the new Issues, Etc. Journal - Vol. 1, No. 3
The Gospel in the Background
Does Seeker-Oriented Evangelism Make the Most of Every Opportunity?
by Todd Wilken
From 1925 to 1976 filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock made 53 films. Hitchcock’s films are considered groundbreaking classics. The name "Hitchcock" brings to mind title after title— "The Man Who Knew Too Much," "Lifeboat," "Rope," "Vertigo" and "Psycho." Hitchcock’s films featured stars like Ingrid Bergman, Cary Grant, Grace Kelly, Claude Rains, and Jimmy Stewart.
Alfred Hitchcock was also famous for making cameo appearances in no less than 37 of his films. He never appeared for more than a few seconds, he never spoke any lines on camera, and he was always well in the background of the scene’s action.
In your church, on Sunday morning, does Jesus appear only briefly, say little, and stay well in the background? In the preaching that you hear each week, does Jesus Christ Crucified have a starring role or only a cameo role?
In the Church today there is a popular strategy for evangelism that effectively, and in some cases intentionally, assigns Jesus Crucified a place in the background; it’s called Seeker-oriented evangelism.
The Preeminence of the Explicit Gospel Message
The Church has been given the clear command to proclaim the Gospel. If the Church does nothing else, she ought to do that. Moreover, everything else the Church does do ought to be driven by, and oriented toward that proclamation of the Gospel.
But what is the Gospel? St. Paul provides a concise definition:
I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures. (1 Cor. 15:3-4)
Christ died for our sins. This is the message of the perfect obedience of Jesus for sinners. This is the message of the suffering and death of Jesus for sinners. This is the message of the resurrection of Jesus for sinners. This is the message that the Church has been given to proclaim. This is the Gospel.
Just because Jesus is mentioned in a sermon, song or prayer doesn’t mean that the Gospel has been proclaimed. The Gospel is not the message of Jesus’ moral teaching, of Jesus’ example, or of Jesus as counselor, cook or cowboy. The Gospel is the message of Jesus crucified for sinners.
This clear Gospel message cannot be omitted, deferred or assumed in the Church’s preaching. It must predominate in all public preaching. People do not naturally know this Gospel, nor do they receive this Gospel by osmosis or gestalt it from passing references. They have to hear it clearly proclaimed.
This is abundantly clear in Scripture. Paul writes: I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified (1 Cor. 2:2), We preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block, and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:22-24), and finally, May it never be that I should boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ (Gal. 6:14).
Why must this Gospel be proclaimed? Because God creates saving faith in unbelievers and continues to strengthen the faith of believers only by means of this explicit Gospel message. Paul writes: I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes (Rom. 1:16), and faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ (Rom. 10:17).
Christ Crucified For Sinners: Background or Foreground?
The Seeker-oriented model of evangelism teaches that in order for an unbeliever to be brought to saving faith, the unbeliever must be guided through an intellectual, psychological, emotional, sociological and spiritual process. During this process, the unbeliever’s resistance is worn down and his internal barriers are overcome. Finally, the unbeliever can be brought to a point of decision, the point of conversion.
But oddly, rather than calling for more preaching of the Gospel, Seeker-oriented evangelism calls for less:
If we were convinced that a gospel presentation and invitation every week was the most effective approach for the kinds of people we’re trying to reach, we’d be doing it. For that matter, we’d do it three times a service if that was the way God seemed to be leading! But that is not the case.
Now, the Gospel is still preached in Seeker-oriented churches —just not at every opportunity.
G. A. Pritchard has done an in-depth sociological study of Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois, one the largest Seeker-oriented churches in America. Quoting Willow Creek’s pastor, Bill Hybels, Pritchard writes:
"I get bitterly, bitterly attacked from the fundamentalist side for not preaching a salvation message every time we have a seeker service." Some confront Hybels after a service, "You know, the blood of every seeker is on your hands" or "How can you have two thousand seekers there and not give a full-blown message?" Hybels answers, "Because we’re here every week."
But what about the seeker who shows up on the Sundays when the Gospel isn’t preached and ends up going to hell?
Pritchard concludes: In the year I studied, it was only rarely that Hybels or another speaker would proclaim the whole gospel during one message.
All Things to All Men
The proof-text for Seeker-oriented evangelism is 1 Corinthians 9:22: I have become all things to all men, that I may by all means save some. But in order to use this passage to support preaching the Gospel less, one must ignore the immediate context of Paul’s words. Paul says, Woe is me if I do not preach the gospel…, I do all things for the sake of the gospel… (1 Cor. 9:16-23), and, We put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ (1Cor. 9:12). Paul seems to be saying that the preaching of the Gospel overrides all other considerations.
Did Paul go to the trouble of becoming all things to all men only to leave the Gospel itself unspoken? No. The book of Acts and Paul’s epistles prove this. Paul took every opportunity to make the Gospel plain. In fact, Paul says that the Gospel should be spoken at every opportunity!
Pray also for me, that whenever I open my mouth, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel. (Eph. 6:19)
Seeker-oriented churches are very concerned about preaching the Gospel without compromise —when they do preach it. They respond directly to those who accuse them of having compromised the Gospel message itself:
We have a mandate to please God alone by preaching the pure gospel message alone —whether people like it or not. The ironic thing is that most real seekers are looking for a leader who has the courage to look them in the eye and tell them the truth about their spiritual predicament— and then show them the way to the One who can help them. And even when people don’t want to hear about the cross —and some truly won’t, as the Bible predicts— we need to preach Christ anyway…
Good! But isn’t there more than one way to compromise the Gospel? One way of compromising the Gospel is to modify the Gospel message itself. Another way is to leave the Gospel itself unspoken, to remove the Gospel from its place of preeminence. Seeker-oriented evangelism is guilty of the latter. Mark Mittelberg, executive vice president of Willow Creek Association in charge of evangelism, says:
Not every Sunday is about the Gospel. For instance, we’ll do a series on marriage or the family…. Some churches in the Southern Baptist tradition, for instance, feel that at the end of every service you have to bring it around to preach the Gospel, and challenge people to commit to it. No, we don’t do that every week; partially because we feel that people need to keep hearing biblical truth, they need to hear how the Bible is relevant to their everyday lives.
How can Seeker-oriented churches justify not preaching the clear Gospel at every opportunity? It would seem to fly in the face of even the most basic understanding of Christ’s words, Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation. Seeker churches deftly respond: But the Gospel is the foundation of everything we do:
Willow Creek tries to surround and influence seekers with the gospel in every way possible: from the relationships formed with our members and the words spoken between them as friends, to the teaching and encouragement available through our variety of small groups, to the lyrics of our music and the impact of our dramas, to the testimonies and lives of our leaders, to the illustrations in our messages, to the explicit presentations at our frequent "target weekends." The Gospel is woven in and through every aspect of ministry.
Jesus Crucified is still there they say, behind the scenes, in the background, and occasionally, even making a cameo appearance. Like Alfred Hitchock.
I ask, if the Gospel is the foundation of everything you do, then why not proclaim that Gospel at every opportunity? Seeker-evangelism’s answer to that question leads us to its theological foundation and its fatal flaw.
You Can Lead a Horse to Water
According to Seeker-oriented evangelism, the Gospel is the power of God unto salvation —but only to a point; then man himself must act. God proposes, man disposes. God offers, man decides, accepts or commits. Near the end of a sermon cited as an example of clearly communicating the Gospel to seekers, Bill Hybels writes:
The Bible says that between now and that day you’ve got to make a decision. If you’re going to take the hit and do your own atoning, then you’ll do it forever—separated from God in a place called hell. It’s your choice. But there’s another option available to you: substitutionary atonement. It’s Jesus Christ, out of love, saying, "I’ll take your rap, I’ll take the hit. I’ll pay the penalty. And you, as a guilty party —on my merits— can be free, forgiven, adopted into God’s family, blessed in love, and taken to heaven forever. Your choice!"
Notice what conversion is here. Rather than conversion being purely God’s active work and man’s passive reception, conversion becomes God’s more or less passive offer and man’s active reception.
This view of conversion is the entire rationale for Seeker-oriented evangelism. This explains why the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection is kept in the background so much of the time. This explains why the clear Gospel isn’t proclaimed at every opportunity in seeker churches.
You see, conversion is the goal. And that’s good. But, according to Seeker-oriented evangelism, what Jesus has done for you at the cross is only half the story. The crucial point of conversion occurs at your decision. Hybels writes:
[Jesus] says to us, "I love you, I’ve willingly paid the penalty you owed, and I want to forgive you. Would you trust and follow me?" The ball is now in your court, and it’s up to you to decide what you’re going to do with it. Jesus paid the price of salvation for the whole world, but only those who say yes to Him will actually receive His forgiveness…this is the most overlooked part of the message in a lot of churches today… a personal response is essential.
Now, this is puzzling, because Hybels and Mittelberg deny the Arminian view of conversion, namely, that the Spirit cannot regenerate the sinner until he believes as an act of his free will. Yet the emphasis remains on man’s decision. Pritchard observed:
The message that a decision has to be made in response to the gospel is regularly repeated in the weekend services. The words decisions, committed, commit, commitment, choice, decision and decide were used a total of 502 times over the year I studied (an average of 9.3 times each message).
Apparently, God can lead the horse to water, but He can’t make the horse drink. The horse has to decide to drink. Pastors sold on the Seeker-oriented approach believe that most churches are filled with horses that have their noses in the trough, but aren’t drinking. They believe that we need to become more strategic about how we lead them to the water so that they will want to drink once we get them there.
The view is this: The Holy Spirit moves you to seek God, to consider God, and to weigh the prospect of God, but He does not create faith —at least not apart from your personal response.
We believe that it is only…because of the work of the Holy Spirit that anyone can be drawn to God and can begin to seek Him; but that He does enable people to do that and that there is a time period in their life between when He begins to do that and when they actually make a commitment to Christ…. Salvation is a point in time where a person reaches repentance or comes to a point of repentance, acknowledges their need for the forgiveness and lordship of Christ, and they are made a new creation. But I’m saying that there’s a period prior to that where people can begin to seek after God, to say "Does this make sense?", to count the cost as Jesus described it.
Still, its unclear when the conversion actually takes place. Where along the continuum of seeking, considering, counting the cost and commitment does God actually create faith? Or does He?
Mark Mittelberg is fond of citing the example of a former atheist, who is now a minister at Willow Creek. Speaking of this man before his conversion in an interview with Don Matzat, Mittelberg says:
Mittelberg: It was the Holy Spirit that was drawing him, the Holy Spirit that was working in his heart.
Matzat: Not changing his nature, though?
Mittelberg: Not yet, not until a year and nine months later when he committed his life to Christ, that’s when he was regenerated.
Matzat: So, he was still an enemy of God, dead in his trespasses and sin while he was being drawn?
Mittelberg: That’s the way I’d describe it.
So, according to the Seeker-model, conversion is an evolutionary process culminating in man’s decision and commitment. The unbeliever needs to be walked through this process —intellectual, psychological, emotional, sociological and spiritual— wherein his natural resistance is overcome, and his barriers are removed. Mark Mittelberg puts it this way: People go through a process in coming to Christ —a process. And I believe in and respect that process.
When you honor and validate the process people go through in coming to Christ, many of them will be willing to get started. Your approach tells them you really understand what they’re going through as they take those difficult steps toward faith.
Now, if conversion is a process, then the highest priority is not to preach the Gospel at every opportunity, rather it is to understand that process and to keep people in the process. Hybels writes:
Sometimes God does a miracle and instantaneously changes a Saul into a Paul, but that’s the exception and not the rule. At other times, He’s already prepared the person through efforts of somebody else. But as a general rule people need time to think it over. We need to give them that freedom. If we push or rush them, they’ll back out of the process. But if we allow them to move at their own pace, we’ll be able to help them gradually progress until, eventually, God brings them to the point of crossing the bridge and trusting Christ.
Again, God brings, lures, draws and woos unbelievers. But just at the point where you would expect God to finish the job and create faith, you find man making his decision. At the crucial point of conversion, the emphasis and onus lies squarely on man’s action, not God’s.
If conversion is not entirely God’s work, if man has even his little part to do, his final decision to make, then all sorts of human considerations will begin to take priority over the clear and regular proclamation of the Gospel.
Another Emphasis, Another Center
Hybels and Mittelberg write:
Those outside the faith grossly underestimate the day-to-day benefits of knowing and honoring God. So [Seeker-oriented churches have] learned to emphasize not only the central Gospel message, but also the Bible’s wisdom for everyday life, including guidance in the areas of marriage, child-raising, family and work relationships, conflict resolution, and issues related to ethics and morality.
Not only the Gospel, but also the Law. But what does the Law do? The Law is not there to show us the day-to-day benefits of knowing and honoring God, the Law is there to show us our sin. Isn’t this what Paul tells us?
Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin. (Rom. 3:20)
But in order that sin might be recognized as sin, [the law] produced death in me through what was good, so that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful. (Rom. 7:13)
When the Gospel has to compete with the Law for centrality in the message, which one wins? When the Gospel shares the spotlight with the Bible’s wisdom for everyday life, including guidance in the areas of marriage, child-raising, family and work relationships, conflict resolution, and issues related to ethics and morality, does God’s work accomplished in Christ remain central and preeminent in preaching?
Seeker-oriented churches claim that this doesn’t have to be an either-or situation. But in actual practice, it often is. Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Community Church in Lake Forest California, another famous Seeker-church, recently chided a group of 1,500 pastors:
You must preach to change lives. You have to preach for application. It’s not good enough to say, "Oh, I’ll leave that up to the Holy Spirit." It’s not good enough just to interpret Scripture. The Bible says, "And teach them the kind of behavior that comes from sound teaching." That’s what preaching is all about.
We’ve made biblical interpretation an end in itself. This is why our churches are filled with far more believers in the Word than doers of the Word. …Application-less preaching is why there is no difference between the way many Christians and non-Christians act.
Warren wants deeds and action. I ask: Are we going to produce the fruit of the Spirit by the preaching of the Law or by the preaching of the Gospel? How does St. Paul answer that question?
Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort? …Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believed what you heard? (Gal. 3:1-5)
The way to proclaim the whole counsel of God is to proclaim the Law to the unrepentant and self-assured, and to proclaim the Gospel to the repentant and despairing. The way to lay the day-to-day benefits of knowing God before seekers is to lay the benefits of Jesus’ death and resurrection before them. The way to preach to change lives is to preach the life-changing Gospel clearly, at every opportunity.
A Reformation Seeker Approach?
It is disturbing that Seeker-oriented evangelism has spread so rapidly in the circles of non-denominationalism and pop-evangelicalism. But that is to be expected. After all, Seeker-oriented evangelism fits the model of conversion common in these churches. But even more disturbing is that this approach has also been catching on among mainline churches that claim to have a more sound Biblical theology, including Lutheran churches.
The very foundation of Seeker-oriented evangelism is its unbiblical view of conversion as a process culminating in man’s decision, as God’s passive offer and man’s active reception. This is entirely inconsistent with the Lutheran view of conversion as God’s work from beginning to end, as God’s active gift and man’s passive reception.
But there is more. Lutheran theology is also a sacramental theology. The Bible’s doctrine of conversion is thoroughly sacramental:
Don't you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. (Rom. 6:3-4)
Martin Luther emphasizes both man’s powerlessness to effect or cooperate in his conversion and the sacramental character of that conversion in his Small and Large Catechisms:
I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Ghost has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.
For God's name was given us when we became Christians and were baptized, so that we are called children of God and have the Sacraments, by which He so incorporates us in Himself that everything which is God's must serve for our use.
This sacramental theology of conversion stands in stark contradiction to the teaching of conversion in Seeker-oriented evangelism. But you wouldn’t know it by the way some Lutheran churches are adopting seeker-methods.
Can Seeker-oriented evangelism be adapted to fit this sacramental theology? No. The two are fundamentally in conflict. The evolutionary, human-decision-focused model of conversion is integral to Seeker-oriented evangelism. Any adaptation would require adoption of its fundamental theology of conversion. That’s something Lutherans simply cannot do.
Why? Well, aside from the obvious issues of compromising the theology of the Reformation, there is that pesky issue of the Gospel. Seeker-oriented evangelism requires that the Gospel be preached less, not more. Lutherans who seek to adapt Seeker-oriented evangelism, do so at the expense of their theology and of the Gospel.
Sinner-Oriented Evangelism —Preach the Gospel!
But what about all those Seekers? Am I saying that the church should ignore them? No, not at all! In fact, I am saying quite the opposite. However, we can focus on seekers until the cows come home, but if we don’t proclaim the Gospel to them, they’ll still go to hell.
Instead of being "Seeker" oriented, the Church ought to be "Sinner" oriented. "Sinners" include both believers and unbelievers; both the churched and the unchurched, both the religious and the irreligious. And there is one thing I can say about all sinners: Sinners need Jesus. And that means that they need to hear the explicit Gospel message at every opportunity.
I am saying what St. Paul said to the Colossians:
And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should. Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. (Col. 4:5)
Seeker churches, you have an opportunity like few others. Quit wasting your unprecedented access to the thousands who come to you every week. Don’t let a week go by without proclaiming the message of Jesus’ perfect life, death and resurrection for sinners, as you should. Stop trying to lure people into making a decision and start proclaiming the Gospel that creates saving faith. Bring Jesus Christ Crucified out of the background and into the foreground. Make the most of every opportunity —preach the Gospel!