January 21, 2021

iMonk Classic: Those Magnificent Young Men in Their Pastoring Machines (3)

Part Three of a series on pastoral ministry, featuring a classic Michael Spencer post.

What’s Not to Like?

As I have met and listened to these young pastors, I have been occaisonally impressed, but mostly distressed. With the surprisingly wide reach of some Internet Monk articles, I am sure that some young pastors believe I have nothing but criticism for them and what they are doing in ministry. Nothing could be further from the truth. I recognize the love for God and the passion for reaching people that lies at the heart of so much that is done in the seeker sensitive movement. I am frequently challenged deeply by the commitment these men have to the mission of the church in the world. Their critiques of the church are frequently prophetic and often painfully true. I recognize a real spiritual quality of love for people and a concern for the church in these “seeker-sensitive” pastors.

But I must voice some serious concerns about the young pastors that I have met in the last decade. If the seeker-sensitive movement is right, then they are heroes. But if the seeker-sensitive movement is wrong, they are perpetuating, preaching and practicing painful errors that will become part of the legacy of Christianity. They are diluting the church with the worst tendencies of the culture. Many of the problems with the seeker movement are problems with its conception of the work of the pastor. By embracing the seeker movement enthusiastically and uncritically, many young pastors have devoted the authority of their position and their preaching to defending error and weakness in the church. This is serious business.

I will not surprise my regular readers when I say the root of this error comes from the seeker-sensitive movement’s attitude toward the Bible. At this point, it is helpful to note two things. One, many members of the seeker-sensitive movement have realized that there is a problem in the relationship of the Bible and their version of pragmatism, and they are seeking to correct that problem. This is no small thing, and I want those who may strongly disagree with me to remember this. I have heard specific and sincere acknowledgements that the Bible must have a larger place in the seeker sensitive movement, and I believe there will be fruit from that resolve.

Secondly, the problem grows out of the relationship of the seeker sensitive movement’s relationship to youth ministry as it has been practiced in America in the post-war era. As far as I know, no one has related the seeker movement to the youth ministry efforts that preceded it, but the connection is important and undeniable.

Youth ministry, in general, was the American church’s great experiment with pragmatism. If it worked- i.e. got the kids interested and kept them in church- it was alright. Any honest youth minister would tell you that he or she could get away with all kinds of things that would never be done by anyone else in the church, because the church wants young people in the house. The idea of “if it works, then God will use it,” was grown from youth ministry into everything that is evangelical seeker-sensitive ministry today. Most seeker churches- like Willow Creek- are grown-up youth groups. (I know, because some of them are MY youth groups.) They are doing what we taught them was OK in youth ministry, and now they are redecorating the church to suit themselves. And they are good at it.

It was not philosophical pragmatism that came into the church through youth ministry, it was evangelistic and methodological pragmatism. It was an assumption that we should do everything for the purpose of making young people comfortable. Make it all “cool.” Make it personal, exciting, emotional and non-traditional. The question that wasn’t adequately asked in youth ministry, or in the seeker movement, was what does the authority of the Bible mean in the life and mission of the church? Does the Bible have a method for youth ministry? Youth ministry was never seriously subjected to Biblical critiques of how it went about its business. Youth ministers- like me- weren’t held accountable to Biblical standards except in the most severe of cases, and many of us resented ever being told we were going too far. It was always fun to be the outraged youth minister in a church run by Pharisees saying “no” to throwing pies in the sanctuary.

Contemporary youth ministry operated on the notion that the Bible provided the message, but pragmatism provided the methods. This is what has taken root in the seeker movement, and it is what has shaped the ministry style of contemporary seeker pastors.

Nothing characterizes modern pastors more than devotion to this idea that the Bible is a message from God, but not a method from God. When it comes to methodology, we are to use the best of contemporary wisdom and secular methods to reach the “target audience.” No one would deny that there is a general sense in which God’s wisdom is revealed in human ingenuity or that this may be useful. But no one who reads the New Testament could come away with the idea that we are to turn to the culture for our methods of doing church and evangelizing. The seeker movement, however, is entranced with the wisdom of the culture. Especially the wisdom that comes from marketing, management, business, public relations and psychology. The  warning sirens of scripture about this kind of wisdom have gone unheeded among the seeker pastors.

Enamored by the Man

Perhaps the single most well-known statement among seeker pastors is “the purpose driven church.” Just the phrase alone states the quandary. What are the purposes of the church?  Where do we find them? Does the same scripture that gives us the purposes of the church give us the church’s methods in pursuing those ends, or are we on our own? Even the secular press speaks with admiration of this approach with its renouncing of tradition and automatic embracing of the contemporary. In the quest to be purpose driven, the entrepreneurs who have succeeded in using worldly wisdom to build seeker churches have a special authority.

Pastors have always been a ready fan club for any pastor who is experiencing success. If a man has built a church of thousands, he will be on the speaking circuit, in the publisher’s office and on the convention podium, telling the rest of us what we couldn’t possibly know without him. (See “Rick Warren” in your Google search.) Like youth ministers emulating whoever has the biggest crowd, today’s pragmatic pastors literally buy the sermons, programs and administrative tricks of their heroes in a binder, poised to do the same miracles in their own churches.

And so we have churches experiencing what I call the “Dictatorship of the Pragmatariat.” This is the frequently intolerant approach to pastoring that often characterizes the seeker pastor’s relationship with anyone who doesn’t support his methods or makes the mistake of wanting to do anything the way we used to do it. Seeker pastors declare revolutions after every conference, retooling the worship service, renaming the church and reworking the entire program in the mold of their pragmatic heroes. If you can’t relate or support, then you aren’t interested in church growth. The old has to go and the new has to be adopted. Onward, Christian Soldiers, Marching as to War and all that.

One of my friends told me of a Sunday when their newly converted seeker pastor came back from a national conference and implemented an arsenal of major changes. The inevitable murmuring began, he took to the pulpit, and, in uncharacteristic seeker pastor fashion, told the grumblers that if they didn’t agree with the changes, they should go elsewhere. This church was moving forward with what God wanted- which just happened to be getting rid of the hymnals, etc. This sort of “support it all or bail out” tactics are not unusual among the pragmatists. Sometimes, you gotta be cruel (to the members) to be kind (to the seekers.)

I once visited a church where the pastor was trying to implement contemporary praise choruses in a congregation that loved hymns and traditional rural Baptist church music. Because the seeker church down the road had hit the chorus trail,  the pastor had organized a “Praise Team” but hadn’t yet found a way to get rid of the choir. So on the night I visited, the “Team” did their choruses, and the choir- mostly- stood silently. (A few sat.) Then the choir got their turn, and belted out a Gospel number, followed by more “As the Deer” to a tape track. It was war. The tension was so obvious, that I suggested to the pastor that he consider two services. He proceeded to tell me the history of the struggle, and it was obvious that the “good guys” were the people who wanted the Praise Team, and the “bad guys” were the traditional sorts. Such is the legacy of pragmatism. The people who built and paid for the place are suddenly the enemy, because they won’t go along with what the experts told us to do.

The seeker movement’s pragmatism can be serious or silly. In one church I visited, the seeker pastor was preaching on Acts 2, and the events of day of Pentecost. This was a man who studied with me at seminary; a man with an excellent mind.  But his exegesis of the whole text was this: God wanted to draw a crowd to hear the Gospel so he sent some miracles like wind and tongues of fire. So, obviously, we need to do “big” things to draw a crowd to hear the Gospel. In another church, the pastor went through a stage of believing his sermons would benefit from elaborate sets. So I would tune in just to see what giant prop was used this week. His sermons began to resemble an episode of “The Price is Right.” One seeker pastor I know removed the pulpit ( a prerequisite of being serious about the seeker approach) and preached sitting on a ladder, where we could all wonder if he was going to fall off. Al Martin’s contention for the dignity and gravity of the ministry was not held in high esteem, to say the least.

In fact, all of this shows why seeker pastors usually prefer to start a church from scratch: because it is such a headache to get the church on the corner to give up everything they have been doing for years and do it the way they sold us at the last conference. Most decent sized communities now have anywhere from one to twenty new churches made up of boomer members following seeker pastors into the greener pastures of the purpose driven church. Some are new starts, and some are splits. Most are way overconfident that they have the answer.

New church starts are always good news as far as I am concerned, and if the wash out of the seeker movement is thousands of new congregations, then praise God. The question is, are these congregations able to produce disciples, or are they so adept at conforming to the culture that they will not be able to transmit the Christian faith across the culture? That remains to be seen, but the contemporary version of the pastor doesn’t leave me very hopeful that the faith can overcome the pragmatism that dominates today’s boomer churches. What will emerge, in my opinion, will not be seeker sensitive and post modern, but will be sub-Christian and hopelessly merged with the culture.


  1. For years I passionately agreed with and supported “Dictatorship of the Pragmatariat.” I led a team to hire a pragmatariat dictator and “turn the church around”. We went from 40 people to 1000+. I was so very wrong. There is now a 1000+ group of people calling themselves a church just because they get together and hear music and a charismatic sermon every week on “How to be a better xxx in 5 easy steps”.

    Some would have said it was a success because “1000+ people are in church who wouldn’t have been in a church”. No, at some point it is no longer a church. I believe this group reached that point.

  2. Isaac (the poster formerly known as Obed) says

    As far as iMonk’s experience of the praise team and the choir being at war, something interesting in recent years is that several hymnals have been attempting a more blended approach in which contemporary and traditional are in the same book and arranged in such a way as to make good blended medleys (a great example is the Lifeway Worship Hymnal aka 2008 Baptist Hymnal which I first heard about through this site). The hymnals themselves are obviously arranged for use in a choir, but audio/visual resources and other sheet music are available for kickin’ praise bands as well as traditional organ or piano-accompanied setups. It’s not so either/or as it was when Michael wrote this piece.

  3. Our church (Independent Bible Church) went through this painful transition back in the late 80’s. It began with our music pastor (I believe they are called “worship leaders” today) taking us in a hard turn from traditional music to the Hillsong / praise chorus route. The hymnals eventually disappeared and split services were created. Eventually we called a new senior pastor and he followed with a preaching model built upon topical rather than a through the book approach. He brought with him a youth pastor who transformed one of our buildings into a hip hang out where the kids could be entertained while hearing that they need to be busy “reaching” their schools for Christ. Most of them weren’t listening.

    A pragmatic ministry set in big time and to this day the church is still always in some degree of turmoil. The music is loud, raucous, and emotion-laden. The youth ministry has lost it’s steam and floundering, and the teaching ministry is starting to bear very stunted fruit causing many to leave for a healthier diet. It’s sad to watch, but our leaders would dismiss all of this by saying, “But hey, many people are coming to Christ!” Conclusion – what we are doing must be working.

    At least in our church the seeker model seems to be proving itself quite attractional but unable to grow and equip people. Not a good thing IMO.

    • At least in our church the seeker model seems to be proving itself quite attractional but unable to grow and equip people.

      Oh my……. so this begs the question “attractional to whom ?….” and does this model of church lend itself to making disciples….or something else ? Nice post.


  4. I like that the iMonk focuses on seeker-sensitive church practices here. I think he is right about the effect that change has had.

  5. This is one of the reasons I started looking into alternatives to the evangelical church and eventually left for the Orthodox Church. The shallowness of it all became unbearable to withstand.The stupid music , the goofy play skits to “get the message out” started me on the track to believing that this stuff wasn’t legitament church. Communion was nearly absent. Oh yes and the bit where the pastor always had to have the little crying spell during the sermon , that was the key to a really good semon or message. I guess.

    • Isaac (the poster formerly known as Obed) says

      I recently attended an Anglican church planting conference. In a workshop about church planting and traditional Anglicanism, the bishop who was teaching the workshop mentioned that several churches have found Anglican Choral Evensong to be unexpected crowd draws. Now, Choral Evensong is about as traditional as you can get in Anglicanism. The music is usually hundreds of years old. The psalms are chanted in 4-part harmony. The service alternates between spoken and sung liturgy from 350-year-old liturgy. The English is Elizabethan. The prayers are in-your-face about sin and redemption and totally Jesus-centered. You get the picture.

      Contrary to what one would expect, people come. Often in droves. There’s an Episcopal Church in Seattle that regularly gets upwards of 2,000 people to show up for their Choral Evensong. And these aren’t members of the church; they’re just folks from the Seattle community.

      And really, I can’t blame ’em. The first time I heard the psalms sung to Anglican chant, I was hooked. The beauty and serenity and whatnot gets up in ya. It makes me think of Isaiah 6 and Revelation 4 and what the World to Come must be like.

      • Oh yeah, Compline at St. Mark’s has been drawing in high school students and 20 somethings for years. It’s always packed. Are you from Seattle?

        I find that the worship wars are pretty strictly confined to the older generations. I don’t think I know anybody who prefers praise choruses to hymns or traditional music, but that might just be my circle and my location.

        One of the only things I appreciated about my time at Mars Hill was that it introduced me to some old hymns that I had never heard before (and I grew up singing hymns) and put them to new music that was actually pretty good. I do feel like that was a valuable contribution, even though I hate the whole “our bands are rock stars” mentality that goes along with that.

        I do think there is a balance to strike (and I usually hate that term) in allowing younger Christians to innovate and use their creative talents to tweak the way things have always been done. That’s how we got all of the excellent music in the Christian tradition up to this point, and that process isn’t finished yet. The problems begin when we assume that newer is always better, even when it’s crap, or when genuine creative innovation is replaced with a constant push to compete with other churches for the coolness factor. Let’s face it, when Christians try to be cool the results are almost always painful and embarrassing.

    • Your comment about communion (the Eucharist) being nearly absent or infrequent in many of these churches is, IMO, telling of our priorities. How did we get to a point where we no longer had time for communion? What has taken it’s place? Another couple of songs? I yearn to see the communion observance return to it’s rightful place of worship in our evangelical churches.

  6. Let me start with saying that I agree with the general message of this post. Now, I would like to raise a few seemingly obvious questions…Do we need the Bible to make disciples? The Bible was not widely available for hundreds of years and the early church seemed to make disciples. Who actually makes disciples? God hasn’t tasked us to make anything, if we are obedient to the desires that He places in our new hearts disciples will be made. The problem with the modern church is not programs, pragmatism or seeker sensitive churches, these are the symptoms of a much simpler issue…us keeping God at a distance in order to fulfill the lust of approval from men.

  7. Randy Thompson says

    As the late Jaroslav Pelikan observed, Tradition is the living faith of the dead, and traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.

    The seeker-sensitive movement, as I understand it, came out of an environment that was oblivious to Tradition. It was a reaction to all that’s left when you ignore Tradition: traditionalism. What’s happened is that a new traditionalism has replaced an old traditionalism. Instead of singing songs that were contemporary in Dwight L. Moody or Billy Sunday’s day, we sing songs that are currently contemporary (and which, in the not so distant future) will become as dated as Ira Sankey’s songs are now.

    We need a sense of the Christian Tradition. There are good reasons for singing songs by Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley, Fanny Crosby, and (yes!) Ira Sankey as there are for singing songs by Graham Kendrick. If Tradition, in the healthiest possible sense of the word, is something alive and living, then we need to see ourselves as part of that Tradition, one link in a long chain, and that our contributions are merely one part of that chain.

    Rudolph Bultmann, the German New Testament scholar, wrote off the supernatural in the Bible because he didn’t believe it made sense in a world where there were such things as electric lights. He turned out to be pathetically wrong. Those who took him over-seriously are now presiding over the corpse of liberal protestantism. Beware of being overly impressed with contemporary culture. As someone said, those who marry the spirit of the age soon find themselves a widow.

    • Randy Thompson says

      Oh yes.
      I fervently hope somebody is singing Graham Kendrick’s songs in the (distant!) future—at least some of them.

  8. I’m not sure I agree with this universal statement but first I would like to understand it. Thanks for amplifying/clarifying it,

    “No one would deny that there is a general sense in which God’s wisdom is revealed in human ingenuity or that this may be useful.”

    Does God need our help?

    • Lawrence, I’m not sure I would have asked your question after reading the quote. Of course, in a sense, God needs nothing. However, if he chose to make it so that we are “co-workers” with him in the Gospel, our humanity will be the vessel that carries the message in the world. That will include our personalities, our gifts, our creativity, our individuality. In that sense, God will reveal his wisdom through us and make us useful.

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