Problems of Seeker-Sensitive Worship – John Armstrong

Originally from here.

ketchup gospelOver the past decade an entirely new approach to public worship has arisen in a growing number of American churches, both evangelical and otherwise. This new approach commendably takes evangelism, conceived of as reaching those who would not otherwise attend church, very seriously. It believes the church must seek more directly to find those who are increasingly disinterested in her message and invite them to a place where they will clearly hear the Gospel in a culturally relevant manner. This approach treats popular culture as essentially neutral, using scores of modern ideas commonly associated with market strategies and the tastes of those outside the fold of the church.

It is imperative that pastors and other leaders of the church understand this movement and its distinctive claims and philosophies. Because large numbers of churches have adopted it, is not sufficient reason to adopt it without raising some significant questions.

Contemporary style or modern musical lyrics is not the issue. It is not musical instrumentation, or modern language translations of the text of Scripture or liturgy. The issue for most of our churches today is the growth of an entirely new approach to the Lord’s Day worship celebration of the body of Christ. It is an approach which deliberately aims at “marketing” the message of Christ to a selected and defined target audience–often one made up of educated, white, younger “baby-boomers.” The stated intention of this gathering is to use both culture–almost always considered neutral–and personal relationships, to build a non-threatening environment where the unchurched “seeker” (Romans 3:10 says, “There is no one who understands, no one who seeks for God”) can hear and see the message of the Gospel in a manner that will not offend or unduly trouble.

The goal is to preach–preferably short messages that are highly topical and anecdotal with much humor–and to provide a service in which man, the so-called “seeker,” leaves feeling good and wants very much to try it again and again until, finally, he understands the Gospel and desires to trust Christ and become a part of the church.

This pattern has grown up in the last twenty years through the influence of the “Church Growth Movement” in North America. C. Peter Wagner, its best known advocate, admits that the stress is placed on what is, not on what ought to be. We are urged to study what people do, what they want, what their interests are, etc. Then we are to build a ministry around this, not what ought to be, based upon a carefully developed theology of God, man, and sin.

Such advocates do not openly disavow simple doctrinal concerns which surround the need to see men and women redeemed. Indeed, they affirm that their goal is to seek the lost through the use of modern marketing principles that will allow an even greater number to be saved because of the sensitivity.

Time, Newsweek, the Wall Street Journal, and major daily papers have chronicled the rise and development of this approach. Almost every major denomination–including the Church of the Brethren–and fast growing churches in America have adopted this approach as the mission strategy of choice in our generation.

What do we say to this?


We can affirm several positives. The “seeker-sensitive” movement has forced us, in various ways, to think more seriously about outreach designed to find those who do not attend church at all. It has led many to think more clearly about good communication skills and how we are being heard by the unbeliever in our age.

It has also fostered the strategy of planting new churches. This, though, is a mixed blessing because most of these churches will no longer exist in a decade or so. (One of our leading denominations planted ten churches–based on this marketing approach–in a major metropolitan region in 1986. Only two of these churches exist today, with one of the two thriving, which is the church that adopted a solid theological basis and was forced out of the very conservative denomination.).


The negatives of this approach far outweigh the positives. First, a major capitulation to consumerism has occurred. George Barna, a Christian pollster, uses the data he collects to suggest how we should minister as ministers of the Gospel, and even what we should give to the audience at certain points.

This consumerism creates several serious problems:

(1) casual shoppers with a narrow perception of church and sacrifice;

(2) a minimizing emphasis on truth, especially truth which offends modern consumers;

(3) services and church programs built around “meeting people’s felt needs” as an end in itself.

Os Guinness, a Christian social critic, has written, “Meeting needs does not always satisfy needs; it often stokes further ones and raises the pressure of eventual disillusionment.” Such “needs” have no natural limits, and now we even manufacture them and distribute them widely through various kinds of counsel and family-oriented religion. What people are looking for, when they “shop for a church,” is a full-service mall that will provide for every member of their family. Guinness notes, “Need is subject to consumer fashion and becomes shallow, plastic, and manipulative.”

The “felt needs” of multitudes of such church attendees mask their real need–reconciliation with a God whose wrath is heavily upon their self-centered lives at this very moment.

Second, the “seeker-sensitive” movement has an uncompromising bent toward THEOLOGICAL COMPROMISE. At the end of the 1800s, liberalism told us that we needed to make the Gospel message more attractive to its “cultured despisers.” This new approach is telling evangelicals, who would have resisted liberalism and its charms, that there is a better way to get unbelievers to respond to the Gospel.

For example, note these quotations taken directly from the literature of this movement:

“The Bible does not warn against the evils of marketing.”

“So it behooves us not to spend time bickering about techniques and process.”

“Think of your church not as a religious meeting place, but as a service agency–an entity that exists to satisfy people’s needs.”

“The marketing plan is the ‘Bible’ of the marketing game; everything happens in the life of the product because the plan wills it.”

“The audience, not the message, is sovereign.”

Even the New Yorker Magazine, a secular opinion publication, chides such thinking when it writes, “The preacher, instead of looking out upon the world, looks out upon public opinion, trying to find out what the public would like to hear…He tries his best to duplicate that. He turns to our culture to find out about the world…The unexamined world, meanwhile, drifts into the future.”

Amazing, isn’t it? The children of darkness really are wiser than some of the professed children of the light. In this approach, further, METHODS TAKE PRECEDENCE OVER THEOLOGY in building church gatherings, especially the Lord’s Day services of worship. These services are deliberately defended as not being worship services by many in this movement.

Sermons preached often have titles like: “How can I have a happier marriage?” “How can I handle finances better?” “How can I find a job I really like?” “How do I get more time for myself?”

One prominent spokesman writes, “Limit your preaching to roughly 20 minutes, because boomers don’t have much time to spare. And don’t forget to keep your messages light and informal, liberally sprinkling them with humor and personal anecdotes.”[1]

A famous American preacher of some years ago wrote, long before “seeker-sensitivity” arose, “Let your whole sermon be organized around their constructive endeavor to meet those needs. All this is good sense and good psychology…Everybody else is using it from first-class teachers to first-class advertisers. Why should so many preachers continue in such belated fashion to neglect it?” Do you know who said that? Not a modern “seeker-sensitive” proponent, but rather the leading liberal preacher of the 1920s, Harry Emerson Fosdick, an opponent of the Gospel of free grace.

Finally, this new approach destroys true worship in our churches. How can it do otherwise, since worship is preoccupation with God, not ourselves? …

While multitudes line up to follow this approach, true worship suffers even further decline in our churches. The crisis in worship, written of so powerfully fifty years ago by A. W. Tozer, has only gotten deeper and deeper since his death in 1963. It really is “The Missing Jewel of the Evangelical Church.” We don’t worship, precisely because we don’t know the God of the Bible.

Until THEOLOGY is restored to its proper place through reformation, this tendency will never change. Theology must be restored to a central place precisely because theology is careful, reflective thought about God. This very thought creates the soil for a growing worship experience that brings delight to God and joy for the true worshiper.

We need to ask: “What does God require of us, where does true worship begin, and what has Scripture ordained for us to do when we worship?” Most assume anything we offer to God, as long as it is sincere, is just fine. Not so, and the first three commandments are being seriously violated by much of our modern worship efforts. As in the Protestant Reformation, we need a major recovery in the whole area of public worship. Our idolatries are just as serious, and the consequences are the continuing judgment of God upon our churches.

Brian Edwards has written, “The church was conceived in a prayer meeting and came to birth in a sermon.” Drama, mime, festive dance, and other novelties have never preceded great awakenings, or any true reformations based solidly on Scripture. A simple consideration of church history reveals something quite different. What we need, wrote an old Methodist, is less organizing and more agonizing.

John Calvin wrote an important tract titled, “The Necessity of Reforming the Church.” In it he argued that the principal place in the Christian religion lies in our worship. The beginning place, he reasoned, was not the source of our salvation but rather “the mode in which God is duly worshiped.” Why is worship of first importance in the Christian religion? Because human beings so quickly turn to their own wisdom, not God’s revelation.

If worship is left “open” to our best intentions, we will always manufacture golden calves and Asherah poles of our sincere, well-intentioned, design! God abominates our best efforts. He wants only what He has ordained, what is according to His revelation and His character. Until the modern church rediscovers this kind of Biblical theology, any pretended awakening is both shallow and ultimately harmful.


[1] Doug Murren, The Baby Boomerang (Ventura, CA: Regal, 1990), pp. 102-103 as quoted in John MacArthur, Ashamed of the Gospel. 3rd Ed. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books), p. 132.

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