Listening to and Questioning the Seeker Church

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The church circles I inhabit are largely Reformed, traditional, and conservative evangelical. I’m not usually across the table from seeker church pastors. I know plenty of men who pastor large churches, but their churches are pretty similar to the one I pastor–only they are sometimes bigger and probably do some things better. By and large the world of the New Calvinism is a different planet from the world of seeker-sensitive church growth. What hath Themelios to do with Leadership Journal?

But every once in awhile the semipermeable membrane between the two cells is passed. Rick Warren is invited to speak at John Piper’s conference. James MacDonald introduces Gospel Coalition folks to Perry Noble and Stephen Furtick. I don’t know if Warren or Noble or Furtick (or MacDonald for that matter) would like the terms seeker-sensitive and church growth. I’m not suggesting they are all on the same page when it comes to “doing church.” But I think it’s safe to say they are on a different page from, say, Mark Dever or Mike Horton.

What can we learn from the seeker church? Where might we be too quick to criticize? And where must we register deep disagreement? These are important questions. And to get at them, I want to explore the new book by James Emery White, What They Didn’t Teach You in Seminary: 25 Lessons for Successful Ministry in Your Church (Baker 2011). I picked this book because:

  • The publisher sent it to me for free.
  • The author is an intelligent spokesman for many of the seeker movement’s ideas and ideals. White (not to be confused with the apologist James R. White) is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church, a megachurch in Charlotte. He has an M.Div. and Ph.D. from Southern Seminary and was for a brief time the President of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.
  • The book is endorsed by people like Geoff Surratt from Saddleback, Jim Mellado from the Willow Creek Association, and Marshall Shelley from Leadership Journal. The Foreword is by Perry Noble and the book includes blurbs from Hybels and Warren for White’s other books. In other words, this is the sort of work that resonates with folks in the church growth/seeker world.

Rather than give a full review of the book, I though I would simply list a number of good point and then highlight some concerns.

Listening to the Seeker Church

1. Some pastors are woefully unprepared for pastoral ministry. They ace the biblical languages, nail church history, and love systematic theology. But they still aren’t ready to lead a church. They don’t how to lead people. They flounder with administration. They don’t attend to their own souls. These are the pastors that think ministry is as simple as reading books all week and then telling others what you read on Sunday. White reminds us that ministry is more complicated than that. It is possible to have good theology without a clue how to use it.

2. White is right to encourage churches to examine their worship and weekend “feel.” We easily grow blind to strange patterns, awkward moments, and habitual shoddiness. It’s not selling out for churches to ask themselves, “How would this make a first time visitor feel?” Of course, we don’t dump everything visitors don’t like, but why not try hard to remove non-gospel obstacles?

3. White has good practical suggestions like: teach on money, talk to other pastors, set boundaries, guard yourself against sexual temptation, and don’t kill yourself trying to please the people that will never like you.

4. White warns against merely mimicking other successful ministries. He never suggests that getting the right lights, the right coffee, and the right band and your church will grow.

5. White makes a decent case for “marketing” and church “branding.” Even if we don’t like the business terms, we should admit that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with trying to promote a positive image of our church. And no doubt most large churches give some thought to a church logo, web design, and consistent approach to signage. A lot of “marketing” stuff can fall in the category of “wise as serpents.”

6. Churches get hampered by democratic notions of majority rule. They are incapable of acting quickly (and sometimes they really need to). Church decisions grind to a halt because everyone thinks his opinion/vote should matter as much as everyone else’s. But in reality some people are immature, divisive, and naive. They should be cared for, but their nay-saying should not throttle the decision making process of the church.

7. White admonishes churches to pay attention to their reasons for decline. We need to be honest about what is going on in our churches and why. He notes that often times we fail to give young people ample space to lead and grow. We don’t platform them. We don’t include them in important decisions. We don’t hire them. If young people are nowhere to be found in leadership, they probably won’t be found much in the church.

The book contains other pieces of good advice, the kind that everyone agrees with: find good friends, spend time with your family, manage your time, beware of pride. Every pastor can find something helpful in this book. White clearly loves the local church and wants it to grow. Traditional evangelicals and Reformed Christians should not assume the worst about seeker churches and pastors. They have things to teach us about leadership, thinking strategically, and dealing with the practical nitty-gritty skills of pastoral ministry.

And yet, this would never be my go to book on church ministry. In fact, I couldn’t recommend it unless the reader was already very grounded and very discerning. There are simply too many things left unsaid and too many questionable things that are said.

Questioning the Seeker Church

1. Theology felt strangely irrelevant throughout the book. It would not be at all fair to say White or other seeker church leaders don’t care about theology or that they don’t affirm orthodox theology. They do, on both accounts. But it feels assumed at best and a necessary nuisance at worst. In his introduction Noble explains that he dropped out of seminary because he didn’t want to spend hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars on something that didn’t really equip him for ministry in the real world. No one cared about TULIP, Noble observes, or Christ’s impeccability for that matter, or fancy theological words or lectures on church history. I don’t doubt that many people in many churches don’t give a rip about theological terms or concepts. But just because they don’t doesn’t mean we shouldn’t. Maybe our people fall asleep when we wax on about justification or imputation because we are frankly bored ourselves. Maybe we haven’t been gripped by the great doctrines of the faith. Maybe we haven’t done the spade work in the text and in our hearts to see how the doctrine of Trinity or the incarnation or limited atonement is massively relevant.

I sometimes wonder if seeker church pastors have heard theology presented so badly and seen it applied to real life so poorly that they’ve concluded that theology is the problem. But if you want to help people grow in their relationship with Christ, or make a difference in their communities, or have better marriages, or experience life change, or do anything else that these pastors want to see happen, don’t skip over theology. That produces shallow Christians with soft spines and small hearts. Press through the theology and see it explode in people’s lives with joy and unmistakable relevance.

2. I wish seeker church leaders would drink from deeper theological wells. White quotes from C.S. Lewis once, Tertullian once, and Cornelius Plantinga once, but the writers that clearly shape his thinking on ministry are people like Jim Collins, Stephen Covey, and Malcom Gladwell. No doubt, we can learn things from business books and pop psychology, but one has to be concerned when the lessons for church ministry come almost exclusively from the latest leadership best sellers. Even in a book about lessons you didn’t learn in seminary, shouldn’t there be more explicit biblical reflection and more conversation with men like Calvin, Baxter, and Gregory as opposed to Seth Godin?

In the chapter “Hills to Die On” White claims that most churches in our cities have more or less the same theology. The real difference is on ministry values. This conviction, more than anything, may explain the gulf between YRR and the seeker movement. One side thinks theology is to die for and in desperate need of repair. The other side thinks the theology stuff, while very important, is pretty well established in most churches. They worry that focusing much more on theological precision and knowledge may end up dividing us or pushing more people away from the church.

3. There is little thought on how theological convictions should influence our methodological practices. One of the guiding principles of this book, and the whole seeker movement, is that while the message of the gospel doesn’t change, the method of communicating the gospel must change (82). I have no problem with practices and programs changing. I am all for having a 21st century ministry that doesn’t sound like it was transplanted from the 16th century. Contextualization happens, whether we try to do it or not. Methods can change. The problem with the church growth mentality is that one rarely considers what happens when methodology changes.

It is naive to think that our messages communicate theology while our methods do nothing of the sort. How we structure our services, how members are cared for, whether we do multi-site, whether we have three services with three different styles, whether we use movie clips in church, whether the preaching is live or recorded or broadcast, whether we use the language of body, member, and witness or the language of corporation, consumer, and product –these things are all theological questions. I’m not saying the Bible speaks clearly on every question. The Bible may give some principles and some latitude on any particular issue. But we shouldn’t approach church ministry assuming that most, if not all, methodological questions are adiaphora on par with the proverbial color of the church carpet.

4. The most surprising chapter was the one entitled “Don’t preach.” To be sure, White believes in teaching, but he says we should communicate instead of preach. Our messages must be relevant, engaging, and practical. The style of the service, including music, media, and the message, must be “culturally current” (112). Granted, he doesn’t want us to sell out the gospel, to skip over the hard parts, or to only give people what they want to hear. Those are stereotypes of seeker churches or megachurch pastors. I believe White wants the gospel taught, but it seems he is uncomfortable with it being heralded. We are told, instead, to communicate the Bible through the door of our listener’s interests–which can be a good strategy except for when the audience doesn’t have the right interests. Good preaching doesn’t just accept existing categories; it creates new ones.

If some traditional evangelicals are naive about their own contextualization, the seeker crowd is often just as shortsighted in its pursuit of all things relevant. What do buzz words like practical, engaging, and relevant actually mean? Is not the gospel of Christ crucified supremely relevant all by itself? Or is “relevant” another way of saying “new” (which may or not be a step in the right direction)? White references Calvin’s “Genevan jigs” as an example of being relevant to the culture. But this misrepresents Calvin’s aims. He hired the best poets of his time so he could reintroduce congregational singing and so that the Psalms would have tunes with fitting majesty and decorum. I’m not at all against new songs–we use lots of them. But Calvin simply did not shape the worship in Geneva to be culturally relevant. He believed in the appropriateness of style as well as substance.

5. I question the seeker movement’s emphasis on numbers. Before saying anything else, let me get all the caveats out in the open: I am not against numbers. I want more people to come to know Christ like they did in Acts. I like it when my church is growing. I know that every number represents a person. I am not against big churches. What I am against is the assumption that numbers are the best, or even one of the most significant, indicators of church health. The church in Jerusalem grew rapidly at first, but then it took slow steady growth over centuries for Europe to be Christianized. More to the point, while Paul frequently prayed for conversion and opportunities to preach the gospel, you never see him concerned over the growth patterns in his churches. He made faithfulness and fidelity aims of his ministry (and this includes reaching out and evangelizing). But he neither assumed church growth nor thought it could be accomplished by the right methodology.

It was odd to read White’s confession about pride over numbers. On the one hand, it was a mark of humility to acknowledge this struggle. On the other hand, it was strange to hear White talk about Outreach magazine’s annual list of the 100 largest churches and the 100 fastest-growing churches as if this is something every pastor thinks about. No doubt, I have pride in other areas, and maybe I’d check the list if my church was 20 times bigger, but this just seemed to be another ecclesiastical planet. I don’t recall ever meeting a pastor for whom the list was important.

Conclusion

I’m not sure how to move forward with the impasse between the YRR world and the church growth world. No doubt, there are unfortunate stereotypes on both sides. For our part, we could learn from our seeker church brethren when it comes to administration, strategy, being honest about stagnation and lack of evangelism, and being sensitive to the way we are perceived by outsiders. We can be intellectually snobbish and blissfully unconcerned about whether the church grows, reproduces, or multiplies.

As for those on the seeker church side: I encourage you to read ten theological books for every business book. I encourage you trust in the word of God to do the work of God. I encourage you to listen not just to this culture of Christians, but to the centuries of Christians that have come before. I encourage you to explicitly, unapologetically love theology and teach your people to do the same. I encourage you to worship in such a way that it won’t be out of date in five years. I encourage you to use the language of Zion instead of the language of Collins. I encourage you to proclaim, not just to communicate.

And lastly, I encourage all of us to take a hard look at all the deep theological things we learned in seminary (or should have learned) and consider whether their seeming irrelevance is owing to the them, to our people, or to us.

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