Seeker Sensitive Churches

This refers to the method of conducting a Sunday morning church service where all the events surrounding the service are tailored with the unchurched in mind. The goal of this model is to attempt to make the “seeker” feel comfortable by making the service understandable and enjoyable. In this sense, the church is attempting to build a bridge with the unbeliever with the ultimate goal that they will hear the Gospel and be saved. The preaching model in the seeker churches follows suit. Every sermon is simply another way to present the Gospel. Deeper learning, fellowship, and discipleship are encouraged but are not normally part of the Sunday service. They are commonly found in mid-week small groups and studies. Opponents of the seeker model will argue that the Sunday service is not meant to be for the unbelievers, but for believers. There is a wide range within the spectrum of how seeker-sensitive a church might be. One end might be thought of as “seeker-friendly” and the other “seeker-driven.”

(also: “seeker-friendly,” “seeker churches,” and “seeker-driven”)

Just in case you missed my post about this at, here is what I said:

How has the “seeker” emphasis affected your perception of your congregation’s worship services?

I am from a tradition (Dallas Seminary-type Bible/Community Church) that is not too friendly toward the idea of “seeker friendly.” When Rick Warren’s book Purpose Driven Church first came out, it was critiqued very heavily in these parts (boarding on anathema!), and it was very moderately seeker sensitive compared to much of what is now going on in Evangelicalism! My tradition believes that the actual church service on Sunday Morning is for the believer, not so much for the unbeliever (this is key). Believers are to go out into the world with the message of Jesus Christ. Therefore, our purpose is not to attract the world to the church building or Sunday Service. For example, the church service itself is not the church, it is a particular function of the church. Christians do not go to church, we are the church. People themselves are to be seeker friendly, not the church service. Church service is to perform a particular function of covenant renewal among believers. This comes through discipleship, fellowship, and worship. To make the church service seeker friendly is like trying to make a court room seeker friendly in order to attract the outside world. There is a particular purpose of the court. Outsiders are welcome, but their presence will not detract or manipulate the main objective. The ultimate evangelistic goal is not to make people come to church, but for the church to be salt and light as the people of God in every situation. Yet, at the same time, we are not naïve enough to think that all those who come to the church or are members of the church are all truly Christian. The church is filled with non-Christian members. As well, we welcome anyone to come, therefore there will be seekers in attendance. For this reason, the essence of the Gospel will often be communicated during every church service.

This is not to say that we want the church to be “seeker repulsive” by any means. We desire to welcome the outsider and be salt and light as the outsider comes into the church. With open arms we will help the seeker to understand what we are doing and why. But we don’t want to accommodate our service for the sake of the seeker at the expense of the purpose.

Are there changes you have made to accommodate and bring back seekers?

Over the last decade, while our spoken attitude toward the seeker friendly “movement” has generally stayed the same, you can see many changes and adaptations. Most Dallas Seminary type Bible/Community churches have placed more emphasis on changing the type of worship that is offered. I am not too sure that this could be called seeker friendly since this is actually a change in preference from the church body itself. As well, “christianese” is not spoken quite as much. But, again, this is not so much because of the seeker, but from a desire to speak in a way that is understandable and less traditionalistic. The language of tradition is good, the language brought about by traditionalism is deterring to both the believer and the seeker.

Are there changes you would never consider, even if it would put more non-Christians in your service?

Yes, accommodating truth. For example, because the culture is much less tolerant of the doctrine of Hell, this does not mean we don’t teach it. We may be more sensitive toward people’s feelings and change the way we approach it, but this will amount to an empathy toward society in general, knowing that the body of Christ may be affected by the same feelings.

Having said this, whatever means can be used to make the Gospel and discipleship more effective will be used. Whether it is using air conditioners, electric lights, holding Saturday services, using PowerPoint screens, changing the name “Sunday School” to “Fellowship” or making home groups available, and the like, these are all accommodations to the effectiveness of the Gospel. While there are many Bible churches that have become Fundamentalistic, believing that the way they conduct church service on Sunday morning is also part of the Gospel, the spirit of my tradition does not promote such. This would be more in line with Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox expressed theology (i.e. they believe that the way church is done is part of the Gospel). However, all traditions are susceptible to the temptation to become traditionalistic. Our tradition must continually assess ourselves, asking if those methods that we hold on to are the way things are supposed to be done or simply the way we have done them for a really long time. Change is good for the church in this sense. I know a Dallas Seminary pastor who intentionally mixes things up ever so often to keep his people from falling in love with the way the church service rolls. I think this is good.

29 Responses to “Seeker Sensitive Churches”

  1. There seems to be an assumption that what attracts the seeker is to make the church more like the world, thus it will be familiar, non-threatening, and it will bring them in.

    While there might be some truth in that, what seems to be forgotten is that the whole point in being a seeker is to seek something different than the world. If what goes on in church is normality with some Jesus thrown into the mix, maybe that isn’t compelling as a religious experience. Maybe this leads to the attitude that you don’t need to go to church, you can just stay home and watch a tele-evangelist, since the experience is the same. Maybe the sense of the holy is lost, and therefore the point of turning up is also lost.

    The seekers you bring into the seeker friendly service – will they be there in a year’s time?

    The churches who mix things up to stop people falling in love with the service – continual experimentation ultimately alienates everyone, as sooner or later everyones toes are stepped on, and you cross the line that everyone has in their mind of what church is supposed to be.

    You might thing you are conditioning people against caring what is going on – that won’t work on most people. The people it does work on, it works too well, and they lose all judgement about what is good church and what isn’t. Then when those people get some power they alienate more people, and/or reduce the lowest common denominator of acceptable church to yet a lower level.

  2. Michael, great post. In regards to your last comment, my pastor is also a Dallas graduate and he will also change things from time to time to avoid the “familiarity breeds contempt” problem.(I hate when he does that)

    I would wholeheartedly agree with your approach to Sunday services. I appreciate the heart of those who want to be seeker sensative, I just don’t think it is nessesary. The Holy Spirit doesn’t need our help.

    A few years ago our youth pastor left and started his own church and our pastors did and do support him. I’m not sure if you would call his format seeker sensetive or not (it probably is) but it is very counter traditoinal. He says he is primarily trying to reach the unchurched and the homless in particular. I have a lot of respect for this young man and I guess we must realize that God accomplishes His purposes even through less than ideal means.
    I guess the main thing would be to make sure that members of the fellowship have access through the local assembly to grow in a deeper knowlege of God and His word. This young pastor I believe is doing this via midweek small groups.

  3. I think that many critics of the SS tend to blur the concept of form and function – that is to say they latch on to form issues as fundamental to the function of the church, and if you mess with the form you are “obviously” messing with the function.

    Which is not to say SS churches are all correct in what the do, but many are clearly not all wrong in what the do, no matter what the critics say

    I think it is right to criticize those in the SS movement that would go the way of Brian Mclaren and his liberalization of christianity. It is not right to criticize the SS movement strictly on the form in which they chose to present the bible

  4. Dac,

    I have seen a good deal of both kinds of SS churches in my ministry travels.

    I think the biggest problem with both is that they attempt to make the church an extension of the secular world, with latte’s, rap or the latest in
    electronics. I think what they mostly attract is folks who don’t want depth in their religious services but an easy, breezy, I’m okay, you’re okay kind of social setting where political correctness is stressed more than Christianity.

    The biggest thing I see lacking in all of these churches is telling folks why they really need Jesus, by making sin a pretty much a non-issue. Instead, they pitch the gospel like new car salesman, by focusing on all the benefits, and not mentioning the price.

  5. mbacker –

    Would you say Willow Creek does not tell folks why they really need Jesus?

    Because they do, and they are the biggest SS church I am familiar with

  6. And exactly what is accomplished by criticizing somebody else’s format?

  7. When a bunch of Christians don’t “do” church biblically, someone has to speak up!

  8. “And exactly what is accomplished by criticizing somebody else’s format?”

    Scripture plainly tells us not to go beyond what is written. Bill Hybels himself has admitted that his methods haven’t worked.

    From what I hear, not a whole lot has changed since. With his church and others like it, it’s still more about promoting the church’s methods than Christ’s agenda for the church.

    Therein lies the big difference.

  9. I agree with Leslie and mbaker. The Bible has shown us what “church” is supposed to be like and as far as I can tell, the main purpose of the gathering of believers is to build up those believers. (See I Cor. 14). The main purpose of church in the Bible was never to attract and hold unbelievers by changing the format to appeal to them instead of meeting the ungoing needs of the already believing body.

    When “church” no longer fits that description, it is time for a change and it is time for people to speak up.

  10. Minnow,

    What is accomplished is that God is worshipped the way HE wants to be worshipped, not as we would like to. The seeker-sensitive movement essentially says we’re here for YOU, the Bible says worship is not for you, but for HIM.

  11. mbaker – since you haven’t been there, nor obviously have any direct experience with them, what makes you a capable judge of them?

  12. Dac,

    I might reverse that question: What gives you the idea that that SS pragmatism (whatever what works do it) is superior to traditional churches? I’ve provided you a link in Bill Hybel’s own words, where he said after all the trouble and expense it didn’t work. All you’ve done is so far is deny it. How about some specific, verifiable back-up to prove your own point?

  13. mbaker

    If you are going to accuse, the burden is on you

    I didn’t say SS pragmatism is better, I simply asked if Willow Creek “Would you say Willow Creek does not tell folks why they really need Jesus?”, which is what you stated SS churches do.

    As I actually have listened to sermons from willow creek, and reviewed their SS material, I will await someone who has bothered to do either before having a discussion on it, rather than with someone who is casting aspersions about what they know nothing.

  14. dac,

    Regarding comment 13:

    Do you have examples you can give us of Willow Creek’s teaching in this area? Maybe links or the gist of what you remember them saying?

  15. Leslie #7, mbaker #8, cheryl u #9 and Douglas K. Adu-Boahen #10–I did make a distinction between format and substance by specifying format.
    I have been in 9 different fellowships (Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, and Wesleyan included) in my adult life (30 years) and not one of them could say they “do Church” like the New Testament did Church. In fact, I would guess the vast majority of people commenting here can not claim to be “doing Church” the way the NT Church did. We have practiced teams of worship leaders and seminary graduated preachers delivering programmed sermons to follow Church calendars. We take a collection to pay for our buildings and preachers and call it a tithe. Aproximately 2% of the average budget goes out the doors of the building to missions and few have organized community outreach programs. The 1 seeker sensitive fellowship I have attended gave some rendition of the gospel message or at least a message that included who Christ is, what He did, and why we need Him on a weekly basis. So if message is what counts they had it. What they lacked, IMO, was depth. One had to search to find a discipleship (as opposed to a “self-help) small group in which to “plug-in”. We left after six month of hearing a remake of the same message from a dynamic preacher who could not remember our names despite the fact that we sat behind him every Sunday and greeted him during the “meet and greet” each week. (This particular fellowship prided itself on being modeled after Willowcreek).
    The point I was trying to make by my question is: go where you feel comfortable with the format and work toward encouraging the depth you think is necessary. Keep your eyes on yourselves and off the other parts of the Body whose “format” might not be to your liking. As long as Christ is lifted up who are we to say it can only be accomplished by hearing the same pastoral prayer each week, singing two hymns and enjoying the “special” music, listening to a 3 point sermon that uses one reference from the Old Testament and one from the New, collecting the tithes and offerings, and joining one another for coffee and cookies in the fellowship hall between services.
    I have done more than my share of criticizing Building-Based Christianity. I basically believe we have dropped the ball from a practicing the Gospel point of view and waste resources. And for me, this discussion of whose “format” is more Biblical is a perfect example of how off track and out of focus our priorities have become.
    CMP–If I’m being too harsh feel free to delete this comment.

  16. For me, the issue, in some sense, is rather simple. The church is ONLY for the believers. If that is so, why would we want to needlessly change our “format” to try and get non-believers in. If they come on their own, that’s alright. But we need not try and please them in any sense of the word. The NT church did not do that, and I think it is safe for us to follow the pattern.

  17. Leslie,

    You make some good points. The church as a whole is becoming more like the world than Christ’s plan for it.

    There is one important distinction I’d like to make, however. I think church is for ALL who want to know Jesus. We cannot just make it into a country club for believers, although I know a lot of churches that have sadly become so. That’s the other extreme, in my opinion, and one reason i believe the SS type services have become so popular in today’s culture.

    There are folks who will come who are non-believers, and I believe they should be encouraged to, then ministered to, with both the truth and the love of God, but not exclusively catered too.

    I guess my biggest beef with seeker sensitive churches, is that while their original intentions might be good, they attempt to please people rather than sticking to Christ’s plan for His church.

    Willow Creek style churches, for instance, according to Hybels, divide their congregations up into sub-groups. There are those who come to to church because they are interested in learning about Jesus, but have not accepted Him as their Savior. There are those that have, but are not familiar with the Bible, and the long time Christians. Hybels attempts to make the long time Christians ‘self’ feeders’. On the face of it there’s nothing wrong with encouraging mature Christians to be self feeders, through bible study and prayer, then sharing it with others.

    But, when it becomes the focus of a church to please individual groups to the exclusion of others, rather than corporately presenting a cohesive and correct view of the word of God as an anchor, then we start producing a generation of ‘groupie’ type Christians who are loyal to a certain spiritual guru, or a church who caters to them, rather than
    their first loyalty being to Christ.

  18. Such a hot button for me – having been in a seeker church for several years (deeply involved). Now I’m back in a traditional church and glad to be back.

    I agree with Leslie and Michael. Church is for believers. While all are welcome to come, we do not reverse the purpose of the church to accommodate them. We should demand the consistent teaching of the gospel message to reach them instead of trying, through various peripherals, to “reach” them.

    Peripherals really are unimportant. I’m a good musician – that’s why i was at that seeker church. I don’t care if the music is traditional or contemporary as long as the words are worshipful and have some meat. I watched as our great music became the focus of worship instead of God – and the gospel. I watched self-help, works based sermons take over and if we got lucky one Sunday – one verse from the Bible was used out of context that would reach out culturally to seekers. This church was a part of the Willow Creek association and Saddleback as well. The leadership used their seminars as a foundation but took it even further. They seriously created a works-based church within a mainstream denomination. (Ev. Cov.)

    I believe, based on personal experience, that they created many idols in the church I left. They ended up worshiping music, musicians, self and the leadership. Yes, the pews were filled with seekers (thousands of them).,….but the ones I met left after 18 – 2 years months because truth was not being taught and they were there to learn, not feel good. They left empty. One even said to me, “Is this all that church is about?”

    You can be welcoming to seekers without compromising the gospel. The way to do it is not to emphasize the seeker part but to focus on the worship of God and the gospel message taught from the pulpit every week consistently. Peripherals are unimportant but should still point towards Christs work on the cross.

    This church also didn’t have any Sunday School classes because they were so busy spending time and money on music and expensive sets (pre-prescribed by the canned messages they got from WC and SB), that there was no time to raise up good SS teachers….so there was NO solid teaching going on.

    Very sad,…….very, very sad.

  19. FTB,

    We are in agreement on the churches where we physically gather together being for believers to worship God as they choose, while keeping true to the gospel. It is not about format to me, but keeping the message of the gospel pure and uncompromising, whether it be to unbelievers or believers.

    I do think there is an important distinction that should be noted however. The buildings where we choose to gather to worship as Christians, are different than the true church, which is made up of many individuals with Christ as the Head.

    This is the church we carry with us all the time, and that church is wherever we go. This is the church who welcomes unbelievers into the fold to receive Jesus as their Lord and Savior. This is the church who prays with them, encourages them and brings them to a knowledge and example of what Godly living means. This is what being a disciple of Christ really means, fulfilling His commission not our individual church agenda.

  20. If the seekers are coming to our churches isn’t it because they want something different? Why would we want to make it just like every other social gathering (think coffee shops, trendy music etc) It would appear to me that the “seeker” who wants those things is not really a seeker of truth or Christ but someone seeking to sooth their conscience.

    Yes we should wholeheartedly welcome the unbeliever/seeker. They need to see our love for Christ and for one another but a true seeker wants anything but what he sees in the world (not that all of these things are inherently wrong).He wants something totally different.

    I have a 17year old and a 19 year old and it appears to me that this generation is looking for something different than the slick marketing gimmicks of the world. They want substance.

  21. Yes, Chris, I see the same thing in my 28 year old daughter. These kids nowadays want something real in this crazy mixed up world where things change so quickly. They might check out a seeker sensitive church for curiosity, but they will not commit to it because they can see through the gingerbread.

  22. Mbaker – thanks for the note – I do understand the difference between the church “building” and the church universal. I’m not sure some seeker churches do, however. The one I left did things like this:

    They would have people get up and give “my stories.” They would never be allowed to say that “Jesus did this in me.” Instead, their talk was edited and they were coached to say,” Since coming to Crossroads, my life has been changed.”

    See what I mean? It’s manipulative and wrong.

  23. I agree, FTB.

    My husband and I were horrified to find that a church that I had attended prior to my marriage, which was pastored by a formerly biblically conservative minister, was really into this stuff when we moved back here. And big time. They had even built a new church to go with their Rick Warren style of services.

    And the Rick warren style of church government, where you have to sign an oath to the church that you will not question the leadership. And it is a non-voting membership. That’s says a lot to me right there.

    They even had video machines available in the lobby for kids who couldn’t sit through the service!

    It was heartbreaking to me to see how everything was geared around loyalty to the church as well.

    And selling lattes and sandwiches in their cafe? Wow, wonder how that glorifies God?

    Makes you kind of know how Jesus must have felt about the moneychangers.

  24. My sister has been attending a church that has been, in the past, a very Scripturally based and loving church. They are now in the process of being “softened up” to become really seeker friendly. They were given a book to read by the Pastor that my sis has been telling me about. If if weren’t so serious, it would be utterly laughable. The very obvious Scripture twisting that was done by the author of the book to make his points was horrific. And my sis says that most of the people reading the book probably won’t even notice what he is doing. And she is probably right.

  25. FromTheBalcony April 7, 2009 at 11:44 am

    You know, I don’t care if someone wants some coffee at church….I don’t care if the music is contemporary or traditional (although these days I prefer both combined so that ALL generations can participate). I don’t mind new and innovative things in the church as long as the gospel message is protected and worship is for believers. The Bible should be taught every Sunday from the pulpit….so that accurate teaching abounds. I really am open-minded about the peripherals, though.

    I don’t like the leadership abuse thing and it is rampant. The church I left used this model. There was no accountability for leaders. No voting by members. No discussion period. Even the “council” listened to the lead preacher and did whatever he wanted….or they didn’t remain on the council long. No review of finances – we were supposed to “trust” the leaders. So much was spent on media that mission spending was nil (since I had insight into the leadership because of my role, I saw this.)

    If someone in the know questioned a leader, you soon saw them fired. The leaders hired family members to replace them as a protection. The new youth pastor was the son of the small groups leader (after they fired the really awesome one). The new worship leader was the head preacher’s daughter (after they fired an awesome one!) It was all about control….and not about humility and service….not about teaching but about power.

    It’s like they took on some pentecostal aspects of submission….and all of this in the Evangelical Covenant denomination! Amazing that the ECov church has allowed this …..but then again, this church is one of their biggest. And sadly, many ECov churches are modeling their churches after this one. Very, very sad.

    New pastors who get sucked up in the seeker church movement are in for a hard road because this trend cannot continue. Maybe that’s the reason for the abusive leadership style. Many in the pews have discernment, however. Sure, we can leave…..we can make it easier on you…..but are you really doing what God has asked? Are you teaching the disciples of Christ?

    I have found, based on my experience in this world, that the leaders get drawn in by power. Then they are trapped. They have to keep doing what they are doing because they would have to admit they were wrong if they didn’t —- and how many humans have the guts to do that when they have thousands attending their churches? They think because the thousands attend, something they are doing is right. Very sad…..and the remnant sees it.

  26. FTB,

    We were basically told the same thing about the leadership roles, but we got out before signing the oath. This pastor with whom I personally ministered on the streets, back in the days when he was a humble servant of the Lord, told us when we questioned the loyalty oath that we would probably be happier somewhere else, because his focus was on growing the church with young families. My husband and I are a retired couple.

    In contrast, the church we joined afterward has a pastor who preaches straight out of the word of God. He isn’t a fire and brimstone kind of guy, but he exegetes God’s word accurately and humbly, and is a hands on shepherd to his flock. In fact he preached a sermon this past Sunday, a very convicting one, on being the same kind of a servant as Christ was. (He is one himself, thankfully, and that’s so rare.) He talked about how Christ served humbly, without thought for hardship or reward, and always gave all the glory to God,

    In contrast the seeker leadership are ‘seekers’ themselves in that they seek blind loyalty to the church administration instead. To get it, they trade perks for power.

  27. FromTheBalcony April 7, 2009 at 12:48 pm

    That’s so ironic! When people came to the leadership at Crossroads with questions, if they didn’t like what the people asked, the people were also told they would be happier somewhere else — and that they were not welcome if they did not agree! And to think this pastor once was humble and sincere….

    The thing is – most “seekers” never get deeply involved in the heart of the church, so most don’t know what the leadership really represents.

  28. And therein lies the danger, FTB. These are wolves in sheep’s clothing if you look at their desire to trade off the power that God should have over them, as shepherds, to have all the power rest in them instead.

    I wonder how many folks would continue to come if they were informed up front that to be accepted as a member of the church they would have to sign a loyalty oath, where they had to unquestionably accept whatever was taught, right or wrong, and have no voting power to do anything about it.

    I thought I knew this pastor pretty well, after 20 something years, but it took us a month to find this out, and it was only after my husband was thumbing through the middle of the membership booklet and noticed it. We couldn’t believe it. It was straight out of Saddleback church, word for word.

    It even occurred to us because it was kept so quiet until the class was half over and then you were expected to sign the oath in order to continue, that they don’t want folks to know what complete control the leadership does have over them. They just want members who will show up, put money in the collection plate, volunteer for their many functions. Meanwhile, the rest of the folks remain blissfully ignorant of what’s really going on, sipping their lattes and being entertained. Evidently that’s enough church for them.

  29. “No one seeks for God.”

    The fact that there are “seekers” is just another sign of our lostness.

    That churches let people outside the church, redefine the church, is a travesty.

    And then we end up with…well…look around…anything and everything.

    Barnum and Bailey Circus churches. The only things missing are the pink and blue dancing poodles and the guy that spins all those plates on sticks.

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