Friday, October 31, 2014

The Seeker-Sensitive Church: Its Appeal and Its Problems

My heart sank. As I surveyed my “news feed,” I saw references to “His Holiness, the Dalai Lama” and his many affirming youthful followers. Even the Pope has become a western celebrity. One young woman commented, “He makes me want to become a Catholic.”

These many accolades made me question, “What am I doing wrong? What is our church doing wrong?” When I talk about Jesus, I am either confronted with yawns, frowns, or daggers. Perhaps it’s time for a facelift, a new and winsome image?

Just about all of the church-startups here in NYC are seeker-sensitive. They are all about cosmetic surgery, and their names reflect this – The River, The Journey, The…  They not only want to distance themselves from the traditional church in form but also in substance. One Bible-based church informed their congregation that they will no longer speak against the sin of homosexuality.

For the most part, these seeker-sensitive churches are successful in drawing younger people, as the more traditional ones languish. Many observe these newcomers to learn their secrets. After all, who can argue against success? Can I? I had to re-consult the Scriptures.

The Apostle Paul wrote about “success” and what it looked like in the context of the difficult last days:

  • But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God— having a form of godliness but denying its power. (2 Tim. 3:1-5)
Certainly, such times require a revised approach. If our culture is comprised of “lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God,” Don’t we have to soft-pedal God and affirm pleasure? At least, we shouldn’t preach against their pleasures, right? Paul gives no evidence for such a revised approach:

  • But as for you [Timothy], continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. (2 Tim. 3:14-15) 
Did not Paul realize how unresponsive and even antagonistic that this culture would be to the Gospel? He certainly did:

  • For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. (2 Tim. 4:3-4)
If this culture cannot tolerate anything stronger, shouldn’t we disguise “sound doctrine” or at least adulterate it with a little sexual permissiveness? Not according to Paul:

  • In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. (2 Tim. 4:1-2)
Wow! It seems that Paul was insensitive and perhaps too doctrinaire? Not at all! Instead, he understood the power of the Spirit working through the Gospel:

  • For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes. (Romans 1:16; 1 Cor. 1:18-19)
“It is the power of God” because the Holy Spirit applies the Gospel to the hearts He has prepared. Therefore, Paul had no problem with dispensing with elegance and seeker-sensitive strategies that the Gospel might do its supernatural work (1 Cor. 2:1-4). Our trust had to be in God alone and not in our devices.

Perhaps, instead, we have become “ashamed of the gospel!” And perhaps I rely too much on logic, evidences, and theistic proofs, all of which I love? Perhaps I too have strayed from trusting in the power of God working through His Gospel.

I have long struggled with this question. Here’s what I’ve concluded. We have to distinguish between the bait and the Bible message. Paul was not adverse to bait. He used it to reel in his Athenian listeners. He cited their own history and poets, but once he had reeled them in, he delivered the substance, the real food – Jesus, His death and resurrection (Acts 17:16-31).

It is therefore prudent to bait the hook with seeker-sensitive material, but we must not confuse the bait from the Bible’s Gospel. The former is comparatively junk food, while the latter is the “power of God.” While I can use my theistic proofs to bait the hook for those valuing rationality, I must not remain with the bait in hand.

Paul too had been willing to clothe himself with Jewishness when talking to a Jew or to enter into the thought-life of a Gentile when he was speaking with a Gentile, but this condescension had a greater purpose – to gain their ear for the Gospel:

  • Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible.  To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law.  To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel. (1 Cor. 9:19-23)
I had been a member of a successful seeker-sensitive church in NYC. The Gospel wasn’t so much watered-down as it was narrowed, so as not to offend anyone. However, we were assured that, although the narrowed sermon was intended to be strictly evangelistic, the home groups and Sunday-school classes would make up for the doctrine-deficiency that the pulpit had purposely created. They would fill in the gaping blanks. They didn’t! Instead, what had been left unsaid, remained unsaid and even staunchly resisted.

Success speaks loudly. Who wants to oppose a pattern that has proved “successful?” Understandably, this pattern had imposed itself upon all other areas of church life. But has it been truly successful? Well, it depends upon how we judge success. Paul judged success in terms of the teaching all of the doctrines of the Gospel, even the unpopular ones:

  • Therefore, I declare to you today that I am innocent of the blood of any of you. For I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God. (Acts 20:26-27) 
For Paul, success wasn’t measured in numbers but in the faithfulness to the “whole will of God.” How else are we to judge success? Can we read the hearts of the others who had been part of the success-story of the church? Do we know what will happen to this “successful” church the next week or year? Perhaps instead, we must commit all of these concerns to the Lord of the Gospel, who will save whom He will and how He will.

I therefore need not be jealous of the Dalai Lama and discouraged by his successes. Our Lord reigns! What a relief!

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