Beware of Some Seeker-Sensitive Churches

Title: Beware of Some Seeker-Sensitive Churches

Text: 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, 2 Timothy 4:3-5, Acts 20:27

Time: June 3rd, 2010

I’ve talked about the need we have as Christians to beware of the liberal church and the new emerging liberal church, but I also need to call our attention to another danger within Christianity that affects some churches – an excessive “seeker-sensitivity” among some evangelicals. In explaining this danger I want to be careful so as not to label all churches that are classified “seeker-sensitive” or many that think of themselves as “seeker-sensitive” as spiritually dangerous. The term “seeker-sensitive” came into its current usage back in the 70s among evangelical churches seeking to reach the contemporary culture with the gospel within the context of the Sunday morning service. Pastors such as Bill Hybels at Willow Creek Community Church in Illinois and Rick Warren of Saddleback Community Church in Orange County, California were among the first to experiment with different “seeker-sensitive” approaches to doing church. The essential idea behind seeker-sensitivity is to make the gospel and basic Christianity relevant to the contemporary generation through carefully explaining the Bible using modern vocabulary and symbols. Because of the changing American culture over the last 50 or so years, it was observed that contemporary culture had become itself a type of modern mission field, and therefore it needed to be approached in a missionary way. What does a missionary do? He learns the language and culture in which he is attempting to minister, then he translates the words and concepts of Christianity into his mission culture so the people can experience it in their own way rather than having to learn a foreign culture in order to appreciate Christianity. The mistake of past missions approach was to bring the gospel plus the European culture to the mission field. Conversion was just as often to Western culture as it was to Christianity. This confuses the mission of the church. So in order to reach the modern, secular culture, seeker-sensitive pastors try to translate the gospel into terms contemporary America can understand and accept. That is the basic experiment. It’s safe to say that most evangelical churches have been influenced by this approach over the last twenty to thirty years, but has also been noticed is that some churches, some denominations and some church leaders have taken the basic missionary approach of contextualizing the gospel too far. Instead of just translating Bible teachings into contemporary language, some have actually adapted the basic concepts of Christianity into culturally accepted forms. In other words, some have taken the basic missionary approach beyond translation into adaptation to the culture. Instead of merely communicating Bible truths into contemporary language they’ve changed the Bible’s teachings and practices into forms that the culture can more easily accept and follow. In other words, they’ve compromised Christian doctrine and practice, more or less in different ways. I’m not saying that many or most seeker-sensitive churches have compromised faith and practice to the modern culture, but some have – it is these churches we must beware. It’s tempting to change the gospel or change Bible teaching to fit the thought patterns of contemporary culture – after all, people welcome a message that already sounds similar to what they think and feel; they also welcome practices that match what they already practice, so it’s easy to see how it’s possible to over-extend the seeker-sensitive missionary principle. But we must resist the temptation to pander or cater to the culture. We must remain faithful to the message of the Bible even when it makes us unpopular or brings opposition from our culture. Yes, we must try to be “sensitive” to our culture, but we must never compromise any doctrine or Christian practice in the process. We need to beware of the subtle tendency to extend the seeker-sensitive principle beyond its limits. Here are three important things to remember.

First, there’s the seeker-sensitive missionary principle. 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, “Though I am free and belong to no man, I make 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 (although 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 week I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.” Here is the Apostle Paul’s great missionary principle that is the inspiration for the modern seeker-sensitive movement within the evangelical church. The mistake of past missionary work was to confuse the truth of the Bible with culture. For example, when the Spanish came to South and Central America after Christopher Columbus’s discovery of the New World, they not only brought Christianity but they also brought European culture – and the two were often wrapped up in each other. There was a failure to be sensitive to the existing culture; there was extreme insensitivity in forcing European culture on people who already had a culture of their own. The Lord’s Great Commission was to make Christian disciples through preaching the gospel; it was not to make all people good Europeans. But this truth was forgotten, unfortunately. The lessons learned from this time period helped future missionaries to be more sensitive to separate the Christian message from its cultural forms as expressed in different cultures. For example, in the 19th century when Hudson Taylor went to China to carry on his great missionary enterprise among the Chinese he not only learned their language but he also learned their culture in order to present the gospel within the people’s culture, not as something foreign but as something relevant within their own cultural context. That’s the basic goal of the seeker-sensitive movement within evangelicalism today – and within its legitimate scope this is perfectly acceptable. There is no question that modern culture has changed within the last twenty-five years. So-called “pop culture” has grown to dominate the thought and language of our entire nation and even the whole Western world. It is important to communicate the Bible and the truths of Christianity in ways that people can understand today. That’s why, for example, it’s often difficult to read the writings and sermons of great Christian leaders of ages past – and experience the same impact as hearers of the past did. It’s because the context is different, much has changed in the past decades or centuries. The way people thought and spoke before no longer connects today the way it did before. No. We need to think and speak in the contemporary mode in order to translate the truths of the Bible into relevant and meaningful ways today. This is what the Apostle Paul was describing when he said, “I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.” When we teach and preach we should try to use words that have the strongest meaning today instead of words that may be traditional or comfortable but don’t have as much impact. We must be careful to describe and define biblical concepts as we present the gospel – we shouldn’t assume automatically that people today know or understand even the basics of Christianity. We should use contemporary illustrations as much as possible to help people grasp the meaning of the biblical truths; for example, in much the same way Jesus and the apostles used illustrations from agriculture and fishing, which common people would easily understand during that time. We should be “seeker-sensitive” in this way. But we should avoid the excesses of this approach. Let me explain further.

Second, there’s the erroneous application of Paul’s missionary principle. 2 Timothy 4:3-5, “For the time will come when men 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 aside their ears from the truth and turn aside to myths.” Now the legitimate missionary principle is to be sensitive to the culture of the mission field, learn the language and culture, then translate the Bible, the faith and Christian practice into the new culture – all without any compromise or corruption of the truth of God. This is easier said than done. Today, in our culture, in our country and in other nations of the Western world, the contemporary evangelical church is carrying out the Great Commission of the Lord Jesus to take the gospel into all nations, including the secular cultures, including our own. But unfortunately, some are compromising the Christian faith in order to be “relevant” to the modern world. For example, I attended a conference in the Midwest a few years ago where the lead pastor of a mega-church was explaining how he substituted the word “failure” or “mistake” for the biblical word “sin” because people today are offended and become alienated from any speaker who uses this traditional Christian word in a message. We must be willing to abandon any traditional word in order to translate it into more modern language in order to communicate the gospel to the contemporary age. He went on to illustrate his point with the account of the woman caught in adultery found in John 8. Jesus was willing to forgive this woman’s mistake and failure. Now the question is, “Is ‘sin” the same thing as a ‘mistake’ or ‘failure?’” Clearly it isn’t. Theologian David Wells of Gordon-Conwell Seminary points out that the language of sin described in the Bible is defined as offense against God primarily. The problem with substituting modern language for the biblical word “sin” is that most other words primarily communicate offense against other people not God. Also, there is a difference between a “mistake” and a “sin” because the former doesn’t necessarily mean any moral offense, while the latter almost always means moral offense. It’s the same with substituting the word “failure” for “sin.” For example, I can fail on my driver’s test, but that doesn’t mean I’ve committed a moral offense. Clearly, to make a habit of substituting the two words “failure” and “mistake” for “sin” is a compromise of biblical teaching. It doesn’t have to be necessarily a compromise if one goes into a lot of explaining and qualifies their usage carefully, but that’s not what this pastor did. He simply substituted these two words for the biblical word sin casually in his sermons and teachings, thus, compromising God’s Word. And this happens more and more these days as pastors “get creative” in their conceptualizing and making relevant the gospel to the modern world. This kind of compromise is subtle but real. The words “mistake” and “failure” are easier to hear for the modern person than the language of sin found in the Bible. It’s tempting to speak so as not to offend people in culture today, but there is no getting around it – some biblical language is offensive, for example, talk of sin, God’s wrath, future judgment and hell. But we must not soften the language that God chooses to speak to us as sinners. It may well offend because it’s supposed to offend, and force us to grapple with our own sinfulness and hopefully cry out to God for forgiveness and salvation in Jesus Christ. We must beware of any seeker-sensitive church or ministry that is ashamed to teach the biblical gospel. The Apostle Paul says in Romans 1:16, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes. . . .” Neither should we be ashamed of the gospel, nor the Bible, nor the language of the Bible. We shouldn’t be so sensitive to “seekers” that we compromise the biblical language and message. This is just one example where excessive seeker-sensitivity is bad.

Third, there’s teaching the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Acts 20:27, “For I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God.” There is a tendency by contemporary seeker-sensitive pastors to refrain from proclaiming the whole will of God – or as the old KJV Bible puts it “the full counsel of God.” And we can understand why – we risk offending and alienating our listeners, the very people we are trying to bring into the church and reach with the gospel of Christ. So, because we are so afraid of turning away these visitors or seekers or attendees interested in church, we soften the message, change it or round off the rough edges of it so that people aren’t automatically turned off by it. In many evangelical churches one hardly ever hears messages that mention confession or repentance – again, highly offensive topics for modern listeners. Our popular notions of freedom include the idea of freedom to do anything at any time just as long as it doesn’t offend anyone else. But that idea fails to recognize that many sins are offenses against God and God alone. As sinners all of us, we naturally don’t like to be told we’ve sinned, nor do we like to be told to confess or repent of sin. These will be offensive, but that can’t be avoided without compromising the gospel. The Apostle Paul says that he never, ever failed to proclaim the whole will of God. Or in other words, he never, ever held back saying the truth from God out of fear of offense. Neither should we ever hold back teaching the Bible because of sensitivity for others, or for fear of offending someone listening. We must try not to be rude or crude. We might want to try to teach in a non-offensive manner, but when it comes to teaching God’s Word we must not fail to teach it because someone might be offended and leave the church – or come once and then never return. I’m afraid there are many churches today built on an excessive seeker-sensitive philosophy of ministry where the pastor avoids proclaiming the whole will of God because he just doesn’t want to risk offending anyone. I’m afraid this is an all-too-common error made by otherwise good pastors. The seeker-sensitive movement if practiced within biblical boundaries has much to teach the church. It teaches us to think in terms of how the message and presentation comes across in the contemporary culture. It teaches us to try to be relevant within the context of the modern world. But where it errors, when it errors, is when it crosses the line from sensitizing us to culture and pandering to culture. The world doesn’t need a gospel in its own image; it needs a gospel outside of and different from the way it presently sees things. The world doesn’t need sin minimized in order not to offend it; it needs sin biblically defined and explained in vocabulary that it can understand, but whether it is offensive or not, that’s up to each individual’s response and the condition of each individual’s heart. The truth is, the gospel is offensive to sinners – and the call to repentance isn’t an easy sell either. But the Bible doesn’t say salvation is easy, just that it’s free to all those who believe. So we need to beware of churches, ministries and Christian leaders who would try to soften, water-down or compromise the Christian truth in order to please the contemporary culture. Sensitivity is one thing, but over-sensitivity to culture is another. Let us be seeker-sensitive to our contemporary mission field, but let us not be overly so in the extreme.

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