that if they implement these changes, a lot of people are going to leave the church. Many of those, who leave, are older church members who have built and sustained the church for decades. They are discarded. I knew one person from my old seeker-sensitive church, who had been part of the church for 70 years, but he had to leave because the music was so loud. This is just wrong.

When church leaders plan to go seeker-sensitive, they often renovate or expand the church or buy a new building. They encourage the congregation to pledge money to fund their projects and fulfill their vision. It may take a few years between when the congregation starts to give money and the seeker-sensitive services properly begin. Many of those, who gave money to support the vision, find the music too loud, and they are told they do not support the vision and they should leave. The leaders of the church knew many people would leave the church but they tried to get as much money as possible out of them before they left. Seeker-sensitive churches are often built on a foundation of deception. Christian leaders, who think they are doing God’s will and fulfilling God’s vision for their church by behaving like this, are deluded.

To be continued in Part Three


The Dark Side of the Seeker Sensitive Church Part One There are no Seekers

For 16 years I was part of a seeker-sensitive church which followed the church marketing and leadership principles of Bill Hybels and the Willow Creek Association (Global Leadership Network). We had a vision statement. We hosted the Global Leadership Summit. We had sermon series based on Bill Hybels’ books and we were expected to buy a copy. In other words, we were a  Willow Creek clone. We were not a “mega-church”, but we were still one of the biggest churches in the city. In fact, we could have probably been the biggest church in the state if people did not keep leaving. And it was clear (at least to me) that the reason so many people kept leaving was the problems caused by Bill Hybels’ leadership and church marketing principles. The seeker sensitive church means well, but there is a dark side to it.

I decided not to name my former seeker-sensitive church. I do not want to write a bitter and twisted social media rant about how badly we were treated. I will write in more general terms since our church’s problems were not unique. Other seeker-sensitive churches have had similar experiences. They are often what happens when a church implements Bill Hybels’s ideas.

The seeker-sensitive church movement has good intentions. They want to reach the unchurched who have little experience of Christianity. I know of incidents where people from non-Christian backgrounds have gone along to a traditional church service and they found it so weird and alien, they became stressed and had to leave. I agree with the seeker-sensitive movement in that we need to strip away the cultural baggage and stumbling blocks, the church traditions and practices which are not Biblical but appear to be turning people off Christianity. We need to communicate the Gospel in ways that those, who need to hear it, can understand it. However, when seeker-sensitive churches try to do this, it often goes wrong. I hope to explain why.

In Part One I will argue that so-called seekers are not really seeking God.

In Part Two I will discuss the problems which can arise from the seeker-sensitive church movement’s concept of vision.

In Part Three I will look at how the seeker-sensitive church movement has taken secular business leadership and management practices  and applied them to churches, and surprise, it hasn’t worked.

In Part Four I will discuss Bill Hybels’ acknowledgement that Christians in their churches were not growing and their inadequate solution, the scandal which resulted in Billl Hybels’ resignation and I will argue the seeker-sensitive church model is based on an unbiblical definition of the church.

(There are other seeker-sensitive churches which are not necessarily Willow Creek clones which follow Bill Hybels’ ideas. They may still experience some of the problems which I will describe. Nevertheless, the reader should assume that, unless I say otherwise, when I use the term “seeker-sensitive church”, I am referring to one based on Bill Hybels’ leadership and church marketing principles.)

The Bible says there is no  such thing as a seeker, “There is none righteous, no, not one; There is none who understands; There is none who seeks after God.” (Romans 3:10-11)

Nevertheless, the seeker-sensitive church movement seems to think they know better than the Bible. In his book Inside the Mind of Unchurched Harry and Mary Lee Strobel writes that the unchurched non-Christian, whom he refers to as Harry, “has rejected church, but that does not necessarily mean he has rejected God.” (Lee Strobel, Inside the Mind of Unchurched Harry and Mary, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1993, p 45)

Actually, people had rejected God long before the Church came along. The Bible says that the “carnal mind is enmity against God” (Romans 8:7). That sounds like we have rejected God to me.

The seeker-sensitive church movement assumes that the unchurched are really seeking God, but the church is irrelevant and cannot help them. Lee Strobel writes that “an overwhelming 91% of non-Christians believe that the church isn’t very sensitive to their needs. And in the eyes of our self-centered, consumer-orientated society, that’s the ultimate sin.” (Inside the Mind of Unchurched Harry and Mary, p 47)

The church supposedly needs to show that Christianity is relevant and works and that it meets the felt-needs of non-Christians. In Willow Creek Seeker Services Gregory Pritchard  writes,

“The messages must have high user value. When Unchurched Harry comes here for a service, he’s going to be asking, ‘What value does my being here have for my life’ … The primary purpose of Hybel’s Christianity 101 is to help Unchurched Harry. If Hybels can show that Christianity works, that it is helpful in meeting Harry’s felt needs and fostering greater personal happiness, Harry will be interested and come around. Hybels’ ultimate goal is to get Harry to understand the gospel and make a commitment to Christ. Christianity 101 is a means to that end,” (G. A. Pritchard, Willow Creek Seeker Services, Baker Books, Michigan, 1996, p 146)

Like marketers in the secular world, seeker-sensitive churches often conduct surveys of the non-Christian community they want to reach. I believe it is important to understand what non-Christians around us actually beleive. Do most of them still have a nominally Christian worldview or are they more secular and postmodernist in their thinking? The answer will shape who we present the Gospel to them.

However, seeker-sensitive church surveys are more concerned with identifying the “felt-needs” of the non-Christian community and showing that God can meet their needs and give them what they want, rather than identifying how to best communicate their need for the Gospel. “Felt-needs” are what people think they need or want. What they think they need is not what they really need, God’s forgiveness for their sins. A lot of people in my city have a “felt-need” for cheaper illegal drugs, but that does not mean seeker-sensitive churches should help them get their needs met.

Lee Strobel said we are a “self-centrered, consumer-orientated society.” They have a sense of entitlement and demandingness. They expect to get what they want. This is sin. Instead of addressing this sin and all the misery it has caused, calling people to repent of their self-centredness and entitlement and find forgiveness in Jesus, the seeker-sensitive movement inadvertently reinforces their “what’s in it for me” attitude. So-called “seekers” are not seeking God. They may be seeking what they think Gods can give them, a better successful life, a sense of wholeness, fulfillment and purpose, but they are not seeking God. Perhaps, we should think of them as “wanters”. They come to church because they want something. Instead of Jesus meeting their real need, forgiveness from the wrath of God, Jesus becomes a means of giving them what they want or think they need. It is reminiscent of what Paul warned about,

“For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables.” (2 Timothy 4:3-4)

The seeker-sensitive approach is a bait and switch. It sends mixed messages. The self-centred Unchurched Harry comes along to a seeker-sensitive church with a sense of entitlement, expecting to get what he wants. The church caters to and reinforces his self-centredness. It is still about him. The plan is that he hangs around for long enough, he will somehow hear the Gospel with the opposite message that he must deny himself and repent.

The seeker-sensitive approach fails to distinguish between good news and good advice. Seeker-sensitive church “sermons” often consist of good advice. Biblical principles for improving your life in some way, which one does not even need to be a Christian to apply. The advice may be true and Biblical, and there is arguably a time and place for Biblical good advice, but is not good news, the Gospel. No one was ever saved by hearing good advice.

Some seeker-sensitive churches seem to be reluctant to preach the Gospel to the unchurched. They appear to be afraid that if they tell them they are sinners and they need to repent and be forgiven, they will be offended and not come back. In an article, “How the Church Growth Movement Drives the Gospel Out of Churches” Bob DeWaay gives an example of this,

“The most egregious example came from a man from another country who had a meeting with the pastors and elders about this matter. He asked if he could pass out gospel tracts at church “outreach” events. They told him no. He asked if he could share the gospel with people who came: same answer. He asked if he could share his Christian testimony. Nothing doing. He asked if he could share about Christ with visitors who came to church. Again their answer was no. An “evangelical” church was forbidding one of its members from sharing the gospel.”

In the sociology of education they talk about the difference between the open and the hidden curriculum. The open curriculum is the subject matter which they teach in the classroom. The hidden curriculum is the values and attitudes which the school passes in in a more subtle way through the classroom atmosphere, rules and discipline. A private school and a state school could teach identical subjects, yet the students could come out different because of the hidden curriculum.

Churches can also have a hidden curriculum. Two churches could have identical doctrinal  statements, yet the atmosphere of the service, the style of the music, the way the minister behaves during the sermon, even the architecture of the building can communicate to the congregation a different attitude towards God and our state before Him. The hidden curriculum of seeker-sensitive churches can have the unintentional consequences that if we make church too safe and too comfortable, it can send the message that we can come to God on our own terms. It further reinforces their self-centredness , rather than challenges it.

At my old seeker-sensitive church I heard about two women who were supposedly Christians.  They dropped out of a discipleship course  because they said they did not want to read the Bible, It was all about them and what they want. There was no understanding that being a Christian means dying to yourself and what you want and making Jesus your Lord and doing what He wants.

My old seeker-sensitive church  would hold baby dedication services. One of the favourite “life verses” (another Bill Hybels idea) chosen by parents was Jeremiah 29:11 in the New International Version which reads,

“For I know the plans I have for you”, declares the Lord, “Plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future.”

The key word is “prosper”. There is the assumption that God is there to prosper them and give them a good life. Verse 13 about seeking God with all our hearts is ignored. In context, the verse is about how God will still forgive and restore us if we repent and turn back to Him, so I hope this “life verse” will still be applicable but not in the way they assume.

Wrong! Your best life begins later after you die and Jesus brings you back from the dead

Christianity is not about life improvement. It is true that if you adopt some Christian principles  and do not engage in self-destructive sinful behaviour, your life can get better. However, the Bible warns us that we will be hated and persecuted for being Christians (John 15:18-20, 2 Timothy 3:15). When many people become Christians, their lives will get worse, not better. Christianity is not about improving your current life, pouring hew wine into old wineskins (Matthew 9:17). It is about crucifying your old life and receiving a new life in Jesus (Romans 6).

In spite of my objections to church marketing, I am going to use a marketing analogy. If I have a product I want to sell and other people are selling similar products, there has to be something  about my product which differentiates it from similar products so people will buy mine and not others. If the seeker-sensitive church is going to be just like the world, validating their felt-needs, appeasing them and not challenging them with the Gospel, then what is the point of going to church? If Christianity is just a life-improvement course, I can read an Anthony Robbins book, rather than get up on Sunday morning.

To be continued in Part Two

Tim Keller vs Bill Hybels on Vision Part Two


This is the second of two posts comparing Bill Hybels and Tim Keller’s understanding of a vision of a church and its implementation. In Part One I looked at Bill Hybels’ version as outlined in his book Courageous Leadership and some of the problems which could arise from it. In this post I will discuss Tim Keller’s views from his book Center Church (Zondervan, Michigan, 2009).

There are some general similarities between their views. Both believe that the vision has to be implemented in the church. However, Tim Keller uses the term “theological vision” to describe the link between a church’s doctrinal foundation, what it believes, and its ministry expression, the practices and activities of the church.

He writes that “a theological vision is a vision of what you are going to do with your doctrine in a particular time and place.” (Center Church, p 18)

As mentioned in Part One, a church’s passion should not be based on what we plan to do, but on what Jesus has already done. Our knowledge of the Gospel, what Jesus has done, is our doctrinal foundation. If this does not motivate us, we do not understand it well enough. I am sure Bill Hybels and Willow Creek-inspired churches still have a doctrinal foundation …. somewhere, but Courageous Leadership does not emphasize how the Gospel is the foundation of our vision and passion and motivates what we plan to do.

The way you present the gospel in one cultural setting is not necessarily going to be received as well in another cultural setting. A church must understand the culture (or combination of cultures) around it and how to communicate the Gospel effectively to that culture, but contextualizing the Gospel message does not mean changing it.

Both Tim Keller and Bill Hybels agree on the need to understand the wider culture and community around the church and what is going on in their heads. However, Bill Hybels’ approach has been referred to as church marketing. Marketing is about giving consumers what they want. Church marketing can make the mistake of giving people what they want, but not necessarily telling them what they need to hear – about the solution to their problem of being under God’s judgment.

Tim Keller draws a distinction between successful churches and faithful churches. Church marketing inspired mega-churches may appear successful, with lots of people attending and hearing non-threatening messages, which do not challenge or offend them, but one wonders how many of them are really saved or show signs of spiritual growth. The messages tend to consist of good advice on how to improve their lives. The advice is not necessarily wrong, but it is not the good news that their sins are forgiven and they can have a new life, not an improved current life (Center Church, p 29). If they tell them they are sinners who need to repent, many will simply leave.

At the other end are churches which are faithful. They are smaller. Their preaching is more Biblical and deeper. The Gospel is presented, but virtually no one outside the church is coming along or can understand them.

There is not much difference between a church where lots of people come but do not hear the Gospel, and a church where they could hear the Gospel but nobody comes. Both are ineffective. I find it frustrating that so few churches seem interested in achieving the best of both and present the Gospel in a way that the people, who need it, can hear and understand it.

Tim Keller’s third model is churches which are fruitful. ( I suppose there is a fourth model – churches which aren’t even trying). Fruitful churches use their theological vision, which is based on their situation, to present the Gospel, good news, not just good advice, in a way that he people they are trying to reach can understand. The doctrinal foundation will remain the same, but the theological vision will vary and will result in different ministry expressions.

Center Church is not concerned with getting others to go along with the vision and dealing with “difficult” subordinates. Maybe Tim Keller still has these problems, but he does not mention them here. Nevertheless, I would find myself much more willing to follow Tim Keller and his theological vision  because it feels like he is about advancing the kingdom of God, rather than someone’s “God-ordained vision”.