One of the more interesting stories to come out in recent months has been the shift that Willow Creek has been undertaking.  For those not aware, Willow Creek has been the flagship for ‘seeker sensitive’ congregations.

However, in recent months, they have revealed that their own methodology of tailoring their church services to non-believers has been less effective than they thought.  Skye Jethani at Out of Ur reports:

Today, Greg Hawkins, executive pastor at Willow, recapped the study and then shared some changes that the church is now making in response to the research. He said they’re making the biggest changes to the church in over 30 years. For three decades Willow has been focused on making the church appealing to seekers. But the research shows that it’s the mature believers that drive everything in the church—including evangelism.

Hawkins says, “We used to think you can’t upset a seeker. But while focusing on that we’ve really upset the Christ-centered people.” He spoke about the high levels of dissatisfaction mature believer have with churches. Drawing from the 200 churches and the 57,000 people that have taken the survey, he said that most people are leaving the church because they’re not being challenged enough.

Because it’s the mature Christians who drive evangelism in the church Hawkins says, “Our strategy to reach seekers is now about focusing on the mature believers. This is a huge shift for Willow.”

It is deeply encouraging to see a church as influential as Willow Creek turn toward building disciples, rather than limiting the church’s mission to winning converts.  Yet while the changes are clearly positive, they don’t quite go far enough.

Fundamentally, seeker sensitive churches are built on the premise that the mission of the church is to win new converts.  By subordinating all discipleship and church activity to this end, seeker-sensitive churches fail to acknowledge the intrinsic goodness of the fellowship of the people of God.  In other words, they miss out on the eschatological character of the Church–there is no “Church triumphant” in the seeker-sensitive ecclesiology, as the Church exists fundamentally to win converts rather than to encounter and worship the Living God.

The difference is, I think, crucial.  If the ultimate end of the church is saving people, then the only adequate basis for those activities that do not immediately result in salvation–and here I think of the creation and promotion of art–is the salvation of lost souls.  However, if the goal of the church is to experience Holy Communion–that is, to dwell in the presence of Jesus Christ, through his Spirit, as His body–then art, music, dance, business, etc. need no further justification for their existence.  The church can engage in them because they are human activities and intrinsically worthwhile.

This is, I think, the chief deficiency of a seeker-sensitive ecclesiology, and many evangelical ecclesiologies.  When non-believers become Christians, what type of life have they been saved to?  A life of saving other non-believers is good, but ultimately insufficient, for it is not the sort of life that one can–or will–live in heaven.

Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

  • Another thing they seemed to still be missing is the idea that God defines what the Church is and does. They made a shift (in the right direction, as you mentioned) not on the basis of attempting to be more faithful to biblical models of Church, but because they did a new study and it told them new information. What is preventing them from doing yet another study, and realizing this time they’ve missed yet another crucial group and their needs? It would seem that they are far more committed to pragmatism and studies and the like than to being faithful to the Word of God.

  • makelovehappen

    Interesting article. People forget Hybel’s top response in his survey for why people do not go to church: hypocrisy. I think we should make dealing with that the top priority.

    Also, church should not be for seekers or for members. It should only be for those who are serious.

    BTW, there’s no such thing as intrinsic goodness.