Sense & Sensitivity: Why It’s Time to Abandon the Seeker-Sensitive Model

To its credit the seeker movement has made church leaders everywhere more sensitive to the presence of non-Christians in our congregations. But, as the epoch of the seeker-church continues to wane, what enduring lessons will we carry with us into the future? Curt Coffield, a worship leader at Shoreline Community Church in Monterey, California, and former worship leader at Willow Creek, notes that newcomers have changed. "People aren't coming as much to be convinced of the relevance of Christianity as they are coming with a hunger for God."

As the church moves further away from familiar cultural paradigms, the paradigms that gave rise to seeker-churches, we need to seriously rethink the assumptions behind "seeker-sensitive" ministry.

At my church we are resurrecting the ancient language of hospitality to understand our call to love unknown people in our post-Christian culture. In ages past, travelers in the harsh lands of the Middle East often depended upon the hospitality of strangers for survival. Their principle of hospitality was simple: host first, ask questions later. Hospitality was not dependent upon a guest's identity - only their need.

When Abraham went out to greet three strangers (recorded in Genesis 18) he took this idea of Bedouin hospitality a step further. When the visitor is an ordinary person of equal rank, the host merely rises. But Abraham welcomes the strangers by bowing low to the ground, and he offers himself as their "servant" even though he was a very wealthy man with servants of his own.

Abraham asks no questions. He expects no payment. He places no conditions upon his hospitality. He merely welcomes these total strangers as honored guests worthy of his very best food, effort, and attention. Only later, after the strangers have eaten and rested, does Abraham engage in conversation and discover their true divine identity.

Throughout the Scriptures we find that God is concerned with the treatment of strangers. He commands his people to act fairly toward strangers (Exodus 22:21), to provide food for them (Leviticus 19:10), and to love them as one of their own (Leviticus 19:34). In the New Testament three apostles write repeatedly about the importance of hospitality (Rom 12:13; Heb 13:2; 1 Pet 4:9; 3 John 1:5; 1 Tim 2:3; Tit 1:8). But it is Jesus who lifts the importance of hospitality to a divine level.

"Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in?Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me." (Matthew 25:34-36, 40)
January 06, 2006

Displaying 1–10 of 31 comments

susan george

February 01, 2006  12:34am

It strikes me that the 'welcoming' of strangers extends particularly to children. "And whoever welcomes in my name one such child as this, welcomes me" (Mat 18:5) Unfortunately, the modern church hardly ever 'welcomes' a child; truly wants a child in their midst; benefits from the child being there (with their parent/carer); recognises the 'divine' presence in the child. The 'Jesus' comes with the child, doesn't generally fill in the welcome card. Rather than being welcomed children are put in church nurseries and exiled to Sunday SChool. Made to endure liturgies that are inaccessible - and are even disciplined to boot when they wont sit still. Children are invariably marginalised and neglected. Unless the church were to target 'families' - parents and children - in a radical way, it appears the child will always be the 'stranger' to us; Until the childis truly welcomed, segregation, isolation and separation from the community (in the name of 'ministry') is one way the church will continue to ensure its demise, and irrelevance to the families that wander through the relational desert of society, with their children.

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January 30, 2006  12:17am

Of course seeker-sensitive is okay: but we must realize that there is only one seeker, and the unrepentant Joe who wanders into church accidentally one Sunday is not him. God is the seeker, not man. As far as being hospitable in church, that is less a function of the church as an institution and more the function of inidividuals within the church itself. Also, it seems that a large part of the problem is the paradigm shift that has taken place when we ask, "What is the Church?" and "What is the purpose of the church?" It's hard to commend seeker-sensitive churches who try to draw people to the church, when the whole of the New Testament pictures the individuals within the church wading out into the culture throughout the week and gathering on Sunday hungry for the Word, for fellowship, and for encouragement. We would do well to think about that.

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January 13, 2006  7:15am

Fascinating series of posts! Once again, and until Jesus returns, our best musings only confirm two never-ending realities or tensions faced by faithful thinkers and followers of Christ - "we will always see through a glass darkly" and "we really do need one another." Exciting days for the Church.

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Philip Bryant

January 13, 2006  12:26am

I think the article makes a good point. Of course hospitality plays a large part in opening doors and building relationahips of trust. However more important and pertinent to the post christian, post modern era is to go outside the church and listen to people rather than wait for the pre christian to come to the church so we dump our package on them. It is amazing how opportunities open up when we listen instead of get hung up on giving them the good news according to our interpretation.

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Kevin DaVee

January 12, 2006  7:53am

This has generated a large number of responses. Perhaps it strikes a common nerve. After several decades of being submerged in various methodologies, I am more and more convinced to "start with the end in mind", but there really is only one end. It is not targeting, conversion of others, church growth, or any of the other "ends" we have pursued. If you are hospitable, or reach out, or give someone a cup of coffee, I hope for myself to just be motivated by the upwelling of God's love and transforming power in my own life. Our desire to be with and please God is end in itself. I realize this isn't very profound.

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Claude Cunningham

January 12, 2006  1:06am

The reason to be a good host is to touch and be touched in Christ. The reason to make church services gel with visitors is to "be all things to all men that I may win some for Christ". However there is a counterbalancing need to host the family of Christ as well as to host strangers, and there is a need to reverence Christ as a church family, not only to be part of the market place clamouring to be heard. In whichever phase one is ministering, self centredness and arrogance can destroy the witness, and because you cannot always be doing all things, others will always be able to assume you are off track and get into admonishing and discouraging. As long as each ministry is done in Christ, with His heart, in humility and not pride, He will use it to His glory. Let's accept that Satan wants us decrying each others' ministries, instead of learning humbly from each other and continually reviewing our direction together.

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Michael Jackson

January 11, 2006  4:06pm

The writer notes that the "epoch of the seeker-church continues to wane...." What does he base that on? Willow's attendance does not seem to reflect that nor does the continued popularity of Saddleback CC.

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theo geyser

January 11, 2006  9:34am

Why not both?

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S.E. Alexander

January 11, 2006  8:01am

Wow…so many posts, and so few talking about hospitality in homes. The New Testament context for church was most often the home, where hospitality is most difficult and yet most meaningful when offered with humility and honesty and love. Looking back on 10 years of ministry in Central Asia, we have found our most significant church planting experiences have happened around our dining room table where seekers have come hungry for spiritual truth, ready to enjoy a meal and each other and God's word. This very hospitable culture has taught us the art of lingering over cups of tea (or Coke or coffee). Around the table we talk and laugh, we unburden our souls, we are forced to look conflict in the face. What better place to think and talk about God's work in our lives? What better place to examine our hearts for hidden sin and unresolved problems in relationships? Around the table we can come clean, we can reconcile, we can reflect. We can enjoy together the mercy God has poured into our lives, and in this way worship him. Over the last few years my husband and I have been captured by a vision of house church. We have been overcome by the beauty and hope of living for Christ with the help of a small group of believers who meet together, not in fellowship halls with hundreds of others, but in our homes—the places where we are most truly ourselves. Within this intimate context we have the best opportunity for shedding all falseness and self-protectiveness. We have the greatest opportunity for each of us to express our gifts for the building up of the body. People are hungry for Jesus, but how can they meet Him in me if I'm not willing to open up some very intimate spaces of my life to them? In my opinion, true Christian hospitality begins at home, and true church happens in those unguarded places where we can share the truth of who we are and Who He is.

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January 10, 2006  10:37pm

I thought your article was interesting, however it may have neglected to research the various areas of our country. Different parts of the United States view hospitality differently. On top of that jobs and such require those people to shift location and consequently they bring their customs and preferences with them. In the Pacific Northwest, it is fairly difficult to get people together with others that are outside of their established circle - churched or not. I think that the term "do all things in moderation" is important when reaching people. Therefore swings instead of balance may be dangerous. We do not know who our guests are or what they may be expecting, all I know is that I need to be ready for what they need (inhouse or resourced). I need to be ready for a variety of styles and I also need to have a well rounded staff that I can lean on for support if I am unable to meet the needs myself. God has brought each guest to our church for a reason and He will not give us more than we can handle - so I don't think we should over analyze things. Although, being aware of styles and trends is important to educate ourselves with just in case we need the information.

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