'Seeker-Sensitive' Conservatism

Rick Warren's book The Purpose-Driven Life is more than a major bestseller.  It's also the most prominent manifestation of a "seeker-sensitive" movement that's attempting, for all intents and purposes, to redefine evangelical Christianity.

The seeker-sensitive movement is a close analogy to the contemporary conservative movement. In both cases, people who ought to be offering timeless truths that can save individuals and societies are instead using market research to craft a product that appeals to consumers, telling them what they want to hear rather than a truth that is initially painful but ultimately liberating.  Even if you are not a Christian, you should be concerned about a mass movement that thrives by suppressing many important ideas that it once believed in, especially because the same error tempts other idea-based movements, such as conservatism.

Bob DeWaay, pastor of a non-denominational church in the Minneapolis/Saint Paul area, recently spent two years studying the seeker-sensitive movement.  His study began with Rick Warren and his church, Saddleback Community Church, but it soon became apparent that Warren is only the most successful exponent of a movement that began long before Saddleback Church was formed, and that has been implemented, to one degree or another, by a majority of America's evangelical churches.


This movement has as its goal nothing less than a "second reformation" of Christianity.  DeWaay's analysis is presented in his book Redefining Christianity, and it is summarized in a 15-part radio series that is archived and can be listened to (for free) here.


DeWaay's basic conclusion is this:  The purpose-driven movement begins with the premise that the only way to attract non-Christians to church is by offering to meet their felt needs, rather than their real need for salvation through Christ. If a non-Christian "seeker" visits a church where he hears the traditional Gospel message that he is a lost sinner in need of a salvation that can only come from personal repentance and trust in the atoning death of Christ, he will be repelled by the challenging message, and will not return.  To prevent this failure, so the theory goes, a church must conduct market research into what people in its area want, and then find a way to give these seekers what they want.


One result is that the deep and challenging teachings of traditional Christianity must never be presented in the Sunday morning worship service that has traditionally been the cornerstone of Christian fellowship.  Not only will non-Christian seekers probably not want to hear that God regards them as sinners, but they will have no interest in what Warren (and theological liberals) dismissively call "doctrine," that is, the actual content of the religion preached by Christ and the Apostles.  The result is a Christianity that retains the rituals and some of the language of traditional Protestant Christianity, but is effectively stripped of its content. 


In a typical Sunday morning worship service at a typical seeker-sensitive church, attendees experience the following: 


  • Professionally-produced "praise music" that expresses emotions, but contains little theology, that is, little articulation of sometimes-difficult religious truths.
  • A sermon that emphasizes how faith in God can make your life better, but does not mention the troubling idea that God is angry with sinners, and demands repentance and faith in Jesus in order for His wrath to be averted.
  • A liturgy (form of worship) that embodies current standards of popular decorum and entertainment rather than pointing people to a transcendent God.
  • Children's programs that entertain (albeit in a quasi-Christian mode) rather than push the youth to learn challenging doctrines.


What the purpose-driven movement offers, in short, is a religious product for religious consumers, people who want a certain amount of religiosity in their lives, but who don't want to be troubled by the full measure of Christianity.  Since man is an inherently religious being, and since Christianity (at least in name) still has the respect of most Americans, it is to be expected that a Christianity designed to please will be successful.  But a Christianity designed to please will not be faithful to the actual teachings of Christ and the Apostles, i.e., the ones who have the authority to say what Christianity really is.


The seeker-sensitive movement does resemble the movement of theological liberalism that began to take over the upper leadership of most Protestant denominations starting in the early Twentieth Century.  In both cases, people wanted to keep the forms and language of traditional Christianity, while investing the faith with new meaning and emphasis.  In the case of liberal Christianity, the new meaning was a denial of the supernatural, which made Jesus just a good man, the resurrection just a metaphor, and the divinity of Jesus just a legend.


But there are also significant differences. Whereas liberal Christian clergy and theologians deny both the supernatural and the literal truth of the Christian doctrines that are based on the supernatural, seeker-sensitive clergy generally affirm these beliefs. (The seeker-sensitive movement began among evangelicals, not liberals.) But they take care never to push these doctrines on the seekers who may not be inclined to believe them. Unlike liberal clergy, most of whom unambiguously oppose supernatural doctrines, seeker-sensitive clergy generally keep silent about these doctrines, or only hint at them.  By their relative silence, they give at least de facto support to a Christianity redefined to remove troubling doctrines.


For example, seeker-sensitive clergy will allude to the necessity of faith in Christ for salvation, but they will describe this "salvation" primarily in terms of personal life-enhancement.  They will rarely mention, and certainly not elaborate on, the traditional Christian doctrines that salvation is necessary because God punishes unforgiven sinners by sending them to Hell, that forgiveness was achieved by the death of Christ on the Cross, and that all this is made possible because of the sovereign and supernatural work of God. These teachings would be too challenging to the seeker, so they are removed, resulting in a desiccated Christianity.


(To be as fair as possible to Warren and his peers, they do, from time to time, preach the difficult doctrines.  But they do so comparatively rarely; perhaps when addressing an audience consisting mostly of traditional, Bible-believing Christians.)


But what does this have to do with conservatism?  Doesn't the conservative movement stand in unambiguous opposition to the foolish and destructive ideas of the left? Don't conservatives suffer the hostility and sometimes the persecution of the liberals and leftists who have de facto control of the universities, the media, and much of the government?  How could conservatism be "seeker-sensitive?"


By failing to stand on principle.  As I have argued in Liberalism 101, liberalism (i.e., the worldview of the left) has almost complete control of America.  It is our "unofficial state religion."  But since liberalism is largely false, John Q. Public senses (even if he cannot articulate it) that something is seriously wrong with the ideas and policies he is relentlessly taught by the schools, the media and even, God help us, by many clergy.  This being the case, there is a major market for "conservatism," that is, articulate opposition to liberalism. People have a felt need to have their intuitions vindicated.


But whenever there is a popular product, its producers will be tempted to modify their product to suit the desires of the consumer. There is much profit to be made in giving people what they want, rather than what they need.


And although John Q. Public senses there is something wrong with liberalism, it is mostly the specific policies of liberalism he opposes: same-sex "marriage," mass immigration and socialized medicine, for example.  Most people, even most conservatives, do not wish to identify, let alone challenge, the fundamental way of thinking that makes liberalism what it is.  Opposing the obvious insanity of treating a homosexual couple as fully equivalent to a married man and woman is one thing.  It is something entirely different to admit, as I have argued in Liberalism 101, that the real problem is America's general acquiescence to an entire worldview based on the nonexistence of the God of the Bible, and which therefore means that God is not the supreme being, but rather man. 


And if man, who is constantly changing, is the supreme being, then we cannot know anything for sure, except that the highest priority is protecting myself and asserting my ego. And people devoted ultimately to themselves can hardly form a strong nation, defeat the bad initiatives of liberalism, and pass on their way of life to their descendants.


Opposing the utter dominance of liberalism throughout our society, a liberalism that feels comfortable because of its familiarity, is both intellectually challenging and practically difficult: For one thing, it requires thinking deeply about the most basic facts of reality: Remember, "liberalism" in this context means the entire worldview of the left, especially its intellectual foundations. Furthermore, those who are convinced of the need to take action against liberalism itself (not just its specific manifestations) hardly know where to start.  Since liberalism is everywhere, it seems to have no vulnerable points, and it seems impossible to dislodge from our way of thinking.


Therefore the supplier of conservatism is seriously tempted only to give his consumers what they want (psychological relief by way of vindicating their intuitive sense that liberal policies are foolish and destructive), without troubling these consumers with the deeper issues that are the real problem. Call it a "seeker-sensitive" conservatism.


I have argued here that we need a sustained and aggressive public campaign against the fundamental ideas of liberalism. Individuals, of course, are free to believe whatever they want, but any nation must have ideas that are authoritative for the guidance of its public policies. Since the publicly acknowledged comprehensive system of thought that has de facto authority over America is liberalism, liberalism must be fought publicly, at the level of its fundamental ideas. That is, we must aim to discredit publicly not just the specific foolish initiatives of liberalism, but more importantly the foundational ideas that make liberalism what it is. If we fail to discredit these ideas in the minds of both John Q. Public and our leadership class, liberalism will continue to be the guiding philosophy of America, and America will continue to decline.


To change the entire way of thinking of a nation is a fearfully difficult undertaking, and success is by no means guaranteed.  If liberalism really is our state religion, then most people will resent our contention that we must change the way our nation thinks. But liberalism, being largely false and irrational, is intellectually vulnerable.


And the stakes are high: America is in mortal danger. The America that we have known, under the onslaught of many maladies either caused or exacerbated by liberalism, is in danger of ceasing to exist and being replaced by something radically different and worse. Think of the mass immigration that, coupled with multiculturalism, is Balkanizing us, of the widespread promulgation of secularism, agnosticism and atheism that is making us more self-centered and cowardly, and of the creeping socialism that is making us a nation of dependents.


DeWaay ends his book with an appeal to Warren and, by implication, those who follow his way.  DeWaay says, in effect, "You have a heritage of Biblically faithful, tell-it-like-it -is Christianity. Your father was an old-time Baptist minister.  It's not too late for you to return to telling people what they need to know rather than what they want to hear."


We conservatives must heed a similar message. We owe it to our ancestors, and those who will come after us, to protect our nation by fighting liberalism with all we have. Let's fight liberalism where it matters most: in the realm of ideas.
Alan Roebuck is a Reformed (that is Calvinistic) Christian.
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