Hi and welcome back! I woke up super-late with a migraine and had to take medication for it, so no blitzed movie review today. But that’s fine, cuz we still have Lee Strobel’s dumb list to work our way through. In this installment, we cover observations 9-12. Here, we see exactly what this apologist’s product really is: membership in seeker-sensitive churches just like his. As I’ve been saying, evangelicals’ product isn’t actually Jesus. Today, friends, I will bring that point home and serve it pancakes.
(Previous Lee Strobel listicle posts: The Many Lies Lee Strobel Tells About Unchurched Harry and Mary; A Portrait of the Captain as a Young Hell-Bound Pagan (1-4); Indoctrinating Evangelicals More (5-8); The Original Listicle and Comments.)
Why This List Looks Like It Does.
Outstanding read. I now understand and can apply what I have read regarding Harry and Mary. I am grateful for this knowledge.
— Ginny, who gave this load of stinky diaper stuffings 5 enthusiastic stars
When Kevin posted Lee Strobel’s list describing unchurched people, it just overwhelmed my senses with its sheer wackadoodlery. Oh, but slowly, slowly I began to realize that Lee Strobel organized it in a very logical way! He set it up in clusters of four that sold specific products to Christians. At the end, any Christian reading his book would almost have to buy the product he sold.
As I just hinted in that previous paragraph, Strobel’s not selling product to non-Christians. Indeed, he can’t. Nothing on this list resonates much with people outside the evangelical bubble. It’s absolutely hilarious and cringeworthy that so many Christians think he’s describing a group of people who actually exist on this planet, and that now they can go out and SELL SELL SELL WITHOUT MERCY to them.
No, he was selling them something. They are his actual customers. And I bet they have no idea what his product even is.
A Quick Overview of Seeker-Sensitive Churches.
“OPENING SONG, OPENING SONG! Opening song, lights and big drums! You know it’s cool because you heard it on the radio!”
In Christianese, seeker-sensitive means marketed with potential members’ needs uppermost in mind. So churches using seeker-sensitive marketing will feature lots of programs, classes, and groups that appeal to potential members. Their church services will be timed to allow the most people to attend, especially younger people with wonky work schedules. And their church services will be glorious explosions of pop culture, fake authenticity, and faux-spiritual platitudes.
The following parody covers the idea very well:
“Contemporvant.” I love this video like burning. It’ll never be not-funny to me.
Obviously, most TRUE CHRISTIANS™ sniff down their noses at seeker-sensitive churches. One pastor on TGC claims that the trend began in the 1990s, right when he began working in his field. His first two churches liked the model, so they plunged into it:
We were contemporary, we were targeted, we had good signage and all our core values started with the letter ‘G’ [<– ???] – we were as seeker friendly as it was humanly possible to be.
Ah, but very soon those churches discovered that doing anything but TRUE CHRISTIANITY™ totally always fails:
Both those churches are gone now and the movement itself appears to be in terminal decline.
It was a season of my life but I am very glad that it is over.
So sad, right? He even calls this model “Christianity Lite,” which is a standard fundagelical way of dismissing such churches.
The people who like this model have something very different to say, of course. Someone’s even written a book on the topic of how Lee Strobel’s own employer in the 1990s, Willow Creek Community Church, “does church.”
The Reality of the Success of the Megachurch Seeker-Sensitive Model.
However, the unfortunate reality for this TGC guy and his many like-minded pastoral peers (like this guy and Got Questions) is that seeker-sensitive churches make out like bandits — as long as they have the capital required to do it right and on the grandest scale imaginable. Hartford Institute tells us that they need an annual budget of at least USD$2M a year. By contrast and on the other end of that scale, here’s what they say Willow Creek had around the time Lee Strobel published his Unchurched book:
Willow Creek, at the other extreme, had a 1995 budget of 12.35 million dollars, 63 percent of which paid the 260 full and part time workers with the rest being used for operating expenses and the mortgage on a 34.3 million dollar building.
Wild! Imagine how many starving people they could have fed with that! (Sorry, Jesus, we needed fog machines and a roller-skating rink for the youth ministry…)
As the now-classic 2012 sociology paper on the topic (“God is Like a Drug“) reveals, megachurches are very nearly the only churches growing these days, and they succeed because of their model and the money they can throw at it.
As one might expect given his then-employment at Willow Creek, Lee Strobel happens to really like this model, too. And as we’ll see today, he sells this model to evangelicals in his own book, Inside the Minds of Unchurched Harry and Mary.
So now, let’s get into the next part of his listicle!
“9) Distrusts authority but receptive to authentic biblical leadership.”
I laughed at this one. It’s such nonsense!
Actually, every church ever says that their approach — whatever it is — is biblical. I’ve never once heard any Christian of any persuasion at all say oh yeah, our church’s operations run totally counter to what the Bible says churches should be like, but we like it so we’re keeping it.
The Christian slapfights over which church model represents the truest flavor of TRUE CHRISTIANITY™ is a gas, though.
Ultimately, judging “biblical leadership” is a lot like judging TRUE CHRISTIANITY™ itself. It means whatever the heck the judging Christian thinks it means. Thus, a church that offers authentic biblical leadership looks like the judging Christian’s own preferred kind of church. By contrast, then, any church that “does church” very differently is, obviously, non-biblical.
We’re all supposed to ignore that the Christians who like any competing model also think it offers authentic biblical leadership, and they all likely have oodles of Bible verses that support their opinion just like the judging Christian does.
So this description Lee Strobel offers in this item means nothing at all; it could apply to literally any kind of church. Yes, obviously a lot of people who reject church culture distrust the leaders of the vast majority of churches.
But as I’ll show you in a minute, Willow Creek is definitely not the church that’ll be that c-c-c-combo breaker of abusiveness.
“10) No longer loyal to denominations but attracted to places where needs are met.”
Wayne Dixon, 40 a mechanical engineer, said he came to the Church of Joy and found the congregation heavy with activities, but light on tradition. “It’s a full-service church, if you will,” he said. “You’re not intimidated by any ceremonies. We probably came here for a year before we knew it was Lutheran.”
— New York Times, 1995
Again, this listicle item 100% describes the kind of person who joins a megachurch that follows a seeker-sensitive model. As Hartford Institute tells us:
For the majority of megachurches, denominational affiliation is an insignificant matter. The church itself (its size, pastor, programs, and reputation) attracts adherents, not its denominational ties. Consequently, almost one half of all megachurches are independent and nondenominational. In addition, many of the remaining churches are from denominations with a congregational polity which gives considerable freedom to individual churches.
Hartford found that a small minority of these churches (20%-ish) belong to the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), which controls its member churches considerably more tightly than it pretends but still tends to act like it’s hands-off. About 30% go in for denominations all across the board, leaving 70%-ish nondenominational or hands-off denominations.
Willow Creek Community Church, of course, is nondenominational.
Makes me laugh too, cuz we just did that Scandal book and its author stomped down super-hard with both feet on nondenominational churches as totally lacking accountability. And as we’ll see, maybe that’s a problem Willow Creek does indeed face. Seriously, if you like doctrinal slapfights, megachurches and the seeker-sensitive model are your surest bets for a good show.
“11) Not much of a joiner but hungry for a cause to connect with.”
And in megachurches following a seeker-sensitive model, like Willow Creek Community Church, members will be able to indulge completely in any impulse they have.
Hartford Institute tells us that megachurches often feature very high rates of involvement from their laity. They attend more often, donate more money, and dip into the many programs on offer more often than people attending smaller churches do.
However, these churches’ leaders like to act like it’s entirely up to the members themselves to decide how involved they are. So if someone joins one of these churches who isn’t “much of a joiner,” that’s fine. They can skate by anonymously and at the edges of these huge gatherings as just another face in the crowd, then go home without anybody even noticing if they were there or not.
As Hartford Institute’s researcher found, Willow Creek Community Church’s leader completely accepts and even encourages this thinking:
These large churches, by allowing for anonymity and choice, draw some persons to church who never would come otherwise. As one writer said about Willow Creek, “seekers can be anonymous here. You don’t have to say anything, sing anything, sign anything, or give anything” (Chandler 1989:A28). In fact, many people want to remain anonymous. [Bill] Hybels’ survey found this to be one of the primary components unchurched persons wanted in a worship service (Olson 1988:192).
And so Hybels very deliberately designed his offerings around what people actually wanted, unlike most small-church fundagelical pastors who rule their tiny kingdoms like tin-pot dictators, offer whatever the hell they feel like offering, and then get pissy and screechy when people choose not to attend in numbers enough to make them filthy stinking rich.
So this item, as well, describes Lee Strobel’s own preferred flavor of church.
“12) Even if not spiritually sensitive, hungry for children to get quality moral training.”
Yes, let’s get the kids involved!
Lee Strobel needs to sell evangelicals on a church model that makes parents want to participate in the festivities as a family. And his favored model of church certainly pushes itself that way.
The seeker-sensitive model was all but created for younger Christians. On average, megachurch pastors in general seem like they skew younger compared to pastors of smaller churches — but either way, they’re way more charismatic and sales-oriented. The crowds they attract tend to be younger as well, probably because the vast number of programs seeker-sensitive churches offer tend to appeal most to younger people. As that Hartford Institute paper describes it:
Many megachurches support elementary and secondary private schools, day care centers, scout troops, head-start programs, and countless teen and young adult activities. These large churches may even provide roller rinks, pools, gymnasiums, racquetball courts, weight rooms, and, as Second Baptist in Houston does, a movie theater.
And this approach works to attract young families in particular. Hartford Institute’s paper tells us that their congregations’ median age is 38, with 60-70% of congregants being women. Megachurch congregants are also well-educated compared to average fundagelicals, with 38-40% holding a college or graduate degree.
Willow Creek’s Leadership: Not Good for Children or Other Living Things.
We’ll just ignore that Willow Creek’s co-founder, Gilbert Bilezikian, was macking on the women of Willow Creek — and he didn’t care about their ages at all. A 2000 Christianity Today puff piece ignored that reality as well:
Walking the halls of Willow Creek with Bilezikian is like walking through a shopping mall with a movie star. People stare, and he can’t complete a sentence without someone waving and calling, “Hey, Dr. B.!” Women of 83 and girls of 6 rush up to him, knowing he will kiss their hand and compliment their ravishing beauty.
They called him an “egalitarian gallant.” I call it beyond creepy.
This church is 100% patriarchal and complementarian, so these women operate at a distinct power imbalance compared to their Dear Leaders. How free do they really feel to tell this “gallant” that they’re creeped out by his bizarre displays of affection? How free are they to reject him, for that matter?
Indeed, just this year abuse allegations were raised against this weirdo. In response, Bilezikian wrote a super-pissy-sounding letter about how his accusers hadn’t followed the “biblical” model of accusation against him.
This is the environment that Lee Strobel worked in, back in the 1990s when he published this Unchurched book. While he wrote about the importance of creating a family-oriented church culture, this pervo creep was wandering the halls looking for cute pre-schooler girls to mack on.
Also, let’s not forget that Bill Hybels himself, the other co-founder, ended up having to retire early/quit before he was fired over very similar accusations.
OMG, these seeker-sensitive TRUE CHRISTIAN™ pastors are just so GALLANT, y’all!
In summary, Lee Strobel super-wants to paint seeker-sensitive churches as the big solution to fundagelicals’ problems in reaching the unchurched. This part of his listicle portrays unchurched people as aching for exactly the kind of church services that Willow Creek provides. In essence, he promises that if his readers want to get the unchurched to church, then they should make a church just like Willow Creek.
But Willow Creek itself turned out to be a hotbed of hypocrisy and disgusting predation, just like so many other fundagelical churches have. In pursuing the exact same kind of unequal, unilateral power dynamics, in stripping power from one entire half of their membership and handing that extra power to the completely-undeserving other half, they created exactly the kind of predatory environment that always explodes into scandals.
Is a skating rink really going to convince Unchurched Mary to bring her school-age daughters to a church where women might not feel empowered to speak up about a creepy weirdo kissing their hands and complimenting their beauty?
Will tons of small groups really convince Unchurched Harry to attend if he just doesn’t believe in any of the claims that Christians make about their imaginary friend?
The Rise of Megachurches.
As we’ll see later on, as well, Christianity’s ongoing decline continues to decimate churches across the country. Some denominations (notably the SBC) have for years flung everything they’ve got into opening new churches — only to barely keep up with the number of churches closing each year. Other Christian flavors (notably the Mormons) have for years been flinging increasing numbers of missionaries all over the world — only to make fewer converts than ever per missionary.
In all that mess, megachurches remain about the only churches doing well. It becomes crystal-clear that they offer a product that Christians want and will happily spend money and resources to obtain.
That’s what Lee Strobel is really selling with this book: the seeker-sensitive megachurch church model, which actually does sell — at least to Christians.
It might not appeal much at all to non-Christians, especially none-and-done ex-Christians or those who’ve never been Christian because they saw through that dog-and-pony show some time ago.
But actual unchurched people are not buying his dumb book in any numbers, are they? No, they are not!
Evangelicals buy this book. So all this huckster has to do is appeal to them. And from the sound of it, he really, really did.
NEXT UP: We’re gonna get drunk and order Chinese and watch a dumb movie about dinosaur missionary priests. Be there or be square! Pre-movie warmup will go live around 5pm Pacific for chat comments.
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