Wednesday, September 05, 2007

The Alienating Strategies of the Seeker Sensitive Movement

Consider for a moment with me the great danger of our seeker-sensitive movement:

Like all dangerous things it starts off well enough: We gear our worship to fit with a particular target audience (usually one that conveniently happens to include us) and we do it in the name of "translating" the gospel, "contextualizing" the message, and speaking the language of the times. This is good. It is arrogant not to do this. But ...

Do we realize that in this multi-faced and generationally unstereotypable culture when we choose a target audience we are un-choosing several others?

Perhaps that is something we have to do. Perhaps all we need are churches for every audience. But if that were the case, why don't we have churches for every audience? Because taken to the point of absurdity this ends in George Barna's so-called Revolution! (i.e.: The church is you! Do what you want and call it church! You love God and worship Him don't you? Good enough! If you need some people around you, heck, take your iPod to church or a para-church group and just worship how you want. People will love seeing you kneel and raise your hands and get so excited! And they will love it even more that they don't have to listen to your music! Fantastic! Church just got a whole lot better! For more of this biting satire see this earlier post).

The unfortunate thing is that with the seeker-sensitive movement we have basically chosen a certain target audience and got stuck with it. This is actually nothing new. It happened with the hymns and organ crowd and now it is the CCM music and pep-talk crowd. The emerging church (at its worst) is really just the next changing of the guard in terms of target audiences. Part of me applauds the changes and says lets just get on with them. Another big part of me has lately seen it all as window dressing. But it is window dressing that can do an awful lot of harm.

For instance: What about the genuine seekers who don't fit the target audience. People who don't speak Hybelese, don't ever listen to pop-radio (and therefore find CCM music almost like something from another planet), and don't find the pep-talks to be hitting them where they hurt? What about the people who have questions other than the ones the so-called seeker-sensitive church is answering?

They are on the outside looking in.

Which would be fine, I suppose, if they: a) realized it was just a matter of style and personality difference and you could get past it to the central truths of worship and communion that are to be had at that church, or, b) had another church to go to that did speak their language, or, c) had a church that spoke to its target audience but was also sensitive enough to its seekers to be able to adapt and speak in several languages at once.

Unfortunately, I don't see a lot of this happening. Hopefully I'm wrong. But if I'm right, we've got a whole whack-load of genuine seekers who leave the church for all the wrong reasons. Sure, they may be partly to blame for not seeing through the window dressing and for not seeking hard enough, but then again, who are the ones who claimed to be doing the reaching? Who are the ones who claimed to be giving the answers on Sunday morning? Who are the ones putting half their effort into a certain music package and calling it worship without qualifying the term whatsoever?

The crazy irony of all this is that sometimes you will find people in churches who do not fit its target audience at all. Sometimes, below the surface, they are struggling with why they don't seem to feel it like everyone else when the worship reaches its crescendo. They are struggling with why they always seem to have questions about the sermon topic that it just didn't seem interested to address. They might feel unspiritual. They might even feel guilty. They might feel like they are missing something.

But what they may not realize---while they are still going to this church and (knowingly or unknowingly) making these "sacrifices of preference"---is that their worship may actually be purer and more pleasing to God than that of the frenzied many with their perfectly catered service! For they are committing an act of self-sacrifice (thereby following the way of Christ) in order to take part in the church and the worship of God, whereas the others are, at best, giving God glory and enjoying His grace to allow them to do it in a language and style that pleases them, or, at worst, are just there for a good time. My point isn't to measure spirituality here or judge us for enjoying the grace of God in worship, but to point out the irony in all this.

I guess I just worry for the seekers whom we are not sensitive to. Unless they can find a group that they can relate to they are on their own, and may not survive. Even if they do find a church in which they are the target audience, they might be saved . . . but they are perpetuating the problem, and their worship is bound to be diluted. If this goes on long enough the evangelical may be a laughingstock in the kingdom of heaven and a delight to the demons below: For we would have become the most self-seeking of them all.

Lest this sound like one more critique-parade, let me propose a positive step toward solution. There are two possibilities here. One is to splinter into hundreds of house churches: One for every niche and seeker. The other is is to stop being so dang "seeker-sensitive" and just be salt of the world. If we are multi-generational and if we give our people the courage and discernment to be in the world (and of course not of it) then it will become natural for us to speak various cultural languages and not have to try so hard. We certainly need to think more about this.


Bryce Ashlin-Mayo said...

I hear you Jon...but this is a hard one. In essence, very decision the church, collectively and through the leadership, makes when it comes to worship style, programs, preaching styles, wall colors, bulletin design, use of symbols, even the language our services are in, are connected with "target" in some way. We choose what we will sing, how we will lead those songs, the language we sing them in, etc. and inevitably preference and target seep in.

I guess I would argue that although this can't be avoided, we have to ask ourselves the question: At the heart of what we are doing, our practiced values, are we being exclusive or inclusive of others?

jon or angie said...

yeah, you're right.

I find it interesting that the Catholics want to go to Latin Mass. I think it is ridiculous. But a Catholic I spoke to said it was so that YOU had to change for church and IT would always be the same. (I'm not sure why they don't use ancient Greek or Hebrew then, but that's another story). The one thing I think it reminded me was that, as you said, on one hand you are ALWAYS catering in some way to a certain audience, but, on the other hand you are ALWAYS going to seem a little strange to the seeker. The church is always going to be doing something different that is going to require adaptation, getting used to, etc...

Or at least it should.

I just wonder if the seeker-sensitive movement has so eliminated the "strange" (for those who feel at home in its target audience) that it has a) lost what made it church in the first place and b) relocated the "strange" from the scandalous message of the cross to its one-dimensional choice of style.

In other words, if choice of audience is inevitable, and strangeness is (or should be) inevitable, we should probably try to balance them a bit better.

Why cater totally to one audience? Why seek strangeness in things unrelated to the gospel?

The irony is that I think today's seeker is actually looking for something strange. If they want to be catered to they can stay at home and watch TV. If they go to church they are there to find something they were lacking otherwise. If all we give them is Austin City Limits followed by Oprah --- why come?

Am I addressing what you are saying? I agree with you. As always, there is a balance to be struck here.

Tony Tanti said...

Ironically the seeker sensitive stuff seems strange to me, a guy who grew up in the church.

I'm not against having strategy or targeted services but you make a good point that by targeting a type of person (even if they are the majority) you can't help but exlude another type of person.

This is why liturgy has some appeal as the service is pre-determined so that the visitor doesn't expect to be catered to. Even some liturgical traditions are trying to be seeker sensitive now though.

I guess the selfish side of me would like to be catered to and then let some other church cater to the preferences of people who don't like what I like. That would be easiest with a ton of house churches like you said.