This is my response to the letter in our paper about the seeker-sensitive movment. My position is that the movement as a whole does not need to be feared, but it (like most man-made systems) is flawed. I did not have space in my letter to the editor to respond to each of the “ten signs that your church is being destroyed by the seeker-sensitive movement,” but hopefully I can blog a response soon. Here is the letter that I wrote to the Americus Times Recorder editor:
A recent letter to the editor described the signs of the “destructive” nature of the seeker sensitive movement within the Christian church. Seeker-oriented churches are not without their weaknesses, but they are certainly not destructive. The term “seeker-sensitive” was made popular by Willow Creek Community Church, which began in the 1970s, under the leadership of Bill Hybels. A “seeker” refers to a person who is searching for truth, God, fulfillment, etc. and “seeker-oriented” churches look for creative ways to reach out them. Willow Creek has consistently held to the value of being “culturally relevant and doctrinally pure.” Seeker churches do not try to redefine the nature of the local church, rather they have used, and continue to use, innovative methods in an attempt to proclaim the message of Christ to those who do not know him.
Innovators who hold to the historical, biblical Christian faith and who suggest new ways of communicating God’s word have historically been criticized. In the 14th century John Wycliffe was criticized because he translated the Bible into English so that it could be understood among the common people of England. John Wesley and George Whitefield were criticized for preaching outdoors in open fields in the 18th century. Wesley was further criticized for organizing Christians into “bands” or “classes,” which looks similar to the small group Bible studies of today. William Carey was criticized in the early 18th century for traveling to India were he served for forty-one years as a pioneer missionary. Hudson Taylor, another 18th century English missionary, was criticized for wearing indigenous Chinese dress while serving in China. In the 19th century, Charles Finney was criticized for wearing pants (when most minister wore robes), using common language in his sermons, and urging “convicted sinners” to move to the “anxious seat”—the precursor to the altar call. One minister said, “If Finney comes to my town I will appose him with a cannon!” Early Pentecostals of the 20th century were described as “the lost vomit of Satan” because they dared to pray for spiritual power and for the healing of the sick. And Oral Roberts was criticized for putting Pentecostalism on TV in the 1950s.
Since the 1980s, seeker-oriented pastors like Hybels and Rick Warren have been criticized for changing the essence and message of the Christian church, which they certainly have not done. Nevertheless, like Wycliffe, Wesley, Carey, Taylor, Finney, and Roberts, they have challenged the Christian church to rethink the way we do church and how we communicate the message of Christ to a secular culture. We should not accept all that these pastors teach without thoughtful and prayerful consideration, but we do not need to fear their influence on the American church.
I recently attended Willow Creek’s Leadership Summit, their annual leadership conference. In the final session, Bill Hybels closed his talk by saying that there are two words that church leaders must understand and communicate. I was expecting some kind of sensational leadership phrase or a two-word marketing strategy, but when Hybels revealed the two words, I was shocked. The words were: “substitutionary atonement.” He then went into a discussion about the importance of communicate the truth that Jesus died on the cross as our substitute and that his blood covers our sin. Not only was this a truth pulled from the historic, biblical Christian faith, it was communicated using weighty theological terms. How orthodox for a seeker-loving innovator!