Sunday, January 17, 2010

Hitting the nail on the head

Christians schooled in this rather anti-intellectual, common-denominator evangelistic approach to faith responded to the later twentieth-century decline in church attendance by looking not to more substantial catechesis but to business and consumer models to provide strategies for growth. By now we’re all familiar with the story: increasing attendance by means of niche marketing led church leaders to frame the content of their sermons and liturgies according to the self-reported perceived needs of potential “seekers” shaped by the logic of consumerism. Now many American consumer-congregants have come to expect their churches to function as communities of goods and services that provide care and comfort without the kind of challenge and discipline required for authentic Christian formation to take place.

-David Nienhuis in Modern Reformation

H/T: Justin Taylor


Ed said...

What, your church doesn't have a trendy bookstore and a Starbucks-style coffee shop literally in the building? ;-)

robroy said...

I would disagree with the condescending tone of the quote against seeker churches as exemplified by the quotation marks around the term seekers. The reality is that Christians speak a completely different language that is pretty much incomprehensible to most of the American public. As a result, the so-called niche that so-called seeker churches fill is probably the most important mission field there is in this country.

Now, of course, with snobby Episcopalians, reaching out to the "ignorant" is entirely beneath them. Anti-intellectual? Bah.

I have talked with David Handy+ (the New Reformation Advocate) about pairing seeker churches with churches for the more mature, such as ACNA churches. They could share a campus and the relationship could definitely be mutually beneficial.

Ed said...

The American people already have earth, robroy. The worship of a Christian Church is to take the earth and transfigure it. In my experience, there is nothing of transfiguration in the worship of the "seeker sensitive" churches. Rather than transfiguring the mind with dogma, the heart with divine contemplation, and the flesh with asceticism and the sacraments, the seeker sensitive churches take what people already are and do and like and tell them it's good as long as they say "Jesus" somewhere in the middle of it.

Instead of teaching people to focus themselves on heaven, the seeker sensitives simply give them more earth, and this is to their shame.

Moreover, sociologically, I suspect that the seeker sensitives tend to be filled mostly with former Protestants of another brand or Catholics, most of whom are more interested in a Church that has better music and a younger crowd than the churches they came from. Are they really "reaching the lost," or just doing so much more "watering down?"

Matt Perkins said...

Hey Robroy,
Thanks for your comment. I definitely agree with you that any kind of snobbiness which would prevent Christians from plainly communicating the gospel with non-believers would be wrong. The aspect of the quote that resonated more with me was that catechesis has decreased or ceased to really exist in most so-called "seeker-sensitive" churches and the message being preached has indeed been "watered-down" as Ed said. My concern is that out of a desperation to increase congregation size or perhaps decrease the rate of loss pastors have quit preaching on difficult or unpalatable subjects and are basically telling people what they want to hear. As the last sentence of the quote said, people have come to expect churches to "provide care and comfort without the kind of challenge and discipline required for authentic Christian formation to take place." I think care and comfort are good, along with communicating in understandable language with non-believers, my concern is the lack of challenge and discipline.

Alexander said...

2 Timothy 4:3
For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions,

I could say a lot more about the topic but I feel this verse tells it all..

robroy said...

"transfiguring the mind with dogma, the heart with divine contemplation, and the flesh with asceticism and the sacraments"

These words are incomprehensible to 99% of Americans. An illustrative story:

A few years back, I got called to see a patient. The patient's older brother was driving around, and my patient was an unrestrained passenger, both intoxicated apparently. They got into an MVA, and my patient's face hit the dash. The car caught fire and the driver ran away not wanting to get caught with a DUI. If not for some passerbiers who dragged my patient from the burning car, my patient would have burned up.

So next we are in the OR putting my patient's face together, and I make the comment that "I guess his [my patient's] brother wasn't his brother's keeper." No one in the OR understood the reference. We speak a completely different language.

Are there some terrible seeker churches? You bet. (Joel Osteen's comes to mind.) Are there some wonderful ones? You bet. At the lowest point of my life (second year residency), the Episcopal parish that we were attending offered no help. It was filled with the walking dead. I started going to both a seeker church and my dead Episcopal church. I was lost and now am found due to that seeker church. So even someone who thinks he is a "mature" Christian needs to get back to the basics (or dare I say fundamentals!). They also introduced me to contemporary Christian music - another point where Episcopalians are snooty. I listened to Steven Curtis Chapman's greatest hits CD about a million times. "His strength is perfect when our strength is gone." "There's no better place than the road that leads to heaven, no place I'd rather be." We, like Steven Curtis Chapman, have adopted from China. So I have deep gratitude and bonds of affection to him.

And even at Joel Osteen's church, people are being brought to Christ. In contrast there are many, many Episcopal churches that are actively leading people away from Him.

Alexander said...

"We speak a completely different language."

You say this like its a bad thing. Christianity has its own language. It is its own language.

"Becoming a Christian is a little bit like learning to speak French. You need to learn the vocab and grammar. Its going to be a reach for you, Its going to take time and effort. There will be stuff that you wont get. It just can't be user friendly... " -William Willimon

What made your Episcopal church dead and the seeker church alive?

Jane said...

"Christians...responded ... by looking not to more substantial catechesis..."

This is what I am facing today! Wake up Church Universal (Bishop, Priest, Laity) do not be silent! At whatever level, eliminating substantial catechesis (=unity of doctrinal theology) results in lives being lost both within and out of the church.

Know what you believe and where it came from so the roots go deep in rich soil that produces much fruit!

David Handy+ said...

Well, since my friend robroy invoked my name above, I think I'll venture my first comment on this blog.

Rather than getting entangled in debating the pro's and con's of seeker-oriented churches, I'd prefer to focus on Matt's point about the dangers of a consumer-driven approach that downplays, if not eliminates, the costly challenges of real discipleship in trying to attract and win the lost. I certainly share his concern and apprehension about that.

Only I think that temptation is universal, and that virtually all churches worthy of the name struggle with that to some degree.

Perhaps we might help clarify matters by distinguishing between several types of churches. Some congregations (a minority, especially in the so-called "mainline" Protestant world) tend to major on evangelism, but don't do much to turn new believers into mature followers of Christ. Far more however are clueless about how to win a lost, broken, hurting world to Christ in the first place.

Some churches major on worship and fellowship (lots of solid Anglican churches in that group), others on education/spiritual formation or discipleship, and not a few on practical ministries of mercy and service in a world full of great needs.

As Rick Warren rightly notes, there are five main biblical purposes for which the Christian Church exists, and all five are crucial and need to be intentionally kept balanced for a church to stay healthy and growing properly. Those five are Worship (loving God), service (loving our neighbors), evangelism (loving the lost into faith), fellowship (lovingly assimilating them into the Family of God), and not least discipleship (loving them into maturity in Christ). Left to our own devices, all of us will tend to devote our time and energy too much just to the one or two purposes we personally feel most passionate about or gifted in.

The same tendency may be true in general terms of whole denominations. Thus, for example, we Anglicans tend to major on worship but ignore evangelism. And we're often lousy about "teaching them to obey ALL that I've commanded you."

But I wholeheartedly agree with robroy that this is why it can be very exciting and fruitful when different churches with quite different strengths and weaknesses join forces and try to work together to win our world for Christ. There are many, many of us who can testify that we were led to saving faith in some other denominational tradition than the one we're in now, but that we also needed to switch somewhere along the way in order to keep growing toward full maturity in Christ.

From my perspective, the Church as a whole has never done a better job of keeping a healthy balance between all five biblical purposes of the Church than in the early centuries. The 2nd to 5th century church had a marvelous way of bringing LOTS of people to saving faith while simultaneously demanding very high levels of commitment and rigorous standards of discipleship. The Age of the Martyrs was also the great Age of the Catechumenate, when would-be converts were required to go through a thorough training program that lasted months before being admitted to baptism and full participation in the life of the Church. This extremely-intensive discipleship program produced the likes of Justin Maartyr, Irenaeus, Cyprian, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and many more outstanding Christian leaders who gave their all for Christ and his Kingdom. We desperately need to recover something like that today.

Anyway, thanks Matt for dedicating yourself to serving our country by serving our troops. May the Lord sustain and empower you, and make you fruitful as you share and live out the gospel.

robroy said...

The quote by William Willimon is somewhat appropriate. Learning Chinese is difficult. But throwing a beginner into a Chinese 401 class when they need to be in Chinese 101 will cause that student to throw up their hands and quit.

I (of course) think that David+'s reply is helpful. The part about the early church is interesting. In particular, the discussion of the thorough catechumenate process is pertinent. The Roman Catholic RCIA program is very thorough from what I hear. The reality is that in most Episcopal churches, they are so desperate for members, that they will sign you up after you meet once for coffee with the rector.

The business about "user friendliness" is an interesting point. In an absolute sense, becoming a Christian is extremely easy. Being a Christian is very hard, though! Do some seeker churches gloss that over? You bet. But for the most part, they take Christian commitment a lot more seriously than the many Episcopal churches that I have attended. But we shouldn't scorn "user friendliness" in the sense that a newcomer can come into a church and feel welcomed and not be overwhelmed and learns about Christian discipleship.

Matt Perkins said...

Fr. Handy, I'm excited to see you commenting on my blog. Welcome! Thanks for your point about the early church - I think it's an important one, especially because when many people talk about the early church these days they are ignorant about both the catechesis and the liturgy which were so clearly central if we pay attention to the writings in the first 2 or 3 centuries.

David Handy+ said...

You're welcome, Matt. I'm impressed and pleased that a doctor in training would somehow make time for operating a blog in the midst of all the strenuous demands on his time. But then, robroy somehow manages to carve out the time for doing lots of blogging despite the pressing demands on his time as a practicing physician. I guess it all boils down to priorities, but I'm glad that another busy Anglican layman considers it a worthwhile endeavor to help facilitate the public discussion of the eternal things that matter most.

Let me take another stab at trying to clarify what I think's at stake in these kinds of discussions. Back in the old Constantinian, Christendom era, the state churches of Europe assumed that everyone was born to Christian parents and would be raised as a believer in a Christian society (unless you were a Jew, which wasn't a popular option!). It was also taken for granted that there would inevitably be LOTS of merely nominal Christians, and that was considered acceptable as part of the price of having a universally Christian society, with no pagans or dissenters in it. The modest goal of church leaders in the long Christendom era was basically just to turn nominal believers into real believers and ignorant ones into informed ones. And that was about it.

In sharp contrast, the better seeker-oriented churches today set FAR more ambitious goals for themselves. Most famously, Bill Hybels' Willow Creek Community Church (that I've visited several times) aims at turning contemporary neo-pagans into "fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ." Or to put it another way, Willow Creek strives earnestly to turn unbelievers into believers, and believers into real followers of Christ. But they don't stop there, but try mightily to turn mature believers into active ambassadors who lead others to Christ, and thus they keep the cycle going.

My former diocese in TEC (Ablany; I'm now in the ACNA) latched onto the catchy motto: "Disciples Making Disciples" (who make more disciples, etc.). I love that.

We Anglicans in North America (the Global South is another story) are in no position to cast stones at the Bill Hybels and Rick Warrens or Rob Bells of our time. Our glass houses are too fragile to indulge in that sport.

But I continue to find my chief inspiration not in those Baptist superchurch pastors, but in the patristic leaders of the catholic church who designed and implemented the ancient catechumenate and made it such an extremely effective method of making disciples who made disciples who made more disciples in turn. Somehow, miraculously, they did it all: evangelizing pagans, turning them into mature disciples, and them training them and sending them out to repeat the whole process so that the mighty Roman Empire was eventually (largely) won for Christ.

I firmly believe that we can do it too and accomplish the same amazing feat, by God's grace alone and by the power of the Holy Spirit of course. If, and only if, we're willing to pay the same high price that they did in the age of the martyrs.