I first began going to church when I was in late middle school and early high school. It didn’t take long for me to figure out that I’d missed the boat when it came to learning all the basic lessons from Vacation Bible School. Sunday School lessons about people named Paul, Elijah, and Esther were very difficult for me to follow. In fact, the entire church “culture” was hard to get used to.
However, during each Sunday morning service, I remember the pastor ending the sermon the same way. He shared the story of Jesus with the congregation, and told us that if we have not yet invited Jesus into our hearts, we could do so now, and he led us with a prayer. My pastor’s method was one that is used among “Seeker-Friendly” churches.
Seeker-Friendly churches say that their aim is to “reach the lost.” Willow Creek Church in Chicago is the pioneer in the Seeker-Friendly church movement and continues to be one of the most famous of its kind, alongside churches like Saddleback Valley Community Church, pastored by Rick Warren.
As a new believer, I felt comfortable coming to my church. There was no dress code, the atmosphere was hip and modern, and the teaching was not intimidating.
Though the Seeker-Friendly model used in my church was beneficial for me as a new believer, I soon found that the repetitiveness of the sermons was keeping me from growing deeper in my faith. I knew all about Jesus, and I had a strong grasp of more “surface” topics, but the depth of my understanding was rather shallow.
This tension is what many churches today are trying to resolve: the problem of trying to make the church welcoming to new believers or “seekers,” and at the same time developing the faith of the members who are already mature in their faith.
Dr. Bill Dogterom, Professor and Chair of the Religion department, has been a pastor of two churches: one in Canada, and one in Glendora, California. Dogterom explains that Seeker-Friendly churches date back to the early Church of the first century, and that “the vision of the church is to extend and expand the Kingdom of God in partnership with the Holy Spirit… the real function of the Church is to make disciples.”
Seeker-Friendly churches simply try to “take out the barriers that make it culturally difficult to plug in,” “The goal is to make church comfortable for people who aren’t Christians,” Dogterom said.
Dogterom explained that Seeker churches use Sunday mornings to deliver a sermon that presents the Gospel, but then also invites members to participate in life groups, small groups, etc. throughout the week. Some take the Seeker program approach, and aim to attract people to their church, but they have high standards for doctrine and attendance. They still focus on teaching grace, but do not shy away from topics such as judgment and sin and condemnation.
“The traditional churches aren’t necessarily better [than Seeker churches], because they end up preaching to the choir,” Dogterom said.
Many believers, myself included, are still in the midst of finding that “fit” when it comes to a church that is welcoming but also engaging. The amount of churches and programs can feel overwhelming.
When I visit a church, I look for a few things: 1) Is there a strong foundation? If the church is trying too hard to be trendy and I don’t see enough doctrine, I am turned off. I don’t come to church to hear sermon after sermon on dating. I want sermons on the Tower of Babel, or the cultural implications of overseas missions.
2) Is this a place I could bring a non-Christian friend to and he or she would feel welcome? If people are friendly to newcomers, that’s great. But I don’t like to be patronized or made a big deal of because I’m “new.” And on the other hand, I don’t want to be ignored by the already-established cliques in the church.
Finally I ask myself, 3) Is this church trying to sell itself or is it trying to make disciples? If we strip away the rock music, the cafe, and the stadium seating, would we still have a good church? Would I still meet with these people if we had to suddenly hold church in someone’s basement? If the answer is yes, then I’m in.
In the midst of finding that fit, I think Dogterom makes a good point concerning the perspective of the Church: “We should not expect people in the world to come to our church. We are the Church, and we are expected by Jesus to go to them.”