I began pastoring in September of 1994 – right in the middle of the seeker sensitive craze. The first two churches I worked in were 100% on board with the program. We were contemporary, we were targeted, we had good signage and all our core values started with the letter ‘G’ – we were as seeker friendly as it was humanly possible to be.
Both those churches are gone now and the movement itself appears to be in terminal decline.
It was a season of my life but I am very glad that it is over.
There were a lot of good people in the movement and some very admirable motivations behind it but as I reflect on my experience it seems to me that the model was always doomed to fail for at least these 7 simple reasons.
1. Because you get what you fish for
The basic logic of the seeker sensitive movement was that we would get people in the door by playing contemporary music, singing contemporary songs, speaking contemporary jargon and addressing contemporary issues. Then at some unspecified point in the future we would transition into more meaty and substantial things.
It was your basic bait and switch operation and as you might imagine it never really worked out in practice.
The bottom line is that what you win people with is what you have to keep people with. If you market yourself as a church for people who don’t like church, then you can’t do churchy things without expecting significant pushback.
This is why most seeker churches never managed to exit the theological merge lane. If you sell them on Christianity Lite then you need to continue to offer Christianity Lite week after week after week. The logic of seeker church traps you in a spiritual reenactment of Waiting For Godot.
Count me out.
I’m all for front doors, but I’m also all for kitchens, hallways and dining rooms. Eventually you have to get to the meat but in the seeker churches I was a part of, it seems like we never did.
2. Because small groups aren’t the church
Of course the theory was that we would get to the meat in Small Groups. That was our mantra. We said that Sunday church was for visitors now and Small Groups would be for us. That’s what we said, but in truth I’m not sure how many of us ever believed that.
I must confess that I have had very few positive experiences in a Small Group. Most of the Small Groups I was forced to be a part of followed the same basic script. We got together, somewhat begrudgingly, once every other week except over the summer and anytime our meeting fell within 5 days of a Statutory Holiday. Which meant practically that we met 14-16 times a year.
We’d spend 15-20 minutes chatting and eating small cookies. Then there would be “a study”. The study was usually led by someone who had prepared while we were eating small cookies. His or her leadership usually involved reading the selected passage and then asking some version of the question: “So what do you guys think about that?” What people thought about that was often deeply disturbing. Thankfully the content portion was inevitably interrupted by the high needs person who insisted on turning every Small Group gathering into a personal therapy session. I usually zoned out during this portion of the meeting and fantasized about playing in the NHL.
After that we prayed, ate more cookies and went home.
It was generally not a transformative experience and it was certainly not a legitimate experience of church.
Small Group is not church.
Small Group is small and groupy – most of the Small Groups I was part of were organized around geography and demography – meaning we were all the same age and we all lived in the same middle class suburban neighbourhoods.
That’s not church.
Church is young and old, rich and poor, black and white, well educated and working class sitting side by side under the preached word of God and responding with praise, prayer and repentance.
That is magic. Small Group, at least for me, was torture.
Now, maybe my group didn’t do it right. Maybe we weren’t committed enough. I’m just saying that if the theory is that Sunday church will become a variety show targeted at non-believers and my spiritual growth will be attended to in Small Group then count me out. I will die in that set up – and I very nearly did.
3. Because it wasn’t feeding our people
When I was an Associate Pastor in a seeker church one of the most common conversations I had was with folks who were wondering why we couldn’t sing certain worship songs that they had grown up with and that had ministered deeply to their souls. The company answer I was encouraged to give ran along these lines: “Because those songs are for Christians and our services are for unchurched people. We need to think less about what we want and more about what they want. You can sing those songs in your Small Group.”
I frequently had the same basic conversation around the issue of communion. We didn’t celebrate communion in our Sunday worship services but we did encourage people to celebrate the Lord’s Supper in Small Group, although I don’t remember anyone ever doing that.
There is something very arrogant about the idea that worship is for “other people”; that I don’t need this but my unsaved neighbour does.
I discovered very quickly that I do need this.
I need to sit under the external Word of God in corporate worship.
I need help to lift my thoughts and praises to the Lord.
I need help to remember the Gospel.
I need help to maintain a thankful spirit.
I need regular corporate worship.
That one of the main reasons I left the seeker movement. The seeker movement seemed to assume that we strong people had received our portion of grace and now we needed to starve ourselves in order to feed others. I liked the theory until I discovered that I wasn’t as strong as I thought. It turns out that the gap between me and my unchurched neighbour wasn’t as large or considerable as the model seemed to assume.
4. Because it was too narrowly focused
At the first seeker church I was a part of the senior pastor used to regularly remind us that we were not trying to be all things to all people. We were trying to be a church for Baby Boomers and their kids.
We were a targeted church.
The theory was that since you can’t be good at everything and since there are always a bunch of good churches in town it made sense to focus our efforts and outreach narrowly at a particular slice of the community pie.
We chose Baby Boomers and their kids.
However I began to wonder whether or not any of those other “good churches in town” were likely to target some of the people we had chosen to leave behind. Would there be anyone targeting mentally handicapped seniors? Would anyone target immigrants? Would anyone target single moms or the terminally ill? By and large those people have no money and limited volunteer capacity.
Those are the people that Jesus was particularly interested in. Those are the people who would most benefit from being a part of a healthy church.
When I left the seeker movement I think it was this particular aspect of that culture that I was most excited to leave behind.
5. Because it was killing our staff
In the seeker churches that I was a part of “excellence” was a very important concept. We spoke a lot about honouring the Lord with “excellence”. We wanted to honour the Lord with excellent announcements, excellent lighting, excellent sound, excellent seating, excellent signage and excellent program – particularly on Sunday morning.
I’m sure that sloppiness is a sin but I’m also sure that an obsession with excellence eventually leads to the professionalization of ministry and service. Volunteers are almost never excellent. I’m sure they are excellent at whatever it is they do for a living but they are almost never excellent at what they do with the 5-7 hours of precious volunteer time that they offer to the church. Many of them are committed. Many are humble. Many are generous. Many are faithful. But generally speaking they are not excellent. If by excellent you mean “professional grade”. It is hard to be professional grade at something that is not your profession. And so what happened over time is that more and more tasks in the church came to be assigned to actual professionals.
But in most churches, there are never enough professionals to go round. Therefore the staff was expected to do more and more of the ministry. This wasn’t good for the people and it wasn’t good for the staff.
6. Because it wasn’t biblical
The more I came to understand the philosophy of seeker church and the more I read my Bible the more conflicted I began to feel as a pastor in this particular movement. So many of the things we did and so many of the values we espoused seemed completely at odds with what I was reading in Scripture.
One of the primary assumptions of the seeker movement is that unchurched people need a different sort of ministry than do church people. Church people need the Bible (enter Small Groups) but unchurched people need pithy sermonettes on topics of immediate concern. Enter the Sunday morning variety show.
But that’s not what the Bible says.
The Bible says:
So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. (Romans 10:17 ESV)
The Bible says that people are converted by hearing the Bible read and preached with particular reference to the saving work of Jesus Christ. Not by funny stories, dramas, videos or talks about money and marriage. Unchurched people get converted by hearing the Bible as it points to and pertains to Christ.
The Bible also seems to indicate that this is how saved people grow – Jesus prayed for that very thing:
Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. (John 17:17 ESV)
The Scripture seems to say that believers and unbelievers need precisely the same thing. They need the life changing Word of God! They need to be taught who God is, who we are and how God has saved us through the person and work of Christ. The more they hear about that, the more they grow up under that.
It seemed to me as I read the Bible that a single church service where the Word of God was preached with particular reference to the life and ministry of Jesus Christ could conceivably meet the needs of both saved and unsaved people.
But that wasn’t how we did it in seeker church.
That on it’s own would have been enough to drive me out of the movement.
But there was more.
7. Because it didn’t work
I honestly don’t recall a single true success story from the entire 5 years that I spent inside the seeker church movement. I don’t remember encountering anyone who had been previously unchurched, who came to one of our accessible and relevant Sunday services, who became a true follower of Jesus Christ, who transitioned into a supportive Small Group and who then became a multiplying and ministering disciple.
I do however remember meeting lots of previously churched people who had left their more traditional church fellowships because we had better music, lower expectations and shorter services.
In my experience, the seeker movement was less of a front door and more of a backdoor. It was a soft landing for nominal Christians on their way out of the evangelical church.
A lot of who I am today as a pastor is a reaction to that experience and at the same time a return to my childhood roots. I became a Christian in a church that delighted in the Christ of Scripture. We read the Bible together. We worshipped together. We ate together. We lived and grew together and with the gifts that we had and the opportunities the Lord supplied we reached out together, to our community and through our partners, even to the ends of the earth.
It wasn’t sexy.
It wasn’t contemporary.
But it was church.
I am so thankful for it and I continue to believe deeply in it.
Here I stand and by the grace of God I will do no other.
Pastor Paul Carter
To listen to Pastor Paul’s Into The Word devotional podcast on the TGC Canada website see here. You can also find it on iTunes.