Columnists > Soul Food

Who's the seeker?

The focus of worship should be God, not man

Issue: "Worldview warehouses," July 17, 1999

A husband and wife told me about their new church. They had moved to a new location but had maintained their denominational affiliation (the same as mine). However, they had found it necessary to adjust. "We had been used to believer's worship," they said, "but the church we attend now has a seeker service."

Nothing is more characteristic of evangelical church meetings at the end of the 20th century than their orientation to the consumer, especially the unchurched one. Churches decide what their "market niche" is; they study their "target audience"; they design their services to appeal to their "customers."

Would the consumer prefer to worship early Saturday evening so that he can go out to dinner afterwards and have his whole Sunday free? Give him a service at 5:30 p.m. on Saturday. Does the consumer prefer to listen rather than sing? Put together a band to entertain him with the style of music and lyrics he hears on his favorite radio station. Does he find sacraments "weird"? Eliminate them from the "prime-time" services.

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Does he think that saying creeds and singing Psalms and hymns are boring? Get rid of them. Does he not want to be "preached to" ? Then "share" with him. Is he sensitive about what used to be called sin? Then empathize with him about his needs, his brokenness, his hurts. Does he not go to church to be put on a "guilt trip"? Never read God's law or talk about responsibility, accountability, or judgment. Is he interested in religion mainly for what it can do for him? Give him an upbeat talk about how Christ can enrich his life.

Seeker worship is contemporary, sophisticated, and smooth. But its roots are in the older, cruder, ruder revivalism. Revivalism, while retaining much of the offense of the gospel (which modern evangelicalism is progressively jettisoning), still shifted the focus of worship.

For revivalism the goal of the service was to convert the unbelieving sinner or rededicate the backslidden believer. If a "trophy Christian" would get him to the meeting and commend Christ to him, then include a testimony by a sports star or celebrity. Since conversion was increasingly seen to be the result of a synergy between the persuasiveness of the preacher and the will of the hearer, give an "invitation" to facilitate the "decision." If music would predispose a favorable response, then the soloist, the big choir, or the softly singing congregation should set the mood.

This shift from the historic worship of the church, to the revival meeting, to the seeker service is not something evangelicals can blame on Roman Catholicism or the liberal mainline denominations. The consumer-oriented service is a unique "contribution" of the evangelical church to Christendom.

How did we get here? Evangelicals seem to have forgotten what Jesus told the Samaritan woman about the identity of the seeker in worship: "Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshippers the Father seeks" (John 4:23). The Seeker in worship is God the Father who is seeking worshippers who will focus not selfishly on themselves, nor altruistically on others, but exclusively on Him. The goal of worship is neither conversion nor rededication of the seeking human but expressing the worth-ship of the seeking Father. The conduct of worship is determined not by the needs of the human seekers but by the glory of the Divine Seeker.

One of the sad and inevitable results of the shift from seeking God to seeking man in our services is that we are failing to reach the human seeker. Because worship is so nonthreatening, there is little possibility the unbeliever will be overcome by awe and confess, "God is really among you!" Because we have little confidence in offering the only thing we have to offer-the ministry of Word and sacrament-we send the seeking soul away entertained but empty. Because we are afraid to offend and so want to help, we baptize pop-psychology with a Bible verse or two, rather than proclaim the timeless gospel which alone is the power of God unto salvation.

Unfortunately, when the Father seeks the worship, which rightfully belongs to Him, He has fewer and fewer places to look. And those who are seeking him are less and less likely to find Him among us.

William H. Smith
William H. Smith


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