“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it. Matt 13:45-46

The fact is that as dazzling as the modern world has become, it has never outgrown its need for this kind of truth, never invalidates it, and therefore the liberal [and now seeker-sensitive] fear of becoming outdated is as groundless as the small child’s nervousness about a monster in the closet. David F. Wells

In the last six years, I have had the experience of visiting a great variety of churches across our country and abroad. I have heard music accompanied by pipe organs, acoustic guitars and tribal drums. I have worshipped in churches canopied with steeples, grass roofs and the open sky. I have heard sermons delivered from a pulpit, on the floor and on a screen. Everywhere I have gone people are meeting on Sunday, expressing their belief in God, exhibiting a hunger to know Jesus and attempting to declare the gospel to their world.  


All of those churches are in some way grappling with powerful forces of change. These changes are so great and pervasive that many fear that unless the church adapts, her influence and even her very existence might be threatened.  How churches adjust to change is the subject of this study. We will try to show that how we approach change reveals whether we are motivated by fear or faith. Some think that the removal of a steeple or the mothballing of the hymnbook or the removal of the pulpit just happens. That is not true. All changes are made with some theological or practical motive. It is my contention that those motives need to be prayerfully and consciously addressed.  When we buy into the prevailing wisdom without serious Biblical reflection, we may lose much more than we gain.

In the early 20th century, the liberal faction of the church feared that the anti-supernatural mindset of the world would destroy Christianity’s influence. So, they chose to mute the miraculous claims of the Bible. Words like “salvation,” “incarnation,” “the cross,” “resurrection” and “Christ,” were still used, but were given symbolic rather than historic meaning. They reasoned that by making those concessions the church would be saved. They were wrong. The mainline churches that adopted that strategy did survive, but only in form. It was the distinctive beliefs of Christianity that was not only the life-blood of the church, but the very reason unbelievers were drawn to them.

In our day, the fight for relevancy is fought not so much over the message but over the methods; not what we believe in church but how we do church. Our culture is increasingly pagan and secular. There is no longer one vision that guides the life of our nation. Now the driving force is the “self.” The individualized “self” is driven in its pursuit of satisfaction and drawn by a plethora of choices. Musing is now out. Amusing is now in. Tradition is now out. Innovation is now in. The mall has taken the place of the church as the center of human activity. Technology has put extraordinary images, compelling beats and exciting experiences into the hands of every consumer.

So, the question church leaders grapple with today is this: “How can we compete for attendees in such an individualized, high-energy, entertainment orientated, technology advanced, constantly changing and thoroughly paganized culture?” The conclusion: Make the church “seeker friendly.”  

The strategy looks something like this. We try to make the “seekers” as comfortable as possible by removing religious symbols from our meeting places. We adapt our services so that they come as close as possible to their world. We fashion our sermons so that they are directed toward individual “felt needs.” We make the elements of the service as casual and up-beat as possible. We provide a multitude of programs for them to consider. And, we make the service as short and the times as convenient as possible.  

If the resources are available, the ideal seeker-sensitive service would have these items: a platform of animated singers, mostly young and attractive; three screens to give everyone a rock-concert, bird’s eye view of the proceedings; music with a beat and a sound system that rocks; strobe lights that change color and move about with the beat of the music; a staff wearing jeans and t-shirts to bridge the generational gap; a building without the traditional symbols that chain us to the past; and a short, light sermon that is interesting, spelled “f-u-n-n-y,” focused upon meeting the “felt needs” of the visitors. 

In response to such a strategy I pose two questions: one is theological and the other is practical. First, is it necessary to change the way we do church in order to attract and keep the non-believer? Second, are the changes we have made working? The answer to the second question is a statistically proven, “No.” All of our carefully orchestrated efforts to make it easier for the pagans to attend our churches have not increased the number of believers in America.  While the mega churches get the attention, the neighborhood churches are closing. The answer to the first question is also a resounding, “No.” In fact, it is my conviction that the changes we have made has actually hurt the life and testimony of the church.

It is ironic that in trying to look more like the world we have removed the one thing to which pagans are drawn to. For over two thousand years, it has been the uniqueness or the otherness of Christianity that has given the pagans the Ultimate option. There is no God like our God. No family like our Family. No truth like our Truth. No hope like our Hope. No joy like our Joy. The American post-moderns who have glutted themselves with choices and experiences are not satisfied nor can they be. If pagans are still seeking, they need something radically different than what they have found: a place and a people who know and worship an awesome, transcendent God.

In our attempt to be more casual and less religious, our services have lost a deepened sense of the sacred. Steeples, organs, choirs, hymns and pulpits are not holy in themselves, but symbolically they pointed to a great God who was not like us at all. I suggest to you that the God who is now featured in our Churches is too low, too much like us. Who of us can give testimony to having experienced anything approaching what Isaiah did in Isaiah 6? Where is the glory? Where is the trembling? Where is the shaking? Where is the falling down before a holy God? Where can we hear a preacher who can lead us into the very presence of God? Who of us have left our “seeker sensitive” services awed and shaken by the presence of a God who is Holy, Holy, Holy? The god we advocate quite frankly, is not the awesome God revealed in the Scriptures and not the Holy One who demands and deserves our total devotion.

David Wells is right. We don’t have to fear demise of the Church. Jesus Christ is the head of the Church and it will prevail with or without our adaptations. It is we who need to change. It is we who need to recapture a vision of God who is high and lifted up and who rules all things and powers and peoples for his glory. Christ will build His Church. We need to recover a vision of God that is worthy of His infinite perfections and attractive to all who seek eternal joy. It is my observation that most church leaders are not even aware of our tragic loss. Only Jesus Christ, high and lifted up, will change the pagan and return real weight to the Church.