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”.


Tim Keller vs Bill Hybels on Vision Part One



Tim Keller and Bill Hybels are two contemporary evangelical leaders. Bill Hybels is senior pastor at Willow Creek Community Church in Illinois. Tim Keller is senior pastor at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York. This post will explore their different understanding of the leader’s vision for their church as expressed in Center Church by Tim Keller (Zondervan, Michigan, 2012) and Courageous Leadership by Bill Hybels (Zondervan, Michigan, 2009).

The King James Version says “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18a).  Christian leaders should have a vision of what to do in their church or any organisation.

Bill Hybels writes, “Vision is a picture of the future that produces passion.” (Courageous Leadership, p 32) His definition of vision is focused on what the church is going to do and motivating the congregation to get it done.

The problem is that true Christian vision looks backwards, not just forward. As Christians, our passion, what motivates us, is not what we are going to do. It should be what Christ has already done for us (Romans 12:1, 2 Corinthians 5:14-15, 1 John 4:10-11, and pretty much the rest of the New Testament). There is something wrong with a vision that takes our eyes off what Jesus has done and puts it back on ourselves, what we plan to do.

Bill Hybels’ leadership ideas are based largely on the management theories of Phil Drucker. There is nothing necessarily wrong with adopting secular ideas and applying them to the church, but we need to use discernment to determine what we can use because the Bible supports it and what we must reject. After all, Jesus had very different ideas about leadership than the secular world did (Matthew 20:25-28).

A pastor in a church is not the same as  the manager of a business or corporation. The congregation of a church are not the same as the employees of a business. The same principles do not apply. In a business the manager pays the salaries of the employees. They work for him. In a church the congregation pays the salary of the minister. He works for them.

Bill Hybels further writes that “people need more than vision. They need a plan, a step-by-step explanation of how to move from vision to reality.” (Courageous Leadership, p 55) This is partly true. There is no point in having a vision if you have no idea how to make it happen. However, there is a difference between a vision and its implementation or in secular terms, the policy administration dichotomy.

Suppose a community wants to build a bridge. This is their policy. The administration is the implementation, the building of the bridge and what kind of bridge they want. Different members of the community may want a different kind of bridge (administration), but they still want the same thing, a bridge (policy). A lot of the time in politics both sides basically want the same thing (policy), but they disagree and argue about how to do it (administration).

If we apply this to the church, the vision is the policy. Bill Hybels’ step-by-step  plan to implement the vision and make it  a reality is the administration. The two are not the same.

It should be possible for two churches to have the same vision (let’s be honest, most church visions are basically the same), but the implementations of their vision could be very different, resulting in very different  churches.

A lot of the conflicts in churches, which follow Bill Hybels’ ideas, which result in people leaving the church, are not because people  have a problem with the vision, although this is often how the conflict is portrayed. They have a problem with the implementation of the vision. If some in the congregation challenge the implementation of the vision, they are not necessarily opposed to the vision. They just believe there are better ways to implement it.

I am not sure if some Willow Creek churches get this. Instead, the vision can be used to justify every decision made by the leadership. Any disagreement or suggestion that “Maybe we could do it better this way” is interpreted as challenging the vision.

Bill Hybels writes how some of the ministry heads in his church were less than enthusiastic and he told them, “I am resolved that we are going to align ourselves with the God-anointed plan of this church … 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.” (Courageous Leadership, p 64)

Well, my Holy Spirit imparted gift of discernment says there is something wrong here. When Bill Hybels talks about his “God-anointed plan”, he is basically saying that anyone, who disagrees with his vision, is disagreeing with God. This is reminiscent of cults and abusive churches where the leader claims his authority comes from God so it is a sin to disagree with him.

What about the Christian pastor’s God-anointed commission to feed the sheep (John 21:15-17)? Bill Hybels believes mature Christians should “self-feed”. I admit I grow more through self-feeding than from what I learn through sermons, but is this really the “God-anointed” way or is it a problem with the preaching in many evangelical churches? Do our churches need better managers or better preachers?

Instead, this model would mean that Christian leaders enjoy the benefits of leadership, an obedient congregation, and if they don’t like it, they can leave, but they abdicate the responsibility of a Christian leader to preach, teach and build up the congregation.

I agree that a senior pastor should not have to put up with divisive and disruptive subordinates who try to undermine him. But just because someone disagrees with the leadership does not mean they are disloyal or disruptive. In the Old Testament there were the false prophets who told the king and the people what they wanted to hear and there were the true prophets who told the king he was wrong. The true prophets were the loyal ones but I doubt there would be a place for them in a church based on Willow Creek leadership principles.

The alternative is in danger of being a leaders who surrounds himself with “yes men” who tell the leader what he wants to hear. Yes men are not necessarily more loyal. They are attaching themselves to the leader to advance their own agenda.

An illustration of this is Shakespeare’s King Lear ( I prefer Akira Kurosawa’s version Ran with samurai) where the king proposes to divide his kingdom among his three daughters. Two of them agree. One says this is a dumb idea and is banished. The two daughters, who agreed with the king, betrayed him, while the one, who disagreed and was banished, turned out to be the loyal daughter.

A good leader should be secure enough to listen to dissenting opinions and consider whether they are right and their way is a better way off implementing their shared vision. This is especially true when the dissenting opinions come from other leaders in a church who, if they really are leadership material, should have original and innovative ideas of their own. If they leave, it would result in brain drain on the church.

The senior pastor does not know everything. In earlier posts here and here I discussed some of the problems with church singles ministries and how singles can be overlooked. If a leader in a church has forgotten what it is like to be single and is focused on ministering to families and does not think about singles, his vision and its implementation is going to ignore singles and other marginalized groups in the church.

Clearly, a vision for a church cannot be the creation of one person in the church. The whole church must contribute to it.

This post has focused on one problem with Bill Hybels’ leadership ideas. I do not want to give the impression he is wrong about everything. Courageous Leadership has its good points. In the next post I will look at Tim Keller’s alternative understanding of the vison for a church.