Is the Current Church Model Doing More Harm than Good?

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 May 25, 2012, in Christianity and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. a great falling away? * overturn the tables? ……….just a few thoughts


    • I get the great falling away concept. I don’t know if I would agree with it as an explanation for the current state of affairs. Leadership seems to be leading us down the wrong path. We are the sheep, just following those who are suppose to know better.


      • think of 2 separate paths being taken, one for those who want to follow closely to/with the Lord (and His will), and the other being taken by those who are leading down the path not of destruction but of their own will, of their own makings, of their traditions and doctrines instead of that path of Life in which the words that we speak are spirit and life.
        a falling away from the truth, of being led by men and what they think, instead of adhering to the Word of the Lord who leads us by His Spirit and truth.
        a falling away over time which has led to this state; a slow turning away which can be hardly seen, yet, over a period of time it has pulled away from the true course of which the church is to take, but is being govern by men instead and their wishes.

        [looking at your pic……..get your finger out of your ear! hahahha! just had to say that. sorry for the laugh. just had to say something.] 😉


  2. Confessions of a former Atheist

    I know I’m coming in this a little late, but I really don’t see a problem with a seeker-friendly (or however else you want to phrase it) church. I think the problem most Christians have with it is it is different then anything they’ve ever seen. They also tend to harp on the extremists in the movement. The watered down, God’s sole desire is to make you happy and comfortable preachers (I think we all know who i’m talking about. Hint: he has funny hair and a spinny globe). What is wrong with making the church attractive to people? We can all agree that people these days are absolutely not like your traditional church going folks. That is plainly obvious. If they do not respond to that tradition then we need to figure out what we need to do to reach out to them. One thing is technology. Why does the church have to slowly die because we won’t use an LCD projector or put a guitar on stage? Back in the 50’s we started putting piano’s on stage even to the disgust of the “old folks”. And going back to being practical instead of theological, I don’t know of any unchurched people who ask pastors, “what theology do you teach at your church?” Many of them don’t even know what theology means! People want to know how this book written thousands of years ago affects me and that’s what these churches do. You can not expect a non-christian to act like a christian and we CAN NOT look down on them because they aren’t as “deep” as us!! That’s why these churches choose to bring people to Christ by showing how God can be relevant to them. By loving on them. THEN we can start getting into the deep issues. If they come on the first Sunday and after a bunch of hymns that they have never heard before and have no beat (which they don’t relate to) they hear the pastor go into Pre-destination versus Blah Blah theology, I can bet they will be asleep before the alter call.

    My point is this. Are there churches who water down and stray from the gospel? Yes. Is that the case for every church? No. God’s grace never changes but his methods do. So why shouldn’t his church?


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