Sunday, April 19, 2009

the tensions within "seeker-sensitivity"

Here's Stephanie Simon and Suzanne Sataline in the WSJ...

It has long been a challenge for Christian pastors:

To spread the gospel, they must welcome nonbelievers without judgment. Yet they must also make clear that there is but one true path to salvation -- the path they teach.

As the Rev. Mark Roessler of Tucson, Ariz., put it: "The church itself has to be real inclusive -- 'Y'all come!' -- but real exclusive on how you get to heaven."

As I have often put it: Christianity is the most inclusive of all religions-- nothing is required to "get in", except to accept the free gift of God's salvation.

Tensions about how to achieve that balance have flared in the past decade with the growth of "seeker friendly" churches that emphasize inclusiveness -- in part by going easy on the Scripture, with sermons as likely to quote Hollywood as the Gospel.

Conservative pastors raised fresh concerns about the seeker-friendly approach with the recent release of a massive survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. The survey, widely promoted as an authoritative overview of religious values in the U.S., found that Americans believe deeply in God. But when it comes to doctrine, Americans are strikingly flexible....

What does this all mean?

Well, it could mean the survey is flawed. Respondents had to pick from a multiple-choice menu; there was no room for nuance or qualification. Also, the terms may have been vague: If Baptists agree that "many religions can lead to eternal life," are they thinking of Buddhists and Muslims, or fellow Christians -- Methodists, maybe?

Another potential flaw: Only a quarter of the people contacted for the Pew survey answered the questions....

Despite the critiques, many conservative Christian pastors accept the broad conclusions of the Pew study, because the poll's findings mirror trends they have been observing with alarm for years....

And now, to efforts at seeker-sensitivity...

In the Protestant community, traditionalists object to much about the new wave of seeker-friendly churches: the permissive dress code -- not only jeans, but shorts and flip-flops are often OK. The "messages" (never sermons) jazzed up with video clips and hard-rocking nine-piece "praise bands." The Starbucks cart that often sits in the lobby (and the fact that worshippers can take their nonfat lattes into the pews). Their biggest concern, however, is with the spiritual teachings.

Most seeker-friendly churches -- some of which can draw tens of thousands of worshippers -- are firmly rooted in Christianity. They offer weekly Bible-study classes and make clear in their statement of faith that Jesus is the only way to heaven. But the sermons tend to be buoyant, hip and dedicated to self-help themes, rather than theology.

More conservative, traditionalist pastors say that approach opens the door to a mushy secularism, or a la carte theology, in which worshippers pick and choose from the messages they find most helpful, without ever understanding that Christianity requires obedience to certain inflexible principles....

Scot McKnight, a professor of religious studies at North Park University in Chicago, attends a seeker-friendly megachurch -- and says the stereotype is far from accurate. A worship service can be inviting and engaging without being superficial, he said, adding that "shallow Christians" exist in every church. Yet his pastors at Willow Creek Community Church recently concluded after an internal study that they were more successful at attracting and pleasing new members than in guiding committed Christians to a deeper understanding of their faith. The church has begun an intensive midweek course in theology and Scripture....

A few thoughts here:

Southeast wrestles with this, but ends up in a good place.

The biggest gaps within such churches are: large vs. small group-- and especially, spectator vs. participant. It is difficult to get people to participate in a small group setting-- and more difficult still, to get people to devote energy to active participation in discipleship.

Within Men's Ministry at Southeast, we try to offer a range of options along both lines. And as the "capstone"-- what turns out to be intensive discipleship, or more accurately, lay-leadership development-- Kurt and I co-wrote DC.


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