The Seeker-Friendly Way of Doing Church

April 2, 2008

A older article but still relevant as we see the fruit from Rick Warren and his purpose driven religion blossoming. As well as we see the fruit of other places like Willow Creek.

 But why not build stronger, more biblical savey Christians rather than fill bigger buildings?

The Seeker-Friendly Way of Doing Church

T. A. McMahon

The “seeker-friendly,” or “seeker-sensitive,” movement currently taking
a host of evangelical churches by storm is an approach to evangelizing
through application of the latest marketing techniques. Typically, it
begins with a survey of the lost (referred to by a leading church in
this trend as the “unchurched,” or “unchurched Harry and Mary”). This
survey questions the unchurched about the things their nearby place of
worship might offer that would motivate them to attend. Results of the
questionnaire indicate areas of potential changes in the church’s
operations and services that would be effective in order to attract the
unchurched, keep them attending, and win them to Christ. Those who have
developed this marketing approach guarantee the growth of the churches
that conscientiously follow their proven methods. Practically speaking,
it works!
Two churches are seen as models for this movement: Willow Creek
Community Church (near Chicago), pastored by Bill Hybels, and Saddleback
Valley Community Church (south of Los Angeles), pastored by Rick Warren.
Their influence is stunning. Willow Creek has formed its own association
of churches, with 9,500 members. Last year, 100,000 church lead-ers
attended at least one Willow Creek leadership conference. More than
250,000 pastors and church leaders from over 125 countries have attended
Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Church seminars. More than 60,000 pastors
subscribe to his weekly email newsletter.
We visited Willow Creek Community Church not too long ago, and it seems
to have spared no expense in its mission to attract the masses. Looking
past the swans gliding across a mirror lake, one sees what could be
mistaken for a corporate headquarters or a very upscale shopping mall.
Just off the sanctuary is a large bookstore and an extensive eating area
supplied by a food court with five different vendors. A jumbotron screen
allows an overflow crowd or those enjoying a meal to view the
proceedings in the main sanctuary. The sanctuary itself is spacious and
high tech, complete with three large screens and state-of-the-art sound
and lighting systems for multimedia, drama, and musical presentations.
While impressive, Willow Creek is not unique among mega-churches with a
reach-the-lost-through-whatever-turns-them-on mindset. Mega-churches
across the country have added bowling alleys, NBA regulation basketball
courts with bleachers, exercise gyms and spas, locker rooms, auditoriums
for concerts and dramatic productions, and Starbucks and McDonald’s
franchises-all for the furtherance of the gospel. Or so it is claimed.
Although it’s true that such churches are packing them in, that’s not
the whole story in evaluating the success of this latest trend in “doing

The stated goal of seeker-friendly churches is reaching the lost. Though
biblical and praiseworthy, the same cannot be said for the methods used
in attempting to achieve that goal. Let’s begin with marketing as a
tactic for reaching the lost. Fundamentally, marketing has to do with
profiling consumers, ascertaining what their “felt needs” are, and then
fashioning one’s product (or its image) to appeal to the targeted
customer’s desires. The hoped-for result is that the consumer buys or
“buys into” the product. George Barna, whom Christianity Today calls
“the church’s guru of growth,” claims that such an approach is essential
for the church in our market-driven society. Evangelical church-growth
leaders are adamant that the marketing approach can be applied-and they
have employed it-without compromising the gospel. Really?

First of all, the gospel and, more significantly, the person of Jesus
Christ do not fit into any marketing strategy. They are not “products”
to be “sold.” They cannot be refashioned or image-adjusted to appeal to
the felt needs of our consumer-happy culture. Any attempt to do so
compromises to some degree the truth of who Christ is and what He has
done for us. For example, if the lost are considered consumers and a
basic marketing “commandment” says that the customer must reign supreme,
then whatever may be offensive to the lost must be discarded, revamped,
or downplayed. Scripture tells us clearly that the message of the Cross
is “foolishness to them that are perishing” and that Christ himself is a
“rock of offense” (1 Cor 1:18; 1 Pt 2:8). Some seeker-friendly churches,
therefore, seek to avoid this “negative aspect” by making the temporal
benefits of becoming a Christian their chief selling point. Although
that appeals to our gratification-oriented generation, it is neither the
gospel nor the goal of a believer’s life in Christ.

Secondly, if you want to attract the lost on the basis of what might
interest them, for the most part you will be appealing to and
accommodating their flesh. Wittingly or unwittingly, that seems to be
the standard operating procedure of seeker-friendly churches. They mimic
what’s popular in our culture: top-forty and performance-style music,
theatrical productions, stimulating multi-media presentations, and
thirty-minutes-or-less positive messages. The latter, more often than
not, are topical, therapeutic, and centered in self-fulfillment¾how the
Lord can meet one’s needs and help solve one’s problems.

Those concerns may be lost on increasing numbers of evangelical pastors
but, ironically, not on some secular observers. In his perceptive book
This Little Church Went to Market (see resource materials), Pastor Gary
Gilley notes that the professional marketing journal American
Demo-graphics recognizes that people are

…into spirituality, not religion….Behind this shift is the search
for an experiential faith, a religion of the heart, not the head. It’s a
religious expression that downplays doctrine and dogma, and revels in
direct experience of the divine¾whether it’s called the ‘Holy Spirit’ or
‘cosmic consciousness’ or the ‘true self.’ It is practical and personal,
more about stress reduction than salvation, more therapeutic than
theological. It’s about feeling good, not being good. It’s as much about
the body as the soul….Some marketing gurus have begun calling it ‘the
experience industry.'” (pp. 20-21)

There’s another item that many pastors seem to be missing in their
excitement over “growing your church through attracting the lost.”
Although numbers seem to rule in this seeker-friendly mania (an amazing
841 churches in this country have reached the “mega” category, with
2,000 to 25,000 weekend attendees), few have realized that the sizeable
increase in church attendance is not due to the influx of the
unchurched. During the last 70 years, the percentage of this country’s
population attending church has been relatively constant at about 43
percent. A spike of 49 percent in 1991 (years prior to today’s initial
seeker-sensitive enthusiasm) gradually declined, returning to 42 percent
in 2002 ( From where, then, do those mega-churches, which
have outfitted themselves to accommodate the unchurched, get their
members? Mostly from smaller churches that aren’t interested in or that
can’t afford the fleshly attractions. And what of the supposed horde of
unchurched Harrys and Marys who have been assembled? They constitute a
very small part of mega-church congregations. During his year of
researching Willow Creek, G.A. Pritchard, in his book Willow Creek
Seeker Services (Baker Book House, 1996), estimated that the targeted
unchurched made up only between 10 and 15 percent of the 16,000 or so
who attended weekend services!

If this percentage is typical among seeker-friendly churches, which
likely is the case, a rather disturbing situation has developed.
Thousands of churches here and abroad have completely restructured
themselves as outreach centers for the unchurched. This, by the way, is
not biblical. The church is for the maturing and equipping of the
saints, who then go out to reach the lost. Nevertheless,
seeker-sensitive churches have turned to entertainment and conveniences
in order to attract Harry and Mary and make them feel comfortable in
their new church environment. In order to keep them coming back, they
have avoided the thorough teaching of Scripture in favor of positive,
uplifting messages designed to make them feel good about themselves. As
unchurched Harry and Mary continue to attend, they get only a vague hint
of biblical truth that might bring conviction of sin and true
repentance. Worse yet, they get a psychologized view of themselves that
undermines that truth. However, as grievous as that situation is, it
doesn’t end there.

The vast majority of those who attend seeker-friendly fellowships
profess to be believers. Yet most were drawn to those churches by the
same worldly allurements that were meant to entice the unchurched, and
they continue to attend, being fed the same biblically anemic diet
created for the wooing of unbelievers. At best, they receive the skimmed
milk of the Word; at worst, pablum contaminated with “profane and vain
babblings, and oppositions of science falsely so called” (1 Tm 6:20).
Certainly a church can grow numerically on that basis, but not
spiritually. Furthermore, there is no opportunity for believers to
mature in the faith in such an environment. In defense of
seeker-sensitive churches, some have argued that mid-week services are
set apart for discipleship and getting into the meat of Scriptures. If
that indeed is the case, it’s a rare exception rather than the rule.

As we’ve noted, most seeker-friendly churches focus much of their time,
energy, and resources on accommodating unchurched Harry and Mary.
Consequently, week after week, the entire congregation is subjected to a
diluted and leavened message. Then, on Wednesday evening, when a
fellowship is usually reduced to quarter or a third of its normal size,
would it be reasonable to assume that this remnant is served a
nourishing meal featuring the meat of the Word, expositional teaching,
and an emphasis on sound doctrine and discipleship? Hardly. We’ve yet to
find a seeker-friendly church where that takes place. The spiritual
meals offered at mid-week services are usually support group meetings
and classes for discerning one’s spiritual gifts or going through the
latest psycho-babble-ized “Christian” bestseller such as Wild at Heart
rather than the study of the Scriptures.
Perhaps the most insidious aspect of the seeker-friendly approach to
doing church is an attempt to impress the unchurched by looking to and
quoting those regarded as the experts in solving all their mental,
emotional, and behavioral problems: psychiatrists and psychologists.
Nothing in the history of the church has undermined the truth of the
sufficiency of God’s Word for “all things that pertain unto life and
godliness” (2 Pt 1:3) more than the introduction of the pseudo-science
of psychotherapy. Its thousands of concepts and hundreds of
methodologies are unproven, contradictory, unscientific, and thoroughly
unbiblical, as we’ve documented in our books and in previous articles.
Pritchard observed that at Willow Creek “Hybels not only teaches
psychological principles, but often uses the psychological principles as
interpretive guides for his exegesis of Scripture….King David had an
identity crisis, the apostle Paul encouraged Timothy to do
self-analysis, and Peter had a problem with boundary issues. The point
is, psychological principles are regularly built into Hybels’ teaching”
(p. 156).
During my own visit to Willow Creek, Pastor Hybels gave a message that
began with Scripture and addressed the problems that result when people
lie. However, he mustered his chief support regarding the harmful
consequences of lying from psychiatrist M. Scott Peck, the author of The
Road Less Traveled (Simon & Schuster, 1978), who declared in that book
(pp. 269-70), “God wants us to become Himself (or Herself or Itself)”!

Saddleback Community Church like-wise is entrenched in the
psychothera-peutic. Although claiming to be Christ-centered rather than
psychological, it has one of the largest conglomerations of Alcoholics
Anonymous-based 12-Step recovery programs in the country. The church
sponsors more than a dozen support groups, such as Adult Children of
Chemically Addicted, Codependency, Co-Addicted Women in a Relationship
with Sexually Addicted Men, Eating Disorders, and so forth. Each group
is normally led by someone “in recovery” from the “addiction,” and the
resource materials for understanding the “disorder” include books mostly
authored by psychiatrists and psychologists (
Although “in denial” about his use of “pop psychology,” much of it
permeates Rick Warren’s work, including his seven-million bestseller,
The Purpose Driven Life, which is largely about self-fulfillment,
promotes Celebrate Recovery, and is sprinkled with psych references such
as “Samson was co-dependent” (p. 233).

The overriding message from psychologically driven Willow Creek and
Saddleback is that the Word of God and the power of the Holy Spirit are
insufficient for delivering a person from a habitual sin and for
transforming his or her life into one that is fruitful and pleasing to
God. Again, what these churches say and do is exported to hundreds of
thousands of church leaders around the world.

A large part of the evangelical church has developed a pleasure-laden,
cruise ship mentality, but it will result in a spiritual Titanic.
Seeker-friendly church pastors (and those tempted to climb aboard) need
to get on their knees and read the words of Jesus to the church of the
Laodiceans (Rv 3:14-21). They were “rich, and increased with goods,” yet
failed to recognize that in God’s eyes, they were “wretched, and
miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked.” Jesus, standing outside
their church, where they had unwittingly displaced Him, offers them His
counsel, the truth of His Word, which alone will enable them to live
their lives for His pleasure. There can be nothing better here on earth,
and for all eternity. TBC


This age of novelties would seem to have discovered spiritual power in
brass bands and tambourines….The tendency of the time is towards
bigness, parade, and show of power….Jesus said “Preach the gospel to
every creature.” But men are getting tired of the divine plan; they are
going to be saved by the priest…by the music…by theatricals….Well,
they may try these things…but nothing can ever come of the whole thing
but utter disappointment and confusion.  God dishonored, the gospel
travestied, hypocrites manufactured by the thousands, and the church
dragged down to the level of the world.

C.H. Spurgeon

The Church of God has gone into the entertainment business! People must
be amused, and as the church needs the people’s money, the church must
supply the demand and meet the craving! How else are godless hypocrites
to be held together? So the picture show and entertainment…take the
place of the gospel address and the solemn worship of God. And, thus,
Christ-less souls are lulled to sleep and made to feel “religious” while
gratifying every carnal desire under the sanction of the sham called the
church! And the end? What an awakening [in eternity]!

H.A. Ironside


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