Sunday, September 5, 2010

Two Models of Seeker-Sensitivity

The question arises in every serious-minded congregation - how best to present the gospel to a culture whose view of the Christian faith is often hostile, often ignorant. I dub one common answer to this question "evangelical gradualism." The idea is that most people will respond poorly to straightforward evangelism, they must be coddled into the church. They must be made comfortable being in church building or being among Christians before they are ready to hear Christian teaching. Once they are comfortable in these settings, they are ready to here a light Christian message, probably one that is practical and therapeutic, one that addresses their very real problems, but without the controversial baggage of Christian belief. The hope is that the cumulative effect of spending time with friendly Christians and hearing good, moral messages with allusions to basic Christian teaching will provoke the potential convert's curiosity, leading them to learn about true Christian doctrine, and eventually, to make a profession of faith.

There are two basic problems with this approach. The first is that the gospel that visitors perceive will probably not be distinct or compelling. Someone who attends a string of church social events is likely to see church as a social club. Someone who hears a string of light, moralistic sermons will see the Christian faith as a means of getting one's life in good working order as defined by 21st Century America. The problem is not so much that these things are bad, but that they are available elsewhere. The church should not try to compete with the rest of the world along the lines of entertainment, sociability or the promise of self-help. It will never win. The second problem is that a diet of these sorts of socials and sermons tends to distort the views of believers, choking their own growth.

The second model of seeker-sensitivity recognizes that what the world lacks and desperately needs is truth and grace. It recognizes the urgency of communicating the gospel to people who may only step into a church once in their lives. It recognizes that most visitors will not be fluent in the language of the Christian church. It also recognizes that trying to scare the hell out of people is likelier to yield resentment than repentance. A service that follows this second model will be rich in Christian truth, but will strive to present that truth in a way that non-believers can easily understand, defining basic terminology, conversing with contrary views. It strives to avoid unnecessary offense but recognizes that the Christian message is inherently offensive. And it accepts that no matter how clearly the gospel is presented, many people will still reject it.

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