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Thinking About the Seeker Service

I'm in trouble when it comes to the seeker service. Not with anyone else, but with myself. I usually evaluate a new idea in light of some basic convictions I hold to, and then come to some conclusions. But when I evaluate the seeker service in light of such convictions, I come out both for it and against it.

By "seeker service" I am referring to services that are seeker-driven in contrast to those that are seeker-sensitive. This is an important distinction. In seeker-sensitive worship we try to make our services as friendly and intelligible as possible to the outsider. All worship planners and leaders should be seeker-sensitive. Christians should not have to be embarrassed to bring their non-Christian friends to church.

The seeker-driven service goes one step further and actually begins with the person the church wants to reach. Willow Creek Church calls this person "unchurched Harry" and designs every part of the service in light of that person's perceptions, experiences, and needs. My reflections below pertain to the seeker-driven service ("seeker service" for short).

Biblical Pragmatism

One of my basic convictions, first forged in the study and practice of preaching, leads me to support the seeker-service idea. I believe the preacher must take primary responsibility for bridging the communication gap between preacher and listener. Preachers must know their listeners well and choose their words and examples with great sensitivity to how their listeners will receive them. The preacher may not say, "Well, my sermon may be hard to figure out, but that's the listener's problem." Every communication theory acknowledges the burden of the "sender" for taking into account the "receiver."

Put another way, effective preachers are pragmatic: they carefully define the goal they have in preaching a particular sermon to a particular audience, and then design a sermon to accomplish that goal. This approach to preaching argues for the seeker-service concept, which begins with the listeners and tailors the service according to their perceptions, experiences, and needs.

I think the Bible generally supports such a pragmatic view of ministry. Clearly, Jesus took into account the particular person to whom he was speaking when he decided not only what to say but how to say it (John 4:1-42, Luke 10:25-37). And when Paul said, "I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some" (1 Cor. 9:22 NRSV), he labeled himself a pragmatist. Paul was willing to let his own ministry approach be shaped by the needs and perceptions of those he sought to reach.

It strikes me that the seeker service applies this basic ministry principle to the area of worship and outreach. At this level, the seeker service is a defensible and creative strategy for reaching the lost.

The problem is, that conviction runs up against a couple of other convictions I also have, and I'm still not sure how to resolve the differences.

Strangers in the World

One of those convictions is that we in the church always live in the world as "resident aliens." In a book by that title, William Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas contend that the church must accept the fact that it is "odd" in the eyes of the world. In fact, Willimon argues, such "oddness" in the eyes of the world is essential to the church's faithfulness. To be "salt" and "light" implies a marked contrast between the way of life in the world and the way of life in the church. Peter says we are "aliens and strangers in the world" (1 Pet. 2:11).

When we realize that we are aliens in the world, we are not surprised that unchurched Harry feels a difference between a shopping mall and a church. There is a difference. An article I read recently criticized the church for feeling too much "like a church." But what would we expect a church to feel like—the Hoosier Dome?

Even after we have done our best to get rid of the unnecessary cultural and ethnic baggage of a particular worship tradition, Christian worship will likely still seem a little strange, even weird, to someone who has not joined up. Splashing water and eating wafers, giving money, closing our eyes and carrying on a dialogue with someone we can't even see, telling stories about people who have been dead longer than Vince Lombardi—this is strange stuff.

Now I know that the seeker-service advocate would vigorously point out that this is precisely why we need a seeker service—to reduce that gap and to provide a bridge between the church and the world. But doesn't the church already look far too much like the world? Aren't our clothes, our houses, our priorities, our passions already too much like unchurched Harry's? Is the church's mission more hampered today because we are too different from the world or too similar to the world? I fear it's the latter. That fear gives me pause as I think about strategies that further reduce the difference between the church and the surrounding culture.

A Community of Memory

Another concern I have about the seeker service is the rate of change inherent in a seeker-service model of outreach, and the long-term effect of consumer-driven worship upon the church as a community of memory.

Willow Creek Church is very aware that the baby boomers themselves are a moving target. As tastes in music and media change, so the seeker service will have to change. Then there are the generations that will follow the baby boomers. And, of course, each wave of change in the seeker service will have considerable impact upon the believers' worship service.

What is the long-term effect of worship whose center of gravity is grounded in something as fickle as a market survey? What (if anything) will be the worship identity of a church that's been consumer-driven and generation-specific, by design, for twenty-five years? Will it have a worship identity, or isn't that important? Can a church endure traumatic changes every seven years in the central way in which it expresses its faith?

Historically speaking, 80 percent of Christians have grown up in the church and have had their faith nurtured by the church. Will the seeker model of ministry be multigenera-tional? Will our children have faith?

One could argue that such rapid changes only reflect the rapidly changing world in which we live. Indeed, as Robert Webber has noted, we find ourselves in the middle of a cultural paradigm shift with respect to change. In the old Newtonian worldview, Webber points out, the world stood still. We could stop it and observe it under a microscope. But in the new Einsteinian worldview, everything is moving, ever-expanding. Since we smashed the atom, the rate and scope of change in our world is staggering. Alongside this broader paradigm shift,others are comparing the 1990s to the 1920s as a decade of transition to a new world we cannot even describe.

But precisely because we live in such a changing world, we must ask hard questions, right now, about what it means to be a community of memory. The church has always understood itself to be a community of shared memory and shared meanings. Shared stories. Shared beliefs. Shared ways of praying and worshiping. In the past, the church has always tried to place anticipated changes into a broader historical picture, and to think about change in terms of that broader picture. We have sought a narrative unity in the church's life, even when we forged ahead with radical changes.

Memory, Eugene Peterson suggests, is essential in the church's life. Unlike nostalgia, merely living in the past, memory is "the capacity of the human spirit to connect the experience of last year with the one of yesterday, and at the same time to anticipate next week and next year." The healthy church, just like a healthy person, achieves some level of narrative unity and coherence in its life.

What does it mean to be a community of memory in a world changing faster than we can even comprehend? Perhaps Jaroslav Pelikan's distinction between traditionalism and tradition is helpful: "Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. Tradition is the living faith of the dead." How do churches retain the strength of identity that comes from communal memory (tradition), yet remain responsive to changes around them?

I am truly not sure what the answers to these questions are. But I'm confident that these are vitally important questions that must be addressed. And we must do it now.

Children Are Coming Home

You may have noticed that my score is two to one: two convictions that weigh in negatively and one that weighs in positively on the seeker service. My last comment is not meant to just balance things out.

The fact is, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, is gathering people to himself through the ministry of churches that are using the seeker service. Such fruit in itself does not insulate the seeker service from hard questions, but neither does it allow me or others to permit the concerns expressed above to close the door to the possibilities the seeker service holds for certain churches. Praise God that children are coming home through the ministry of the seeker service!

No doubt, different churches will come out in different places on the seeker-service question. Hopefully we can all learn from one another as we continue to think about and discuss the worship and outreach of the church in a rapidly changing world.