Saturday, July 06, 2013

The Failure of the Watered-Down Seeker-Friendly Church

Ekklesia Church in Columbus, Ohio

In The Atlantic Larry Taunton tells the story of how David Hume, the philosophically famous 18th-century empiricist and skeptic, once attended a religious service where George Whitefield was preaching (Whitefield was the famed evangelist of the First Great Awakening). "I thought you didn't believe in the Gospel," someone asked Hume. "I do not," Hume replied. Then, with a nod toward Whitefield, he added, "But he does." (Larry Taunton, "Listening to Young Atheists: Lessons For a Stronger Christianity")

Taunton comments that "there is something winsome, even irresistible, about a life lived with conviction." And there's something off-putting and disingenuous about the hyped-up "seeker-friendly" church that disguises the gospel so as not to freak "seekers" out. To illustrate Taunton tells the story of "Phil," a convert from Christianity to atheism.

Phil was not an atheist because of the likes of Richard Dawkins, but because his church fired his former youth pastor "Jim" who taught from the Bible, and replaced Jim with a seeker-friendly youth pastor, "Savannah." Taunton writes:

"It became clear where things came apart for Phil. During his junior year of high school, the church, in an effort to attract more young people, wanted Jim to teach less and play more. Difference of opinion over this new strategy led to Jim's dismissal. He was replaced by Savannah, an attractive twenty-something who, according to Phil, "didn't know a thing about the Bible." The church got what it wanted: the youth group grew. But it lost Phil."

That's when Phil began to think of himself as an atheist. Taunton, in his research, has heard many stories like this. Consider "Stephanie." In her seeker-church "The connection between Jesus and a person's life was not clear." This is an incisive critique. She seems to have intuitively understood that the church does not exist simply to address social ills, but to proclaim the teachings of its founder, Jesus Christ, and their relevance to the world. Since Stephanie did not see that connection, she saw little incentive to stay. We would hear this again."

The conclusion, for many, was "that church services were largely shallow, harmless, and ultimately irrelevant. As Ben, an engineering major at the University of Texas, so bluntly put it: "I really started to get bored with church.""

Bored with the seeker church. Jesus, on the other hand, was never boring. Remember Nietzsche who hated Christians but was interested in Jesus. Nietzsche wrote: "I might believe in the Redeemer if his followers looked more redeemed."

Taunton illustrates by his debate with atheist Christopher Hitchens in 2010. Taunton asked Hitchens why the latter did not demean him in the debate. Hitchens responded: "Because you believe it." Taunton comments: "Without fail, our former church-attending students expressed similar feelings for those Christians who unashamedly embraced biblical teaching."

Amazingly, and for our instruction, Taunton quotes atheist illusionist and comedian Penn Gillette, who says:  

"I don't respect people who don't proselytize. I don't respect that at all. If you believe that there's a heaven and hell and people could be going to hell or not getting eternal life or whatever, and you think that it's not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward.... How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?" 

Consider former Christian "Michael," now a political science major at Dartmouth, who says: "Christianity is something that if you really believed it, it would change your life and you would want to change [the lives] of others. I haven't seen too much of that."

For more see Kara Powell and Chap Clark, Sticky Faith.

See Steve Hill and Jennifer LeClaire, "Warning: Sugar-Coated ‘Ear Candy’ Gospel is Weakening Saints."

See Jen Bradbury (in The Christian Century) - "Sticky Faith: What Keeps Kids in Church."

Bradbury writes:

When I first started in youth ministry, I did everything I could think of to attract and engage high school youth. I held monthly social events and service projects. My Sunday school classes and weekly youth group meetings included crazy games, youth-only worship with contemporary Christian music, and discussions of relevant topics...

...  Only a handful of the youth I worked with in that year are attending church today. My extensive efforts at reaching them seem to have made little difference."


"One of the key findings from FYI’s College Transition Project is that when it comes to fostering sticky faith, nothing is more important than “students’ view of the gospel.” Ministries that foster sticky faith, the report says, are centered on Christ."

Now that's interesting - center your ministry on Christ! Might that work to attract real seekers?