Jesus answered them, "Stop complaining among yourselves. No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him...." (John 6:43-44a, HCSB)
As it is written: There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, there is no one who seeks God. (Romans 3:10-11, HCSB)
The Lord looks down from heaven on the human race to see if there is one who is wise, one who seeks God. All have turned away; all alike have become corrupt. There is no one who does good, not even one. (Psalms 14:2-3, HCSB)
Tom and I had been waiting for Jim* at the rendezvous point thirty minutes longer than expected. After a morning of moose hunting on a rainy, chilly September day, we had decided to head back to camp. We split up to cover more ground on the return to the canoe, and I last saw Jim as we all entered a large thicket.
Tom and I emerged almost simultaneously about forty minutes later within fifty yards of each other. We expected Jim to be right there with us, but he didn't show. Tom and I were long-time Alaskans who had agreed to take Jim hunting after his week of preaching in a friend's church. When Jim did not appear I began to rehearse the worst-case scenarios. Jim was older and had dressed in cotton instead of wool or synthetics and, therefore, was susceptible to hypothermia. A misstep and a hunter can find himself with a broken leg. Or each year at least one Alaskan hunter gets chewed up by a brown bear. The longer we waited, the more rapidly these thoughts ran through my mind.
Since Jim was a well-known Southern Baptist pastor, the thought occurred to me that I might be known as the man who got Jim killed. Talk about hurting one's preaching "career."
Tom and I decided that we would swing wide of Jim's anticipated route, cutting him off in case he had headed in the wrong direction. Soon after beginning our search, a single shot sounded out in the distance. Much to our relief we located Jim a short time later. As we walked up to him, Jim said, "I don't know where I am, but there's a lake right over there."
Jim related how he had walked for quite a while and finally had found the lake, hoping that it was the one with the canoe. He was a little embarrassed as I explained to him how, after walking in a large circle, he was only a few yards from our lunch spot.
For almost thirty years, church growth experts, pastors, and evangelists have used the term "Seeker." Rare is the article, book, or conference that does not use "Seeker-sensitive," "Seeker-driven," or "Seeker services." But is the term biblical? And what are the ramifications of its usage?
The Biblical Concept of Seeking
The Bible establishes from its opening verses that God is the initiator of His relationship with mankind. He is the Seeker. As Creator, He spoke the world into existence to have a relationship with His highest creation — man. When Adam and Eve sinned, they hid instead of seeking God. The Old Testament repeatedly portrays man as incapable of instigating his own salvation. Like Hosea purchasing Gomer off the auction block, God redeems us in the midst of our unfaithfulness. The Bible clearly teaches that man cannot initiate or advance his salvation. He cannot seek.
One may ask, "How about Matthew 6:33, 'Seek ye first the kingdom of God....?' or Hebrews 11:6 where God reassures us that He rewards those who diligently seek Him?" Whenever the Scriptures speak of man seeking God, it is in the context of a relationship in progress, not man deciding on his own to restore his relationship to God.
The Ramifications of the Modern Seeker Theology
Charles Finney, the "Father of Modern Revivalism," laid much of the groundwork for modern seeker theology. His semi-Pelagian position — that a non-Christian could accept Christ, of his own initiative, whenever he so chooses — motivated Finney's use of "New Measures." Finney experienced great revival successes — unfortunately, success promotes imitation. Following the Civil War, numerous revivalists patterned their organizations after Finney's. As with many things, Finney's efforts present a "good news/ bad news" reality. The good news was a century of mass crusades with untold numbers of people hearing the gospel from men like Billy Sunday, Dwight L. Moody, Gypsy Smith, Sam Jones, Mordecai Ham, Billy Graham, and other itinerant evangelists. The "bad news" includes our present "Seeker," man-centered theology.
Finney designed his New Measures methodology to encourage his audience to receive Christ. In doing so, he walked a fine line. There is always tension between presenting Christ in a compelling, clear, and effective manner, and manipulating someone to ensure a response. Jesus presents the image of compelling guests to come to the feast (Luke 14:23). Yet, He challenged the "Rich Young Ruler" to sell all in order to become a disciple. We are told that Jesus loved the young man but would not lower the standards of discipleship (Mark 10:17-23). We are to be passionate for the lost, like the woman looking for the lost coin, the shepherd for his lost sheep, or the prodigal's father, but we can not circumvent Jesus' demands.
When modern evangelists or pastors emphasize the importance of praying the sinner's prayer without presenting the cost of discipleship, one must think that we have become consumed with seeing results. As Jesus revealed, it is easier to have "seekers" than followers (John 2:23-25).
We must always remember that our responsibility is to clearly declare the gospel, giving people the opportunity to respond to the Holy Spirit's stirring rather than our own.
When we assume responsibility for the individual's response to the gospel, it is just a short step to the Seeker model. After all, if I can stir emotions so that people will "accept Christ" after they have come to the service, then should I not also do whatever I can to get them to the service in the first place?
Consequently, seeker-driven churches feel compelled to shape their worship services to entice seekers, which often leads to questionable methodology. I just read an article extolling a church's "springtime initiative to encourage members to minister to their friends." Everyone who brought a friend to church was able to place an entry in a drawing for a new Harley-Davidson motorcycle. The guest was qualified to enter twice for his visit. Some would point to the large numbers of entrants and say, "Praise the Lord." I must ask what are we teaching of God, evangelism, and discipleship? How was that "ministering to their friends?"
Remember Jim? One of the first rules of wilderness survival is stay in one spot. The more one tries to not be lost, the worst his situation becomes. Lost seekers can not find salvation, only another spiritual fix. Seeker theology has damaged the lost and the church. Many seekers have become "Christians" without experiencing conversion and becoming followers of Christ.
Vaccinations work by exposing the patient to a dead or weakened form of the disease, thereby promoting the body's immune system to reject the real disease. Have we inoculated a generation of Americans against biblical Christianity's call to discipleship? I am afraid so.
Rather than trying to attract the lost, the Good Shepherd went in search of the lost sheep. The Great Commission commands us to go.
The church needs to remain fixed to its biblical identity. For years we have shaped our ministries to appeal to seekers; there always seems to be a call for changes to reach current generations through questionable methodologies. Methodologies constantly change with generations, cultures, trends, and fads. Biblical principles transcend time. The lost must be sought, not attracted. Evangelism is 24/7, not just inviting my friend to a "cool" service on Sunday so we can have a chance to win a Harley.
Jim realized he was lost and decided to remain in one spot until we found him. He signaled for help and waited. Jim was found not by his seeking, but by his being sought! A more theologically correct term instead of "Seeker" would be "Responder." Only when man responds in faith to God does salvation come. Any methodology that denies that truth results in churches focused on man instead of God. And Christianity becomes a religion to improve my finances, family, health, or whatever I need to have a better life, instead of the truth that Almighty God has reconciled Himself to me through the Cross and I have the opportunity of giving my life to His service.
*Names have been changed to protect the innocent and the embarrassed.
William E. Brown, PhD, is associate professor of Evangelism and Church Planting and Nehemiah Project director at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina.