In my life I have been a member of a couple of “seeker-friendly” churches. If you’re not familiar with this term, the stated primary focus of “seeker-friendly” churches is reaching the lost. They focus the vast majority of their resources and teaching on appealing to non-believers.
There are some genuinely wonderful things about these churches. They tend to embrace the truth that we were each born for a purpose, which in our culture’s current climate of orphan spirited mediocrity is a message that is much needed. They also do a great job of espousing the truth that Christ came not only to give us eternal life, but also to give us an abundant life on earth, a truth that has unfortunately been almost entirely neglected throughout the last few centuries of Greek oriented theology.
However, I feel that deception can be engendered when church is primarily focused on appealing to non-believers. And I believe that such deception is currently misleading and permeating part of the body of Christ.
My concern stems from the fact that in “seeker-friendly” churches unbelievers are typically perceived as consumers, and church meetings are often perceived as advertisements. In my experience, the result of such thinking is that whatever might be considered offensive is often discarded, revamped, or downplayed.
As such the teaching in these churches tends to be chronically elementary, prophetic acts are often actively discouraged, and manifestations of the supernatural are typically not welcome.
Furthermore as “seeker-sensitive” churches heavily rely on entertainment and conveniences in order to attract non-believers truth and repentance are often significantly downplayed.
The focus of such churches is often on running a popular youth program, having a cool band, and making sure that they’re on the cutting edge of technology. While there is absolutely nothing wrong in pursuing these things, and I must say that many of these churches do genuinely succeed in delivering a truly excellent experience, it concerns me that the main criteria of such churches is often whether something will appeal to people, in other words, the consumer experience. The issue is that when one has successfully developed the perfect consumer experience one can easily can lose all dependence on the Holy Spirit.
Heidi Baker, an amazing missionary who runs an orphanage in Mozambique that has cared for more than 10,000 children, has often taught on how her community is entirely dependent on the Holy Spirit. “If God does not turn up, we are dead,” she says bluntly in acknowledgement of just how much of their existence is entirely dependent on Him. She explains the amazing breakthroughs that are happening in her ministry by saying “Jesus works here because the people are poor in spirit, humble, desperate and dependable. They need God 24 hours a day because there is no backup plan.”
From what I’ve seen, much of the “seeker-friendly” mentality is based in accommodating the world. The typical explanation for why overt public displays of dependence on God are avoided is “we don’t want to damage God’s reputation.” Sadly, my experience is that the vast majority of people who say they don’t want to damage God’s reputation actually just don’t want to damage their own.
In the Bible we see a very clear example of this mindset, and of the consequences involved in such self-serving priorities. In 2 Samuel 6 King David dances in the streets to celebrate God having given him victory in bringing the prized Ark of the Covenant to the newly-captured Jerusalem. His wife, Michel, is embarrassed by his public display of worship to God. But rather than simply being honest about her feelings she choses to try to deceive him out of any such future acts with a manipulative rebuke: “How the king of Israel has distinguished himself today, going around half-naked in full view of the slave girls of his servants as any vulgar fellow would!”
While it could seem that her intention was pious, she was actually being deceptive about her reason for cautioning him. Michel wasn’t concerned that David would bring dishonor on his position. She was concerned that he would negatively affect her reputation. Her concern stemmed out of pride and an incorrect set of priorities. You see, Michel was a people pleaser, and as such she prioritized her own reputation over the commandment to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.”
It’s possible that Michel was so utterly deceived about her priorities that she did not even realize that she was being deceitful and manipulative!
So what is David’s response to this? He nobly responds: “It was before the Lord, who chose me rather than your father or anyone from his house when he appointed me ruler over the Lord’s people Israel – I will celebrate before the Lord. I will become even more undignified than this, and I will be humiliated in my own eyes! But by these slave girls you spoke of, I will be held in honor!”
And what was the result of his response? Well, God called David “a man after his own heart”, and throughout his life David experienced an outpouring of abundance and greatness, the vastness of which remains legendary to this day. Michel, on the other hand, remained barren for the rest of her life – a state that could be surmised as having been metaphorical just as much as it was literal.
Indeed this testimony of the disparity between David’s attitude and Michel’s attitude is reflected in Luke 17:33, which states that “whoever tries to keep his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it.”
Desiring to reach the lost is certainly a Biblical principal and a commendable endeavor. However if the cost of us “reaching the lost” is the disempowerment of God, then the price is too high. And if we are withholding the fullness of God from people, are they really encountering Him?
I lovingly submit to you that such “seeker-sensitive” thinking is based in fear of man. This fear of man drives people to try to moderate God, as though they know better than Him. It leads people to want to rebrand Him, to want to repackage Him. And that, in my opinion, represents incredible pride and foolishness.
Many “seeker-friendly” churches claim that if they do not water down the gospel that people will not be saved. But this seems to me to be incredible arrogance. God has been the business of radically reaching the lost for thousands of years, and He doesn’t now need us to rebrand him in order to continue doing so!
It seems to me that, like Michel, this kind of prioritization has far more to do with people pleasing than it does with a genuine heart to reach the lost.
The Bible is very clear that God hates the dilution of His word, and that He will not have any part in it. In Revelation 3:16 the Laodicean church, a church that was supposedly characterized by neutrality, lack of zeal, and arrogance was warned, “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm – neither hot nor cold – I am about to spit you out of my mouth. You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.”
In the some vein Matthew 5:13 warns: “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.”
So my word to seeker churches is this:
If you say that you are willing to do whatever it takes to reach the lost, what would you do if God asked you to do something that made you seem like a fool for Him? What if he asked you to lay down your programs, or your technology, or your current style of music? Would you be willing to do so? Because anything that you don’t feel able to sacrifice holds a place of idolatry in your life, and God is very clear that there is nothing He abhors more than idolatry!
And what do you say about all the non-believers that are completely alienated by your consumerist, self-serving, superficial theology? Those that truly hunger for God, those that thirst for righteousness, truth, and power will not be attracted to a modernized version of man-made religion! So if you truly desire to appeal to people’s hearts, should you not focus on appealing to those who are genuinely seeking the truth that the Bible contains?
Let us not forget that Christ was the most subversive, offensive, unorthodox character in the history! 1 Peter 2:8 acknowledges the highly offensive nature of Christ by describing Him as “a stone that causes people to stumble and a rock that makes them fall.”
Indeed Christ was so highly unpopular with many that he was eventually murdered in one of the most barbaric manners ever invented by man. And most of his closest followers from his time on earth eventually met the same fate!
So why do we think that God is now calling us to be people-pleasing, inoffensive, culturally acceptable people? Why do we think that we are called to be popular, and to save our own lives and reputations at all cost?
Yes, to many the favor and love on our lives is highly attractive and desirable. We are called to greatness, to influence, and to build platforms from which we can shape our culture. But alongside that is the reality is that as we increasingly become a reflection of Christ those who hate him will hate us! There is no circumnavigating this.
Christ polarized those who were seeking Him and those who hated Him. As such the better job we do of representing Christ the greater the divide will appear between those who love us, and those who hate us.
In John 15:18-20 Christ himself said that “if the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.”
For this reason I believe that focusing on what others think and then working back from there is entirely the wrong direction to come from in our evangelistic efforts. For it is as we primarily and foremost focus on passionately pursuing God that our lives will bare the most powerful testimony. As John Wesley said of his own evangelistic success, “I set myself on fire, and people come to watch me burn.”
The church, you see, is not peripheral to the world; the world is peripheral to the church. Matthew 5:14-16 states: “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”
I absolutely agree that the first message we need to tell the world is simply that God loves them and that He wants to abundantly bless their lives. However I also believe this must be followed by the display of his power and the truth of his righteousness, as otherwise we will have absolutely failed to introduce people to the fullness of who God is.
The fact is that we live in a world that is so utterly desperate for the supernatural that it is currently cleaving to all kinds of counterfeits. Our youth are so desperately hungry to encounter the supernatural that they are turning in droves occult fiction, occult movies, and occult television series. This is often the only opportunity on offer to them to encounter the supernatural! As a result Hollywood has a huge opening to meet this legitimate desire through illegitimate means. This will only persist to the extent that the Church fails to provide what they are genuinely hungry for!
If we want to appeal to the world we need to offer it something it doesn’t already have. If the best we can provide is good entertainment and a self-help message then we are providing nothing that the world can’t already do for itself.
But if we’re willing to stand apart as a supernatural people who radically love Christ and passionately love people, as a supernatural people who are willing to pursue everything that God has for us, even when that makes us look weird, foolish, or positively abnormal, then those who are genuinely seeking will see in us what they are truly looking for.
Those who are genuinely seeking God will find Him when we show the full truth and scope of who He is. Those who are simply seeking to feel good about themselves will not. As 1 Corinthians 1:18 says: “for the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
Sadly as “seeker-friendly” churches tend to grow at a fast rate, many take this to be a sign of success. However we know that God’s measuring stick for success is far different from mans. In Isaiah 55:8 God cautions: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways.” And in 1 Samuel 16:7 we learn that “the Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”
I think Heidi Baker would agree that being willing to offend and seem weird for the gospel works. Indeed her unashamed proclamation of the full truth of the Bible, and her simple dependency on the supernatural has lead to over 8,000 churches being planted in 20 nations within just a few years.
As I read of the incredible impact that Heidi Baker has had across Africa and beyond through her simple message of love and her willingness to follow the Holy Spirit – no matter how offensive or weird His directives might seem – the encouragement that Jesus sent to John the Baptist echoes in my mind: “The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me!”
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