For decades now, I’ve heard pastors, preachers, and theologians preach against “seeker sensitivity” as a ministry philosophy. They’ve warned about using “felt needs” as a method of attracting people to church because that’s just a way to satisfy the “itching ears” the apostle Paul foretold.
It’s ironic, then, to see some of the same voices become known as much for their political punditry as their gospel proclamation. There’s a different kind of “seeker sensitivity” at work here, and I want to encourage church leaders to avoid it. We need pastors to resist the siren call of our age and give themselves over anew to the glorious call of heralding the gospel and preaching the Word, no matter what political categories get crossed.
New Church Growth Strategy
It used to be that people would “church shop” based on the felt needs of their musical preference or preaching style. Nowadays, in my experience, people are more likely to change churches due to the political preferences of their pastors.
A new church growth tactic for preachers is to play to the crowd who cheers you on as you take a “strong stand” or “own the libs” or “join the battle” for the soul of the country. The “felt need” of many seekers is a church that clearly delineates “us vs. them,” giving cover to the contempt they feel for neighbors who vote differently than they do. They prefer sermons that fit comfortably within a political framework and “rally the troops.”
In a time when people self-select into congregations of like-minded individuals, I fear that by never preaching in a way that calls out this mindset (or worse, by actively catering to it), pastors and theologians—no matter how conservative they may be theologically—have become, in their own way, “seeker sensitive.” Pastors who once said we should “just preach the gospel” and not confuse spiritual solutions with social concerns now give great attention to social concerns that make headlines on cable news. The leaders who told us we should keep the ministry and mission of the church narrow so that justice issues don’t supplant the cross of Christ now offer opinions on all sorts of political questions.
Politics and Morality
Political punditry from the pulpit isn’t new, of course. Many mainline churches have focused on left-leaning politics for decades. (You are much more likely to hear a blatantly political sermon in a church that leans to the left than to the right. So, please note my caution cuts both ways.) Since the rise of the Religious Right, many evangelical churches have done the same with politics on the right.
Moral issues have, of course, always been the purview of the church. Wherever the Bible speaks to an issue of righteous living—whether murder, adultery, theft, or love for neighbor—the preacher ought to speak too. We cannot (and shouldn’t try to) establish a clear divide between morality and politics because public policy is always based on a moral vision. And that’s where it gets tricky.
It’s easy to conflate the clarity of the Bible’s moral vision with the specifics of supporting a candidate or pushing a public-policy priority. Instead, Christian liberty requires that individual Christians are free to wisely discern—and sometimes disagree about—how best to apply moral principles to political action.
I’m not saying Christians should stay out of politics or that pastors and leaders should remain silent on moral issues of public importance. I’m also not saying Christians should stay silent or “above the fray,” as if there’s a moral equivalency between the two parties in the United States right now. The world desperately needs the church to speak boldly and prophetically where the Bible is clear. Earlier this year, I wrote about how we should go beyond “faithful presence” in our ambitions and seek to be a “truthful witness” in a world of falsehood.
But pastors should work hard to resist the pull into the whirlpool of all-politics-all-the-time. Even a pastor who keeps his preaching gospel-focused can undermine that noble emphasis if all week long he tweets, posts, blogs, and talks incessantly about the latest news from DC. Congregation members who follow an all-politics-all-the-time pastor will likely conclude the next election is the most pressing spiritual issue of the day.
Real Stumbling Block
In the past, seeker-sensitive ministry philosophies sometimes shaved off the harder edges of the Christian faith and removed the stumbling block of essential Christian teachings (such as our belief in the exclusivity of Christ for salvation, the reality of hell, etc.).
The new seeker sensitivity has morphed into something that attracts people already consumed by politics, who breathlessly await the latest developments in DC and want the church to sprinkle spirituality and gospel legitimacy on earthly political tactics. One way to satisfy “itching ears” is by preaching hard against political opponents, turning the Bible into a means of scoring political points.
As we survey the mission field of North America, we seek to avoid setting up a stumbling block other than the gospel itself or the essentials of the Christian faith. When the stumbling block becomes political decision making or the tribal signals of “woke” or “based” slapped onto churches by people who seem unable to interpret any stance except through the lens of politics, we dilute our power as an embassy of the everlasting kingdom of God.
Anxiety and Orthodoxy
Unless Christians are caught up in the great drama of redemption—the narrative of the world as told by the Scriptures and summed up in orthodox creeds and confessions—we’ll get swept up into the dramatic tension of our political parties, the starts and stops of various social causes.
Once you lose sight of the great drama, the earthly stakes of little dramas are raised. Suddenly, all our partisan debates have heightened significance. Every day is another battle between heroes and villains. No longer are we aware of the powers and principalities on the spiritual battlefield that put our earthly squabbles in perspective. Now, our neighbors become our enemies, and we battle against flesh and blood. Because we lack eternal perspective, every election becomes the “most important in our lifetime,” a struggle of life and death.
So much for the “non-anxious presence” urged by Australian church leader Mark Sayers! Today, the anxiety is the attraction. Every election is a precipice. Freedom always hangs in the balance. The gospel is at stake.
And this is how the drama of our political processes supplants the dogma of Christian teaching, edging the cross from the center of our proclamation and giving us a theology of glory instead of the cruciform path of Jesus.
Let God Speak
This is why the church needs to recapture the thrill of orthodoxy. All week long, content comes at us from a cacophony of voices. World leaders, political pundits, novelists, sportscasters and journalists, infotainment sites and shows, celebrities and social media stars—everyone has something to say. But on the first day of the week, the day we celebrate the resurrection, someone stands up with an ancient book to deliver a message designed to cut through a noisy world of constant chatter. You’ve heard what everyone else says. Now listen to what God says. What follows should be an otherworldly message with God at the center.
But too often, the person who rises with that Book delivers a message that blends in well with the advice and punditry you can get anywhere else, riffing on the week’s news or delivering commentary on recent events as if the primary purpose of our faith is to rally a voting bloc.
If our message has become little more than “make the world a better place” by voting this way or that, Christian proclamation has become wildly misdirected, no matter how many doctrines we say we believe. Unless our focus is on God, who he is and what he has done, unless our message centers on Jesus as the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, unless our dependence is on the Spirit who sweeps through the sanctuary and does his work in the hearts of people, we lose the thrill of orthodoxy and become little more than an arm of a political movement.
Beware the new seeker sensitivity.
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