Chapter One: Into the Seeker Sensitive Wilderness
I have experienced, over the years and to varying degree, almost the whole gamut of American ecclesiology, of American church culture. I have attended a liberal, main-line Protestant church and have visited, on a few occasions, Baptist, Methodist, and Pentecostal churches. I have also spent much time in a seeker-sensitive mega-church. Within all these churches, one can find Christians being progressively conformed to the image of our Savior, Christ Jesus.
Also, within our unity as Christians, I find doctrinal disagreements, most of which are quite peripheral and hardly worthy of note. I sometimes find profound variation in doctrine, especially within the liberal currents of ecclesiology.
However, of all the aforementioned experiences, I have come to see that the seeker-sensitive church of the 21st century, while outwardly proclaiming orthodoxy and acting within the best of intentions, is a potentially dangerous and subtly heterodox perversion of biblical ecclesiology. While liberal churches often deny the basic doctrines of Christianity, they are, for the most part, forthright in their proclamations, and they are consistent with, and able to clearly articulate, their theology. Those who align themselves with liberal theology also comprise a very small percentage of overall church attendance, and, with no insult intended, have increasingly little influence over the affairs of culture. I also find an ironic commonality between the liberal branch of contemporary Christianity and the seeker-sensitive movement. Both are quite human-centric. Therein one finds egregious error.
To validate the prior assertion, I must share observations from my four year long experience with a local mega-church that I believe is quite reflective of seeker-sensitive churches as a whole. I had been a member of a liberal Protestant church for quite some time. Before I continue, I must proclaim without any ambiguity whatsoever, that those in attendance are warm, friendly people. My issues with liberal theology are not with the adherents, but with the system of belief that denies the divinity and physical resurrection of Christ and the atoning work of grace of the Cross. That being said, I went on a search, armed with little in the way of knowledge and insight for a church that was orthodox, and found myself at a seeker sensitive church.
What exactly did I find? I found, for a church in a box, a level of professionalism and marketing that would leave many small (and not so small) businesses in envy. By a ‘church in a box’, I refer to the fact that the church had no building of its own, but rented an auditorium at the local university. It unboxed and set up all the AV equipment prior to the multiple services and took it apart to be stored elsewhere at the end of the day. The church handled the logistics with aplomb, thanks in no small part to teams of highly motivated volunteers. I was greeted by friendly volunteers in the parking lot, at the entrance to the auditorium, and within the auditorium. They helped me find a place to park, greeted me warmly, and helped me find a place to sit. Those with children found vibrant, age specific, programs that allowed parents to sit through the service without dealing with restless little ones. As to the service, the multimedia experience was par excellence. Professional quality video presentations projected on large screens provided a segueway to the topical series of the month. Worship was lead by a talented band playing both contemporary Christian music and topically relevant secular music. Sermons were provided with wit and humor and heavily illustrated with the pastor’s personal anecdotes. I was provided with what seemed to be clever and creative exegesis. The topical sermons were often entertaining and provided the audience with helpful advice on finances, marriage, and dating.
Through the four years of attendance, I had become quite immersed in the church experience. I gave generously, I volunteered my time, I became involved with a home group. The church eventually bought property and had a building constructed. I was quite excited about what I believed the church was accomplishing in the community. I took advantage of every opportunity to invite friends and colleagues to visit my church, whether or not they already were involved in a local church. I was also quite defensive of my church.
I do not wish to name the church; I believe it would, at this time, be inappropriate. Let me use a pseudonym of SSC for ‘Seeker Sensitive Church’ when I refer to the name of this church. I had found myself, and this is a self-indictment, drifting to a point where I was more verbal about SSC than I was about Christ. My conversations were about how exciting SSC was, how great the band was, how wonderful, witty, and transparent the pastor was, about how relevant the sermons were. I was so defensive of SSC. It was so easy to become increasingly, but subtly, focused on SSC rather than Christ.
Over time, however, I began to develop a rather vague sense of unease about this church. Before I continue, let me reiterate a previous statement. Those whom I know that attend this church are warm, friendly people. I am not indicting, in any way, shape, or form, those who attend, nor do I infer that the leadership acts with conscious ill intent. That being said, I had begun to notice currents, sometimes subtle, sometimes not, of growing arrogance running through the leadership of this church. I would listen to the pastor’s sermons and read his web journal and find blatantly unbiblical statements and attitudes that made me grieve and cringe. I would find passages from the Bible being ripped from context and intent and used to prop up unbiblical concepts of, for example, financial stewardship. Therein we find the aforementioned creative and clever exegesis.
There was a time when this church offered Bible studies and content that went beyond the life skills coaching commonly served on Sundays. They are no longer offered, and are now, in fact, seemingly discouraged by the leadership. The things that drew me to the church no longer satisfied. I longed to hear more of Jesus. What I wanted to hear about was the Jesus for whom the 1st century Palestinian Jews and Gentles were willing to die rather than recant their faith.
More discouraging is the growing disdain that the leadership of this church seems to hold towards those who wish to go ‘deeper.’ Those who desire to go ‘deeper’ are mocked. The errant implication and straw man argument, gathered both from the pastor’s web journal and sermons, is that such people would rather sit around gazing at their belly button and debate arcane and meaningless points of theology than actually do something substantive for the Kingdom. Those also who wish to be fed at church are decried as being lazy. I find it interesting that the Greek word for pastor, poiman, is translated as one who feeds, leads, and guides with tender care and nurturing. There is so much that can be said and many verses from the New Testament canon that could be brought to bear to counter this errant and arrogant attitude towards discipling, but let us, for now, remember the Messiah’s command to Peter: “Feed My sheep.” Christ did not tell the ‘lazy’ sheep to feed themselves.
As to the growing hubris of SSC, allow me to illustrate with a few examples. I remember a video introduction to a series in which happy people held up signs with the following message: I was__________ (fill in the blank with lost, depressed, etc), but I was saved at SSC. Think on that for a moment. Where is the focus of those signs? I saw, soon after I left the church, on the churches website, a request for people to give examples, to be used on an upcoming video presentation, of how SSC has helped them in their walk with Jesus. I remember a video introduction wherein new members gave their testimonies; one example involved a lady, an acquaintance, who recently joined SSC. She had children with special needs that some other churches could apparently not meet. Much ado was made in the video of how she was turned away from other churches, but only SSC would take her in and minister to her. She was used in the video presentation as a shill for SSC. (Addendum 9/26/11: Later, she encountered some issues with the leadership and was threatened by the church. She and her children have not been to church since.) There was a video presentation of a baptism where one of those baptized confessed that what he was looking for, he found at SSC. Those that did not conform to or agree with SSC’s methodology were often criticized and lampooned from both the stage and on the pastor’s web journal. I could go much further in offering examples, but I believe the point is clear.
I eventually reached a point to where I was compelled to voice my concerns with someone within the leadership of SSC. I wanted to know if I was in error in my concerns, if my perceptions were skewed. If they were, I would repent of them. I called the church to set up an appointment to speak to someone in the leadership about my concerns. While I hoped to speak face to face with someone, they allowed me an appointment over the phone.
During the phone conversation with one of the associate pastors, someone who I like and respect, I voiced my concerns, giving examples, over what I perceived to be an increasingly SSC-centric focus in the church. I mentioned my concerns about the abundance of human-centric life coaching, but too little in the way of Christ-centric content in sermons. I mentioned my concerns about what seemed to be a cult of personality that was building around the pastor. Also, this call occurred immediately before a month-long evangelical series wherein the pastor was calling for one thousand people to be saved. I was politely told, towards the end of our phone conversation, that I was perhaps self-centered, just wanting to go ‘deeper’, and that if I left SSC, I would be turning my back on a “move of God” and would probably end up joining some small church of no more than 200 people where only two people a year got saved.
The response to my concerns validated my decision to leave SSC. While SSC is not overtly intending to dishonor Christ, until they become humbled, I could no longer be a part of the SSC church culture that the pastor and church leadership had, with the best of intentions, cultivated. I respect the pastor’s passion for evangelism, but a church must not let rapid growth stunt it’s humility in the carrying out of the great commission, the going out into the world to make disciples. They must learn that arrogant pride, either in self or in one’s church, is the antithesis of being Christ-like. It is so exceptionally easy, as individuals and as a congregation, to fall into the morass of self-absorption.
I also wish to state that this same associate pastor called me a couple of months later, and we had a short, but pleasant, conversation. I was left with the impression that while we may not be in agreement, my concerns from our initial conversation resonated with him, at least to a small degree. In conclusion to this chapter, I want to be clear that I carry absolutely no personal anger or vendetta towards this church; in fact, I hold out hope and prayer for this church, for its leadership. I sincerely want SSC to be an instrument of grace for Christ. Also, I do not wish to leave the impression that SSC is in complete error all the time in all that it does and all other churches are without error. Such is not the case. I have absolutely no doubt whatsoever that, with all the faults of this church, that many in the community have benefited to some, and often great, degree by the activities and ministries of this church. Much of what is preached from the stage is often grace-filled, edifying truth, and I have no doubt than some have come to know Christ through the ministry of SSC.
While I do not wish to place myself in the position of being a theological and ecclesiological Barney Fife, a self-appointed keeper of orthodoxy, it is my concern, as it should be for all Christians, that the church universal hold strong to what is true, and reject, gracefully when possible, what is false, semper reformanda. In the words from Titus 1:9, “He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.”
A Few Biblical References:
When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?” “Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”
As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
Therefore let us leave the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God,
They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.
We proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, so that we may present every man complete in Christ.
But Paul and Barnabas stayed in Antioch, teaching and preaching with many others also, the word of the Lord.
Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God.
Chapter 2: Good intentions, often errant results
What, then, is the nature and purpose of the church? Who belongs to the church? All are good, pertinent, questions, and while church history is rich with illustrations of divisions over doctrine, over modes of church government, and over issues of ecclesiastical authority, there has been, from my admittedly limited grasp of church history, agreement, in general, over who belongs to the church, of how ‘church’ is to be defined.
With few exceptions, most notably within the Eastern Orthodox Church, the actual building where congregations gather is of no great import. Rather, the church is referred to in the New Testament canon metaphorically as, for example, the bride of Christ, as the body of Christ, with Christ being the head of the church. We in the church are referred to as His sheep and He is our Sheppard. We are the elect, the chosen ones. We are the branches, He is the Vine.
The church is called out from the world. Indeed, the Greek word for church is ekclesia. Ek is translated as “out” and clesia, from caleo, is “called;” the “called-out ones.” The church, without regard to the more liberal strains of Christendom, has historically been exclusive in nature; it is quite biblical to insist that the church not lend the hand of fellowship to those who do not enter into the covenant of faith in Christ. Biblically, we are not instructed to bring the unregenerate into the church as an overarching evangelical methodology, but we called are to carry the Gospel to the world and make disciples, not just converts. We are called to be salt and light, a city on a hill, the primary vector by which the Great Commission of going out into the world and making disciples is accomplished. We are not called to be conformed to the world and be entertaining in order to make the church attractive to the world. The New Testament canon speaks much to the need to be Christ-centric in our approach ‘being’ the church and to ‘doing’ church and discipleship.
There is great potential for unintentional compromise in making church attractive and entertaining, with the best of evangelical intentions, to those outside the church. Please note with absolute certainty that I am not inferring that it is incorrect to bring unregenerate friends and acquaintances to church. What I am stating is that it is wrong, that it is absolutely not biblical, to calibrate church to accommodate the ‘unchurched’.
In contrast to the proceeding statement, the contemporary seeker-sensitive church/movement, by definition, is concerned with meeting felt needs of the ‘unchurched’. It inverts, with the best of intentions, clear biblical mandates of being set apart from the world. Also, when pragmatism and marketing trumps sound doctrine, we find ourselves redefining the nature of the church and often times inadvertently redefining and diminishing the Person of Christ. From the prevalence of life coaching sermons, we find a Christ who exists to repair our relationships, He repairs our finances. We develop a tepid Christology where, much like the old soft drink commercial, things just seem to go better with Christ. The seeker sensitive church becomes seeker centered.
Referring again to the aforementioned creative ‘exegesis’, I have heard, time and time again, seeker sensitive churches justify their manipulative methodology by pointing to ever increasing attendance and the number of decisions for Christ that occur within their services. Much is made by the seeker sensitive church of the numbers that turn to Christ in, for example, the book of Acts. Numbers of decisions becomes the erroneous metric by which a church or evangelical method is judged.
However, in the times the Gospel is preached in the New Testament where we have details of what is said, there is not one single example where anyone is told that the circumstances of their life will necessarily improve when they become disciples of Christ. What is recorded, though, is an exaltation of Christ. We see the apostles proving Christ from scripture. We see the condemnation of sin, the call to repentance, and the absolute falleness of humanity. Solely proclaimed is faith in the atoning work of grace through Christ to restore rebellious humanity to the Savior. Nowhere in New Testament canon does Paul or any other New Testament writer commend or condemn a church on the number of decisions that do or do not occur. Is not boasting of conversions and attendance a form of pride in self and methods?
It can be quite uncomfortable to listen to Christ in His calls to discipleship, to repentance. He states that unless your love for Him eclipses your love for family to the point that love of family seems like hate, you are not worthy to be His disciple. When, at a large gathering, He was informed that His mother, brothers and sisters wanted to speak to Him, how did He respond? He states that those who do His will are His family. He proclaims, in the Gospels, that He did not come to bring peace, but a sword that divides families. The young would-be disciple, one who has striven to uphold the Law, asks what is required to be His follower, Jesus, responding in love, tells the young man to sell all that he has and to follow Him. He walks away from the call because his wealth was a stumbling block. When another seeks to follow the Messiah, but only after he buries his father, Christ tells him to let the dead bury the dead; “Follow Me.” He calls for His disciples to pick up their cross, an instrument of death, and follow after Him. Do any of Christ’s calls to discipleship appear to be seeker sensitive? Remember that the cross is foolishness to the world. I fear that many who follow the Jesus of seeker sensitive Christianity will find themselves, at best, floundering and frustrated in their walk with Christ or, at worst, finding Christ, on the day of judgment, saying to them, as stated in Mathew 7:23, after they boast in their works in His name, “Depart from me, I never knew you.” That is why I write these words.
While am absolutely not implying that that our Abba, Father, does not take interest and intervene in our problems and concerns, I am concerned about the response of an immature Christian who finds his circumstances not improving as often implied by seeker sensitive presentations of the Gospel. How does a faith in a Mr. Fix-it Jesus survive when personal circumstances do not evolve according to erroneous expectations? When a church shuns the deeper things of Christ and discourages going ‘deeper’, the spiritual growth of a believer is stunted. That being said, Christ does care about our trials and tribulations and intervenes therein; He loves us and uses such to bring us to maturity. Indeed, He causes all things to work out for the good for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose.
What is expected of the church is found in Ephesians 4:11-16: “It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.”
A Few Biblical References:
“I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.
For just as we have many members in one body and all the members do not have the same function, so we who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.
1 Corinthians 12:12-27
The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body-whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free-and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.
One of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.”
And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.
…if I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth.
“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 by men. “You are the light of the world. A city 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.
For this is what the Lord has commanded us: “I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.”
Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.
It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy.
No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day.
Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’
Chapter 3: The sufficiency of Christ
Below is an essay written soon after leaving SSC. My initial intention, in my search for a new church, was to ask the pastor of the prospective church to talk to me about Christ, and Christ alone, for ten minutes. I also posed the same challenge to myself. After a bit of reflection, I came to understand that my attitude and litmus test was perhaps a bit arrogant, but I continued the challenge to myself. The results, authored on August, 2007, follow.
Let me talk to you about my Messiah, Jesus Christ. Let me open quite controversially. If Christ is just a great moral teacher, He failed, and failed miserably. For all His altruism, His selflessness in serving others, for all His concern for the disenfranchised, for His formidable moral standards, His end is not one that I would consider a glowing endorsement for emulating His life. He was crucified; He died a death quite gruesome and, in death, was associated with criminals. If such is the potential end for emulating Christ the Teacher, then I want nothing of it. If we consider Christ only a moral example, then I cannot endorse Him above the Buddha. I cannot endorse Him above Gandhi. I cannot endorse Him above an Old Testament patriarch. They differ not in kind, but only in degree. His death carries no greater meaning and import than that of Martin Luther King’s. However, if Christ is more than a teacher, if He is who He and His followers claim Him to be, the Son of God whose death on the cross precedes something greater, His physical resurrection, I then must consider Him in an altogether different light.
I read, in the New Testament canon and in early church history, stories of martyrdom. I read, too, of multitudes abandoning the very foundations of their life to turn and follow, often at great personal, and sometimes ultimate, cost, the One whom they believed to be something greater than a teacher. These 1st century Palestinian Jews, the first followers of Christ, had no great need of a Messiah as a life coach, a minister to their finances and marriages. Their lives were, I believe, even if in a time of political tension, quite predictable for the most part. They were tied to the rhythms of the land, of harvest. They were, for the most part, farmers, fishermen, and craftsmen. They were embedded in the life of the synagogue. Too, the individualism, the obsessive focus on self, of contemporary western culture would be, I believe, quite alien to them.
The Messiah that many were expecting and the Messiah that they received were quite different from one another. Again, there was political tension in that time and place. Judea was under Roman rule and before the first century closed, the 2nd Temple would be, as predicted by the Messiah, in ruins. The expected Messiah would be a King, a strong Man who would break the shackles of Roman oppression and return to the Jews self-rule, and Jerusalem, the city of God, would take her place as the beacon of light to all the nations. This did not happen, though. They instead received a Child who would grow up to divide rather than conquer, to turn child against parent, neighbor against neighbor. He would upset the status quo. He would be, for a time, a pauper King, having, as He said to would-be disciples, no place to lay his head. The Messiah was homeless. His family, for the most part, before witnessing the resurrected Christ, did not, I believe, consider Jesus to be anything but perhaps a bit mad. Even his inner circle of disciples could not wrap their minds around Christ’s proclamations about Himself. Rather, they still anticipated a political King who would establish a theocracy. The pre-Easter Jesus, on the cross, left his followers discouraged and defeated. The post-Easter Jesus revolutionized his adopted ones. Easter changed everything.
How can I talk coherently about Easter and find words worthy to address our risen King, words not compromised by cliché? I am humbled by the task. First, Easter is not a metaphysical event having no concrete reality. The resurrection was not just merely a spiritual event; it is more than metaphor. The resurrection actually occurred in time and space. The Creator, the One through whom all things hold together, was willingly brutalized and murdered by His creation. He willingly became our Scapegoat, our blood sacrifice once for all. He is the new Covenant. Everything changed on Easter.
I can give coherent reasons and evidence to help illuminate the reality of the Easter event. It does not, contrary to what most would imagine, require a giant leap of blind faith. I can affirm with as much clarity the physical resurrection of Christ as I can most any event in ancient (and not so ancient) history. Where does this leave me, though? What do I do with this formidable knowledge? What does it mean and to where does it lead? Before we can even begin to address these questions, we must inquire as to the why of the Easter event.
Why did the Word that created cosmos, created humanity, deem it necessary to take on, from the Christmas event to eternity forward, a sinless human nature, and after taking on flesh, have it brutalized and nailed to that tree? Only in the context of that question can we begin to understand the Easter event. Here we find truths both simple and daunting, both compelling and repulsive.
We, as disciples of Christ, are beholden to our Messiah to apprehend these difficult truths to the best of our ability. Because of complacency that often permeates American Christianity, I believe that, as a church, we often worship more a pre-Easter Jesus rather than the post-Easter Jesus. The pre-Easter crowds gathered to the Messiah to receive from Him. The post-Easter Messiah drew to Him those who were willing to die for Him. The followers of the pre-Easter Jesus fell away from Him at the cross. The post-Easter disciples of Christ followed Him to the ends of the earth; they looked to give themselves away, to serve the Messiah, to die to self. I ask myself, which Christ am I following?
addendum: because of many relevant questions involving the identity of SSC, it is NewSpring Church of Anderson, SC.