The Seeker-Sensitive Church: Theology or Psychology

In addition to the ‘emerging church’ recently discussed in this column, there is a more subtle movement underway involving mainline denominations in an attempt to bolster sagging attendance as well as to gain new members. Many new and existing churches are embracing contemporary philosophies and miscellaneous activities to provide wide appeal. Several other titles attached to this effort include the ‘new paradigm’ church and the ‘market-driven’ church. The impetus for this movement was society was changing while the church was not keeping pace. It was felt that something more must be offered. After it was determined what potential members wanted then a marketing strategy could be developed to make the church more appealing.

A pioneer in the area of church growth was Robert Schuller, who in fact claims to be the founder of the church growth movement. His philosophy was quite simple… “Find out what would impress the non-churched in your community and then offer it to them.” Dr. Schuller believed that expository preaching had little value. Norman Vincent Peale was his mentor and he “began to communicate a message of Christianity that focused on meeting the emotional and psychological needs of the people.” Schuller’s thinking was that the major perceived need of people was self-esteem. He then initiated a radical shift from God to human needs as the focus for his church. The results were impressive as his church grew dramatically.

A problem with Schuller’s approach is that the recognition and elevation of one’s self-esteem is totally contradictory to Biblical teachings. Consider self-esteem is related to pride and is a contradiction to humility and meekness. There are literally hundreds of scripture references commending humility and meekness and just as many others that condemn pride and self-exaltation. A result of Schuller’s strategy is a dilution of Scripture.

Schuller’s proposition that self-esteem was mankinds predominate need was followed by Bill Hybels, pastor of Willow Creek Community church, who thought that while self-esteem was indeed important there were more pressing ‘felt needs’ that if addressed would grow the church more. Hybels and others such as Lee Strobel, author of ‘Inside the Mind of Unchurched Harry and Mary’ determined that the pursuit of happiness trumped all others. Following the pursuit of happiness was identity, companionship, marriage, family, relief of stress, etc. Other very popular books on church marketing include George Barna’s ‘Marketing the Church’ and ‘A Step-by-Step Guide to Church Marketing.’ Barna is the most highly regarded marketing researcher in evangelicalism.

One of the results is a contemporary gospel that attempts to convince people Christ died to meet their needs. The focus becomes self-centered, i.e. knowing and accepting oneself rather than Christ-centered, i.e. knowing the mission and real purpose of Christ and His death. Sin was redefined from rebellion against God to a flawed strategy to gain fulfillment.

The Biblical gospel has limited appeal to the need fulfillment seeker who is looking for satisfaction here and now. The Bible, however, promises persecution, trials, and discipline in the here and now.

“Then Jesus said to His disciples, ‘If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?”
Matthew 16:24-26

“Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you…Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
Matthew 5:11-12

“…and all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution.”
II Timothy 3:12

“…if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in this matter. For the time has come for judgment to begin at the house of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the end of those who do not obey the gospel of God?”
I Peter 4:16-17

The ‘seeker-sensitive’ and ‘market-driven’ churches are motivated more by market research and polls than the word of God. There is the ultimate disparity between the two sources.

However, not all church leaders are led by emotions and popular opinion. Pastor and author Gary Gilley of the Southern View Chapel, Springfield, IL states: “The new gospel is liberation from low self-esteem, freedom from emptiness and loneliness, a means of fulfillment and excitement…The old gospel was about God; the new gospel is about us. The old gospel was about sin; the new gospel is about needs. The old gospel was about our need for righteousness; the new gospel is about our need for fulfillment; the old gospel is foolishness to those who are perishing; the new gospel is attractive.”

Christ Himself described the church as it will appear during the latter days.

“I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot…So then because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth. Because you say, ‘I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing’ – and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked…therefore be zealous and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me…”
Revelation 3:15-20

So while the ‘seeker-sensitive’ and ‘market-driven’ churches think they have it all together and are in need of nothing, some will actually leave the real Christ out of the picture and are, therefore, in need of everything.

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