5 Things The Seeker Movement Got Right

by Jared C. Wilson January 3, 2017

Actually, these are more like five “right ideas” or five “right tracks” the “seeker sensitive” church growth movement started down before it veered hard into a fuller blown consumerism and became the attractional church. The yes, but's will be a reflex for many readers (as they are for me), and I have tried to anticipate them in my explanations, but for the most part, this really is a post about some good gifts the seeker church of yesteryear has given contemporary evangelicalism.

1. The Emphasis on Every Member Ministry

In its grossest manifestation, this approach to member assimilation simply equates membership with volunteerism in the programming, but in the beginning, the concern about active membership was a good one. The seeker church was seeking (pardon the pun) to recover from the “country club”-type membership of its parents’ church, where all you had to do was walk an aisle, sign a card, and commit to give money. The original focus of the seeker church as it pertains to membership was to hold members accountable for ministry in the church. Adding spiritual gift assessments to the membership process was a positive step in the right direction. And the emphasis of making sure people placed in integral offices of leadership in the church were actually gifted for those offices was a great recovery of a long-neglected biblical teaching. Before this evaluation of the church’s assimilation of its members to service, churches just plugged willing souls into open slots, an expedient ruthlessness of its own that did enough damage itself. Rather than make an ear out of an eye with ear aspirations, the seeker church movement at least brought with it a re-focus on Paul’s teachings on the spiritual gifts in service of the church.

2. An Emphasis on Community Through Relational Groupings

Yes, much of the way churches “do” small groups today is a boondoggle waiting to be more widely exposed. But let’s give some credit where it’s due. The death of community was not the seeker church’s fault before it was the whole Church’s fault. And whatever problems we may (rightly) see in the one-size-fits-all, artificial “small groups as community” programs, the notion that community is what church life is all about, that people must connect relationally and “do life” together, is not something the emerging or missional movements innovated. It was the church growth movement, borrowing from the house churches, parachurches, and the ’70s Jesus Movement that recovered the notion of relational community over against the traditional church’s persistent substitute of cliques and classes.

3. An Incarnational Rethinking of Evangelism

The attractional church emerging from the seeker movement has largely bailed on the gospel. But in its nascence, it had the good idea that biblical evangelism was less about revivalistic “repeat this prayer” ticket-punching and more about living lives of witness to Jesus. By dispensing with the weekly altar call guilt-trip, and by attempting to train its congregants in relational evangelism, the seeker churches evince an admirable trust in the Holy Spirit for conversion and a proper expectation of its members to carry the message of Jesus beyond the church walls and into their daily encounters with the lost. Somehow the consumeristic impulse proved too strong, and I’d argue that the attractional movement has largely inverted this beyond the “seeker service” and effectively and implicitly suggested to its attendees to trust the worship experience for the evangelistic heavy lifting. But in its pioneering days, the seeker church had a practically proto-missional approach to Christians’ neighborhood and work life.

4. A Recovery of the Value of the Arts

This is not precisely an ecclesiological development, and the emphasis on the arts has clearly exploded in many cases into full-on entertainment-driven Sunday morning church performances and regrettable secular marketplace doppelgangers in the Christian entertainment market. But coming with the development of the church growth movement was the recovery of the value of artistry within the church and by the church as more than just polemics and propaganda. Again, we can obviously debate the quality of the art being produced in the Christian market these days—which clearly pales next to the art created by Christians in previous ages—but the valuing of creativity, the interest in aesthetics, and appreciation of artistry as not being worldly or unseemly is a huge improvement over against the culturally combative fundamentalism of the traditionalist church.

5. An Insistence that Faith Is for All of Life

The execution has been terrible, especially as the dominant teaching mode focusing on moralistic and therapeutic how-to’s has basically produced a largely nominal Christianity that is culturally conditioned and practically indistinguishable from the world. But the motive was sincere, I think. The early emphasis by the church growth movement was that Christianity applied to all of life, not just to one hour a week within the church walls. The emphasis on “life application” teaching—which, again, gradually and awfully subsumed proclamational preaching of the gospel—was itself a response to a real problem: namely, that non-Christians were not seeing the beauty of faith lived out, and Christians weren’t living out that beauty. The problem in execution is that the seeker/attractional church thought the solution to this problem was more law, not more gospel. Ironically, their execution in addressing this problem has only further created more Christians living compartmentalized lives. But the original notion toward application actually came out of a desire for our faith to direct, inform, and affect our families, schools, and workplaces. The seeker church wasn’t wrong to troubleshoot this problem, and we should follow that cue.

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