Theologically Sound. Culturally Relevant.

The Dark Side of the Seeker Sensitive Church Part Two: The Vision Problem

[Preface: This is a submission by Malcom Nicholson, originally published on his blog. This post fits in with our mission to combat the Popularity Gospel and is a deep dive into its nefarious origins. This is part two of a series we will be featuring weekly.]

Part One can be read here

Many of the problems which seeker-sensitive churches experience are a result of the emphasis on the vision of the leader.

In Courageous Leadership Bill Hybels defines vision, “Vision is a picture of the future that produces passion.” (Bill Hybels, Courageous Leadership, Zondervan Michigan, 2009, p 32) The leader, the minister or pastor, has a vision of the future, which usually involves being bigger and attracting “seekers” and he passes his vision on to the congregation to inspire passion in them to help achieve his vision.

This is not Biblical. As Christians, what motivates and inspires passion in us should not be what we as a church are going to do. It should be what Jesus has already done for us. In spite of all our sin, God still loves us, His Son Jesus suffered and died to pay for our sins so we can be forgiven and have eternal life. That is what inspired passion in and motivated the early church in Acts. What they did was inspired by what Jesus had already done.  What many Christians need today is not a passion for what their church plans to do, but a deeper understanding of the Gospel, what Jesus has done for them.

In Transitioning, Leading Your Church Through Change, Dan Southerland says that the leader’s vision come from God,

“Vision is the picture of what God wants to do. Vision is a picture of what God will do in His church if we get out of His way and turn Him loose to do it. So the process of vision is the process of joining God in what He is doing and wants to do in His church.” (Dan Southerland, Transitioning, Leading Your Church Through Change, Serendipity House, Colorado, 1999, p 22)

In The Power of Vision George Barna also says that the leader’s vision comes from God,

“Vision for ministry is a clear mental image of a preferable future imparted by God to His chosen servants and is based upon an accurate understanding of God, self and circumstances.” (George Barna, The Power of Vision, Regal, California, 1992, p 28)

Barna says that because the leader’s vision is really God’s vision, it is perfect (p 72), it is inspired and conceived by God (p 73), it cannot be wrong (p 74) and different interpretations of the vision are impossible (p 181). This suggests that the minister and his vision are infallible. It is really God’s vision. To disagree with the minster’s vision is to disagree with God.

In Part Three I will discuss how the seeker-sensitive church movement has been influenced by secular management principles. Nevertheless, the seeker-sensitive movement’s concept of vision fails to take into account the policy/administration dichotomy. Suppose a community wants to build a bridge across a river, but they cannot agree about the design of the bridge, i.e. a suspension bridge or one with pylons. Their policy is that they want a bridge. The administration is how they implement the policy, what kind of bridge. There is clearly more than one way of implementing the policy. Often in politics, both sides have the same policy, i.e.,  they want better health care and education, but they disagree on how to implement it, the administration.

The same distinction applies or should apply to the church leader’s vision. The vision is the policy. The vision sounds good. They want to reach the community around them, they want non-Christians to come to church, feel safe and welcome, hear the Gospel and become growing Christians. What Christian would not want this? The problems begin when they implement the vision, the administration.

The seeker-sensitive church model fails to differentiate between the vision (policy) and the implementation of the vision (administration). It is not open to the idea that there are different ways of implementing the vision. George Barna says this is impossible (The Power of Vision, p 181).

At my old seeker-sensitive church the leaders decided they wanted to appeal to the unchurched and young people by playing loud music. It was too much for many of the elderly. When they complained, they were told they were disagreeing with the vision and if they didn’t like it, they should leave. This is a common occurrence in seeker-sensitive churches. They were not disagreeing with the vision. Of course, they wanted to reach the unchurched. They were disagreeing with how the vision was being implemented.

Playing loud music is not the only way to appeal to the unchurched and young people. They could have compromised, turned down the volume, had a second service with more traditional music. There is more than one way to implement the vision. The irony was that after many of the elderly had been driven out, many of the young people, whom the loud music was supposed to appeal to, also left. Seeker-sensitive services are intended to appeal to baby-boomers, rather than young people who are more likely to be disillusioned with both consumerism and Chrisitanity. As the population ages, the seeker-sensitive church movement, which is trying so hard to be relevant, is becoming increasingly irrelevant.

Bill Hybels also describes the leader’s vision as a weapon, “That’s because God put in the leader’s arsenal the potent offensive weapon called vision.” (Courageous Leadership, p 31)

I thought the Christian leader’s offensive weapon was the Bible, “the sword of the Spirit” (Ephesians 6:17), but I have never been to a Global Leadership Summit, so what would I know?

If the leader’s vision is an “offensive weapon”, who is he supposed to use it against?  It looks like the answer is, his congregation. The vision is used to bully the congregation and silence any criticism and questioning. The leader believes his vision comes from God. Any decision, even the smallest ones, which the leader makes can be said to be part of implementing his divine vision. If anyone questions their decisions, like suggesting that the music is too loud, they are challenging the vision which comes from God. To question the minister’s decision is to question God’s will. This attitude is evident in Bill Hybels’ book Courageous Leadership when he describes how his church staff were hesitant about the changes he wanted,

“At a critical point, after several months of talking through the staff alignment process, I finally said to the staff, “I’m done being cool, calm and collected about this alignment process. The whole future of Willow is hanging in the balance. I am resolved that we are going to align ourselves with the God-anointed strategic plan for this church. Do you understand?

If any of you feel disinclined to get on board with this plan, feel free to find another church ministry that you can fully support. No hard feelings, but it’s a new day here.” (Bill Hybels, Courageous Leadership, Zondervan, Michigan, 2009, p 64)

I do not believe that the Willow Creek  staff disagreed with the vision and they did not want to reach the unchurched. They disagreed with the steps he was taking to implement the vision. Hybels did not differentiate between his vision, which he believed was from God, and the implementation of his vision. He regarded the staff and their legitimate concerns as challenging his God-anointed vision and challenging God. Their opinions and expertise counted for nothing. They had to agree with God-anointed Bill or leave.

I am surprised that Hybels thought his behaviour was normal enough to include in a book on Christian leadership. It sounds like bullying, reminiscent of a cult leader. Quite frankly, Hybels strikes me as an insecure person who cannot take criticism or advice (Proverbs 12:1).

On the subject of seeker-sensitive church leaders, who do not like it when you disagree with them, there is this response by Steven Furtick of Elevation Church to his critics.

Again, is this normal behaviour for a Christian leader? This is not throwing a tantrum in private. He thought it was appropriate to get the church production team involved and put it on the Internet.

What exactly do Bill Hybels, Steven Furtick and other seeker-sensitive church leaders think their critics are objecting to? It is usually more than just the loud music, or the minister doesn’t wear a suit and tie. These are side-issues. The real objections to the seeker-sensitive church are the way the leaders ignore, neglect and exploit the congregation and have watered-down the Gospel. But if you try to raise these issues, you can be called a “hater”.

In another post There is no such thing as a Gnostic Gospel,  I have discussed the Gnostics. They were an ancient Christian heresy which believed they had the secret knowledge (gnosis in Greek) about the true nature of God and Jesus. They believed they were superior to the ordinary orthodox Christians who “only” had the Bible. Some leaders of seeker-sensitive churches are reminiscent of the Gnostics. If someone tries to tell them what the Bible says about leadership, church and the Gospel, they will not listen. They know better. They have the superior knowledge (gnosis) about these things which they got from Bill Hybels.

Some seeker-sensitive churches, such as Elevation Church, Lifestyle Church, and Church of the Highlands  say in their vision statement that they will “aggressively defend” their vision.  How exactly does a church “aggressively defend ” its vision? What do they do to little old ladies who think the music is too loud? I feel like doing my Winston Churchill impersonation here, “We will fight them on the beaches. We will fight them on the streets. We will defend our vision. We will never listen.”

It is a pity they will not aggressively defend “the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3), assuming they knew what that means.

In Willow Creek Seeker Services Gregory Pritchard writes that there is a “deep fear of being labelled disloyal” at Willow Creek (G.A, Pritchard, Willow Creek Seeker Services, Baker Books, Michigan, 1996, p 43). This is presumably a result of Hybels’ “agree with my God-anointed vision and everything I say or leave” attitude. Pritchard continues,

“Virtually any time staff members told me something about the church that could be interpreted negatively, they would quickly try to qualify their remarks, ask me not to use their comments, or request that I not identify them as the source. They wanted to avoid the earmark of disloyalty. One of these individuals admitted, “I don’t want to be seen as a curmudgeon.” The only dissatisfied staff member I found remarked, “They [church leaders] value loyalty more than honesty.” (Willow Creek Seeker Services, p 43)

Disagreeing with the minister on the implementation of the vision is not necessarily the same as disloyalty. A good example of this is Shakespeare’s King Lear where the old king decided to divide his kingdom among his three daughters. Two agreed with him. The other said he was wrong, so she was banished. The two daughters, who had agreed with their father, betrayed him. The daughter, who had disagreed with him and had been right, turned out to be the loyal one.

When staff or lay people in the church disagree with changes in the church, the implementation of the vision, they are not necessarily being disloyal or challenging the vision. It is more likely that they believe there is a better way of implementing the vision – keep the vision, just change a few things. However, the  Willow Creek seeker-sensitive church model does not differentiate between challenging the vision  and suggesting there is a better way to implement the vision.

If the staff, who have concerns about the implementation of the vision, are bullied into silence or into leaving the church, what sort of staff are the church left with? People who lack the knowledge of the Gospel to understand what the problems are and “yes men” who go along with whatever the leader says, often to advance themselves.

The Holy Spirit has given some Christians the gift of discernment (1 Corinthians 12:10), This is not the gift of being able to criticize people on the Internet. It could be defined as the ability to differentiate between right and almost right. The seeker-sensitive church movement is almost right. It has good intentions. We must reach the unchurched, but it needs reforming.

The seeker-sensitive church leader and his vision is at enmity with the Holy Spirit and His gift of discernment. If someone with the gift of discernment is part of a seeker-sensitive church and tried to explain to the leader that some changes need to be made in the implementation of the vision, they would be seen as disloyal and disruptive, challenging the vision. In truth, they are using the gift which the Holy Spirit gave them, to keep the church on track. When some members of the church are ignored and silenced and are not allowed to use the gifts, which the Holy Spirit has given them to use on the church, the whole church suffers (1 Corinthians 12:20-26).

In 2009 Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York spoke at the Global Leadership Summit. Around the 37th minute he made the comment . “Really dysfunctional churches don’t have arguments, people just leave.” Most Christians do not want to get into nasty confrontations with other Christians, so when the ministers will not listen to their concerns, will not give an inch and tell them to put up with it or leave, they leave. It sounds like Tim Keller was hinting that seeker-sensitive churches are dysfunctional. Everybody’s smiling, everything seems fine, while hundreds of people are leaving.

Ministers know that they adopt seeker-sensitive church and Willow Creek leadership practices, many people will leave the church (Transitioning, p 127-128, Courageous Leadership, p 42, The Power of Vision, p 149-150). This is sometimes referred to as the “blessed subtraction”. In spite of all their talk about communicating the vision to the congregation, they keep the known consequences of implementing the vision secret from them.. They do not explain to them that if they implement these changes, a lot of people are going to leave the church. Many of those, who leave, are older church members who have built and sustained the church for decades. They are discarded. I knew one person from my old seeker-sensitive church, who had been part of the church for 70 years, but he had to leave because the music was so loud. This is just wrong.

When church leaders plan to go seeker-sensitive, they often renovate or expand the church or buy a new building. They encourage the congregation to pledge money to fund their projects and fulfill their vision. It may take a few years between when the congregation starts to give money and the seeker-sensitive services properly begin. Many of those, who gave money to support the vision, find the music too loud, and they are told they do not support the vision and they should leave. The leaders of the church knew many people would leave the church but they tried to get as much money as possible out of them before they left. Seeker-sensitive churches are often built on a foundation of deception. Christian leaders, who think they are doing God’s will and fulfilling God’s vision for their church by behaving like this, are deluded.

To be continued in Part Three



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