Reasons to Believe

Reaching the Nonbeliever, Part 2 (of 2)

Is it possible that a seeker-sensitive approach to church ministry comes at too high a cost?

The term "seeker-sensitive" means that a church places great emphasis upon reaching out to would-be converts as a major part of its mission. The view expressed is that the church exists for those who aren't Christian. However, it often also means making the church appear more attractive to people. That usually means adopting a contemporary worship style and focusing the message of the church to meet human "felt needs" (what people want or desire).

Being critical of the seeker-sensitive church model (but not of its leaders' motives) might sound unusual coming from someone with an extensive background in evangelism and apologetics. From the first days of my conversion as a young college student, I wanted to get involved in Christian apologetics (the reasoned defense of the faith, 1 Peter 3:15; Jude 3). I have always enjoyed talking with nonbelievers about the truth of the Gospels. Early in my career, I became part of Walter Martin's counter-cult ministry at the Christian Research Institute, where I had the opportunity to engage people who were involved in a variety of new religious movements.

I certainly appreciate a model that emphasizes evangelism. Churches do need to seriously focus upon the task of the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20). I even think that each church should have a "minister of evangelism and apologetics" to instruct members in the art and science of presenting and defending the historic Christian faith. Believers need to learn how to thoughtfully communicate their faith and worldview to family, friends, neighbors, and colleagues.

Yet I disagree with the premise that the church exists principally for the non-Christian. Christ's church exists to both preach the gospel to the nonbeliever and to make believers into mature disciples of their Lord. Authentic discipleship involves at least the following: (1) a depth of divine worship, (2) serious instruction in apostolic doctrine, (3) participation in the sacramental life of the church, (4) a commitment to character transformation (sanctification), and (5) an ongoing desire to live a life filled with gratitude to God for his gracious gift of salvation.

Being a disciple of Jesus also means developing a vibrant Christian world-and-life view. It also involves being salt and light to a culture that seems to be increasingly adopting secular and pagan ideas and practices.

The leaders of Willow Creek Community Church, one of the largest evangelical churches in America, recently stated that their seeker-sensitive approach to church growth and function showed serious weaknesses when it came to producing mature Christian disciples. Many churches have followed a similar model without seeing strong evidence of genuine spiritual growth on the part of its parishioners. Willow Creek's pastor Bill Hybels has stated that the church is recommitting its efforts to focus on spiritual growth among its members. I have visited Willow Creek and appreciated their interest in Christian apologetics and commitment to teaching people a greater depth of biblical theology.

Members of Christ's church have a great calling and vocation. While the seeker-sensitive model has highlighted the need for evangelism, reconsidering the church's need to spiritually transform its members may strengthen it. After all, Christian evangelism may be at its most effective when it comes from people who have become authentic disciples.

For more on the Christian worldview and how it relates to evangelism and apologetics, see my book A World of Difference: Putting Christian Truth-Claims to the Worldview Test.

Part 1 | Part 2

Subjects: General Apologetics

Kenneth R. Samples

I believe deeply that “all truth is God’s truth.” As an RTB scholar I have a great passion to help people understand and see the truth and relevance of Christianity’s truth-claims. Read more about Kenneth Samples.