January 6, 2006
Sense & Sensitivity: Why It’s Time to Abandon the Seeker-Sensitive Model
To its credit the seeker movement has made church leaders everywhere more sensitive to the presence of non-Christians in our congregations. But, as the epoch of the seeker-church continues to wane, what enduring lessons will we carry with us into the future? Curt Coffield, a worship leader at Shoreline Community Church in Monterey, California, and former worship leader at Willow Creek, notes that newcomers have changed. "People aren't coming as much to be convinced of the relevance of Christianity as they are coming with a hunger for God."
As the church moves further away from familiar cultural paradigms, the paradigms that gave rise to seeker-churches, we need to seriously rethink the assumptions behind "seeker-sensitive" ministry.
At my church we are resurrecting the ancient language of hospitality to understand our call to love unknown people in our post-Christian culture. In ages past, travelers in the harsh lands of the Middle East often depended upon the hospitality of strangers for survival. Their principle of hospitality was simple: host first, ask questions later. Hospitality was not dependent upon a guest's identity - only their need.
When Abraham went out to greet three strangers (recorded in Genesis 18) he took this idea of Bedouin hospitality a step further. When the visitor is an ordinary person of equal rank, the host merely rises. But Abraham welcomes the strangers by bowing low to the ground, and he offers himself as their "servant" even though he was a very wealthy man with servants of his own.
Abraham asks no questions. He expects no payment. He places no conditions upon his hospitality. He merely welcomes these total strangers as honored guests worthy of his very best food, effort, and attention. Only later, after the strangers have eaten and rested, does Abraham engage in conversation and discover their true divine identity.
Throughout the Scriptures we find that God is concerned with the treatment of strangers. He commands his people to act fairly toward strangers (Exodus 22:21), to provide food for them (Leviticus 19:10), and to love them as one of their own (Leviticus 19:34). In the New Testament three apostles write repeatedly about the importance of hospitality (Rom 12:13; Heb 13:2; 1 Pet 4:9; 3 John 1:5; 1 Tim 2:3; Tit 1:8). But it is Jesus who lifts the importance of hospitality to a divine level.
"Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in?Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me." (Matthew 25:34-36, 40)
Christians in the monastic movement later codified the biblical ethic of hospitality as Benedictine Rule #53: "All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for he himself will say, ?I was a stranger and you welcomed me.'"
The abbot of the monastery was expected to personally welcome guests and wash their feet. If the abbot was in a season of fasting, he would interrupt the fast to eat with the guest. Only after extending his warmest hospitality would the abbot engage in conversation with the stranger, learn their identity and story, and invite them to worship with the community.
These principles of Christian hospitality have been practiced since the time of Abraham, but in the modern age the church abandoned the traditional language of loving strangers in favor of a new dialect. We called it "seeker sensitivity." The seeker church movement has taken the Bedouin and monastic idea of hospitality (host first, ask questions later) and reversed it. Now, thanks to the influence of business practices and marketing, the church tries to discover everything possible about its target guests, and then hosts according to their predetermined expectations. The result has been a radical shift in the way Christians worship and express their devotion to Christ, and a dehumanizing of Christian hospitality.
Where market research replaces the simple call to love strangers, the responsibility to be hospitable is no longer felt by individual members of the church - the music, sermon, and worship service have all been test-engineered to do the job instead. Market analysis has also shown that many people prefer to visit a church anonymously, so seeker-driven churches will often avoid identifying newcomers. Jesus may be among us in the form of a stranger, but we would never know it unless he filled out a response card.
In our changing cultural setting is anonymity still the right value for hospitality? Does sensitivity to non-Christians mean having to ignore Biblical rites, language, and church traditions? What does it mean in our day to honor strangers as Christ among us?
Some younger church leaders, myself included, believe that we need to abandon the seeker/believer dichotomy in the church and practice a "radical hospitality" instead. As another pastor notes:
A worshipping community which is radically hospitably to outsiders is appealing to a spiritually-minded generation who can readily spot "spin and marketing."
This radical hospitality means a return to the Abrahamic and Bedouin principle of "host first, ask questions later." Rather than trying to determine our target audience's desires in advance, we should welcome strangers indiscriminately into our tent/monastry/church and honor them by authentically revealing who we are. As St. Chrysostom, the 4th century pastor, said, "Hospitality is not manifested in the richness of our fare, but in the generosity of our attitude."