Monday, March 25, 2024

Anonymous Asks (295)

“Should churches be seeker sensitive?”

A few weeks ago, I went to a church I’d never attended before. I took a couple of friends, one of whom is searching for meaning in her life and finally considering the possibility that her problems may have a spiritual component. From my perspective, the main attraction of this particular church was that it was close to her home and the online statement of faith looked orthodox.

The perfect is the enemy of the good and all that, right? I just wanted to get her there, and get her some spiritual food.

The welcome was cursory but warm, the atmosphere suitably non-invasive for a first timer. The pre-message routine was traditional, even a bit liturgical. Then came the sermon. I thought we were drowning. Five minutes in, I could see my friend hadn’t the slightest idea what on earth the speaker was talking about. In that moment, if you’d asked me, “Should churches be seeker sensitive?”, I would have shouted, “Yes, absolutely! Could you please start right now?”

Normally, that wouldn’t be me, as you will see in a moment. But experiences like mine probably gave rise to the seeker sensitivity movement, which, for all the good intentions behind it, has the potential to divert churches from their core purpose, ultimately weakening them. I sympathize with the perceived need, of course. I just feel there are probably more biblical ways to meet it than reconfiguring the church to do it badly.

Seekers and Venues

The Great Commission, so-called, was not given to the Church universal. It was not even given to local churches. Neither Church nor churches existed when the Lord Jesus called his disciples to be his witnesses “to the end of the earth”. The Great Commission belongs to you and me as followers of Christ. If we refuse to do our bit Monday through Saturday, nothing institutional churches do on Sundays will help one bit. If anyone should be encouraging seekers and helping them find answers in scripture, it’s individual Christians.

That’s the pattern established in the books of Acts and reinforced in the Epistles. Evangelism happened in the streets, in courts secular and religious, in hostile synagogues, at riversides, in marketplaces, in places where people gathered to hear public speakers, in private homes, in the chariots of Ethiopian eunuchs, in jails, and basically anywhere and everywhere the disciples could get themselves a hearing. But they preached the gospel as individuals or in groups of two or three. Most of the time they were outnumbered, and almost always they were in foreign territory, not in the comfortable confines of their own gatherings looking around at a sea of friendly faces and a few frightened strangers.

In short, the early Christians went wherever seekers were likely to be found. They did not expect seekers to come to them. They certainly did not change the meetings of the church to cater to them, with the possible exception that Paul always insisted any man speaking in church make himself clear and intelligible in case the untaught were in attendance. It’s hard to see how that could ever be a bad thing.

The Big Four

So then, if the early church was not devoted to catering to seekers, what did it do? The book of Acts says, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers,” or, as I like to call them, the Big Four. These were the priorities of Christ’s earliest disciples whenever they came together. They worshiped, they prayed and they built one another up in their new faith through teaching and sharing all good things, often including common meals. Their focus was on Christ and on one another when they came together, and on the world and its needs when they separated and went about their necessary business.

I believe with all my heart that these four areas of focus remain the primary mission of the church whenever it gathers today, not the spiritual needs of the unsaved. The Father seeks worshipers. You can’t gather worshipers if you don’t have regular worship to call them to, and they can’t worship in spirit and in truth along with you if they have not properly learned Christ.

A Properly Functioning Church

That said, Paul himself acknowledged seekers sometimes come in to Christian gatherings, as my friend did that fateful Sunday. What should she expect a properly functioning local church to look like?

Well, let’s concede she might not understand every word she hears. That goes without saying. Some Bible teaching is milk and some is meat, depending on the situation and the level of those gathering. But even meat ought to be presented intelligibly in plain English. Some concepts may be too high for a newbie, but the language used to describe them should never be incomprehensible to anyone. Religious lingo may sometimes be useful shorthand between initiates, but in a gathering of any size open to the public, there will always be people who don’t understand certain words and ideas without a brief, clarifying digression. A speaker who sees there are babes in his audience should make sure he doesn’t continue speaking as if he were out for coffee with a couple of advanced seminary students.

Subjects to Avoid

Paul also put helpful limits on the subject matter to discuss in church gatherings, knowing that the untaught might be present and confuse these other typical matters of religious debate with the substance of the Christian faith. Contradicting basic doctrine is not to happen in church, or discussion of myths, genealogies and other speculative subjects. Quarrels about words and the law are not profitable. They just produce friction. Irreverent babble is dangerous as well. Watch out for preachers who don’t know the difference between simplifying a biblical concept and trivializing it. Not only should these subjects be avoided with the uninitiated in the audience, they are to be avoided in every church gathering. If you must debate them, do it in the pub, the den at home or over the phone. They are not why churches gather.

I wish the preacher my friend listened to for 45 minutes that Sunday had given consideration to Paul’s prudent limitations, which would certainly apply to a Sunday morning 11:00 meeting just about anywhere. It might have saved him from wandering off into esoterica, blurring the lines between Law and Grace, between Old Covenant and New, leaving my friend bewildered and unhelped.

It’s not so much seeker sensitivity that is required these days as it is common sense and basic attention to what churches are supposed to do and how they are supposed to do it.

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