A Critique of the "Seeker-Sensitive, Purpose-Driven" Church Method part 1

"I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom; preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires; and will turn away their ears from the truth, and will turn aside to myths." (2Tim 4:1-4 NASV)

"Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God. And this is the spirit of the Antichrist, which you have heard was coming, and is now already in the world. You are of God, little children, and have overcome them, because He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. They are of the world. Therefore they speak as of the world, and the world hears them. We are of God. He who knows God hears us; he who is not of God does not hear us. By this you know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error." (1John 4:1-6 NKJV)

"If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, 'A servant is not greater than his master.' If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you." (John 15:18-20 NKJV)

"The world……hates me because I testify of it that is works are evil" (John 7:7 NKJV).


There is a tidal wave that is sweeping over the American church in these last days prior to the new millenium. It is not an outbreak of persecution nor is it a flood of oppression directed against those who would live godly in Christ Jesus. Rather it is a novel approach to presenting the gospel that threatens to overwhelm the very foundations of the Christian faith inherited from our fathers.

It goes by several names but is commonly referred to as the "seeker-sensitive" or "user-friendly" method. Among these various approaches there are two that stand out in particular. The first of these is the Willow Creek approach known as the "seeker-sensitive" model. This is named for the Willow Creek church in the Chicago, Illinois area whose author is Bill Hybels, the pastor. The second approach is known as "the purpose-driven church" model whose developer is Rick Warren, the pastor of Saddle Back church in California. Both of these churches have experienced astounding growth over a relatively short period of time by employing their respective methodologies. As such, they have become recognized as quasi leaders in church growth among numerous pastors and leaders in the American church.

While there are notable differences between the two approaches, there are also remarkable similarities. Chief of which is their reliance on the so-called "practical, relevant" Bible message in an attempt to reach the unsaved in their local communities. The basic tenet of their philosophy is as follows:

"In order to attract our target audience (i.e. "the lost"), the church must change its approach to presenting the gospel to the world. We must take a more "needs-centered" approach to the lost. Since it is obvious that our society is overrun with problems in the family, marriages on the rocks, financial distress due to excessive credit and borrowing and spending, massive depression, stress, and other such ailments, the church must step forward and meet these needs as no doubt Jesus would do were He here today in the flesh. This can best be done by tailoring our message to the world in such a way that these "needy" unsaved people will see that the solution to their problems is already contained in the Bible. When they once see that the Bible has a great deal to say about managing your money, sets forth principles to adopt in order to have a better marriage, contains ways of managing conflict resolution and dealing with the everyday problems and stresses of life, they will marvel that they did not realize this sooner. Once this plateau is reached, their "needs" being met, they will then gain the desire to continue regularly attending the church services where these principles are taught. Once this is achieved, it is only a matter of time before they will be exposed to the gospel and then will make their way into the kingdom of God and of Christ and so become saved believers".

I believe that I have fairly stated their basic premise without any prejudice to it. In all fairness, this is a commendable attitude. I am quite certain that the majority of those who employ this approach are sincere and genuine in their desire to propagate the gospel and to reach the lost. Their sincerity is not being called into question by this article in any manner whatsoever. What is being called into question is not their sincerity but rather the methodology they are employing. One can challenge what he or she considers an unscriptural practice without calling into question the character of those who adopt or propagate this practice. Unfortunately, in today's American church, to do so automatically opens one to the charge of "no love", "intolerant", "critical", "fault-finder", "legalistic", "stone-thrower", or even worse. While this may bring a smug satisfaction from those who hurl such epithets, it does nothing to examine the validity of the arguments being set forth in opposition to their practices and doctrine.

Far too often, the American church is willing to introduce and to tolerate practices and methodologies which simply lack Scriptural support simply because they produce results. It seems as if the spirit of Machiavelli, the Italian Renaissance philosopher is alive and well in today's church. It was he who coined the expression; "the end justifies the means". According to this tenet, the Lord Jesus should have taken the devil up on his suggestion that He hurl Himself off the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem in Luke 4. The argument could probably have been phrased as follows:

"Look at all those people down there Jesus. Now, You have a message that God the Father has entrusted to you. Surely, He would have you speak to as many of them as possible. Besides, didn't You say Yourself, that 'the Son of Man came to seek and to save those who are lost?' Well, there they are and all of them are no doubt lost. Let me tell You how to get them to become an audience. That is what You desire, isn't it? Well, simply throw Yourself off of this pinnacle way up here and let the angels of God catch You. Scripture evens says that 'they will bear You up on their hands, lest You dash your foot upon a stone'. Just think of the wonder and amazement that will seize upon the people when they look up and see a man floating slowly down to the ground without injuring himself. I promise You that you will get their attention. Once You have that, then it is a simple matter of relaying Your message to them. Think of how many You will be able to reach".

The Scriptures show us what the Lord thought of this suggestion of the devil. Even though He could have used this "means" and produced a good "end" our Lord rejected it outright because it was a rash presumption upon God. So we too in the church should not rashly presume that because our "end" or "goal" is a good one that we are therefore justified in employing the method that best seems to reach that "commendable end". What is paramount is whether or not the method or practice is Biblical and can stand the test of Scripture, not whether it "works". We are commanded to

"Test all things; hold fast what is good." (1Thes 5:21).

Once we jettison this safeguard, we have opened the floodgates to all manner of folly and error to wash into the church under the guise of utilitarianism. Carry this principle to an extreme and one can easily see what kind of foolishness and downright blasphemy can be brought into the house of God under the guise of "reaching the lost". For example:

"We need to reach the lost drunkards for Christ. Why not offer them drinks in the church service. This is sure to appeal to them. Once we have their attention, we can then try to "win them to Jesus". After all, we are to become all things to all men so that we might save some of them".

Obviously this is a bit stretched but it serves to illustrate the point. Any truth can be wiredrawn to such an extreme that it no longer bears any resemblance to its former appearance. Where does one draw the line in the church as to what is lawful and what is not? Who defines what the line is and what it is to look like? Is it a subjective line that each is left to their own to determine or is there a standard against which the line is to be gauged that is constant and fixed? One's answers to these questions will determine their respective views on the many practices and programs of today's American church.

In closing this section of our analysis it is important to note that my contention against this approach to "winning the lost" has nothing to do with the church of the Lord Jesus Christ attempting to help alleviate the distresses of our fellow men. All Christians should agree that acts of kindness and benevolence such as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, providing shelter for the homeless, creation of orphanages, raising up of medical clinics, providing assistance to unwed pregnant teenage girls, etc., are all legitimate acts of those who belong to God. This is not in dispute. Many have indeed been won into the kingdom through the kindness of God's children in these regards. It has been once well said that it is extremely difficult to preach the gospel to a man who has no food in his stomach. Feed him with material bread first and then with the "bread of life" is a wise and expeditious counsel that is good to follow.

In our next article, we will weigh this "seeker-sensitive, purpose-driven" approach in the balance of God's Word and see where it comes up wanting.

Yours in Christ Jesus,
Pastor Dan

Copyright 1999 Sovereign Grace Bible Church

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