I have been a member of several different churches over the past two decades that could be described as "seeker" churches. The most recent is Port City Community Church (PC3) in Wilmington, which I've attended for the past four years. Out of all the churches I've attended or visited, this one probably displays the most complete fulfillment of "seeker sensitive" ideas. The fog machines, the light show, the rock band, the big-screen video, the auditorium-like worship space, the casual dress, the secular architecture - the whole environment has been carefully and consciously crafted to be attractive to people who are "seeking" - those who have not yet become Christians but are interested. The strategy of seeker churches is to provide an environment that is familiar to those comfortable with secular American culture, and put off by traditional church. The ultimate goal is conversion. This process of attracting and converting is articulated subtly in PC3's mission statement: "Reaching people and helping them walk with God."
In short, PC3 and churches like it have created a Sunday service that focuses primarily on non-Christians rather than Christians. Of course no Christian will complain about a sincere evangelistic effort (which I believe PC3's is), especially when the target audience is truly interested in understanding our faith. But what happens when this evangelism takes over the hour on Sunday historically reserved just for Christians to gather for worship?
A few years ago I read an article about one of the biggest and most influential seeker churches, Willow Creek Community Church, near Chicago. The article reported that their Sunday service would be changing to provide deeper biblical, expository worship and teaching. The reason for the shift was that many of the Christians in attendance had complained that they were not being fed spiritually. The worship songs and sermon had become so "light" and basic in an effort to help the unchurched understand the faith that those who had been walking with Christ for some time were not learning much or being challenged.
I have had the same experience with seeker churches over the years, including PC3. Usually when a service is over I think, "I'm sure lots of people there really needed to hear that, but it wasn't for me." Case in point: Last Sunday the entire message was about convincing me that God loves me. That's always great to hear, of course. But I'm at a point in my faith where I don't need to be told that anymore. I know it. I accept it. I love it. Now what?
Seeker churches tend to expect that Christians, as a secondary audience, will get something out of the service too. This is true - I wouldn't have attended PC3 for the past four years if I did not worship truly or learn and grow some from the messages. It's just that I (and plenty of others, apparently) realize that this worship and growth is small compared to what it would be in a service devoted to believers.
So it's easy for me to understand the criticisms from other Christians that seeker services are not deep enough, not biblical enough, not challenging enough. I've spent a lot of time over the years writing the same criticisms. But recently my thinking on this issue has evolved. I think now that asking a seeker service to tend to the spiritual needs of Christians is asking of it something it wasn't designed to do. PC3's Sunday service is designed down to the last detail to tend to seekers. That's the reason PC3 was started; it's in their DNA. Asking it to do something else is like asking an apple to taste like an orange. If you're a Christian, a seeker church is not about you.
So why don't seeker churches simply provide an additional service just for Christians?
I met with the pastor of PC3, Mike Ashcraft, a few weeks ago for coffee. We talked about church mostly. He confirmed to me that the focus of PC3's Sunday service is evangelism. He cited the Great Commission ("Go and make disciples..."). I told him that this focus has left me with a desire for deeper worship and fellowship with other believers. His response was that we will worship together as believers for eternity in heaven, so we shouldn't strive for that here on earth; right now we have work to do helping others to Christ.
This sounded rational at the time, but later I wondered, is it biblical? Is there biblical precedent for putting off some spiritual activity on earth just because we will do it in heaven? The more I thought of Jesus' teachings the more I thought exactly the opposite is the case: If we're going to be doing it in heaven, we are called to get it started here on earth. Manifest the Kingdom. Jesus prayed, "Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven." Then I imagined using Mike's reasoning for another argument: "Because we will worship together with all races in heaven, we don't have to try to desegregate our churches now." That makes the problem a bit more clear. And then there is the verse that cautions believers against "forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some" (Heb. 10.25).
There's nothing wrong with a seeker service in and of itself. PC3 in particular has a great thing going on, and Mike clearly has a God-given gift for helping seekers get acquainted with - and get hungry for - this God of his. But if this evangelistic service is not supplemented with a time for believers, then we're either expecting from that service more than it can provide, or we're ignoring Scripture. Whatever the reason, both we and the world suffer as a result.
Surely there are Sunday services primarily about the faithful, but I don't know of any in this area. When I visited many different churches a few years ago the services tended to fall into one of two types: traditional and mostly dead, or seeker.
What would a service for Christians be? Would it just have a more in-depth sermon? I don't think so, and I doubt Willow Creek's Christians were satisfied for long with this. We need a totally different kind of service.
Lately I've been attending a "Taize" (pronounced tuh-ZAY) service with a small group on Wednesday nights. This is the closest experience I've had to the kind of service I feel believers need. I haven't looked it up yet, but apparently the Taize service comes from a monastic tradition in France. It's essentially a Bible study, except more meditative. We read just one or two verses aloud, then sit in silent reflection for a few minutes. Then we discuss our thoughts about the verse. We are silent for a few more minutes. Then we pray. We sing a song together. We are all believers.
Last week the verse we read was Luke 23:46, a prayer of Jesus from the cross: "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit." Someone noticed a footnote in their Bible to Psalms 31:5, which is word-for-word what Jesus prayed; he was quoting this verse. Then we started reading the rest of the Psalm, and quickly realized that this entire chapter could be read as the thoughts of Jesus as he was dying. Allusion after allusion spelled out Jesus' experience in that moment, his social situation, his forthcoming burial, and even hints of his resurrection: "My life leaks away ... To my enemies I'm a monster ... Behind locked doors they plot how to ruin me for good ... My friends are horrified ... Forget me like a corpse in a grave ... Your granite cave a hiding place ... Embarrass the wicked ... Expect God to get here soon."
Expressions of awe quietly erupted around the room: "Oooohhh," "Wow," "Whoa." We were in awe - together - of Jesus and his Word. This is different from being in awe by yourself, or being in awe with a mixed group of Christians and non-Christians. There were no seekers or skeptics there to say, "Well, how do we know God intended..." No. We know God intended it. We are the faithful. We.
It is a special thing to gather with other true believers, to sing to God and hear our voices, to read God's words to each other. It is nourishing. I've described it as a "spiritual massage" once a week. It's a place where we can be ourselves as believers. There is no evangelism. It is a rest. We need this. In turn it makes our work in the world, including our evangelism, stronger. It is food for the way. This is why we are commanded never to give it up. Of course seekers are welcome to join us, but they are not the focus of attention. Here they are witnesses to a romance between redeemed and Redeemer, and may feel like jealous voyeurs. This is a kind of evangelism too.
I mentioned in a previous post that one hope I have for this Church House is that it become the setting for a Sunday worship service. My Taize experience has given me some ideas about what this time can be like. Silence. Word. Prayer. Song. One thing I want to add is communion, which is notoriously infrequent at seeker churches. I can't recall the last time I took communion at PC3. This is understandable, given the seeker focus. You can't celebrate Christ's death if you don't yet trust him for your life. But the closer I grow to Christ the more I crave the Lord's Supper. I'm starving for it.
I heard a woman say that her gathering decided to start with communion, and nothing else. God would be allowed to fill the space around the remembrance of his sacrifice.
I read about a gathering in Africa that followed a rhythm of reading, response and prayer. Someone reads a passage of Scripture, the people respond in song, then everyone prays as they are led.
There are many examples to draw from for such a service, including 2000 years of church history. This is just a beginning.
Seeker services make the congregation into an audience, entertaining them with a rock concert followed by a lecture series. This is fine for them. It allows them to do what they were meant to do. But I imagine a gathering of Christians to be almost the opposite. The people gathered do not sit as an audience but rather act as a body. "Liturgy" means "work of the people." The people pass the elements of communion to each other, they pray together, read the Bible to each other, sing together. Maybe there is not even a sermon, or a "pastor." As Christians we are already the Church. The crucial thing now is to gather.
So what does my house have to do with this special assembly? Can't we do this anywhere? Indeed: "Where two or three are gathered..." But the architecture of this house was designed to inspire us to consider God, to draw us into worship - much like God's designs in the natural world. Seeker churches create buildings that are conducive to making the unchurched feel comfortable. This is why they resemble shopping malls or convention centers or theaters. By contrast the Church House is designed to be conducive to Christian worship. The architecture is meant to reflect various aspects of God, his beauty, order, perfection, as well as truths about our world and the human condition.
I think next I will talk more specifically about this architecture. Perhaps I'll do this as a series of (shorter) posts, each discussing a specific design feature of the house and what it is about. I've only mentioned a few so far. Meanwhile, I need to pick out my windows.