This post contains two book excerpts on the seeker-sensitive movement within Evangelicalism. This means it is a slightly longer post; but it is very powerful. I hope you’ll take the time to read both excerpts.
The below excerpt is from the preface of By Faith Alone, edited by Gary Johnson and Guy Waters. This preface was written by David Wells. The second excerpt is from J.I. Packers Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, who almost speaks prophetically about this movement as it was written in 1961.
This first excerpt is taken in the context of discussing three primary groups within Evangelicalism today. The first is the group which is true to teachings of the Reformation, the second is the “Emergent” group from which the New Paul Perspective and Federal Vision groups stem, which is the focus of this book. The third group (and the largest) is the “seeker-sensitive” group, which has damaged the Protestantism in unfathomable ways. David Wells explains:
In the last few decades, however, a second church constituency has been emerging, first in America, and now, like so many other things American, it is being exported overseas. It is made up of a generation of pragmatists, initially Baby Boomers but now spilling out generationally, who have lived off this reformational understanding as does a parasite off its host, separate but surreptitiously using its life and slowly bringing about the death of its host. These pragmatic entrepreneurs, these salesmen of the gospel, may not always deny reformational understanding overtly, but even if they do not, they always hide it from view. They shuffle off this orthodoxy into a corner where they hope it will not be noticed. To the seekers who are so sensitive and who are their target audience, this orthodoxy would be quite incomprehensible, not to say off-putting. So, it is covered up because it is judged to be irrelevant to what is of interest to them and tho those who are in the business of selling Christianity; it is likewise judged to be irrelevant to their work.
They want to reconfigure their churches around the marketing dynamic, and this is something quite different. It is this experiment of borrowing off the mechanisms of capitalism, this skimming off of business savvy and the niche-marketing that follows, that makes up the second major constituency in evangelical faith, as I see it.
…In fact, it is the dominant constituency in American evangelicalism today, which is why it is pandered to so shamelessly by Christianity Today. And that is also why it passes unchallenged by many evangelical leaders who might know better. Its stunning success has placed it beyond accountability or criticism. Its success has made it invulnerable and impervious.
The idea at the heart of this experiment was always rather simple. If Coca-Cola can sell its drinks, if Lexus can market its cars, why can’t the church, using the same principles, the very same techniques, market its message? After all, this is the language that all Americans understand because all Americans are consumers. And so it was that the seeker-sensitive church emerged, reconfigured around the consumer, edges softened by marketing wisdom, pastors driven by business savvy, selling, always selling, but selling softly, alluringly, selling the benefits of the gospel while most, if not all, of the costs were hidden. Indeed, it got worse than this. Sometimes what was peddled was a gospel entirely without cost, to us and apparently also to Christ, a gospel whose grace is therefore so very cheap. And it has gotten even worse. Just as often, the gospel has vanished entirely and been replaced only by feel-good therapy. The message has been about a God without wrath, bringing man without sin, into a kingdom without a judgement, through a Christ without a cross…all that we might feel good about ourselves and come back to “church” next week. This, actually, is how Niebuhr described the old, defunct Liberal gospel! But, never mind. Buoyed by George Barna’s statistics and flushed with success, seeker-sensitive pastors have sallied forth into the consumer fields in ever more inventive and extraordinary ways to bring in the harvest now ripened, now ready to be gathered and fetched into their auditoriums.
But to what are these seekers coming? Gone are all the signs of an older Christianity. Churches that once looked like churches, symbols of a message transcendent in origin, have now been replaced by auditoriums, and some of them might even be mistake as business convention centers. Indeed, they might even pass as showrooms – boats and home appliances on display during the week and Jesus on the weekend. And why not? Gone, after all, is the transcendent message, and what remains, really, is quite-this-worldy. And this is subtly broadcast visually. Pews have been replaced by chairs, the pulpit by a stage, or, maybe, a plexiglass stand, the Scripture reading by a drama group, the choir by a set of sleek and writhing singers who could be straight out of a show in Vegas, and everywhere the Jumbotrons, the technology, the wizardry of a control so complete that it all comes off as being super-casual. This church stuff is no sweat; it’s fun! It is to this that seekers are coming. Indeed, far more frequently than we might wish to know, it is only to this that they are coming.
Barna, at least, is now dismayed. His assiduous polling, which initially launched this experiment in “how to do church,” has now been following behind it and churning up some truly alarming findings. You see, none of this pizzazz and glitz has made an iota of difference to those who have been attending. They have been living on our postmodern “bread,” on technology and entertainment alone, and not on the Word of God. The result is that they are now living no differently from those who are overtly secular, he says. They have no Christian worldview, they exhibit no Christian character, and they show no Christian commitment. Their pastors, he says, measure their own success by the number of attendees and the square footage of the building, but the people who attend, those who are born again, show none of the signs of the radical discipleship that Jesus demanded. Am I just old-fashioned when I wonder to myself where there might be a causal connection between this flagging discipleship and the abandoned biblical concerns about truth, the irrelevant orthodoxy, in these seeker-sensitive churches?
Now, a word from J.I. Packer:
There is today a controversy in some evangelical circles about evangelistic methods. Some are criticizing, and others are defending, the type of evangelistic meeting that has been a standard feature of English and American evangelical life for almost a century. Meetings of this type are well known, for they are very characteristic. They are deliberately made brisk and bright, in the hope that people who have little interest in the Christian message, and who may never have been inside a Christian church, may nevertheless find them an attraction. Everything is accordingly planned to create and atmosphere of warmth, good humor and happiness. The meeting normally includes a good deal of music – choir items, solo items, choruses and rousing hymns, heartily sung. Heavy emphasis is laid on the realities of Christian experience, both by the choice of hymns and by the use of testimonies. The meeting leads up to an appeal for decision, followed by an after-meeting or a time of personal counseling for the further instruction of those who have made, or wish to make, a decision in response to the appeal.
The main criticisms that are made of such meetings – whether they are wholly justified we would not venture to say – are as follows. Their breezy slickness makes for irreverence. The attempt to give them “entertainment value” tends to lessen the sense of God’s majesty, to banish the spirit of worship and to cheapen men’s thoughts of their Creator; moreover, it is the worst possible preparation of the potential converts for the regular Sunday services in the churches which they will in due course join. The seemingly inevitable glamorizing of Christian experience in the testimonies is pastorally irresponsible and gives a falsely romanticized impression of what being a Christian is like. This, together with the tendency to indulge in long, drawn-out wheedling for decisions and the deliberate use of luscious music to stir sentiment, tends to produce “conversions” which are simply psychological and emotional upheavals, and not the fruit of spiritual conviction and renewal at all. The occasional character of the meetings makes it inevitable that appeals for decision will often be made on the basis of inadequate instruction as to what the decision involves and will cost, and such appeals are no better than a confidence trick. The desire to justify the meetings by reaping a crop of converts may prompt the preacher and the counselors to try and force people through the motions of decision prematurely, before they have grasped with is really all about, and converts produced in this way tend to prove at best stunted and at worst spurious and, in the event, gospel-hardened.
The way ahead in evangelism, it is said, is to break completely with this pattern of evangelistic action, and to develop a new pattern (or rather, restore the old one which existed before this type of meeting became standard), in which the evangelizing unit is the local church rather than a group or cross-section of churches. Then the evangelistic meeting finds its place among the local church’s services – a pattern, indeed, in which the local church’s services function continually as its evangelistic meetings.