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Some reflections on seeker-sensitive churches6 min read

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In the 1980’s, Bill Hybels and some other young Christian leaders decided that traditional church was too stiff, too foreign to modern unchurched people, and ignorant of the ways that contemporary people take in information.  They tried an experiment they called "seeker-sensitive" churches, in which the Sunday sermons were shorter, missing traditional religious jargon (Christianese), and included such things as drama, videos, other multimedia stuff.

Right away, traditionalists attacked them for diluting the gospel, catering to our modern short-attention span and desire to be entertained rather than instructed and challenged, and pretty much selling out to modernity.  But, despite mistakes common to learning and trying new things, Bill Hybels has succeeded in reaching hundreds with the gospel, and birthing healthy, godly churches around the world, not to mention growing his Willow Creek church into a mega-church (almost 20K members).

Here are some of my reflections on the seeker-sensitive movement.

1. danielg sensitive churches do not water down the gospel IF the other structures of your church, including classes for new believers or prospective members, services for believers on a day other than Sunday (if you have them), and small groups have strong gospel content.

However, if all of your structures are danielg sensitive, you will have no place where the deeper Christian life can be explored, which is bad. The real question is, can you see your Sunday meeting as outreach rather than tending the flock?  This is the question you should ask.  The deeper Christian life is not for new people – they will often be intimidated, or just plain confused by it.

2. You do not have to be totally danielg sensitive to make Sundays more of an outreach to the unchurched.

For instance, you don’ t have to have a 10 minute sermon, but perhaps instead of a 40 minute one, you can make it 20 minutes.  Most preachers don’t like this because they have a lot to say, but there are other places they can preach/teach than in this service, and they should seek out those opportunities to teach the deeper things they want to teach.

And instead of preaching on deep esoteric doctrinal things, you can stick to practical spiritual matters, which can still be considered "meaty." (1 Corinthians 3:2) For example, instead of teaching about the doctrine of eternal security, why not preach on finding God’s purpose for your life, or on God’s principles of child raising, etc.  The real thing people want is practical advice, and what you want is for them to see other Christians living the Christian life together.  You want them to come in contact with real Christians on Sundays and see that you are normal people just like them.

It reminds me of the scriptures about speaking in tongues in a service – what good does it do for the stranger if they come in and see you doing it?  Are they edified?  No!  But if they see love, and hear about the gospel, and recieve practical instruction, they just might find out that they need God.

And danielg sensitive does not mean that you don’t share the gospel, it just means that you do it in a way that the newby can understand and respond to.

3.  danielg sensitive might really mean "make your services culturally relevant", i.e. modernize them.

For instance, the unchurched generally don’t like singing hymns, because to them it is not a natural mode of expression – it’s like singing in a different language, or being caught in a time warp from 100 years ago.  This is why contemporary worship is so effective – for modern people, this style of music is as natural a method of expression as modern english is compared to King James English.

I’m not saying no one can raise their hands during worship, or that you shouldn’t teach from the Bible just because people aren’t familiar with it.  But maybe you should tone down the more intimidating things and make them feel less uncomfortable.  Use words and means of communication they understand.  People are flexible, and can stand some newness, but if it’s all strange to them, they won’t be able to adjust.  And trust me, the unchurched person is often totally unfamiliar with current church culture.

In summary, being relevant does not mean lowering your standards, or coddling people.  It means not expecting them to adapt to church culture.  Rather, you should be putting the truth into containers that their culture is familiar with.
Don’t make the mistake that many early missionaries made, mistaking their own culture for God’s truth. Truth will change a culture, but not all cultural differences are a matter of truth.

4.  Before making a go/no-go decision as a church leadership to adopt SS methods, ALL of the leadership should visit danielg sensitive churches and then discuss what elements they feel like God wants in their church.

If you don’t go and see it, all you have is book knowledge, and little sense of the anointing or effectiveness in the churches that do it.  You should definitely also talk to the leadership in these churches to discuss your concerns.  I bet they shared the same concerns, and learned a lot about God and themselves as they implemented this new service.