Seeker Friendly Church Done Right

I may be a little late to the party on discussing the seeker friendly church model, but I recently had a very profound revelation from the Spirit.

I believe every church should be seeker friendly.

Now, before some of you applaud madly while others of you consider stoning me, hear me out.

Ironically, I find many young people—college age and under—aren’t familiar this this term anywho, but for their sake, I will lend a bit of insight before explaining myself.

The church growth movement began around the publication of Donald McGavran’s book, “The Bridges of God” in 1955 (Wikipedia). “Mega-Churches”, as they have come to be known, like Willow Creek (Chicago area) and Saddleback (California), helped us populate the term “seeker friendly” back in the 1990’s. Directly and indirectly.

The thought was—in order to attract unbelievers to our churches—services ought to be designed around the needs of these “seekers”—unbelievers searching for answers to the big questions of human origin as well as pondering the existence of a supreme being—those most likely to become followers of Christ.

Instead of programming church services and events for believers, why not discern the needs and interests of “pre-Christians” and create programs that draw them in—utilizing popular music, entertaining dramas, and shorter, simpler messages, plus adopting more of a business casual attire, and of course, providing lots and lots of America’s most socially accepted drink…coffee.

Seems to make sense. If our role as Christians is to share the Gospel and win the lost, why do we insist on designing our services around folks who are already in the fold?

Leaders began to consider the idea that many common characteristics of our local gatherings might be keeping unbelievers from darkening the doors of our churches. Extended musical worship. Uncomfortable altar calls. Fiery, convicting preaching. Bodily expression in musical worship. And the greatest fear of all—the manifestation of supernatural gifts, like prophecy, messages in tongues, and miracles. They began to identify a need to curb these expressions—especially on Sunday mornings—in order to lure potential converts into the house of God.


Honestly, I love the heart behind these thoughts, because it means we are attempting to reevaluate our methods—which can be extremely healthy—and, we are endeavoring to take our eyes off of ourselves to serve others, ultimately to seek and save that which is lost.

Only one problem.

In an attempt to make church services more relevant to the unsaved—a truly noble idea—we frequently begin by eliminating the supernatural elements—the ones that are specifically meant to aid in transforming the soul of believers and unbelievers alike. This leaves us with little more than the techniques and talents of man, something most people already enjoy outside the church on a regular basis, in concert halls and comedy clubs.

We take the bait. Instead of offering “seekers” more of the one thing that will expose them to the one true God faster than anything else, we dumb down our services and give them something they are already accustomed to. We completely miss the idea that the seeker isn’t looking for something they’ve already experienced. They’re looking for something beyond themselves, beyond man—even for God, himself—though they do not realize it. They’re not seeking what we can give them. Talent. Programs. Hype. Music. Clever speeches. They already have this. So if what we offer is no different than what the world offers, why bother?

Not surprisingly, in trying to help “seekers”, we actually end up hurting them instead. It’s true.

Even by putting forth our best efforts in the areas of drama, music, lights, and sound, aren’t we simply offering them a lesser version of Broadway? By taking that familiar tune on Spotify or Pandora and tweaking the lyrics to make it more “Christian”, aren’t we simply giving them a lesser version of what they already experience when they attend a concert? Can we ever expect to compete with the money and talents of this world? I think not. Though we try.

But thankfully, we don’t need to. Fact is, we have something the world doesn’t. Something powerful. Something heart stopping. Something beyond compare. Something terrifying and beautiful all at the same time. Something that defies description. Something raw and oh so real. Something many leaders try to hide in a corner. For the sake of seekers.

It’s called the anointing—the power of God flowing through his people in the form of his Spirit.

Honestly, we are missing the point when we try to compete with the world. I’m not saying we shouldn’t be excellent. We should without a doubt aim for our best in everything we do. But, can I be straight? Talent alone never changed anyone’s heart. In fact, many times overemphasis on natural gifting actually leads us astray. Yet exposure to the Holy Spirit softens hard hearts every day.

Sadly, I’ve watched as many highly sought after leaders endeavor to keep church “safe” by keeping the “weirdoes” out. By removing the offensive language in our songs and preaching. By taming the freaks and their flags and dancing. By working tirelessly to produce down to the minute, slick services. By making sure nothing and no one ever makes anyone feel uncomfortable or out of place. All for fear that folks might not return next week.

We do all of this with good hearts, seemingly to help reach “seekers”. Yet unfortunately, this is exactly the opposite of what typically happens over the long haul. And exactly the opposite of what Jesus did.

I know real stories of churches who refuse to let their pastors say the word “blood” from the pulpit for fear that unbelievers might be offended. I’ve heard of those who ask their worship singers not to raise a hand during musical worship for fear that someone might be weirded out. I know of specific churches who require their core members not to yell or shout out their praises to God in service for fear that unbelievers won’t understand.

All the while, unbelievers attend concerts and sporting events where people act passionately like this all the time—going beyond “crazy”—dressing up and painting themselves bright colors, shouting and hollering at the top of their lungs, even lifting their hands and dancing wildly when their team scores or when their favorite recording artist pops up through a trap door in the stage.

Heaven forbid believers are seen expressing their passion for a far more wonderful purpose—for the glory of the God of the universe—the One who takes away the sins of the world and gives people access to a personal relationship with him in an eternal place where there will be no more tears and no more pain.

Heaven forbid.

Truthfully, I see it the other way around. Heaven forbid unbelievers don’t see believers responding passionately to the God who is transforming their lives. Heaven forbid seekers don’t see believers excited and expressive in their love and devotion to the One who broke the power of sin and death.

Heaven forbid.

For fun, let’s do take a minute and explore how Jesus handled unbelievers.

Take the women at the well in John 4. Did Jesus handle her with kid gloves? No. He did, of course, initiate conversation with her against his cultural mores, but after that, he straight up called her out on her marital issues, all while employing a potentially offensive supernatural method, namely prophecy. He then went on to pointedly correct her errant worship philosophy. He even seemed to knock the historically prized “Jacob’s well.”

And how did his unconventional approach work? Well, basically, nearly the whole village was saved.

“But that’s Jesus,” you say!

Ok. From whom else should we derive our approach to ministry?

1 Corinthians 14:25 clearly reminds us that utilizing prophecy in our gatherings can be one of the most powerful approaches to reaching unbelievers. It says, “As they listen [to your prophecy], their secret thoughts will be laid bare, and they will fall down on their knees and worship God, declaring, ‘God is really here among you.’”

How about the rich young seeker in Mark 10 who approached Jesus hoping to learn the key to being saved? Amazing! Here we have someone actually begging to be shown the way of salvation. And what does Jesus do? Give him what he wants? Try to coax him in with views he can relate to or easy-to-swallow theology? No. He hits him right in the gut. Right in the place of his greatest weakness. Wealth.

He seems to say, “Oh yeah, it’s wonderful and all that you’ve obeyed the commandments, but don’t forget to take all of the wealth you’ve accumulated—you know, the money you cling so tightly to—that has become your source of security, identity, and power—and, uh, give it all away. Yep, all of it. Then grab a knapsack, join the gang, and follow me.

Say what? The greatest possible convert—a guy with riches and power (think of the potential tithe here), and Jesus just carelessly sends him away . . . straight up packing?? And doesn’t even chase him down?

How’s that for evangelism?

Now we can see why Willow Creek Pastor, Bill Hybels had “the wake-up call of his adult life” after having spent thirty years creating and promoting a multi-million-dollar organization driven by programs and measuring participation—and convincing other church leaders to do the same. “Some of the stuff that we have put millions of dollars into thinking it would really help our people grow and develop spiritually, when the data actually came back, it wasn’t helping people that much. Other things that we didn’t put that much money into and didn’t put much staff against is stuff our people are crying out for.”

Hybels confessed, “We made a mistake. What we should have done when people crossed the line of faith and became Christians, we should have started telling people and teaching people that they have to take responsibility to become self-feeders. We should have gotten people, taught people, how to read their bible between service, how to do the spiritual practices much more aggressively on their own.”

In other words, Hybels discovered that the best spiritual growth doesn’t occur by leading people to become dependent on elaborate church programs or put-together people. It happens through the age old spiritual disciplines of personal prayer, bible reading, musical worship, and genuine relationships. Ironically, these basic disciplines do not typically require multi-million dollar facilities or hundreds of staff to manage.

Maybe Jesus knows something about the cravings of unbelievers that we miss.

I have personally led worship at several well known large churches with traditional “seeker” models, and the reaction has been the same each time. Secretly, staff members approached me afterward to tell me how wonderful the deep worship was—to tell me that they and other core members of the church were starving for depth. Because the focus typically remained down near the shallow end of the pool.

Interestingly, though a lot of these so called “seeker friendly” churches are a mile wide—boasting incredible attendance—many are only an inch deep, especially when it comes to producing mature followers of Christ.

We must remember three important things about growth. 1) Only God can grow things. We water. Plant. Weed, Nurture. But only God grows. Growth is nothing short of a miracle. 2) Just because something grows, doesn’t mean it is healthy. Bacteria grows. Cancer grows. 3) We must not forget about growth in terms of depth. When it comes to spiritual maturity, this type of growth is frequently more telling than numerical growth.

Unfortunately, it seems we are often forced to choose between growing deep and growing wide, sacrificing one to gain the other. Of course, we pray and believe for both, but we must never sacrifice much depth to gain much width.

Look at Jesus’ ministry. The deeper he went into spiritual things, the leaner his numbers became. The crowds were vast at first, but when Jesus started insulting religious people, sending away seekers, and demanding people eat his flesh and drink his blood (see John 6), many of his disciples deserted him (John 6:66).

It just doesn’t matter how hard we try to dress up the cross. It will never be cool or in vogue. We will never be able to shave off its rough edges or sand away its splintery corners. The cross is offensive. It is ugly. And it is absolute foolishness to the unbeliever.

Jesus—though he is love—is also offensive. To our flesh. To our pride. To our sin nature. And yet, astonishingly, we still work tirelessly in our services to appeal to unbelievers in the natural instead of in the supernatural—by the Spirit.

Here is the point. In the end, the most troubling problem with traditional seeker friendly church is that it is actually not friendly to the seeker at all! It’s true. We go about it backwards. Instead of giving people what they need, we put all our efforts into giving them what they want—or at least what we think they want.

By appealing to unbelievers on their level, we actually lessen the chances that they will give their heart to Christ, because we teach them that church is a building instead of a people. That church is something to watch rather than something to participate in. We prove that the most they can ever hope for in church is average entertainment. That the epitome of Jesus’ work on earth is simply a lengthy, powerless, lifeless, boring “show” where you can’t drink beer, shout out, or see anything besides the back of the guys’ head in front of you. Thank goodness, it’s only once a week.

I inquire then. Which approach is more friendly to the “seeker”? The one where we utilize the bait and switch technique—giving them what we think they want, or the one where we go “no holds barred” and fully expose them to what Heaven knows they so desperately need—the raw force of God himself? Ironically, when we treat unbelievers the way Jesus did, we are truly being more “seeker friendly” than those who coined the term to begin with. 

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