From time to time the Adventist Review presents opinion pieces on a wide range of issues. The following article presents one perspective. -- Editors
uantity, or quality? Nearly every aspect of our lives is impacted in some way by this decision. Are you an extrovert who prefers a great number of acquaintances, or an introvert who favors a few close friendships? Do you go for a gallon of bargain-brand ice cream, or do you settle for nothing less than a pint of premium?
Today’s church makes a similar decision when it settles on a model for preaching, teaching, Sunday School, and Bible study. The direction your congregation takes may have a lot to do with a “Chicken or the Egg”-style dilemma. That is, does quantity breed quality, or is it the other way around?
In other words, will growing a church’s numbers by tickling a few ears, singing catchy tunes, and avoiding Bible passages the world doesn’t like yield us, through sheer numbers, enough of a crop of committed disciples to get the Lord’s work done? Or will a church grow if the Christians in it are fed Biblical meat, trained to evangelize, and leave sermons feeling challenged?
Does the Bible mandate that we build the church one way or the other? What does the average seeker expect to see and hear when visiting a church, and how much do we owe it to them to provide it?
It’s not a new debate, but one that Salem Web Network’s Communities Manager Fred Alberti tapped into as the lead-in to his weekly newsletter. Fred wrote:
In a recent seminar I learned that in order to double one's Sunday School class size the teacher should avoid presenting a lesson that has too much depth. It was felt that if the lesson was too deep that new visitors would feel overwhelmed and would be less likely to return. This really bothered me. Are we to strive to water down the Word of God in order to obtain members with a shallow faith who, when faced with the trials of life, have no root to stand in adversity? I'm sure there is a place for a class devoted to seekers but I think we should all be striving to grow past the milk and obtain the more meaty substance of God's Word. What part does the seeker-sensitive service/class play in today's world?
To say he received a few responses would be an understatement. Most respondents agreed with Fred, like Lauren from Georgia:
“The seminar you mentioned is why we left our last church. When they added video games to the 1st-4th grade Sunday School, we explained that our kids were not allowed to play them. The comment we got back was that video games are what’s needed to reach ‘today's kids.’”
Dave Q. shares:
“I don't know anyone off the top of my head who went to a seeker-friendly service and stayed long term. Most people I know wanted to go to church and went because it was church! I think with Sunday School we need to teach as God tells us to teach. He knows what is needed for the kids and the community. I would rather teach 10 kids that stayed faithful and remembered me when they were older, than teach 50 kids intermittently!”
And lest you think such opinions are relegated to the world of online forums, James T. Draper, the retiring president of Lifeway Christian bookstores recently added this fuel to the fire in his final column for The Baptist Press:
“The desire to be overly seeker-sensitive is pulling us away from proclaiming the hard truth of the Gospel. The Gospel is an offense! A righteous man was nailed to a cross. There was a beating involved, and blood shed. We must not water that down. We cannot compromise the reality of the Gospel under the guise of relevancy. Relevancy is earned when churches -- Christians -- acting as the hands of Christ, touch the wounded hearts and souls of those around them. When Christians act like Jesus, bear the burdens of others like Jesus, suffer with others like Jesus, then we will be more effective in verbally sharing the pointed truths of the Gospel with them like Jesus. What’s more, the lost will drink in the message like a thirsty man wandering in a desert drinks in cool, clean water.”
Why then, are many of our churches numbers-driven? Numerous friends in vocational ministry have spoken to me of their frustration. Those under their spiritual charge need discipleship, but they lack the time to provide it well since they are under pressure to provide proper programming -- events and outreaches that will boost their numbers.
To some extent, there exists a suspicion and jealousy over the megachurch model, where the prevailing sentiments say that all large churches do is entertain to evangelize, rather than training their members to go into the community and do it for themselves. But new research from the Hartford Institute for Religion Research
suggests that most opinions of megachurches aren’t accurate -- that members there get fed, that true worship does occur, that it isn’t all about money and/or numbers. So growth isn’t necessarily an evil to be avoided. And even if misguided, can’t youth programs that offer video games but keep kids busy in a safe environment still be beneficial? Don’t we care that preaching only meat will alienate visitors whose level of biblical literacy hasn’t advanced beyond formula?
John MacArthur recently decried the seeker-sensitive movement as: “The push within churches across the country to make worship services more "relevant" and therefore more attractive to the world. It's the driving force behind the marketing ploys and high-tech entertainment gimmicks churches use to promote growth. As you read this, you may be asking, ‘What's so dangerous about trying to attract unbelievers to your church?’” And in fact, one respondent named Tina said:
“I was raised in church; we just never stayed in the same church for more than a couple of years before moving onto a new church, and usually one with a new denomination. Because of this some of the lessons were familiar to me, but some of them were not. It was like going to a foreign language class where everyone was a year ahead of me… I have friends that have said they quit going to church because they felt so stupid in Sunday School…”
Imagine how unbelievers may feel. Another reader admits there at least needs to be some balance:
"Teachers come here from China to upgrade their methods and we have arranged classes to introduce them to the Bible. You have to dumb it down a little when they ask, "What is this word 'Resurrection?' We've never heard that word." If you don't stop and clarify this they'll leave. But those who know will leave too if you spend too much time on the basics."
And yet MacArthur goes on to call seeker-sensitivity "deadly" for churches. And he makes a compelling, if not paradoxical, argument. For if seeker-sensivitity truly buffers the church roll (and why do it if it doesn't?), why would it be dangerous?
Because the Word in all its truth is not taught, and according to 2 Corinthians 4:2, anything other is "shameful and underhanded." It also takes an important job out of the hands of believers:
“I just heard MacArthur preach this week that we too often think of church as the "place of evangelism." Instead, he taught that the church was where members gathered to worship, be taught, hear the preached Word of God, and equipped to do evangelism in the world. If every meeting of the church is turned to "seeker sensitive," I wonder-- and I mean this sincerely -- when will the saints be equipped?”
“Witnessing activities outside the church are great but the church is for Christians not for unbelievers. Unbelievers need the truth not sensitivity.”
And that, as with most things in the life of a Christian, is the bottom line... do we follow the Word of the Lord? That was the concern on the mind of most of Fred's respondents:
"Teach the Word - that's what helped me a lot; a great Sunday School teacher that taught Revelation when I was first saved!"
"We shouldn't water down the deep things of God… If the leader has ability and sensitivity they will be able to put forward such things in a simple but exciting and challenging way making our walk with Jesus a continual and ongoing enrichment.”
“We don't try to be seeker sensitive; we just preach God's Word… It's a smorgasbord full of all kinds of meat. Milk may be added to the menu in the form of a class called The Basics of Christianity or some such thing, but seekers who graduate such a class should then be encouraged to move on to meatier classes.”
“For my part I think [being seeker-sensitve] is a heresy. NEVER did Jesus water down His Word. It's an extremely dangerous thing to do. Making sure that people are grounded in the basics is very important. I went to a church that has bought into the seeker-sensitive deal. The youth group was the worst thing I've ever seen.”
So far, the mandate seems clear; preaching the Word of God without compromise is the primary duty of any believing body that gathers together. Perhaps that’s oversimplifying if not done with all-out-surrender. But if that ideal is geared so to equip Christians to evangelize and minister out in the world, we must honestly ask ourselves why we’re missing so many who are lost and yet seeking a spiritual path. Just this morning, yet another seemingly-innocuous article appeared in an Indiana newspaper that isn’t unlike many from the last couple years discussing the popularity of all things “emergent,” “relevant,” or “seeker-friendly”:
“Thousands are joining [people’s names omitted] every year in a flight away from traditional church services. They either seek out loud, flashy services with IMAX screens and pyrotechnic displays like the one in [town omitted], or they’re finding God in their own way, on their own time, and on their own terms. ‘They are doing this in their homes or at work or with sports teams because they, first of all, want to advance their relationship with God,’ said George Barna, founder of the religious studies organization called The Barna Group.”
Therein lies our dilemma -- those we’re losing. And can they be blamed -- in the “futility of their minds” (Ephesians 4:17) -- for that which would entice them away from the Truth? There has to be a way to find balance, as so many who wrote in to Fred suggested they had found in their own churches. Discipleship and training for the committed. The message of salvation, the truth, and a genuine sense of love from the congregation for visitors and seekers. As our last two respondents put it:
“We are to be sensitive to people and their needs; we are to use wisdom (to be as wise as serpents and as harmless as doves) but we are never to water down the word of God. What type of converts do we get?
I guess that is why we need to stay on our knees and ask God for wisdom.