Can we just drop the word “seeker”?
As in “seeker churches”, being “seeker-targeted” in strategy, talk about reaching “seekers”, or what a “seeker” might think about our service? Let’s not forget abandoning being “seeker-driven” and “seeker-sensitive.”
Don’t misunderstand. I’ve used the term in these and many other ways.
But it’s a term rooted in the eighties and nineties, irrelevant at best, and terribly misleading at worst.
First, there is the problem with the idea that gave it birth. The term “seeker” referred in a general way to the unchurched who were turned off to church, but open to God. Think back to the flood of baby boomers wanting to find a church for their kids, but feeling free of the religious and denominational moorings of their youth.
These were people who were truly “seeking,” open to exploring the Christian faith for their life, and often in active search mode.
So what’s not to like? Well, they’ve stopped looking.
Most who are outside of the church are not “seeking.” Confused, maybe; but mostly apathetic. But active search mode to discover what God might mean for their life? Not too many.
The much-publicized American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) documented this, finding an alarming increase in “nones” – nearly doubling from 8% to 15% - making those who claim no religion at all the third largest defined constituency in the United States, eclipsed only by Catholics and Baptists. Further, “nones” were the only religious block to rise in percentage in every single state, thus constituting the only true national trend.
As the ARIS report concludes, “the challenge to Christianity...does not come from other religions but from a rejection of all forms of organized religion.” Barry Kismin, co-researcher for the survey, warns against blaming secularism for driving up the percentage of Americans who say they have no religion. “These people aren’t secularized. They’re not thinking about religion and rejecting it; they’re not thinking about it at all.”
So much for seeking.
In his book Society Without God, sociologist Phil Zuckerman chronicles his 14 months investigating Danes and Swedes about religion. His conclusion? Religion “wasn’t really so much a private, personal issue, but rather, a non-issue.” His interviewees just didn’t care about it. As one replied, “I really have never thought about that…It’s been fun to get these kinds of questions that I never, never think about.”
Sociologist Peter Berger once quipped “If India is the most religious country on our planet, and Sweden is the least religious, America is a land of Indians ruled by Swedes.”
What we must now realize is that we are increasingly becoming simply a land of Swedes.
Don’t misunderstand – they can get in search mode, and that is certainly something the church should encourage, welcome and serve. But that’s not their usual starting point.
Fitting that one of the endorsers of my book for those exploring the Christian faith, A Search for the Spiritual, asked that his earlier endorsement be changed from “If you’ve been looking for one book to put in the hands of a seeker, this is it” to “If you’ve been looking for one book to put in the hands of someone exploring faith, this is it.”
Subtle, but savvy.
But that’s not the only reason to retire the word.
An entire movement hoping to reach this group became known as “seeker churches” or being “seeker-targeted.” On the surface, this was fine. Every church should actively welcome someone interested in exploring Christianity. And if I understand the Great Commission, when a church opens its doors for growth, it is to go after the unchurched, not the churched. So if you are going to be “targeted” in your outreach toward anyone, it would be toward the “seeker.”
But with such noble intents and purposes came models, methods and caricatures, and soon to be a “seeker church” became synonymous with contemporary music, drama skits, plexiglass podiums, casual dress…and in the minds of many critics, cultural accommodation, doctrinal compromise, and anything else needed to abandon orthodoxy in order to get warm bodies.
And let’s not even explore the hits that have been taken about the supposed abdication of discipleship.
The truth is most of the churches so labeled were anything but compromising, but among the most conservative in the nation. Further, there was no easily defined “seeker” style of worship or “seeker-targeted” method. If you refer to what Willow Creek did in the seventies and eighties when the phrases got started, well, Willow doesn’t even do that anymore. And other churches that also carried the label during that era, such as Saddleback, were quite different in style and even strategy.
The truth is that such churches that might have welcomed the label during the eighties and nineties were more about a mission to reach the unchurched than a prescribed style or method. They knew that when they reached out to invite, they wanted to invite the unchurched. When they opened their front door, they wanted growth to come from the unchurched.
Bottom line, they wanted to reach people far from Christ with the gospel.
And when they played with traditional methodologies and styles, it was carefully separated from watering down the message.
But still, mention the term “seeker”, and all of a sudden a load of baggage is dropped that is too often undeserved, unwarranted, and untrue.
So let’s stop using the term.
It’s not fair to many churches where it is applied as a straw-man to set up and tear down, and it’s not truly indicative of those outside of the church.
So how do you define what might have been deemed a “seeker-targeted” church in terms of its missional intent?
I’m wide open.
A Great Commission church?
A church for the unchurched?
No label at all?
All I know is that many of us are trying to be about three things:
We’re trying to redeem the world, which means we’re trying to bring the light of the message of Christ to people who have yet to experience Him as Forgiver and Leader in ways that penetrate the post-Christian culture.
We’re trying to restore the world, which means we’re trying to address the brokenness of poverty and hunger, racism and injustice, to stop the hemorrhaging of community before it bleeds to death.
We’re trying to renew the world, which means we’re trying to bring forth the good, the true and the beautiful through art and policy, education and media, creating a culture that offers glimmers of the shining glory of the Kingdom of God.
And as long as it doesn’t contradict Scripture, we’ll be methodologically innovative and strategically wise in doing whatever it takes to pursue all three.
James Emery White