SBC Life Articles

Orthodox, Evangelistic, and Seeker Sensitive

Being seeker-sensitive does not mean watering down the message," said Rick Warren, pastor of one of the Southern Baptist Convention's largest churches, on the national Bible Answer Man radio program.

"It does not change what you say. It changes how you say it," said Warren, pastor of Saddleback Valley Community Church, Mission Viejo, Calif., which averages nearly 15,000 people in its seeker-sensitive worship services and will celebrate its twentieth anniversary in January 2000.

Warren was interviewed by Hank Hanegraaff, host of the Bible Answer Man program, on Oct. 12-13.

Hanegraaff also is president of the Christian Research Institute International, a self-declared "parachurch organization committed to defending historic Christianity against theological heresy." He wrote an article in 1996 challenging the seeker-sensitive approach to church outreach.

Hanegraaff, on the Oct. 12-13 broadcast, said he "literally was stunned by a message that is altogether biblically correct" after listening to Warren's audiotapes, The Purpose Driven Church: Growth Without Compromising Your Message and Your Mission.

Hanegraaff said he found Warren's principles to be not only "biblical," but also "revolutionary," "phenomenal," "dynamic," "exhilarating," and "sound," and said the principles will "not only revolutionize your church if applied, they'll revolutionize your life as an individual." Admitting he rarely gets this excited, Hanegraaff said Warren's purpose-driven church philosophy is something that has "really captured my imagination."

Hanegraaff introduced Warren as "a guy with a vision and, most of all, a guy with a passion … a passion not to empty out other churches to fill his mega-church, but to reach the lost, to take the message of the gospel that transforms hearts … and make that message adaptable to the culture without ever compromising the message itself."

Hanegraaff said he has come to see that the seeker-sensitive strategy is "not about [church] size, not about classes and masses. It's about changed lives." He said Warren's purpose-driven church principles are "so important in an age when we desperately need healthy, well-balanced churches," and called Warren's materials a roadmap to help churches be what they ought to be.

Warren, who started Saddleback with only seven people twenty years ago, said he sees Saddleback as a type of research-and-development lab for Christianity. He determined from the beginning not to seek "transfer growth" of Christians transferring their membership from another church to Saddleback. He wanted to "go out after the total pagan, the unchurched who wouldn't be caught dead in any of these fine churches." Saddleback counts nearly 75 percent of its membership as having made a profession of faith while attending the church and being baptized there.

Warren said he doesn't want it to be easy to join Saddleback, and he actively discourages people from trying to join the church if they already are members of another evangelical church. He said he tells them, "If you are already a believer, you're welcome here if you want to serve, but you just need to understand this church is not designed for you" because of its seeker-sensitive approach. In the past six years, Saddleback has baptized more than 6,000 adult new converts "because that is the [church's] lifeblood," Warren said. Describing Oct. 10 as a typical Sunday, Warren said forty-four people made a profession of faith in Jesus Christ for salvation during Saddleback's five services, and sixty-six people became first-time believers in Christ that afternoon in the membership class.

In explaining the difference between church health and church growth, Warren was careful first to say he does not think his church is part of the church growth movement since it emphasizes only numerical growth. "We believe a church is to grow five ways," he said:

• warmer through fellowship.

• deeper through discipleship.

• stronger through worship.

• broader through ministry.

• bigger through evangelism.

The issue for churches in the 21st century will be church health and healthy Christians, Warren said, underscoring balance as the key to health.

The human body is composed of nine different systems, such as the respiratory and circulatory systems, Warren noted. "When these nine systems are in balance, that's called health," he said. When one of the systems gets out of balance, however, there is disease, Warren said, commenting, "We have a lot of diseased churches today because they're not in balance."

Unhealthy churches tend to concentrate on one thing, such as becoming known as a worship church, an evangelism church, a discipleship church, a fellowship church, or a ministry church. To be healthy, all of these areas must be in balance with each other.

Just as computers are built around a tiny Intel chip in order to operate successfully and smoothly, Warren added that churches should operate within the parameters of God's Great Commission and Great Commandments – "the Intel chip for the 21st century church."

As listeners called in to the Bible Answer Man program, Warren answered such questions as:

"Aren't you just watering down the message so you can fill the pews? … Do you really get into the Word of God, or is this just a culturally lukewarm message that won't offend anybody?"

Warren said he regularly preaches through books of the Bible, such as a recent two-year study of Romans. He said he would match the commitment of 500 members of Saddleback against the commitment of 500 members of any other church, adding that most Christians would not want to join Saddleback because the membership requirements are so high. Saddleback members are required to sign a membership covenant, for example, and join a small group in which they study good Christian habits necessary for growth, such as having a daily quiet time.

"How can you require that kind of commitment from people?"

Warren said being a big church doesn't mean Saddleback waters down commitment. On the contrary, "We've found that the greater the commitment you require, the greater the response." People are looking for something to commit themselves to, a cause with significance and meaning, Warren said, emphasizing, "There is no greater cause than the kingdom of God."

"Doesn't [the Bible] seem to suggest that the worship service should give greater emphasis to nurture of believers, rather than outreach to the unsaved?"

The idea that a seeker-sensitive approach is light on doctrine, Warren said, "is one of the greatest misunderstandings about the church. God expects us to be sensitive to the fears and the hang-ups and the needs of unbelievers when they're present in our worship services." Warren noted 1 Corinthians 14:23 and Colossians 4:5, in which the apostle Paul says Christians ought to be tactful with those who are not Christians.

"A worship service doesn't have to be shallow to be seeker-sensitive," Warren said. "The message doesn't have to be compromised. It just has to be understandable." Making a service seeker-sensitive does not mean changing the theology, changing the Bible, or changing the message, he said. While the gospel message doesn't change with time, Warren said he believes the methods must change with every generation.

Being seeker-sensitive, he said, is about how greeters speak to people at the church's entry points; how the church recognizes visitors in its service ("You don't make them stand up and embarrass them"); and using words that visitors understand. Warren said, although he has a doctor's degree, he doesn't use such theological terms as sanctification, justification, and propitiation in his sermons because few people in the congregation would understand. He said he sees himself as a translator of ideas.

"Don't you lose quality when you gain quantity?" a caller queried.

Warren said he believes it is a mistake to put those two points opposite each other. "I don't have to choose between quality and quantity. I want both," he said. First refuting the claim that big churches are just in a numbers game, Warren said, "We count people because people count." He said he sees every number representing a soul for whom Jesus died and thus people are counted "not to know who's there, but to know who's not there," just as in Jesus' parable in which the Good Shepherd went searching for one sheep after only ninety-nine had returned to the fold. "You have to keep growing," Warren charged all churches, "as long as there is one person who doesn't know Christ within the ministry of your church."

Further dispelling the quality-versus-quantity myth, Warren said he has found quality produces quantity, which produces a greater quantity. "If you have a quality church, people want to go to it," he said, noting there must be some problem when a minister assumes he has a quality church but can't find people who want to come to it. "People want to go where their lives are being changed," Warren said.

"What in the world can I do to get this church (steeped in tradition and a 'we've always done it this way' attitude) on track as a healthy church?" pleaded a pastor who has been at his current ministry position for two years.

Warren emphasized first that the pastor would have to have a team. He also said, "No major change takes place in a church rapidly," except when the church has a new pastor or when the church is in crisis. Warren noted it takes an oil tanker fourteen miles to make a U-turn, and a 747 airliner can make a 33-degree turn without the passengers noticing though a 45-degree turn will make the passengers very uncomfortable.

Therefore, Warren advises pastors and church layleaders who read his books, search his Internet websites, or attend his satellite simulcasts against going back to their churches and trying to change things immediately. "Please don't do that," Warren begged on Hanegraaff's radio program. "We must be strategic in our thinking," he said, reminding the audience of Jesus' advice for Christians to be "wise as serpents and harmless as doves."

Hanegraaff acknowledged that Warren's passion in ministry is "to develop reproducing disciple-makers, people who not only meet Christ, but they're discipled and they're equipped to go out and reach others … . That is precisely the message of the purpose-driven church. … He is willing to take his message and let the wind blow."

Boiling it down, Warren said a purpose-driven church prepares people to use their lives for ministry and for mission in the world.

It's not enough to have a big crowd of Christians who are "baby believers" immature in their faith, Warren said. "You must move them to maturity." He doesn't stop there, however, emphasizing maturity is not an end in itself. "Maturity is for ministry and for mission," he said, noting that every believer should have a ministry in the church and a mission in the world.

    About the Author

  • Debbie Moore