Gillis J. Harp on Seeker Sensitivity & Cultural Captivity
Recently, I came across a booklet produced by a nearby congregation popular with some of my students. Inside the back cover are printed its “Founding Principles”:
The logic behind the principles, and the “seeker sensitive” movement of which this church is a part, is persuasive on one level. If the unchurched are put off by the trappings of Christianity, dispense with the nonessentials: pews, hymns, even corporate prayer. If we live in an entertainment-focused culture, build sanctuaries to resemble the inside of the local Cineplex. If well-heeled suburbanites flock to shopping malls, make the local church like a mall, complete with food court.
In some respects, the movement is a well-intentioned reaction to the manifold ineffectiveness of the Protestant mainline churches in the suburbs. Many churches have in the past unwittingly erected all sorts of barriers to genuine seekers. Just discovering a particular church’s service schedule can often be a major challenge. And try to enter a Protestant church on a weekday; getting inside the Pentagon is easier. I sometimes wonder, if thousands of the unchurched suddenly decided to visit their local church, could they find it, and if they found it, could they get in?
But are the nearby congregation’s founding principles the way to bring them in? Notably, the principles invoke no formal doctrinal position, confession, or creed. Instead, the principles that presumably underlie and shape this congregation’s ministry are simply three short, pragmatic assertions. The priority of evangelism is clearly central to their self-definition, but their definition of evangelism appears grounded less in a doctrine of what the Evangel is than in pragmatic considerations of how to get people in the door.
Let us look at the principles in order.
Rights & Duties
“Every person deserves the right to hear the true story about Jesus Christ.” Setting aside the redundant wording of “deserve the right” (do all people actually possess this alleged right to hear the gospel, or do they deserve to have such a right but do not in fact possess it?), the first principle uses the sort of “rights” language that owes more to the eighteenth-century Enlightenment or to contemporary entitlement culture than to the Bible. Scripture speaks much about duties and responsibilities, but little about rights.
Significantly, the few times the Bible mentions rights, it is either referring to God or to believers who possess a particular right as a gift from God. Paul, for instance, speaks of God having the right to do what he deems best for his creation: “Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?” (Rom. 9:21). In another case, he speaks of his rights as an apostle (1 Cor. 9:4–5).
When the notion is applied to human beings, it is clear that the Bible is referring to the redeemed who have certain rights as gracious gifts from God. The Apostle John, for example, explains: “Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12).
I assume here that the authors of the principles mean to assert simply that people deserve to hear the gospel. From a classical Evangelical position, this is still an extraordinary statement. Although it is certainly the church’s high calling to extend the free offer of the gospel, nowhere does Holy Writ assert that fallen man has any right to hear it. Indeed, as Paul makes clear in the opening chapters of Romans, natural man already stands condemned (Rom. 1:18—2:16).
Traditionally, Evangelicals have followed the Bible’s teaching that what human beings actually deserve is condemnation. The Prophet Isaiah declares that “all our righteous acts are like filthy rags” (64:6); Christ says that even when we have done everything we have been told to do, we “should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty’”(Luke 17:10). Of course, Scripture teaches that God is love and that he wants all to be saved (1 Tim. 2:4), but this is because he is merciful and loving, not because we sinners deserve anything except condemnation.
The language of this first principle testifies to the influence of therapeutic concerns (such as self-esteem) rather than biblical categories among contemporary Evangelicals. Under the new model, humanity’s plight is that we aren’t getting what we deserve. By contrast, classical Protestantism declared that our plight is that we will (without a Savior) get what we deserve (i.e., punishment). The former approach focuses on what we are “owed” and fails to challenge our human self-absorption. Indeed, such a message may actually serve to inoculate seekers against the radically different message of the authentic gospel.
The Offensive Cross
The second founding principle invokes traditional theological terminology (i.e., “sin”), yet it indicts not the unchurched but (at least by implication) conventional churches for not presenting the gospel in terms sufficiently exciting. The terminology here owes much to secular marketing strategies. This congregation’s founding pastor explains elsewhere in the booklet that non-Christians complain that they do not attend church largely because it’s boring.
The story of God’s dealings with Israel is a thrilling one, and our Christian pilgrimage can often be exciting (although being consistently obedient is not always exciting), and it is a shame when the church offers the greatest story in a dull and lifeless way. Certainly it is prudent to present the gospel in a thoughtful and engaging fashion; there is no reason for the message to be lackluster or for the church to give needless offense.
But should the pragmatic concern of making the Christian message exciting to non-Christians be a founding principle? Whatever happened to “the offense of the cross” (Galatians 5:11)? When non-Christians tell us that they don’t go to church because it is boring, this does tell us something revealing about our culture. Yet should the church uncritically accept the diagnosis of fallen men and women?
We need to ask deeper questions. Don’t we in fact like what is not good for us? Is it not part of the appeal of sin that our fallen natures find it exciting? Is not Paul’s warning to Timothy regarding people’s “itchy ears” applicable here (2 Tim. 4:3)? Did Paul then counsel Timothy to scratch that itch? Understanding how the unchurched are thinking is important; letting them set the church’s agenda is dangerous.
The third principle asserts that the church must gain the respect and acceptance of the world in order to “earn the right to be heard.” Once again, it is unclear whether the right asserted is a genuine human right that the church must accept or simply a right that most non-Christians assume. Everyone would probably agree that the church’s solidarity with “all sorts and conditions of men,” as the Book of Common Prayer puts it, can give her message greater credibility—though its concern for and solidarity with the poor and oppressed are more often stressed in Scripture than entertaining bored suburbanites.
There is, in fact, no biblical warrant for turning Sunday worship into an evangelistic meeting (though there may well be evangelistic elements within the liturgy). This transformation of the main Sunday service actually began in the early nineteenth century. It was evangelists like Charles Grandison Finney and his successors who turned church worship into a revival meeting. In some respects, “seeker sensitive” advocates are simply extending the logic of this earlier innovation.
They are extending with considerable creativity and characteristic American energy this Arminian, market-driven model. Finney spoke about the need for what he termed “excitements.” What many American Evangelicals have discovered is that the old excitements no longer work; they have acquired churchy associations in the wider culture, and thus new excitements are needed. The oral culture of the nineteenth century could accommodate long lectures, but postmodern seekers have notoriously short attention spans. Victorian folk wanted earnest Evangelical didacticism; contemporary seekers want entertainment.
The New Testament Church did not, however, show this confusion about either the nature of evangelism or its proper setting. It did not provide “excitements,” other than the excitement of the Good News. In the New Testament, the ecclesia gathered together on the first day of the week to hear the Word of God, for corporate prayer (“the prayers”), and for the breaking of bread (Acts 2:42 and 20:7). Significantly, none of the evangelistic preaching in Acts occurs within the context of the church gathered for Sunday worship.
To be sure, the early Church was involved in aggressive evangelism, but it kept the gathering on Sunday for the edification of the faithful and for God’s covenant people to praise their covenant God. In the fourth century, Gregory Nazianzus warned that if the preacher “would please the multitude, he must adapt himself to their taste, and entertain them amusingly in church.” When this happened, he observed, “what belonged to the theatre was brought into the church.”
Naturally, these sort of wrong-headed assumptions about the gospel and Christian worship are reflected in the preaching and teaching of such congregations. The church cited above is independent (like many such congregations, it carefully avoids any denominational identification), but its approach has had a wide influence even among mainline congregations seeking some escape from their declining numbers. This past Easter, I visited an Episcopal parish that has sought to implement some of this model. Although its worship service would have been dismissed as irredeemably churchy by many “seeker sensitive” leaders, it was clear that the kind of assumptions examined above were having a profound impact on the message heard on Sunday after Sunday from this parish’s gothic pulpit.
Put simply, if one’s focus is on generating “excitements,” if one’s primary concern is numerical growth, one will not preach as a traditional Evangelical. If one is primarily seeking to address the felt needs of attendees, one will not say a word about sin and the Cross. The Easter morning sermon we heard was clearly designed to appeal to Yuppie “seekers.” The rector told his well-dressed congregation that they were obviously gifted and skilled at many things. Their manifest abilities had brought them success, but something was missing. They needed now to rise to the next level. They could experience greater personal fulfillment with Jesus.
Sin was mentioned only once (rather obliquely) at the end of the address. Despite the occasion (i.e., Easter Sunday), there was, notably, no mention of the Cross. Although this parish would certainly have identified itself as Evangelical, there was no reference to the burden or wages of sin; there was no mention of the need for a substitute to take the punishment our sins deserve. In essence, the gospel had been transformed into a motivational talk: “You are pretty good now, but you can be better with Jesus.”
Such an unscriptural message is the natural product of such unsound founding principles. While their motives are laudable, their presuppositions are deeply flawed. American pragmatism has erased the previously central themes of sin and redemption—central because they are the realities about which sinful men and women need to hear. Many such congregations have proven to be effective in reaching the unchurched, but with what are they reaching them?
Gillis J. Harp is Professor of History at Grove City College in Pennsylvania and the author of Brahmin Prophet: Phillips Brooks & the Path of Liberal Protestantism (Rowman & Littlefield, 2003). He and his family worship at Grace Anglican Church in Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania.
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