Was the Apostle Paul seeker sensitive?
I think so but not in the same sense as today’s churches labeled “seeker sensitive.” Today’s seeker sensitive churches are defined as being hyper-attuned to creating church experiences that appeal to people who don’t know God but are seeking out the possibility of His existence. These churches are great at attracting people to their services by offering fun kids ministries, good music, quality production and performances, as well as extremely gifted communicators, who present topical sermons with easy-to-remember slogans and action points for applying it to your life at home and work. There are certainly advantages to this, which is why most of America’s largest and fastest-growing churches prescribe to this model!
But as with any church model, there are also many pitfalls that seeker sensitive churches can slip into almost unknowingly. These churches are often accused of diluting down the gospel and avoiding tough topics. Their easy on ramps excel at getting new converts but often struggle to grow disciples past spiritual infancy. They can be criticized as being too entertainment or performance driven. And many aren’t shy about using comforts, amenities, and perks to motivate
consumers people to attend. At its worst, they are mere country clubs with fitness centers and self-help lectures, but few ever devolve to this extreme.
This isn’t a pick on seeker sensitive churches article. Each church model has its pros and cons (some more than others). And God has clearly been present and worked through many seeker sensitive churches in the past few decades.
But how was the Apostle Paul seeker sensitive?
We see in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 that Paul for the sake of the gospel would become all things to all people so that by all means he might save some. He became like a Jew to reach the Jews. He became weak to reach the weak. “I have voluntarily become a servant to any and all in order to reach a wide range of people: religious, nonreligious, meticulous moralists, loose-living immoralists, the defeated, the demoralized—whoever. I didn’t take on their way of life. I kept my bearings in Christ—but I entered their world and tried to experience things from their point of view.”
This passage has been a mantra for today’s seeker sensitive churches, but Paul is talking about empathy not entertainment, compassion not comforts. Rather than trying to attract and persuade people to get them to join Christ in the short-run, Paul did the opposite and focused on how he could soothe and minister to the long-term struggles of those who chose Christ.
To the Thessalonians, Paul wrote:
Be assured that when we speak to you we’re not after crowd approval—only God approval. Since we’ve been put through that battery of tests, you’re guaranteed that both we and the Message are free of error, mixed motives, or hidden agendas. We never used words to butter you up. No one knows that better than you. And God knows we never used words as a smoke screen to take advantage of you.
Even though we had some standing as Christ’s apostles, we never threw our weight around or tried to come across as important, with you or anyone else. We weren’t aloof with you. We took you just as you were. We were never patronizing, never condescending, but we cared for you the way a mother cares for her children. We loved you dearly. Not content to just pass on the Message, we wanted to give you our hearts. And we did.
You remember us in those days, friends, working our fingers to the bone, up half the night, moonlighting so you wouldn’t have the burden of supporting us while we proclaimed God’s Message to you. You saw with your own eyes how discreet and courteous we were among you, with keen sensitivity to you as fellow believers. And God knows we weren’t freeloaders! You experienced it all firsthand. With each of you we were like a father with his child, holding your hand, whispering encouragement, showing you step-by-step how to live well before God, who called us into his own kingdom, into this delightful life.
(1 Thessalonians 2:3-12 MSG)
To the Corinthians, he said:
You’ll remember, friends, that when I first came to you to let you in on God’s master stroke, I didn’t try to impress you with polished speeches and the latest philosophy. I deliberately kept it plain and simple: first Jesus and who he is; then Jesus and what he did—Jesus crucified.
I was unsure of how to go about this, and felt totally inadequate—I was scared to death, if you want the truth of it—and so nothing I said could have impressed you or anyone else. But the Message came through anyway. God’s Spirit and God’s power did it, which made it clear that your life of faith is a response to God’s power, not to some fancy mental or emotional footwork by me or anyone else.
We, of course, have plenty of wisdom to pass on to you once you get your feet on firm spiritual ground, but it’s not popular wisdom, the fashionable wisdom of high-priced experts that will be out-of-date in a year or so. God’s wisdom is something mysterious that goes deep into the interior of his purposes.
(1 Corinthians 2:1-7 MSG)
So we see in these three passages that, yes, Paul saw the importance of cultural relevance but only if used through the lens of empathy and relationship. He intentionally avoided using his cultural insights to sway his message to what people want to hear. He never exploited the culture but like a loving parent worked hard to nurture those in it. The message was simply “Jesus,” and God did the rest.
The beauty of ministry that is stripped of polish and glamour is that in hindsight when someone eventually questions whether or not their “encounter” was really with God, they are only left with that it was God’s Spirit and God’s power that did it. It wasn’t a spectacle of rock music and thumping bass that got their heart pumping. It wasn’t the worship leader stepping on the guitar pedal that inspired them to raise their hands in worship. It wasn’t a preacher using neuro-linguistic programming to make a sermon sticky. It wasn’t the mass hysteria of the crowd or the adrenaline rush that comes from a shouting evangelist laying hands on you in prayer. It was God and only God.
So what are we to make of today’s seeker sensitive ministry?
We must be careful. We must understand that for everything gained something is lost. At what cost does incentivizing attendance come? At what cost does incentivizing conversion come? At what cost does incentivizing serving and volunteering come? And if our ministries are built on incentives, then can our disciples still stand when the incentives are gone?
I do think a little bit of seeker sensitive ministry is good. I’ve seen the genuine fruit from it. But moderation is key!
I’ve seen ministries become so drunk on this trajectory that they prioritize systems and performance over loving people. It doesn’t matter if your systems are the best in the world, if you have not love, you gain nothing.
I’ve seen ministries become so focused on formulas and persuasion that they lose faith in it only being God’s Spirit and God’s power that changes lives. So they dilute the cause of Christ down to simple action points. This increases the risk of becoming like Pharisees who follow rules while missing that the whole point is about heart attitude and relationship with God.
The key is building a strong foundation on the gospel and relationships. Once and only once this is in place then you can add on the wow factor and fun that comes with attractional ministry models. Just don’t go overboard! Without a strong root system of the gospel and relationships to weather storms and support the surface level fun, your church will topple over or eventually wither.