As a pastor, I’m constantly bombarded with advertisements promising to take the church I pastor to new levels of success. This usually involves the latest marketing techniques and a communication style that is less offensive—more seeker-sensitive. The advertisements come replete with testimonials by pastors who grew churches into the thousands by using these techniques. Success is usually defined by large crowds, bigger buildings, and bigger budgets. Most pastors I know want their churches to grow, but I’m afraid that hidden underneath this promise is a western ethos that could ultimately prove to be deadly to the church.

Unfortunately, the church has bought into the world’s definition of success. Success is defined as taking something small and growing it into something large, like a small business growing into a large corporation. Based on this definition, a small church is viewed as unsuccessful (and undesirable), while a large mega-church is viewed as successful (and most desirable). Even our Christian conventions seem to employ this definition—how many faithful small church pastors are invited to be keynote speakers? Biblically speaking, success is not defined by drawing large crowds. We typically think of the Old Testament prophets as successful, but very few people heeded their message. We certainly believe Jesus was successful, but the longer He taught, the smaller the crowds became. A better (and more biblical) definition of success is faithfulness to God and to the message with which He has entrusted us (Heb. 3:1-6), which brings us to the problem of being seeker-sensitive.

If seeker-sensitive means we should make the message simple and easy to understand, I’m all for it. If seeker-sensitive means we should avoid certain biblical subjects, such as sin and hell, for fear that it might offend the seeker, then I’m against it. Those promoting the seeker-sensitive movement mean the latter; they view evangelism and church growth primarily as a marketing issue. That is, if you put together a good marketing strategy, if you avoid certain subjects, and preach on subjects more in line with self-help or pop psychology, less people will be offended and more “seekers” will be turned into members. This reasoning, however, does not square with the Bible. Romans 3:10-11 says, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God.” On their own, people really aren’t seeking after God; they’re seeking self-fulfillment through self-help and pop-psychology. Ironically, in Scripture, Christ is viewed as the seeker, not the lost sinner: “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10).

Salvation cannot be manipulated or marketed by man; it is a complete work of God (John 6:44). We should remember the warning of the Apostle Paul in 2 Timothy 4:3-4: “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.” Paul’s remedy for this is to faithfully “preach the Word.”

This should be the church’s standard of success, thereby leaving the results completely in the hands of God.

Billy Elkins is the pastor of Trinity Church of Chickasha, OK. He is a graduate of Chickasha High School, has a B.A. in Fine Art from the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma, and a Master of Divinity with Biblical Languages from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, FT. Worth, TX. He is currently in the final dissertation phase of a Ph.D. in Apologetics and Philosophy from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, KY.

Should the church be seeker-sensitive?
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