The Seeker Service: Sentiment, Substance, and Symbol

Pastor Jeff VanGoethem

I have on occasion in the past visited churches with what is often called a “seeker” service. There are many churches today which have embraced this model or style of service, the mother of them all being Willow Creek Church in Chicago, the famous “originator” of  the brand. What is a “seeker church?” A seeker church is part of that movement in the broader church which designs its main services in a way to meet the felt needs of the outsider or non-churched person. So their main services are “seeker services.”

Attempting to discern the “felt needs” of the unchurched attender, these services are structured to provide comfort to the non-church-attender. Such things as accessibility (like easy parking), short services (attention spans are not what they used to be), sensitivity to being asked for money (people are turned off by that), relevant subjects presented in an interesting way (no long theological discourses) and so forth are important to think about. Seeker churches presume that many are “turned off” to the traditional way church is done elsewhere and want to do it a different way, a way they believe is relevant to the needs of the person who is seeking God but unchurched.

The normal elements of a seeker service are drama, professional and contemporary style vocals and music, video clips, and short, simple messages designed to present the basics on some aspect of the Christian faith. One seeker service I attended included in its service two video clips (one from a popular TV show and one from an academy award-winning movie), a lengthy drama, two fast paced, loud numbers from a large band and singing group, one attempt at a “congregational song” (few people sang), a sermon with a very simple point and a brief closing prayer. I sat in a theater style seat, in a large, darkened auditorium, having parked in a well-staffed parking lot and having dropped off my five year old daughter in a well-staffed, children’s department. This is the idea. The service is not designed for the long time church member who would swim through an alligator-infested moat to attend church on Sunday. It is for the as yet uncommitted person.

Notably, the following elements were not employed in seeker service I attended (which I think is typical): Bible reading, pastoral or congregational prayer, congregational singing and worship. In fact almost no one I saw had a Bible with them. Seeker churches usually do not have adult Sunday School classes of any kind and focus largely on children’s classes. Adults seeking a deeper engagement of Bible Study or the practice of Christian disciplines have to come at a time other than Sunday morning when the church may offer something for the more experienced Christian. Sunday mornings are for the “outsider.”

The philosophy of the seeker church is such that regular members are encouraged to bring their unchurched friends to these services with the hope that they will be drawn in to consider the claims of the gospel and eventually “plug-in” to other discipleship oriented ministries the church offers.

Well, what about this?

Let’s talk about sentiment first. By sentiment, I mean the goal or motive behind these efforts. I think the goal is laudable. To the extent that gospel truth is preached, seeker services are really evangelistic meetings. Instead of holding the evangelistic meetings in a downtown arena for five days with a famous speaker, a seeker church holds them every week and puts its resources into doing a good job of it. Evangelistic meetings have a long history in the church and the modern development of the seeker service is just another form of this. Efforts are made to make the visitor feel welcomed. Inside knowledge of the workings of the church is not needed – things are “user-friendly.” Whether such meetings should take the place on Sunday morning in place of the normal worship meeting of the congregation is a valid and important issue, but one cannot fault the motive of wanting to reach out to the lost.

In fact some of the rest of us can learn something from the commitment the seeker church has to reaching out, even if we end up doing it a different way. I won’t go into the theological fallacy that the seeker church is built opon, since the Bible says “no man seeks God.” It is ultimately God who is doing the seeking, but I’ll leave that point alone for the time being and presume our friends in the seeker church movement understand this.

So we laud the desire to reach the lost and we should not be too proud to learn some things from the seeker church about how to be more welcoming to the “outsider.” We always want to welcome others and be in the business of removing any unnecessary obstacles to the visitor.

Let’s talk about substance. I think on the subject of substance, the evaluation of the seeker service is a little more difficult. Pastor Rick Warren, the founder of a large seeker church in California, argues that the seeker service (at least in his church) is not about the watering-down the message of the Bible. Many claim, on the other hand, that the preaching at seeker services is driven by the “felt needs” of the attenders rather than by God’s Word. I can’t pronounce on this since I have not made a study of what is preached at seeker services.

Bill Hybels, one of the founders of the seeker church movement, has questioned in recent days whether the seeker church can really take people as deeply as they need to go, given the commitment to keeping things “simple” on Sunday mornings.

My guess is that this is one of the potential pitfalls of the seeker service. By definition, everything about a seeker service is focused on how the sensibilities of the unchurched person. If this is so, how long can it be before this mentality spills on to the message? How long before the preacher begins to say to himself, “I better not say that” or “I better not touch that issue” or “I better not be too strong on that point.” Because doing so might send a nonbeliever packing (in which case, he probably wasn’t “seeking” anyway!).

Those seeker services that maintain biblical integrity in the message are to be commended. But my thinking is that there must be considerable pressure to present a message that is a bit more “lite” than biblical. And in generations to come, will churches given over to the seeker philosophy still hold to the hard truths of God’s Word? Time will tell.

I know for a fact that some prominent seeker churches have taken positions that are clear compromises on what God’s Word teaches. Especially damning is the fact that some of these positions are on issues to which the popular culture is highly sensitized. We can be so in step with the culture that we forget it is our job to call the culture to be in step with God.

Also, on substance, let’s talk about believers. Churches have historically focused their attention during the main assembly of the church on the edification and teaching of the believer, as we do at Scofield. Not that the unbeliever is completely forgotten. The Bible says that the nonbeliever who gathers with Christians for worship will often be struck as to his need of Christ and come to believe right then and there (1Cor. 14:24-25).

But if the believer is not taught in the main gathering of the church on Sunday morning, then what happens to him? Many seeker churches have an alternative worship and teaching meeting. I suppose that is OK but how well-attended are these gatherings? Some attempt to do this through small groups, though small groups are hardly designed for deep Bible teaching and worship. Some are hard pressed to make much of an attempt at this at all since resources are stretched to the max to provide the seeker service.

This is also a danger point for seeker churches I point out these danger points as a kindness since seeker service proponents have been kind enough on many, many occasions to point out the danger points of more traditional churches (news flash to seeker service people: we both have our danger points!).

But the danger is this – if believers are starved of biblical depth and routinely robbed of authentic worship experiences, then the church is building a poor foundation for authentic discipleship.  And such a church will find itself troubled by believers lacking skill in Christian living and failing to resist the insidious influences of modern culture. They will moreover, lack respect for God’s authority in their lives. Many errors will ensue.

Let’s talk about symbols. This is my view is the greatest problem of the seeker service. The symbols are all wrong. First of all, many seeker churches construct buildings that resemble schools, stores or office buildings – anything but what a church usually looks like. No steeples and often no crosses. What, are we presenting a Cross-less Christianity? Granted, the Bible does not give detailed building instructions concerning church edifices. But do we think a cross or a steeple will get in the way of a nonbeliever’s consideration of the Christian faith? How can he embrace the Christian faith except by way of the cross? Why would we want to hide what we are? Do we hope for some kind of bait and switch? It seems to me that the symbols should mesh with the message.

I am told that seeker churches counsel their people not even to bring Bibles to the services. What? A Bible-less Christianity? Well, the answer is, they don’t want the nonbeliever to feel left out. Well, maybe if most people brought Bibles, maybe the nonbeliever might say, “Hey, I should get one of those for when I come back here.” Then he might read it. And if he reads it, he might get saved and start to love Jesus! Isn’t that the whole point?

Also, I am a little concerned by the slick programming and entertainment oriented nature of the seeker service. What message is sent by this? Is it that “we really don’t expect anything out of you. Just sit there and enjoy this.” When I attended the seeker service once, I had the feeling I was at a live production of a television show. Parking was easy. The seats were comfortable. Everything was perfect. I was totally spoon fed from the moment I turned in the parking lot. A tribute to organization!

The front of the room was a stage, not a platform. There was no pulpit or any other symbol of authority. Nothing remotely like “thus saith the Lord” was said. The approach taken was, “we hope you enjoy this, why don’t you think about these things?” There was nothing really serious or sober about it. Not that a warm and friendly approach is wrong, but I think it would help a little to also say something like “God now commands ALL MEN (including self-satisfied, self-focused modern Americans) everywhere to REPENT.” (Acts 17:30).

I think the seeker church could benefit from a bit more attention to God’s demands and a bit less to man’s sensibilities. I am concerned that the seeker service encourages a spectator Christianity that is especially geared to affirm the tastes of a spoiled, prosperous people who love themselves excessively. This could begin a false understanding of the Christian life and a low view of the responsibilities of those who later become part of the body of Christ.

There is no doubt that seeker services have been employed in converting many people – they are after all, evangelistic meetings. And so long as the gospel is preached, this will happen, whatever the motive or philosophy (Phil. 1:15-18). But, given the symbols of the seeker service — the non-verbal aspects of the presentation, the style and manner of the participants, the question occurs, can the converts ever be moved to the deeper costs of authentic discipleship? Do they ever learn that it is GOD that matters and not man? Do they ever realize that our felt needs do not always mesh with God’s commandments? Do they ever look at what Jesus really said about following Him? Is the impression given that you can follow Christ without a Bible, without divine authority, without facing the true nature of obedience to God, without confronting the errors of culture, and without dying to self?

Although we love the lost and actively promote outreach to the unchurched and unsaved, my personal feeling is that it is best to do so through the most authentic representation of biblical faith possible.  Those outside the faith who gather with us can gain an appreciation for just what the Christian faith is, by observing the church at worship. That way they can make an eyes-wide-open, spirit-given, clear decision for Christ, understanding that conversion ensues into a life of obedience to God.