Last week Matthew Paul Turner reached out to get my opinion on church Father’s Day celebrations like Church Unlimited’s Baconfest (Corpus Christi, TX) – offering 5 types of free bacon cuisine to draw a crowd to celebrate fathers and Father God. Matthew’s article for The Daily Beast explores how church Father’s Day parties are trying to reverse the American male’s disinterest in church.
But what if these fun-filled church events are missing the point?
Having helped produce big church events and studied them from afar, I’ve learned that it can be easy to get caught up in all the hoopla and distracted by the pursuit of cool… fun… entertainment. If done right, these events can be quite spiritually fruitful, but it’s a risky approach that has undermined the intentions of many a church. Here’s what I’ve learned.
In recent decades, it has become increasingly popular for churches, particularly American Evangelicals, to try to create low-pressure church services that lure non-church goers with free food, popular music, fun activities, humor, and fancy lights and buildings. And it works very well, particularly along the South’s Bible Belt. Among Evangelical pastors this is known as Seeker Sensitive ministry – make church enticing and easy to attend for those who don’t know Jesus but are seeking something spiritual.
But what’s the value in it? I’ve had friends who came to know Christ through a fun-filled event. I know their testimonies are real. And churches like Chicago’s Willow Creek Community Church boom with 24K+ weekly attendance after decades of Seeker Sensitive events. But in 2007, Willow Creek also conducted surveys called the REVEAL Study that discovered that while they’re great at getting people to attend church and say they’re Christians that the unfortunate majority of their congregation is in a state of arrested spiritual development. They discovered that their approach was great at Christian baby-making, but they couldn’t disciple them past being bottle fed by the pulpit and into learning to spiritually feed themselves and abide in Christ like John 15 expresses.
Almost a decade into these insights, Seeker Sensitive churches are still exploring how to offer more spiritual substance and better discipleship. But they’re also ratcheting up the fun. This past weekend is Father’s Day, and around the country were fun events and gimmicks like Baconfest, church car shows, and gun & grill giveaways. I’m not ashamed to admit that Baconfest’s 5 free cuisines are enough to make me want to attend.
In fact, in recent years I’ve wanted to attend several church events just for the free food and entertainment. I don’t think that’s bad in and of itself. But it was bad for me. I was convicted because my heart attitude cared nothing for the spiritual potential but only for selling an hour of my time for $3 worth of food.
The value in Seeker Sensitive ministry, also known as attractional ministry, is that it attracts people with stuff so that they might hear the Word of God and have the Holy Spirit move on their heart. After all, faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ (Romans 10:17). Some Seeker Sensitive churches are great at preaching the gospel and Word of God, and unfortunately, others are oft critiqued for sermons that are virtually devoid of Scripture. A Seeker Sensitive church is only effective if layered on top of the wisdom of God and proclaiming the gospel.
Not all Seeker Sensitive events are created equal. Surprisingly, the atheists of New England can sometimes be more discerning about what is biblical than a preacher from the Bible Belt. I met a youth pastor from Connecticut once who told me a tale of two churches. One church in the area had a big promotion advertising a big screen TV and La-Z-Boy recliner to be given away on Father’s Day. The local atheists were livid pointing out how unChristlike it was for a church to celebrate Father’s Day by giving away things that cause dads to check out and ignore their families. Another local church also did a giveaway, but they gave away tickets to the local fair, which was applauded as a great idea for encouraging quality family time. Sometimes those who are furthest away from Christianity are more insightful as to what is most like Christ.
This isn’t a rant against special church events. After all, I’d go to Baconfest (for the food). But I say all of this because I think we have to be extremely careful. American Christianity dumps so much clutter and cultural opinion on how they do church. Meanwhile, the majority of American Christians are missing the obvious basics that Christ called us to – repent, be meek, love, reconcile, seek the Kingdom, take Christ’s yoke, pray, care for the poor, disciple, and so much more. This applies to the majority of US churches. Too many of them create complex yet comfortable systems to replace the simple yet uncomfortable mandates of Christ. It is hard to be a Christian in America because we are so easily distracted by the comforts and cares of this world.
Christianity thrives on selfless sacrifice and one-on-one relationships. We must be careful of church models that layer on more comforts into a Laodicea culture. Very few churches can effectively get people in the door with gimmicks and then disciple them to be selfless. I think it is possible, but it’s brutally hard. And more often than not, it ends up with a church full of spiritual babies like in 1 Corinthians 3. People are more starved for genuine, selfless relationships than they are for free food and cool music. If we aren’t careful, we can get so caught up in doing the latter efficiently that we never have time to do what Christ actually told us to do.