The Dark Side of the Seeker Sensitive Church Part Four The Fall of Bill Hybels

Part Three can be read here

In  a 2007 Willow Creek Repents?  article in Christianity Today Bill Hybels acknowledged that Christians in their church were not growing,

“We made a mistake. What we should have done when people crossed the line and become Christians, we should have started telling people and teaching people that they have to become ‘self-feeders’. We should have gotten people, taught people how to read the their Bibles between services, how to do spiritual practices much more aggressively on their own.”

Christians need to read their Bibles between services! I have met some of the people they are talking about. I have found myself wondering how little is it possible for someone to know about the Bible and still be a Christian.

In Part Three I quoted Bill Hybels saying, “Preaching is the core ministry of the church, and lives will not change without powerful and Spirit-inspired teaching from the Word of God.”(Lynne and  Bill Hybels, Rediscovering Church, Zondervan, Michigan, 1995, p 149) This does not mean that the “powerful and Spirit-inspired teaching from the Word of God” at Willow Creek and other seeker-sensitive churches had failed to result in mature growing Christians. The problem with “powerful and Spirit-inspired teaching from the Word of God” in seeker-sensitive churches is that there is so little of it. If there were, as Bill Hybels has acknowledged,  lives would have changed.

As I have said, simplistic preaching is the problem in seeker-sensitive churches.  The churched are not being edified and the unchurched are not being reached with the Gospel, And they are surprised to learn that Christians are not growing. Well, duh.

Keeping in mind all the talk about professionalism and excellence in the Global Leadership Network, I wonder if the leaders of these seeker-sensitive churches have a sense of job satisfaction. Do they find it fulfilling to give simplistic messages to a dumbed-down audience, many of whom are just there to be entertained? Is this what they felt called by God to the ministry for?

Willow Creek worked out that the Christians, who were growing, were the ones who were self-feeding, such as reading the Bible and other spiritual practices on their own, rather than relying on what was said on Sunday. They concluded all Christians needed to be self-feeders to grow and become mature Christians.

I agree Christians should self-feed. I can sometimes read 4 to 5 Christian books a week, so I reckon I have grasped the concept of self-feeding, but I have noticed that some other Christians do not read 4 to 5 Christian books a week.

Self-feeding works best for intrinsic learners. In educational psychology they distinguish between intrinsic and extrinsic learners. Intrinsic learners are motivated by getting a sense of personal fulfillment from learning. Extrinsic learners need some external motivation, i.e., they will go to university, not to improve their minds, but to get a qualifiaction, get a job and make more money. It is easier for Christians, who are intrinsic learners, to self-feed. Give them a Bible and some Christian books and off they go. It is harder to show extrinsic learner Christians that they need to self-feed and read a book or engage in other spiritual practices. There also appears to be a connection between good preaching and self-feeding. Good preaching can motivate the hearers afterwards to go and study the Bible for themselves. As Bill Hybels has pointed out, “teachers tend to attract learners” (Rediscovering Church, p 149). This presumably means that leaders do not attract learners. Seeker-sensitive churches with an emphasis on leadership do not necessarily attract learners who want to read the Bible and grow.

This is aggravated by the impression, which I have discussed earlier, that some seeker-sensitive churches can give, that you can come to God on your own terms. They have said the magic words, asked Jesus into their hearts, got their ticket to Heaven. They do not see the need to do anything more. Growth seems optional.

It does not appear to have occurred to the Willow Creek leaders that the self-feeders were growing by default. They were not getting any teaching from their ministers so they had to fend for themselves. Instead of repenting of their disobedience and not preaching “powerful and Spirit-inspired teaching from the Word of God”, they decided that all Christians should self-feed. The default became the norm. They seem to stumble from one bad idea to another.

Just to make it clear, I am not saying it is a choice between self-feeding and teaching by the ministers. It should be both.

The relationship between the minister and the congregation is sometimes described as a covenant. Covenants work both ways. Both sides have obligations and benefits. The congregation pays the salary of the minister and submits to his authority. The minister teaches and edifies the congregation. For many Christians in seeker-sensitive churches, the covenant must appear broken. They have to give money and do what they’re told, but in return, they get simplistic “sermons for dummies” and expected to grow on their own. They just want someone to teach them the Word of God.

“Behold the days are coming, says he Lord, that I will send a famine on the land, not a famine of bread, nor of thirst, but of hearing the words of the Lord.” (Amos 8:11)

Three churches in my city were founded or co-founded by Christians who left my former seeker-sensitive church.  They all had better preaching and teaching. (That does not include those who left and went to existing churches.) Christians could go to church with the expectation that they might learn something from the sermon. To use another marketing analogy, if people, who used to support my business, stop supporting my business and support another instead, I would try to find out what I am doing wrong and what the other business is doing better.  How many Christians have to leave a seeker-sensitive church  before it occurs to the leaders that they are doing something wrong?

On March 23, 2018 the Chicago Tribune published an article After years of inquires Willow Creek pastor denies misconduct allegations reported that Hybels had been accused of “inappropriate behavior with women in his congregation – including employees-allegedly spanning decades … The alleged behavior included suggestive comments, extended hugs, an unwanted kiss and invitations to hotels rooms. It also included an allegation of a prolonged consensual affair with a married women who later said her claim about the affair was not true.” Hybels had denied the  allegations and the elders believed him.

In April 2018 Hybels resigned seven months before he had intended as a result of these allegations. (Megachurch pastor Bill Hybels resigns from Willow Creek after women allege misconduct) Christianity Today reported that more allegations of misconduct had  emerged (Willow Creek Promises Investigation Amid New Allegations Against Bull Hybels)

On August 5 2018 the New York Times published an article “He’s A Superstar Pastor. She Worked for Him and Says He Groped Her Repeatedly”  in which a women said that during the 1980s there “were multiple occasions over nearly two years in which he fondled her breasts and rubbed against her. These incidents later escalated to one occasion of oral sex.” The two pastors, who had replaced Hybels, and all the elders subsequently resigned. (Willow Creek’s journey from defending pastor to accepting accusations unfolds slowly, ends in mass resignations)

On March 1, 2019, a Washington Times article “Misconduct allegations against Willow Creek founder Bill Hybels are credible, independent report finds” said that the Willow Creek Independent Advisory Group had concluded that the allegations of “sexually inappropriate words and actions” by Hybels were credible, that Hybels had also verbally abused male staff members and that there had been reports of “inappropriate language, sexual innuendo, and lax use of alcohol among staff including Bill Hybels.”

“Lax use of alcohol?!” Are they talking about alcoholism? The ministers I know will not touch alcohol and they’re not even Baptists.

Bill Hybels’ conduct disqualified him from being a Christian leader (2 Timothy 3:1-3, Titus 1:5-16). He is not fit to be a Christian leader and he is not qualified to teach others on Christian leadership.

However, we did not need another Christian leader sex scandal to realize that there is something very wrong with the Willow Creek leadership model. The thousands of Christians who left seeker-sensitive churches should have been a clue.  We should not gloat over someone’s sins being exposed, we are all sinners, but Hybels set himself up as being better than “ordinary” Christians. He had a “God-anointed vision”. He could not be disagreed with. Hundreds of Christians leaders blindly followed him and thousands of people have been bullied out of their churches because of his teaching on leadership and vision.

I did not have much hope that a lot of leaders of seeker-sensitive churches would admit that they had made a terrible mistake in following Bill Hybels, repent and acknowledge all the hurt his ideas have caused for their churches.

Nevertheless, in the United States over 100 churches decided to no longer host the Global Leadership Summit. My old seeker-sensitive church still held the GLS that year. When someone wrote a negative review on the church Facebook page for their continuing to host the conference, the church responded by disabling the reviews function.

On the subject of Facebook, I found that at my old church the staff had a policy of unfriending people who leave. Once they leave the church, they are presumably no longer useful to fulfilling the vision and can be discarded. We left quietly and didn’t make a scene. They did not ask us why we left or whether we were alright, none of that seeking out the lost sheep pastoral care stuff. In fact, being unfriended on Facebook was the only sign that they had noticed we had left.

We got it better than some. In How the Church Growth Movement Drives the Gospel out of Churches Bob DeWaay writes,

“I have heard from hundreds of people who were pushed out of their churches by the Purpose Driven program. Some of these stories reveal hard-hearted pastors who care more about advancing their careers than the well being of the Lord’s flock. One example came from an old lady whose husband had such a bad heart that the doctors could not operate. He was at home waiting to die. She wrote a hand-written letter telling this story. Their pastor was trying to convert their church into a Purpose Driven one in order to facilitate church growth. They had been in the church for many years and wished it to reman a Bible church. They had expressed that opinion publicly. The pastor came to pay them a visit. the lady thought he was there to visit her dying husband, but instead came to tell them that they should find another church. He may as well have told them he did not care to perform the funeral.”

The underlying problem behind this tension between the leadership and the congregation is a flawed understanding of what the church is and who the church is for. The seeker-sensitive church movement wants unchurched people to feel safe and comfortable in church so they will stay and hear the Gospel. However, they make it so focused on the unchurched that the churched, the Christians in the church, are neglected and sacrificed. They even use the expression “churched for the unchurched”. One cannot have a churched for the unchurched anymore than one can have a men’s group for women. Church is for believers. The Church is the Body of Christ, composed of Christians who have been baptised into the Body by the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12).

This does not mean there is anything wrong with having a non-threatening environment  where non-Christians can come along and hear Christian messages. It is just not a church. It is an outreach program.

Back in 1993 Lee Strobel proposed the rather obvious solution to how to reach the unchurched and minister to the churched in his book Inside the Mind of Unchurched Harry and Mary which was co-published by Willow Creek. Do both. Strobel suggested that churches could hold two kinds of services, a traditional service for Christians to worship and be edified and a seeekr-sensitive service for non-beleivers (Lee Strobel, Inside the Mind of Unchurched Harry and Mary, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1993, p 98, 180)

Many churches used to hold a worship service in the morning and a gospel service in the evening. However, these gospel services were not really the sort of thing you could a non-Christian to. They were not “seeker-sensitive”. They seemed suited to those from Christian backgrounds.

Seeker-sensitive churches have plenty of resources. They could hold a worship service for believers in the morning and a seeker-sensitive gospel service for the unchurched in the evening. A lot of the problems (not all) of the problems which the seeker-sensitive movement has produced would just disappear. The Christians could hear good sermons. The unchurched could hear gospel messages which they could understand. Everyone would be happy.

My old seeker-sensitive church used to hold two morning services,  a traditional service for older Christians, followed by a seeker-sensitive service. Then, they combined them into one service and lots of people left. The seeker-sensitive church movement is often accused of pragmatism, going with what works, rather than what is Biblical. Sometimes, they are not even pragmatic and discard what works for what doesn’t.

Willow Creek realised they could not edify Christians and evangelize non-Christians in the same services. Instead of holding two kinds of services, as Strobel suggested, they focused on the unchurched and neglected the Christians, the ones church is supposed to be for (G. A. Pritchard, Willow Creek Seeker Services, Baker Books, Michigan, 1996,p 146-147)

Instead of showing some leadership and acting in the best interest of the congregation which they are supposed to shepherd, a lot of other seeker-sensitive church leaders just copied what Willow Creek did. A follower of Bill Hybels is not necessarily a leader. It feels like some leaders of Willow Creek clone churches would stand on their heads if Bill Hybels told them to, and the only reason they are not standing on their heads right now is because Hybels has not told them to. Okay, I’m exaggerating, but not by much.

I admit the seeker-sensitive church approach sometimes works. I know of some cases of non-Christians getting involved with our old seeker-sensitive church, having their lives transformed by the Gospel and becoming growing Christians. I am not so sure about others. Our church held services in which people shared their stories or testimonies as we used to call them. They usually spoke about how their lives had become better since they started coming to church. However, in all these services, which I attended, I cannot recall any of them explaining how they understood they were a sinner and their only hope for forgiveness was what Jesus had done for them on the Cross (Romans 10:9). Sometimes, I could not tell from what they were saying if the church’s so-called success stories were actually saved. When they had finished speaking, I would think, “Is that it?”

Seeker-sensitive church leaders claim they received their vision from God. It is supposed to be what God wants for their church. If they are right, God wants churches full of people who cannot explain why they think they are Christians.

Jesus’ real vision for his church is expressed in Revleation when he says to the Laodicean church, which many students of Bible prophecy believe represents the modern evangelical church,

“I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth. Because you say, “I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing” – and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked – I counsel you to buy from Me gold refined in fire, that you may be rich, and white garments, that you may be clothed, that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed; and anoint your eyes with eye salve, that you may see. As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten. Therefore, be zealous and repent.” (Revelation 3:15-19)

Seeker-sensitive churches may appear successful. They think they are rich, they draw crowds, but Jesus is not impressed. He wants us to repent, be forgiven, restored and revived. This is not going to happen while seeker-sensitive churches are reluctant to preach about the need for repentance because they think the crowd will be offended and leave. The vision of seeker-sensitive church leaders has little in common with Jesus’ vision for his Church, which suggests how little of their vison really comes from God.



The Dark Side of the Seeker Sensitive Church Part Three Unbiblical Leadership Principles

Part Two can be read here

Peter Drucker (1909-2005) was the author of over 30 books on leadership and management. He was not an evangelical Christian (Bob Burford, Drucker and Me, Worthy Publishers, Tennessee, 2014, p 150), yet his non-Christian management ideas have helped shape the seeker-sensitive church movement. Bill Hybels has described him as a mentor (Drucker and Me, p 183,Bill Hybels, Courageous Leadership, Zondervan, Michigan, 2009, p 171).

In Drucker and Me, Bob Burford writes about the influence of Drucker’s ideas,

“His influence was widespread. By the 1980s, about three-quarters of American companies had adopted a decentralized model that Peter had championed in his 1946 book, Concept of the Corporation.” (Drucker and Me, p 133)

When I think of American corporations in 1980s, I think of Gordon Gekko in the movie Wall Street saying, “Greed is good.”

As this clip from the 2003 documentary The Corporation explains, corporations have the characteristics of a psychopath.

Applying leadership principles which produce institutional psychopaths to churches – what could possibly go wrong?

Churches and corporations are not the same. The purpose of a corporation is to make money. Some might find it hard to believe , but the purpose of a church is not to make money. It is worship God and edify and equip Christians. Nevertheless, the seeker-sensitive church movement assumes they can just take the leadership and management principles of profit-centred corporations and apply them to running churches. They do it in such a way that benefits them. In a secular business the boss or leader pays the salary of the employees. They work for him and must do what he says. In a traditional church the congregation pays the salary of the minister. He works for them. In a seeker-sensitive church the congregation pays the salary of the minister, but they work for him and have to implement his vision.

Jesus said that Christian leadership values and non-Christian leadership values are different, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to be great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave.” (Matthew 20:25-27)

What God looks for in a leader is not the same as what the secular world does. When  Samuel had to anoint David as the next king, God told him, “Do not look at his appearance or his physical stature, because I have refused him. For the Lord does not see as a man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at his heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).

Those, who God wants as leaders, are not necessarily those who are impressive and successful according to the non-Christian world’s values. God may choose those who are weak and inadequate, so that His grace and strength can work through then and empower them to do what they otherwise could not (1 Corinthians 1:18-2:16. 2 Corinthians 12:7-10).

In an essay “When Leadership and Discipleship Collide” Bill Hybels acknowledges that in the Gospel of Mark he “noticed several occasions when Jesus seems wilfully to violate well-known, widely accepted laws of leadership.”(Bill Hybels, “When Leadership and Discipleship Collide” in Bill Hybels, John Ortberg, Dan Allender, The Call to Lead, Zondervan, Michigan, 2008, p 11) Hybels also acknowledges that there have been occasions in his ministry  that the Christian thing to do was to violate the supposed laws of leadership (The Call to Lead, p 19).

I would have thought that the logical conclusion for Christians here is that if Jesus did it differently, then the so-called laws of leadership must be wrong.

If someone were to say they were the leader of a church, I would think there is something wrong with them and their church is on a slippery slope to becoming a cult. “Leader” is not a Christian term. “Leaders” of evangelical churches are usually called ministers or pastors because their role is to minister to and pastor the congregation, teaching them the Bible. The emphasis is on service to others, rather than leading them.

Nevertheless, in his 1995 book Rediscovering Church Bill Hybels argued in the next seven paragraphs that the church should have leaders who are not the same as teachers to fulfill the traditional role of the minister or pastor,

“Unfortunately, there has been some confusion about leadership in recent Christian history. Local churches generally haven’t been directed by leaders but by teachers and these two species have distinctively different behaviour patterns and areas of emphasis. As a result, a lot of churches are well taught; very few are effectively led.

Please don’t get me wrong. The church needs great teachers. Preaching is the core ministry of the church, and lives will not change without powerful and Spirit-led teaching from the Word of God. Without gifted teachers, we might as well close shop, because they’re critical to fulfilling God’s vision for biblically functioning communities.

And yet there are distinctions in the way teachers and leaders operate. I’m not saying one is better than the other, only that their approach to ministry is different. For instance, when teachers stand in front of people, their chief desire is to accurately and compellingly communicate biblical truth in the hopes of impacting lives. But when leaders have the microphone, there’s another agenda. Usually, they have a purpose, mission, or cause, that they want people to get fired up about.

Over a period of time, teachers tend to attract learners who agree that, yes, the communication and understanding of Scriptural truth are crucial for believers in order to change their lives. Teachers educate and edify, which are both very necessary. Yet leaders inspire and motivate. They tend to pull people into action and involve them in the mission that they’re spearheading.” (Lynne and Bill Hybels, Rediscovering Church, Zondervan, Michigan, 1995, p 149)

“Also, it’s common for teachers to become so immersed in their biblical studies and message preparation that they don’t pick up on subtle kinds of corrective steps that should be taken in the church. programs may be starting to deteriorate, the financial base can be slightly eroding a congregation’s morale could be slowly sagging, but teachers might not quickly discern the need to take prompt action.

But when a person with a leadership gift walks around the church, mental warning buzzers go off all over the place. His or her mind is racing with thoughts like We need to pay more attention to this and We need to resolve that and We need to get his back on track and We’ve got to figure out why we’re still doing this when it’s no longer working and We’ve got to start a new program to accomplish something else.” (Rediscovering Church, p 150)

“Yet for the most part, teachers don’t gravitate towards strategic allocation of resources. While they know this is an integral part of ministry, it generally isn’t an exercise that they’re passionate about. On the other hand, leaders look at the church’s finite pool of resources and enthusiastically envision it  as kingdom capital that can make the difference between a church stalling out or taking the next hill. As a result, teachers and leaders look at the church budget from an entirely different perspective. To a teacher, the budget is sheer drudgery: to a leader, it’s laden with opportunities.” (Rediscovering Church, p 150)

These passages suggest that Bill Hybels does not appreciate the difference between the minister/pastor/teacher and the deacons. In Acts the Jerusalem church appointed deacons who took on the administrative roles so the apostles did not have to  and they could focus on “prayer and ministry of the word” (Acts :1-6). If ministers are going to take on management and leadership  roles, they will have less time to put into pastoral care and sermon preparation. And it shows in many seeker-sensitive churches. The day-to-day administration and management of a church, including its resources and budget, is not the responsibility of the minister/pastor/teacher. There should be other people in the church, the deacons, treasurer and other staff, who take care of all that, so the minister/pastor/teacher can focus on preaching and teaching. If there are people in the church, who believe they are “leaders” and want to manage things and ensure that the church is running smoothly, perhaps they should think of themselves as deacons rather than ministers and let the minister preach and teach, but I suppose being a deacon is not as glamourous as being the leader of seeker-sensitive mega-church.

At my old seeker-sensitive church we did not have leaders walking around the church with their minds racing about identifying and fixing problems.  When my wife tried to talk to the ministers about a problem, they ignored her. She tried to speak to the elders about it. She was told she would not be allowed to the elders because there was no problem. When I tried to discuss another problem about conflict and competition between ministries in the church, I was also told there was no problem. For all the talk about leadership, even hosting the Global Leadership Summit, there was a lack of leadership when it was needed in dealing with problems and managing people. If they want to be leaders, I wish they would lead, rather than just expect people to agree with them

To be continued in Part Four

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