George Barna: The Seeker-Sensitive Church Model: Dumbing Down Disciples


The Barna Group just came out with a new research report.  In it, they describe six mega-themes relating to the state of the church in America.  I want to discuss two of those themes here.   I believe they have a cause and effect relationship.   I also believe that the Seeker-Sensitive church model is directly responsible for the findings detailed in the Barna Report.

Barna says:  “Change usually happens slowly in the Church. But a review of the past year’s research… provides a time-lapse portrayal of how the religious environment in the U.S. is morphing into something new.”  Stop for a moment and think about what you just read:  Christianity in America is morphing into something new.”

Is the American church morphing into something better and more God honoring?  The findings in the Barna Report would argue in the negative.  Here’s two of them:

1.  Growing numbers of people are less interested in spiritual principles and more desirous of learning pragmatic solutions for life.

Barna’s research has found that people, by and large, are not interested in learning about their sin, their accountability to a holy God,  His solution to their sin problem or how to follow the Savior.    I would argue that it is the non-Christian who is uninterested in these things.  Surely, the true, blood bought, ransomed, treasonous traitors turned adopted sons and daughters of the Almighty King of the universe care about such things?  Though  unbelievers may not be interested in these most relevant of all spiritual truths, they are interested in practical, pragmatic things relevant to their own lives.  I don’t fault the unbeliever for wanting to know how to be successful, how to have a better marriage, how to be a better parent or any number of topics they are interested in.  We are all interested in those things.

The question here is quite simple:  How should the church respond to a culture that is not interested in its primary message?  The way I see it, there are essentially two ways to address this.  One is to give the people what they want.  If they want to hear sermons on things that they consider important, then  give it to them.  This is a market driven approach.  The other method is to give people what they need, even if they do not know what they need.    The Seeker-Sensitive church model follows the former:  Lets give them what they want to hear.  One church in my town used this as justification to do a sermon series outreach to non-christians.  The topic:  How to have a better sex life.  The series was called “Pure Sex!” (see their advertisement here)

What have been the results of this “give em what they want”  approach?  When churches offer a steady diet of messages that non-christians consider practical and relevant, it results in a dumbing down of the church.  Most believers who attend these services week after week get weak.   Anyone involved in the seeker-sensitive model knows this is the case.  Barna says it the following way…

2.  The Christian Church is becoming less theologically literate.

Theology, by definition, is simply the study of God and all things related to Him. If the church is becoming less theologically literate, it means they know less and less about God and all things related to Him.  I would call this a major failure, since the church is charged with disciple making.  Here’s what  Barna discovered

“What used to be basic, universally known truths about Christianity are now unknown mysteries to a large and growing share of Americans–especially young adults… As the two younger generations (Busters and Mosaics) ascend to numerical and positional supremacy in churches across the nation, the data suggest that biblical literacy is likely to decline significantly. The theological free-for-all that is encroaching in Protestant churches nationwide suggests the coming decade will be a time of unparalleled theological diversity and inconsistency.” 

 My interpretation of the above is that the lack of theological understanding is going to get worse in the next ten years.  Is that even possible?


At first glance, the seeker-sensitive method sounds good.  The motive:  Let’s reach the lost is spot on.  The method is what has failed.  The results have been coming in and they are not good.  

I have to admit that early on in my preaching ministry, I actually implemented some of these ideas.   I tried it out.  I discovered the very same thing that the Barna report found.  It doesn’t work.  Sure our attendance numbers went up, but true discipleship and christian growth lagged far behind attendance.

The Biblical model, contrary to the Seeker-Sensitive church model, is to continue to proclaim the message that people need to hear, even if they don’t know they need it.  In 2 Timothy chapter 4, the Apostle Paul describes a time when people will no longer want to hear the message of the Gospel.  They will not “put up” with listening to it, will want nothing to do with it, so they will “turn away” from it.  Yet these same people will want instruction of some kind.  Paul warns  Timothy that these same people  will “surround themselves with a great number of teachers” who will teach them “what their itching ears” want to hear.   Does this sound familiar?  Doesn’t it sound exactly like the cultural climate we minister in here in the United States?

Paul’s admonition to Timothy was to not be one of the teachers they surrounded themselves with.  I find this very instructive.  What Paul was saying in essence was this:  “A time is coming when people will not listen to the gospel.  They will listen to other people teaching other things.  But they won’t listen to the Gospel.  So this is what you must do in that situation Timothy:  you must continue to preach the gospel.”  Even if they will not listen, Preach the Message of the Cross!  For an exposition of this passage, listen to the message titled “Staying On Message” in our Audio Messages page.

As church leadership panders more and more to the non-believers in their midst, the believers who remain begin to understand God and the gospel less and less.  This is a failure of leadership and those being led must seriously consider leaving these types of ministries.  

The results are in.  The Seeker-Sensitive Movement is dumbing down the American Church.   Even Bill Hybels, the founder and guru of the seeker-Sensitve church model admits it, “We made a mistake.”.

Stay tuned….more to come. 

If you found this article helpful, you may also benefit from another related article called Whatever Happened to the Message of The Cross?

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About Jim

Not For Itching Ears is a blog dedicated to discussing the American Evangelical church. It is a place for people to share their thoughts on a host of issues relating to this subject. Jim is available to speak at weekend services, and retreats at no cost to churches in Florida. Contact us for more information.

Posted on December 26, 2010, in Christianity, Contemporary Church Culture, The Christian Life, Theology and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. Good stuff. Thanks for posting. I wonder how we turn it around. It seems so many leaders are focused on numbers and budgets that disciple making is regulated to a ministry that a single leader is in charge of. I think trouble comes when discipleship and care ministries are seen by leaders as slots to fill opposed to real work of the church.




    • Hi Tony, thanks for stopping by! How do we turn it around? That is a tough question! However, I do think we change it one congregation at a time. Those who can turn it around on the local church level are the ones who are senior pastors, elders and others like them. They have to see that this seeker-sensitive thing does not work. They must also have the courage to stand by their convictions, make the changes and watch people (and money) leave, then rebuild with a more biblical pattern. There are many who are doing this. Hopefully some of them will stop by here and share what they have learned in the process.


  2. Very good comments. A friend of mine very astutely remarked yesterday that many people on our day are choosing a church not for its theological position but for where it stands ideologically. It’s not so much about what a church’s doctrines are, but where it stands on abortion, gay rights, helping the poor, etc. Apologist Os Guinness remarked a coupe of months ago that in the twenty-first century, evangelism has become easier than ever. However, he also noted that discipleship is harder than it has ever been. I think this study by Barna definitely bears witness to that.



  3. Jim, This is a well written and informative article. I belong to a small church that started almost a year ago when a segment of an ELCA congregation left to form a church that was rooted in the Word and the message of the cross. It was a difficult transition, but well worth it. A group of us recently took a class on discipleship and leadership based on “The Master Plan of Evangelism” by Robert Coleman because we want to focus on growing the faith of each individual member rather than on simply growing numbers. It is encouraging to read of others desiring to remain true to God’s Word. Peace, Linda


  4. Great article Jim. I am in a “seeker-sensitive” church, and at times see what you are describing. However, our pastor is a little more engaging and challenges people to not be just converts, but to be and build disciples.

    I often wonder if we just imitated those first few followers in Acts and got on our knees, truly seeking and waiting on God, what kind of “results” we would see. I believe we would see more results than the “market driven” approach creates.

    I wonder if God backs up and stops blessing us because we choose to “make things happen” OUR way rather than seeking His way. Can you imagine what He would do if we collectively sought Him like those 1st century believers?


  5. @linda,

    Better to have fewer deep roots than many shallow ones. Roots that can not hold onto the soil to weather the wind and cant draw up water during drought will cause the plant to wither and die.


  6. This was a response posted by Evan.

    “I can find no evidence in the NT that the church gathered for the purpose of inviting unbelievers in the first place. What I do find described instead is the body of believers meeting together for mutual edification/strengthening and then going back outside to influence others through their lives/testimony. Could we possibly be doing things backward? The result is instead of equipping the saints to do the work of the ministry outside the four walls of the church, we invite unbelievers to be ministered to by the “professionals.” This only reinforces the divide between clergy and laity and in my opinion weakens the body since the tendency is depend on the hired church staff and programming to influence and save those we invite to church.”


  7. Joann posted this comment:

    “I couldn’t agree more. Frankly sick of the whole seeker movement. The Bible was written to believers and the worship service is for believers. I am sick of the market driven, make the seekers feel comfy approach. From taking out the pews for comfy chairs, to competing for who can serve the best coffee, to the repetitive praise choruses so lacking in doctrine, to the sermon which could be gotten on any segment of dr Phil…..the new way of doing church is doing in the church. ”

    The seekers without sound doctrine become Christ followers sadly lacking the act of repentance, join churches moving into positions of leadership lacking true Biblical understanding, they lack discernment and don’t know false teaching and other dangers infiltrating the church. More and more of these churches plant other churches all with the same non threatening, water down message. The church is on the downgrade and trying to appease the seeker is the primary cause.”


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