Amy had a link to this article and it’s one of those things where I knew I would read something like this eventually, but I can’t say I find a whole lot of joy in it: A Shocking “Confession” from Willow Creek Community Church.
The size of the crowd rather than the depth of the heart determined success. If the crowd was large then surely God was blessing the ministry. Churches were built by demographic studies, professional strategists, marketing research, meeting “felt needs” and sermons consistent with these techniques. We were told that preaching was out, relevance was in. Doctrine didn’t matter nearly as much as innovation. If it wasn’t “cutting edge” and consumer friendly it was doomed. The mention of sin, salvation and sanctification were taboo and replaced by Starbucks, strategy and sensitivity.
If you dared to challenge the “experts” you were immediately labeled as a “traditionalist,” a throwback to the 50s, a stubborn dinosaur unwilling to change with the times.
All that changed recently.
Willow Creek has released the results of a multi-year study on the effectiveness of their programs and philosophy of ministry.
The report reveals that most of what they have been doing for these many years and what they have taught millions of others to do is not producing solid disciples of Jesus Christ. Numbers yes, but not disciples. It gets worse. Hybels laments:
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.
If you simply want a crowd, the “seeker sensitive” model produces results. If you want solid, sincere, mature followers of Christ, it’s a bust.
I never bought the whole seeker sensitive thing and more than once I was told either directly or indirectly that I must not care about the lost since I wasn’t on board. I was in campus ministry with InterVarsity when the whole Willow Creek thing really started taking off. I remember staff members going down there to learn about all the great new ways to “do ministry.” It bothered me then and it never stopped bothering me on many levels.
But am I happy to be proven “right” in my assessment of what they were doing? Not really. All I can think about are all the people who could have met Christ through the preaching of the Gospel and instead went home with warm fuzzies to get them through the week.
All the people who should be mature in their faith having been rooted and grounded in the Scriptures but instead are still trying to get their felt needs met through group therapy and pick-up basketball games in the gym (or, in this case, probably gyms).
I’m too sick thinking of the agony so many godly pastors went through as they watched their church slowly fade away as the seeker sensitive churches drained members from what were once vibrant churches that preached the Gospel unashamedly.
There are some really good comments following the article. One of the commenters mentioned Charles Spurgeon, The Prince of Preachers, who preached sin, repentance, and doctrine and never had any problem filling the church to overflowing. When the Spirit of God moves, people are desperate to hear God’s Word spoken accurately and powerfully. Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God.
One last thought from A. W. Tozer that someone else posted in the comments and then I need to go to bed and try to stop thinking about all of this so I can go to sleep:
We who preach the gospel must not think of ourselves as public relations agents sent to establish good will between Christ and the world. We must not imagine ourselves commissioned to make Christ acceptable to big business, the press, the world of sports or modern education. We are not diplomats but prophets, and our message is not a compromise but an ultimatum.
Perhaps there is some joy in all of this. Not joy in being right, but joy that perhaps the Holy Spirit is moving and starting to right some things that have been horribly wrong for an entire generation.
May God have mercy on us all.
There are a lot of seeker-sensitive churches around here, but our church isn’t one of them. Well, visitors are immediately noticed and warmly welcomed, but really it’s a wonder that anyone new ever walks in the door. First, they have to find the place, and the local sign ordinances severely limit the size of the sign out front. Then the church sits at the back of the lot, behind a bunch of mature trees and overgrown lilac bushes. The building itself is “50’s to the bone” in architecture, and looks quite outdated in its well-heeled suburban neighborhood. The architect made the front door open right onto the side street, rather than to the parking lot, so any visitor going in the closest entrance enters at the back door. Then, the sanctuary has some serious aesthetic deficiencies: horrible blue and green stained glass windows (which clash with the warm-toned lighting and drive my photographer husband nuts), and huge AC ducts running along the tops of the walls.
So we don’t get that many seekers at our church. But it is a sending church, with a long history of equipping missionaries and sending them out into the world.
Sallie, amen! I’m glad they are coming to their senses, but oh, the damage that has been done! Trying to run the church like a business or a marketing firm just ain’t right, no sir! I feel sorry for all the pastors who bought into it because it sounded good to them at the time. I hope they humble themselves and get back to the basics now that they see the foolishness in it. At least I HOPE they see the foolishness in it!
I don’t recall Billy Graham pandering. He spoke God’s Truth. That was it. People listened. They came forward in droves. No coffee bar. No books quoted except God’s Word. Billy Graham said he made that mistake once and never did it again. So no “Purposed Driven” anything–Just Jesus. Salvation. Just as I Am. Seekers need to hear Truth and be helped to understand that they Deserve that Truth and the Grace and Salvation of it.
Very good post.
Sarah – Thanks for pointing out that being a large church or even a mega church is not the same as being seeker sensitive. There are many fine large churches that preach the gospel clearly and give the people meat to grow. Being large does not mean watered down. And, for that matter, being small doesn’t mean you’re preaching the Word either. But the Gospel and God’s Word have to be the focal point or we’re all wasting our time showing up on Sunday.
Sarah @ To Motherhood and Beyond
I go to what many would consider a mega-church down here in GA. We serve over 5,000 people on three campuses and 8 services. You might say in ways we are seeker sensitive in that we work very hard to pull people in so that they can have a “life changing connection with Christ.” But, I can assure you that the Bible is preached here without any compromise. People are being saved and believers are growing in their faith at an alarming rate. We have lost members, though, because they were offended by what was preached from the pulpit. I guess I am saying that it depends on the specific church (I know you know that.) as to what “works.”
There is a church near where my Dad lives that says it is “seeker sensitive.” But, they don’t preach salvation fromt the pulpit and they encourage their members to not carry their Bibles to church because it might offend visitors. That is “seeker sensitive” gone way wrong!! I have no problem with a church engaging the culture through gyms, events, coffee houses, etc. to draw people in, but then give them the uncompromising truth once they are in the doors and teach them how to grow in their faith and how to serve within the church. The church needs to be willing to adjust as the culture adjusts AS LONG AS the truth of the Gospel is NEVER altered. Some things can change, but the FUNDAMENTALS don’t.
Sarah @ To Motherhood and Beyond
Thank you for your last comment. Very well said. I completely agree that going to church on Sunday is a waste of time if you aren’t being fed fully by God’s word.
I just stumbled upon on your blog the other day and I am enjoying reading it. What I am very happy and rejoice in seeing is the article on the Bill Hybles Mega Church. My pastor is very outspoken about this movement. Our family left a church following Hybles’s philosphy and it was very painful!!
Thank you again for the link!
Lindsey @ ETJ
Sallie, the saddest thing to me is that there are lots of people who are indeed HAPPY at the failure of the seeker-sensitive movement. Almost as if their nemesis’ application was turned down from a country-club membership committee or something!
I’m not sold on the seeker friendly atmosphere either, and I’ve attended a seeker friendly church for 6 years. It does help draw in the unchurched, but the staying power for growth just is not there, from what I’ve seen. I would greatly concur with Hybels assessment—we as a church have spent millions on programs, books, studies and other things that have done little more than draw a crowd.
Yet, nonetheless, if one was saved…
I know there are many people right now hanging their head in shame over the current status quo of the entire Christian church as a whole. I’m not exactly encouraged either, but we have to remember there are good things happening and people coming to Christ by many diverse and various methods.
No matter the method there is but one guarantee—If **God** be lifted up, man will be drawn.
Our Church is really rather large, with 3 services. There are good aspects and bad aspects. The Bible is preached and taught, and there is lots to take in and grow from. However, outside of Sunday School and worship services things can become a little seeker motivated. The activities intended to draw the community in in my opinion blur the lines between being in the world and being of the world.
We stay at this Church, because of the positive aspects. I do get a little discouraged with the things I don’t agree with, but I try to remember that I’ll have that at every church.
Hey Lindsey! I didn’t read Laura’s comment that she was happy that the ministry failed. Perhaps she is saying she is happy to see people in positions of great influence realize that they have in many cases been doing more harm than good.
I guess I would look differently at the motives of folks in the seeker sensitive movement in general. While I am sure that many of them do earnestly desire to see people come to Christ, I think a good number of them had a different vision for what came next. And I think they thought that this “next” didn’t have to include so many things I believe you and I would agree are vital to growing in grace. I think Hybels said as much in one of the quotes that they really missed the boat in the personal discipleship aspect.
And because of that, I am sincerely concerned how many “converts” think they are saved but have no evidence of the Holy Spirit’s ongoing work in their lives. I’m not the Holy Spirit and I don’t know who is truly saved and who isn’t. But I would guess there are a lot of people who prayed a prayer at some seeker sensitive service and think they are “covered” in the salvation department and truly are still lost and don’t know it. That is one of the big things that scares me about the eventual fallout from the movement. The thing that makes me really sad is that there are a people who probably did repent and receive salvation and they are still drinking milk when they should be able to eat meat now and even be feeding it to others.
We can sit here and try to guess what people were thinking until the cows come home and we won’t really know because we can’t talk to all of them. I guess I’m not as willing as I am guessing you are to give them a sweeping benefit of the doubt. I had enough experiences with this mindset to know that there was some real arrogance going on about how they were going to “do it right” and leave the rest of the old-fashioned churches behind (my words). And even when they were aware that they were causing problems and dividing the body of Christ, I think they thought it was ok because they “had it right” and it was time for the old ways to die out.
Just my two cents. Feel free to tell me if you think I’m off base! 🙂
Lindsey @ ETJ
Laura said: What I am very happy and rejoice in seeing is the article on the Bill Hybles Mega Church
What on earth is there to be happy about a MINISTRY failing? Have we come this far—I’m right, you’re wrong, take that!?!?
Seriously, we all whether FOR or AGAINST seeker-friendly church styles need to remember that these churches 99.9% of the time EARNESTLY WANT TO LEAD PEOPLE TO CHRIST. They didn’t set out on a mission to make people angry, divide the church, and fail. They set out to try and save souls for the Glory of God.
We should *never* rejoice when our fellow bretheren in the Lord fail at ministry. Ever.
Sorry if this is harsh, but this is what turns “non-churched” folks away. Thus the WHOLE VERY REASON for the movement!
Lindsey @ ETJ
Sallie, I don’t think you’re off base at all. Like I said, I’m not necessarily for the seeker-friendly movement. We’ve been in a church (and have recently left, if that tells you anything) for 6 years that was/is seeker friendly. While I do not agree with most of the practices, I do have to say the coffee hour/40 days of purpose/etc type stuff is done with GOOD INTENTIONS, really. That is why I have to believe that for 99% of the churches involved it really does go back to trying to win others for Christ. I think it starts there, but then morphs into something altogether different, like bringing in big numbers, establishing growth, becoming “mega” or whatever. We all tend to get proud when we see numbers rise, whether we’re talking about churches, blogs, stores, or business! 🙂
In the end, I have to err on the side of grace and assume that most churches, if they are led by people who do indeed love Christ, seeker friendly are not, are tyring to further the cause.
It is a real dilemma because the seeker friendly thing isn’t really working as we’re learning, but the old ways aren’t exactly doing it either. Churches are dying out because they have no “young blood” to carry on the leadership. Now before you flame me for saying that, let’s examine.
The “old school” church of today is three hymns, a good sermon, and an altar call (or not). We forget that this is NOT how church has always been done, even if the older folks want to believe it has always been done this way. The church for 1500 years looked very ritualistic and ceremonial before the Reformation. It is VASTLY different than the average Southern Baptist or Reformed service that the old-schoolers like.
And to take it a step further, the very-new early church in the time of the disciples was a very JEWISH looking church. They were hardling singing “The Old Rugged Cross” and having handshakes right after announcements.
Life changes, but GOD NEVER CHANGES. If we stick to the message of the gospel, we can never go wrong.
Do not consider me a fan of the seeker friendly movement. I”m not. But I have lots of friends and family who are, and they’re not bad people with evil intentions to bring the church to and end. They’re just normal, loving, God-fearing people like me and you. 🙂
I’ve always been bothered by the term “seeker friendly.” Isn’t that what all churches (and followers of Christ for that matter) are supposed to be? Honestly, I’m not sure God cares whether our churches serve coffee and play sports in the gym or not. I think He cares about whether people are trying to faithfully preach the gospel to those who are lost. Paul was the one who was willing to be all things to all men in order that some might be saved. Different churches have abilities to reach out to different groups of people, and that’s great, as long as in the end they’re all pointing to the same truth in Christ.
Sarah @ To Motherhood and Beyond
While there may be problems with the Seeker Sensitive Movement remember that God can use it just as easily as anything else. Someone may come to a S.S church because he/she is drawn to the activities. Perhaps he/she doesn’t find the depth he/she wanted and proceeds to another church and gets saved there. God used the S.S. church to give that person a taste of the Gospel and a desire for it and the other church led that person to Christ and provided nourishment. The S.S. movement has its place in the church as a whole. It is doing a good job bringing in the “young blood.” Many of the younger people these days ares so disillusioned by the old way of doing things and they desperately want something new. Yes, some of those churches are lacking in the further nourishment and that is a problem. Just don’t dismiss the S.S. movement. It really has done some great things too.
Oh Sallie. Your post is torn from my heart! Blessings on you and, indeed, us all!
Very interesting post. I’m not sold on the seeker-friendly churches myself. . . I just don’t know what to think, but I keep an eye out at the church I attend. It’s not so much the concept of trying to get the unchurched and uncomfortable into church that bothers me, but it’s the marketing methods that really give me the spooks.
We were members of a large conservative Southern Baptist church in our area about 6 years ago until we moved to another location. The pastor at that church was very conservative and did a great job preaching straight from the Bible. . . but imagine our confusion when we heard he’d left that congregation to start another church that has turned out to be a seeker-friendly church located in a strip mall behind a Priscilla’s lingerie shop. That’s nothing really. . . it was his hypocrisy that surprised us: one Sunday at the old church, we heard him use scripture to tell congregation members that it was wrong to wear jeans to church (huh?), but now he has shaved what little hair he had, grown a goatee, and regularly wears Hawaiaan print shirts and jeans to his Sunday Praise Service.
I am just skeptical if I think about it too much.
Also, the trend amongst seeker-friendly churches seems to be that the church members seek more self-ministry than having interest in ministering to others/service to others. It’s the social hotspot with self-growth at the heart. Just take note of the number of Bible studies, Ladies Get-togethers, Men’s small groups. etc. that seem to be supplanting family worship time.
My mother has been concerned about her church for these reasons. She told me that recently, a ladies’ Beth Moore study continued on in another space in the church on a Sunday Night while baptisms were being held in the main evening worship service. . . #1 What were the ladies doing separating from congregational worship? #2 Did they not care about the baptism and the meaning of that? Hm. And nevermind that a select group of men at the church get together just about every Sunday after church for “man food” and Sunday afternoon sports watching. . . what about family?
There’s some scary trends going on. (This is long. Sorry for any run-ons.)
Interesting article! The PR person in me is eager to actually look through the new book that Willow Creek just released. It seems like the “controversy” they are “admitting” to is designed to hype the new book, or their latest philosophy?
I really have no idea, but just find it interesting, especially as an old PR hack 🙂
But, I have to agree, I am not happy to hear them admit that they were wrong. It’s too much like the seed that took root and then fell away. These are real people, real souls who have fallen by the wayside ;-(
I just stumbled onto your blog today and I was very surprised to read this post. My husband and I are associate pastors at a church that has been committed to preaching the gospel without a hint of compromise. When the “seeker sensitive”movement hit big over the last decade we had to make a determined decision that we would remain true to the full potency of the Word of God.
We did dabble a little in outreach techniques that, looking back, were nothing more than marketing strategies. We would always have immediate results that were impressive, but given a period of time, those people would begin to fizzle away and we would be left with our core group of people again.
We realized that in those situations, we had been sucked into the seeker sensitive culture without even realizing it. We repented and went right back to the Word of God. The Bible works for all things.
As a church, we have received much criticism from other churches who think we are not “rolling with the times” or being “relevant for today”. Since when was the Word of God irrelevant? Where in the Bible does it say that it’s God’s will for you to have a bigger church and the way to do it is to lay aside anything related to the operation of the Holy Spirit or things that are “culturally Christian”. WE ARE NOT OF THIS WORLD, and God did not call us to look like the world or candy-coat the gospel to make it more appealing.
Here’s how Jesus ministered: He told people to take up their cross and follow Him. He said that if anyone did not “hate” his mother, brother and sister, that person could not follow Him. He asked the Twelve disciples at one point if they were going to leave him like the other disciples had (this was an alter call to LEAVE!)
Jesus never begged or bribed anyone to follow Him. He never used marketing gimmicks or “proven” strategies schemed up by man. In fact, He made it hard for people so they understood the cost of following Him. This should be our example to follow.
I am sorry about what has happened in the seeker sensitive movement. I’m sorry for all the pastors who were led astray and have lost their edge in ministry. I am sorry for all those who got saved through this movement and were reared as half-hearted, self-seeking believers. I’m sorry for those who were hungry for the meat of the Word and were never fed by it, and starved to death spiritually. I’m sorry for all the people who weren’t reached by the gospel and perish for it. I’m sorry for those who have to give an account for the harm they’ve caused to countless numbers of people across our nation and even the world.
God, save us from ourselves. Convict us to live unrepentantly according to Your Word alone! Heal our land. We need YOU!